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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