Grandma’s bowl is a deep, rosy pink. Exuberant yellow, mauve, and blue crocus flowers adorn the rim and the hollow. On its bottom is the maker’s stamp, Maling, Newcastle on Tyne – which means nothing to me. What captivates me about Grandma’s bowl is its opaline lustre. Its surface is alive with reflected light. And memories. It was by far the prettiest object in my grandparents’ rather spartan, sepia-toned living room, where its colours were jarring against the palette of brown, beige, and nicotine stains. Grandma used to keep her keys and bits and bobs in it, along with the odd humbug. In the same way as the scent of Pear’s soap, Grandma’s bowl conjures up not her ghost, but her flesh-on-bones presence; if I gaze into it, I can give myself over to believing that all four-feet-ten-inches of her are standing right there beside me.
Grandma… Why do the words dart away from me like speckled, cunning fish when I try to describe her? How could I have spent so much time in her company – getting under her feet in the kitchen, running the laundry through the creaking mangle, scrubbing my face under her supervision in the bitterly cold bathroom, watching her prod the coals to life in the fire grate, trudging up the steep hill to the local Co-op – and not really have known her at all?
Over three decades ago, during a session with a counsellor, I was given the task of selecting and laying out stones to represent the key people in my life, myself included. I picked out a plain, rounded, unremarkable grey stone to represent me, because that was how I felt about myself. For Grandma, I selected a rather pretty, intricately patterned stone, golden and shot through with fiery red. The counsellor seized upon this: ‘Perhaps your Grandma represents the prettiness and delicacy you feel you lack or crave?’ ‘Um… maybe,’ I replied, somewhat losing faith in the exercise.
You see, my tiny but fierce Mancunian Grandma was anything but delicate. In old photographs of Eva (for that was her name) as a young woman, there is a distinct beauty and softness: big, dark eyes gazing out guardedly from a milk-white face, jet black, bobbed hair pinned functionally back with plain grips. Equally present is a steely defiance that may well have been the product of growing up as the very short sister of brothers, in the back streets of Manchester, through World War One. Her brother Alan, she delighted in telling me, would lift her onto a stool and try to goad her into exchanging fisticuffs for fun.
In hindsight, I think I picked that stone not so much for its prettiness, as for its gritty feel and its sharp, uneven lines. It was not a stone that sat comfortably in the hand. Her cuddly appearance aside (picture a sparrow in a black wig and a pinny, and you have a fair impression of what my Grandma looked like), Eva was a rough-edged stone indeed. A staunch, teetotal Methodist, she was the embodiment of ‘small but mighty.’ Despite being dwarfed by the brooding brown furniture all around her, Grandma ruled her home, her morals, her pantry, and Grandad, if not with an iron fist, then at least with a sternly admonishing index finger.
My memories of Grandma are mostly snapshots, many of them bound up with the objects in that home. Perhaps this is normal for childhood memories? Whilst it is often true that, to quote Maya Angelou, ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,’ I cannot even explain to myself how I felt around Grandma. My interactions with her are a stuttering film reel of actions, not feelings. Just objects, settings, and routines to which she was always attached.
Although Grandma’s cooking was serviceable at best, I also associate her strongly with certain foods. Mushrooms, for one, which were the devil’s own doing in Grandma’s book. I can never slice a mushroom without hearing her derisive snort. The curled lip and shudder every time the grey-gilled specimens landed in the spitting puddle of lard in the frying pan containing Grandad’s breakfast… ‘Ugh,’ she would mutter, ‘I hate mushrooms, don’t you? Horrid, slimy little things! They smell all earthy!’ I can picture her now, irritably wiping her hands on her pinny and gurning in disgust at them.
The shelves in the pantry of Grandma’s 1930s house were lined with all the tooth-rotting delights I adored: McVitie’s gloriously squidgy Jamaica Ginger Cake, every variety of Heinz tinned pudding, Mr Kipling’s apple pies, Chocolate Bourbon biscuits, angel cake, and lemon curd. To Grandma, fruit was nature’s reminder that white cane sugar is not sweet enough on its own. The dejected raspberry canes in her unruly back garden seemed bitterly aware that their bounty was destined to be suffocated beneath an avalanche of sugar then turned to lava for Grandma’s gritty little jam tarts. Although I disliked the resulting tarts, I loved ‘harvest time,’ picking the puny berries and depositing them in the pockets of Grandma’s pinny, and to this day raspberries are my favourite fruit.
Grandma’s indifference to the career prospects of my emerging adult teeth was never more apparent than when she served me apples: vigorously polished on her pinny until they gleamed like a ruby, then sliced, and presented to me on a plate alongside a little, sparkling mound of sugar in which to dip them. Oh, it was a wicked thing to eat apples that way, my fingers and lips sticky with the sugary sap. Deliciously wicked.
Almost as thrilling as Grandma’s gung-ho attitude towards sugar was her Manchester accent, of which she was justly proud. The phrase I loved above all, and would frequently implore her to repeat, was ‘Let’s have a look in the cookbook’ (which she pronounced ‘Let’s have a loook in the coook boook’). Those double-o’s were one of the most fabulous things about her, as exotic to me as a parrot’s plumage. Even as a child, I somehow divined that they were a doorway held ajar to a past that was her sanctuary. Her face softened when I asked her to speak them.
Grandma’s long and slightly sombre back garden also seemed like an extension of her. Left largely to its own devices, it straggled bumpily up the slope behind the house, culminating in a solemn gathering of trees. There was a slightly sinister gap in the fence, through which you could peer into the garden beyond. The front garden was given over entirely, in my memory, to Elephant’s Ears, the sort of undemanding, efficient plant that would appeal to Grandma. I fell in love with them for their friendly name, the way their thick, rubbery leaves spilled out of the border and over the cement drive, and how amenable they seemed to my company. I have a clump of them in my own unruly back garden, but they are more withdrawn than Grandma’s. They can hardly be bothered to bloom.
My nostalgia for Eva is far from rose-tinted – or should that be sugar-coated? There were many occasions when she spoke harshly, times when she frightened me a little with a joke that was too abrasive, moments when I observed that she smiled more warmly at, and seemed altogether more taken with, Fiona and Greta, the girls next door. Her relationship with my Mum was tense, and I wonder if she saw too many shades of Mum in me. Besides, Grandma seemed so firmly stuffed with pragmatism that there was very little room left for sentiment. I cannot recall hugging her and yet, I have a sense of the shape of her in my arms. Strange.
Of my two grandmothers, I invariably describe Grandma as the nice one. Was ever an adjective more inadequate? Ours was certainly an awkward relationship, tinged always with diffidence. I did love her, but in the way a tree spreads its roots over rock to reach the earth beyond. Perhaps we had more in common than either of us realised. I certainly sense some of the reserve that silhouetted Grandma fizzing around me. It is a faint, almost electric hum. I have spent much of my adult life attempting to shake it off.
My Grandma. It startles me how acutely I still miss her. Not so long ago, I was reading a novel that described time as a river; a current that always carries the past ahead of us, conveying our ancestors downstream. I’d like to think that is true. That Grandma has just sailed off into the future, and that I might transform her pink crocus bowl into a little coracle, grab one of the ivory-handled spoons from her cutlery drawer, and paddle frantically off in pursuit of her. I’d pack a pinny for us both, and a wooden spoon, just in case…