The Most Beautiful Violet of Them All

November 14, 2011 · 20 comments

Twenty years ago today, at the very moment this post was published, my great-grandmother, Violet, or “Nanny” as we all called her, died.

I still think about her almost every day and can’t believe that, at this point, she has been gone for longer than I ever knew her.  Today is one of those potentially sad days where I am reminded of how much I miss her.  But I know she wouldn’t want any maudlin mood. 

Lau’, don’t be redickalous, she’d say, in her lovely Welsh lilt.  So, I’ve decided to share a few personal memories and photos in celebration of her life.

She was the beloved matriarch of the family: kind, loving, generous — but with a wicked sense of humour that seems to have been passed down through the generations.  Who else could I have inherited my sense of fun, dreadful face-pulling, bawdy sense of humour, and wacky dance moves from?  She was my mother’s mother’s mother, and I am the very proud bearer of her mitochondrial DNA.

My mother, Nanny’s eldest granddaughter, remembers this anecdote from when she was 16 — Nanny would have been a thrifty 61-year-old:

We went to buy her some shoes in Acton High Street and Nanny had been browsing for some time in a shop.  She finally selected a pair of lovely, beige patent leather high heels and asked to try them on. Perfect fit. How much?

“69 shillings and 11 pence,” said the happy assistant.

“I’m not paying that!” said Nanny.

“But these shoes are hand made from Italy,” said the girl.

Quick as a flash Nanny quipped, “I don’t care if the ruddy Pope made them, I’m not buying them.

Lully = Lovely

Nanny, in many ways, was more like my grandmother than great-grandmother. I don’t remember the first time we met, or even the first time I was aware she existed.  When I reflect on my childhood, she’s always there.

Whenever I eat ice cream in a wafer cone, I think of her:  before finishing hers, she would always break off the bottom of her cone and scoop a bit of her ice cream to present me with a new, tiny ice cream cone.  It was a ritual I loved.

I remember her warm hugs and miss her affectionately slapping my back to the rhythm of Nanny’s-lully-girl!  Sometimes she would chase me up the stairs, playfully growling and jutting out her false teeth with her tongue to spook me.  Other times she’d teach me how to count in Welsh, een, dvai, dree, pedwa, pimp…  And she’d always oblige when I asked her to dance: skirts hitched above the knee, kicking up her heels, with a final Whoop! as she flashed her behind in your face, bloomers and all.

There she is with us in Spain and California, floating on a lilo and marvelling at how confidently my younger brother, Teddy, and I were splashing around, because she couldn’t swim a stroke.

She’s always there in London, babysitting Teddy and me.  And there we are, standing in her doorway in her modest house in Acton, watching as she gives a few coins to a thin boy in NHS glasses to buy sweets.  I didn’t understand then just how generous that was of her.

I remember trotting alongside her on our way to church – my occasional visit to the Sunday School in the Acton Baptist Church was the closest I ever got to a religious education.  On one of these walks — I must have been about five — I piped up that when she died I would bring her violets.  She laughed, squeezed my hand, and drily said Thaang kyw fairy metch.  (Eight short years later, I shrilly demanded this near-impossible task of my grandparents.  Somehow my grandmother, Queenie, managed to find a pot of violets in November in England.  They didn’t fill the void, but I’d kept my promise.)

And she is with me on the day I learn my parents were splitting up, a Saturday.  A loving compass in a time of disorientating emotional confusion, fuelled by things you instinctively understand as a child but can’t compute until you’re an adult.  I had long decided there was no God but, the following day, I boldly announced I wasn’t going to church. That was the only time she was ever angry with me.  How could you even think about not going to church at a time like this?  I have yet to willingly return to church, but confess that, on my dark days, I think of her and am sometimes envious of those who have faith.

But I had love, and we had music. She’d sing me the Welsh National Anthem, and I’d sing her a Welsh love song I learnt in school:

My love is a venus, a goddess so fair,
No flower more lovely, no jewel more rare:
Wherever you wander, no other you’ll find
So gracious and gentle, so tender and kind.

My darling is merry, my darling is free,
A spirit of beauty, a bird in a tree.
I’ll love her forever, she knows it full well -
But whether she’ll have me, I never can tell.

And I remember the last time I saw her.  It was a sunny afternoon in late September, I was thirteen, and Nanny and my mother had just dropped me off at my new English boarding school.  In those days, she’d always get tearful whenever we said goodbye.  She’d purse her lips into a wavering smile and wave brightly — but her blue eyes, pink-rimmed and glistening wet, would unmask her sadness.

Usually, I’d feel a pang of guilt, and try to make light of it.  Oh, Nana, don’t worry.  You’ll see me next week! 

This time, though, she was too far away for me to see her eyes — but I recognised the wave and felt this pang was different.  I turned my unease over and over, like an imaginary ball of putty in my hands, and through this came the realisation that this would be the last time I ever saw her.

I remember wanting to dramatically run after the car, but I was transfixed, rooted to the spot, my gaze intently fixed on this amazing, wonderful woman who I had known all my life and who, I suddenly understood, I would never see again.  If I had run after the car, I could have caught up with her and told her one last time how much I loved her.  But, then, perhaps I wouldn’t have that final image to cherish.

A month later, she was in hospital.  She had suffered a stroke, and my grandparents decided it would be best if I remembered her as she was.  I am grateful now that they made that decision, but back then I was very cross that I wasn’t allowed to visit her.  So, one afternoon I sat down and wrote a letter to her husband who had died in 1966, long before I was born.  I don’t remember precisely what it said, but I introduced myself and asked that he watch over her, and that when she finally passed over and into his arms, to tell her that I loved her very, very much.  I burnt the letter, so it could be received by someone in the spirit world.

Two days later, a teacher kindly approached me and told me I needed to call my mother, and I knew why.  The walk to the phone was a long one.  A clear, cold November night.  A friendly hand on my shoulder to guide me.  Feet like lead.  Heart even heavier.

My hands trembled slightly as I dialled my mother in Spain.  The only time I have ever been glad to inherit that most English of postures, the stiff upper lip, is when there is something unpleasant to be done.  I braced myself.

I have some bad news, I’m afraid… about Nanny.

She’d died that morning, a Tuesday, while I was tinkering about in chemistry class.  My lip softened and spread as I reeled from the news, and I was furious at myself for not having had some psychic knowledge of the moment of her death.  How could I have not known?  It seemed impossible that she should slip away unnoticed by me.  But I was not left unnoticed by her: my grandfather later told me that one of her last words was Lauren, and this small fact gave me great strength and comfort.

Propagating Violets

This day, back in 1991, my mother was pregnant with my little sister, Bubs, who will be 20 next month.  Nanny was so looking forward to the birth of her youngest great-grandchild, but, sadly, she missed it by three short weeks.  The late stage of pregnancy meant that my mother wasn’t able to fly from Spain to attend the funeral, so those violets I promised Nanny when I was a five-year-old seemed all the more important then, as they do now.

Over the past few days whilst writing this post, several times has my dog come up and nudged my arm because he is sensitive to the fact that there are tears in my eyes.  The selfish part of me wishes I had had more time on earth with this incredible woman who I miss so much, even twenty years later.  On humble reflection, as the eldest of her eight great-grandchildren, I am just glad I knew her at all.  If ever there were something to be grateful for, it is the unwavering and unconditional love of my darling Nanny.

To this day it’s incredible to me that Bubs never knew Nanny.  That when there was a Nanny, there was no Bubs; and when there is a Bubs, there is no Nanny.  The two of them would have loved each other.  I don’t believe in reincarnation, but there is a part of me that knows Nanny lives on in kind-hearted Bubs, whose sense of humour is just as naughty and equally wacky, and whose love I am comforted by.  There is something to be said for that mitochondrial DNA…

Let’s light a verbal candle for the people in our life who are no longer with us:  please feel free to share your memory of your loved one in the comments section below.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tina November 14, 2011 at 09:49

Lauren, thank you for sharing this. This is one of the most beautiful posts I have EVER read in my life…IT brought tears to my eyes as I remembered my own grandmother–who would at times dance a jig and play her harmonica no matter how she felt…It was as if when she felt down, this brought her comfort. I began singing again for that reason, also. She always loved it when I did, but I stopped some years ago. I’m not sure exactly why, but for years I refused to do so. The last time she did her little “jig” was right after my uncle passed away. It wasn’t too long after that when she also passed.

I also remembered some other things about my grandfather (her husband), who used to hide Easter eggs every year. I was the “runt” of my family and my uncles had a habit of hiding things too high for me to reach and I’d cry if my taller cousins snatched what I found over that issue! He’d pick me up and put me on his shoulders so I could reach after that!

My grandmother was a very generous woman too, and began running the “Clothes Closet” in Ranger, TX. People would donate clothes they didn’t want and she would repair them and give them to needy families. Needless to say, when she was gone, I realized how she really impacted the lives of all those around her and in the community. To this day, nobody will sit in “her spot” in that church we went to either, and she’s been gone for YEARS now!

Learning of my parents split was traumatic for me also, and I lost my grandfather the same year. But there is always something in your blogs that brings good memories up–and I still go to my mountain…I have more peace up there than I ever did in any church I’ve been in…I feel totally embraced by something up there, that’s for sure! Buddy only confirms it for me, since he does that same nudging thing when I start crying, too…He’s been my best friend for a while now! I’m taking him up there when I’m off again…He’s well enough now!

Again, thank you for sharing and have a great week! ;-) And I am wondering WHERE my wicked humor came from…I think it came from my mother…


2 Lauren November 15, 2011 at 11:28

I love this – the Clothes Closet is a WONDERFUL idea, and says so much about who your grandmother was. How moving that to this day her seat in church is left untaken. Hugs to Buddy and you x


3 Ma November 14, 2011 at 12:04

Darling Laurie,

I was moved to tears whilst reading your wonderful eulogy to Nanny. xxx


4 Lauren November 15, 2011 at 11:29

Thanks, Mama xx


5 Shirl November 14, 2011 at 16:06

Hi Lauren-
This has got to be the most moving remembrance Ive ever read. Nanny was a spunky lass; I would’ve loved to have many hearty laughs with a woman like this. I’m sure she was the life of the party and had many friends. Your Nanny sounds like the kind of woman who , upon spending only a few moments with her, made you feel at ease, like you’ve known her for years. I’ll write on your FB wall too. xo


6 Lauren November 15, 2011 at 11:27

Spot on, Shirl! xx


7 Jasmine November 14, 2011 at 20:17

This was utterly and completely perfect. It’s been such a terribly long day, and I am at an unusual loss for words. But you voiced so many of the things I felt at my grandfather’s death and beyond it. In fact, I ought to dig up that post instead of failing to express myself accurately here. No matter what—this and you? Beautiful.

Aha. Here it is, on my old blog. My own experience. Thank you for sharing, Not only was it a remarkably beautiful piece but I am now experiencing in a special memory of my Grandfather, because of you.


8 Lauren November 15, 2011 at 11:26

Oh! I love that post, it’s so brave and quietly in-your-face raw. You’re so right about worrying about what we’re *supposed* to feel rather than acknowledging how really feel. And when a loved one dies far away, it’s hard to grieve in a ‘typical’ way because you’re not reminded of your loss on a daily basis. A beautiful and brave post, my dear! Did you make a book? Was it cathartic? Who painted that wonderful portrait of him?

P.S. even though we haven’t met in real life, I see a family resemblance <3


9 Your Wicked Uncle Fran November 15, 2011 at 03:25

Whilst I was staying with her in my first term at the LSE back in ’72, she caught me snogging Oliver Cadogan in his old banger outside her house. “I saw you, I did” she said, wrapped in her bright pink dressing gown. “I won’t say anything I won’t; but one thing I will say is this: try a woman, you don’t know what you’re missing. Now drink your cocoa, you silly bugger!”


10 Lauren November 15, 2011 at 10:03

The perfect story to sum Nanny up!


11 laura November 15, 2011 at 07:06

great stuff i enjoyed it! it was sad but it was a joy as well!


12 Lauren November 15, 2011 at 11:29

Thanks, Laura :)


13 Ruby November 15, 2011 at 21:23

Tried to submit this earlier, feared I had broken your blog! Trying again…

Lauren….I’m Tina’s sis. You are such a gifted woman and your way of sharing memories touches our own, calling up remembrances of loved ones no longer here, but always in our hearts and minds. I would have loved to have met your Nanny and I think she and my Grannie would be fast friends.

My Grannie was hardly ever still, even when sitting she would be doing something with her hands whether sewing, cutting out quilt pieces or shelling pecans. I loved to hear her play the harmonica and watch her dance. I will always be grateful to her for instilling a faith in me that has helped me through many a difficult time…to include her loss. I remember feeling something was wrong that day, still have some regrets for not going home that weekend, and knew when the phone was ringing that she’d passed.

She was a woman who could seem to feed an army, having something going on all the stove burners, something cooking in the oven and even have a roaster plugged in somewhere. I miss those days when the house was filled with talking, eating, laughing and Grannie practically running back and forth in that small house to make sure everyone had food/drink and washing dishes/glasses as we would literally eat in shifts! It was always funny when the phone rang and someone would yell out for “Ruby” and 3 of us would yell back “Which one” and then “Ruby Jewel” and me and Grannie would yell “Which one” as I’d been named for her.

So many stories, Tina shared with you about the clothes closet. Our Grannie helped support her family by repairing car/truck/tractor inner tubes. She would travel all over Texas in a pickup truck, going to gas stations to pick up those tubes and bring them back to her shop. Kids would come by to get her to patch their bike tubes, which she gladly did for anyone.

Thank you so much for sharing…you’d have liked my Grannie, I think perhaps she has already met your Nanny and they’ve danced a few jigs!


14 Lauren November 15, 2011 at 22:43

Hello Ruby,

How nice to virtually meet you! (And, no, there’s no way you could break my blog, unless you are an evil hacker type… *something* tells me you are not!)

You probably know by now that I am very fond of your sister. If I find myself in your part of the world one day, we should all meet for a beer or something. I think our grandmothers would be pleased, and do a jig above our heads!

Thank you for telling me more about your Grannie. She truly sounds like a wonderful woman. I take it she’s on your mother’s side – you and Tina seem pretty cool :)



15 Arlene M Coleman December 8, 2011 at 17:28

Lauren, thank you for sharing your wonderful memories of your Nanny. I have wonderful memories of my maternal grandmother who, like your Nanny was always there for me. We lived with her and my grandfather until I was 6 when my parents bought our own home and she lived with us after my grandfather died. When I was small she’d take me to the yard to make mud pies, making sure I was cleaned up before my Mother got home from work. When I was a teen she taught me how to knit and crochet and we’d stay up to all hours of the night playing Scrabble. We’re very fortunate to have such neat grandmothers.


16 Lauren December 8, 2011 at 23:07

Hi Arlene! Thanks for sharing your story. Nanny and I enjoyed Scrabble too! (What’s not to like?) It sounds like you and she were especially close. Will you be passing along the mud-pies-behind-mum’s-back tradition with your grandkids? Here’s to our grandmas! <3


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