5 Aug 2020

Weren't we lucky

Whenever we used to visit my grandparents, my nan would come to the door, open it and say, 'No thank you, not today!' and it'd be hilarious and we'd all laugh. 

Grief's a bit like that. Approaching the outside world every morning, saying, 'No thank you, not today!' and laughing at how silly it all is. Because what else can you do but laugh? 

Whenever my grandparents visited and left ours to go home, my nan would roll down the car window, give a royal wave, and call out, 'Bye, Sarah! Bye, Catherine!' and we'd all laugh as if calling us by the wrong names on purpose was the funniest thing in the world. 

I would give a kidney for her to call me the wrong name now. 

My nan, Doreen Joan, died 129 days ago. She was 82. It would have been her 83rd birthday today. I said when I wrote about her dying during a pandemic that one day I'd write about her - just her and everything she was - so today seems fitting. 

Which is an absolute lie, because no day is fitting to write about your glorious, silly, kind, funny, stubborn, childlike, caring, interested-in-anything-and-everything-about-you but now dead nan.

But I want you to know about her. I want you to know about how my nan lived, rather than how she died. And I know even before writing this will not be enough and I'll be frustrated by the end, because I cannot possibly tell you everything about her. I want to give you my brain so you can sift through my memories and experience everything that she was all for yourself, to the depths that I did. 

But all I have is this. So... here we are. 

She was a menace. She never did as she was told. Mum would snap at her and Nanny would look at me all sheepish and mouth, 'She just told me off...' She was stubborn. She never did her physio. She had to make the tea even when we told her to 'bloody sit down'. She wouldn't smile properly in photos unless you made her laugh. She'd touch your bum, she'd whip up her skirt in public to show you her hip replacement scar, she'd pull down your top without warning to see your boobs that you'd been moaning about. She was very cheeky and very unapologetic about it.

She was obsessed with the weather. It would never ruin a plan - we'd still go to Bournemouth beach in the pouring rain on holiday - but boy did you know if it was sunny. 

'Aren't we lucky with the weather!' Every time. Mum and I would look at each other and smirk. She even knew what the weather was like when someone else went away. 'Weren't you lucky!' She was just so happy in the sun. To Nanny, we really were lucky to have beautiful weather. Like a child with its toes in the sand for the first time, or a puppy bounding in fresh snow. Good weather was worth noticing and being thankful for.

My grandparents were from the East End and moved to the 'London side' of Essex when my mum was small. Therefore: red London buses. Thrilling. When I used to stay for the weekend, Nanny would take me to Romford on the bus for a look around the shops and lunch in the Debenhams cafe. I'd race to the top deck and sit at the front, obviously. When I was a bit older and realised that Nanny was actually an old lady now (surely not), I scarified the upstairs for downstairs with the peasants. She'd still try to persuade me upstairs... then ended up having two hips and a knee replaced, so. That put a stop to that.
Although this nonsense probably didn't help her joints at all...

There'd always be an obligatory trip to the fishmongers in Romford market and I bloody hated it. It stank. But Nanny loved pointing out the massive fish with even more massive eyes to me, like we were in an aquarium morgue, before buying Grandad's fish for dinner. 

I remember walking away from the fishmongers just as the eclipse was about to happen in the early 2000s. I'd have been about 8? Nanny ran into WHSmith and bought a magazine which had the wonderfully tacky cardboard sunglasses to wear, and we wore them and stared and it was magical.

Sometimes, if I was lucky, we'd go to Valentine's Park in Ilford so I could swing on the monkey bars. Or we'd go to Hainault Country Park so I could climb trees. At Christmas, we'd always go to the big garden centres to see the big Christmas displays and buy some unnecessary decorations that my dad would roll his eyes at. It's weird to think that one of those trips as kids were the last ever ones, and I never knew. 

I don't remember my very last sleepover, but it might have been when I was 17 and writing a journalism essay for my A-levels. I decided to interview Nanny on growing up and getting married in the 50s. She told me all about having to quit her job when she married Grandad, and how normal it seemed at the time. We sat on her bed, right where she died, and I recorded us talking on my phone. I should have kept it.

Nanny was absolutely the kind of old lady who would repeat a conversation she'd had with you the day before, but her long-term memory was spot on. She always had new stories. When you thought you knew everything, she'd come out with another from her childhood. Last Christmas, she told me a story about her dad working on the docks and breaking his leg by falling off a container. Or something. Someone broke something in a nasty fall... I can't remember and wish I wrote it down.

In my wardrobe, I have a box full of the letters and postcards Nanny sent me in the 26 years I was lucky to have her. She loved a letter. She'd chat some rubbish and be excited about anything and everything. She'd draw little smiley faces, try her hand and txt spk, and write kisses all around the edge of the letter. Whenever she'd been shopping, she'd tell me she'd been out 'spending Grandad's money!!' and whenever I got a new job, she always ask, 'Can I have a loan???' or 'You been fired yet???' Grandad would often cut out newspaper clippings for me and include them in the letter, and my nan would write, 'I have no idea why he wants you to have this.' I never knew you could miss someone's handwriting so much.

Nanny's postcards made a great game of bingo. 
✓ Map on the front, location of where they were circled in biro, OR a rude one of people naked on the beach.
✓ Aren't we lucky with the weather!
✓ I've been spending Grandad's money.
✓ Having an ice cream on the pier. 
✓ We've used the buses, not used the car at all!
✓ Would you go on the Bournemouth zipwire??? (Yes, every time, the answer does not change.)

When we saw them post-holiday, we'd get a little carrier bag full of the mini jams, butter and toiletries they'd stolen from the hotel. Plus multiple boxes of chocolates. Nanny was a True Nan, she'd pile on the food like we'd been neglected for years. Pringles (stale), digestives, walnut whips, tiny coconut cakes, ham and cucumber sandwiches with too much butter in them.

When I used to stay, we'd make cakes and pies and bung anything in 'em. I always remember crumbling Bourbons into a chocolate cake mix. And dunking my finger into a cherry pie before launching it in front of Nanny's face, pretending I'd cut it. Classic.

Nanny was the dessert goddess. She'd make three for us to choose from even for just a Sunday lunch. But family parties in our back garden were her favourite. We'd hold them for big birthdays or anniversaries and invite family scattered across the country (and world). It'd be the only time we'd all meet up. We'd have a gazebo, various plastic and wooden tables would be dusted down from the garage, and Mum would spend months planning a buffet. Nanny would arrive first and be straight in the kitchen, dumping her desserts on the side and asking if she could help with anything (no, sit down).
Guess who was the stubborn sister...

My nan loved her extended family. She didn't see a lot of them, but when she did see them, she treated them like she saw them only last week. And she cared, so deeply, about every single life in that garden. How are you, what have you been up to, have you been on any holidays, do you still do *enter hobby here*, do you still talk to *friend you haven't seen in years*, how's the rest of the family, how's work... she just really, really cared. She was interested. She spent so much of her last years in pain but never had a grumble to say about it when she was with family. She would sit and people would come to her, fighting for a seat to talk to Doreen. She'd try and stand for the buffet opening and everyone would offer to pile up a plate for her. She was the most loved woman in that garden, and I absolutely took that for granted.

I miss her. How much I miss her is hard to say during a global pandemic. But I know that today, on her birthday, I really, bloody miss her. And I don't know how to live a life missing someone this much. It's exhausting. She was everything. We were a duo, I was her only grandaughter. I was her mini-me. What do I do with that? I don't know where to put the love I had for her, and I miss the love she had for me. It was all-consuming. It was soft, it was comforting, it was safe.

We were lucky. Too lucky. And I wish I had something more healing to say. 

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