Nanny Gwen

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My Nan was a fantastically eccentric woman. So much so that I often think she would make a perfect character for a story. With her endless array of strange habits, peculiar mannerisms and unique way of speaking she was, in many ways, a writer’s dream. She had so many quirks, so many idiosyncrasies that even her closest relatives sometimes struggled to make sense of her, myself included. Even now, more than two years after her death, certain aspects of her character remain a complete mystery to me. She was a mass of contradictions, which for me only made her more fascinating. I have never encountered another human like her. I doubt I ever will.

The majority of Nan’s time was spent on three activities: shopping, cleaning and smoking. Shopping was an almost daily undertaking for Nan. She loved a bargain, only she pronounced it “bargun,” for reasons I cannot begin to fathom. Another pronunciation-based quirk was the way she elongated the “au” in words like “Australia” so that it sounded more like “or.” Again, I have no idea why she did this. Haggling being one of her main skills, she rarely paid full price for anything. She once told me how she’d paid 50p for a book labelled £1. So stingy she wouldn’t even pay a pound for a book. She never did set foot in a Waterstones-if she had she might have keeled over.

Another of her chief loves was cleaning. Not cooking. She hated cooking, probably because she was hopeless as it. We could tell she hated it because whenever my brother and I stayed over, she would try to get our meals out of the way in as rapid a succession as possible. Two hours after making us lunch she would start asking if we wanted dinner, and if we said not yet, she’d go and make it anyway. One of Dad’s favourite stories is of the time he and Mom went round for tea, and Nan made what she said was poached egg on toast. Unfortunately, the egg had disintegrated to such an extent that it was essentially just water with the odd bit of egg floating in it. This rendered the toast so soggy that it flopped when my parents tried to pick it up.

While her culinary skills did improve somewhat over the years, some of her methods were questionable to say the least. A prime example was her habit of cooking bacon in the microwave, instead of grilling or frying it like any normal human. It tasted fine, but had a rather off-putting white film clinging to it where the fat had pooled. She also made tea in the microwave, believing it used less electricity than the kettle, which it most certainly did not.

Nan’s culinary repertoire wasn’t very broad, consisting mainly of Heinz chicken soup, Young’s fish in batter and Super Noodles. In later years she took to buying us fish and chips for lunch, and would make sure she got to the shop just as they were opening. It must have been strange for the staff, opening the shutters to find her standing there in her anorak holding her many, many handbags. There were always plenty of snacks around. Staying at the flat meant being able to gorge on all the things we loved: crisps for Josh, ice creams for me, cakes, biscuits, the lot. Nan actively encouraged us to eat as much as we liked, regardless of how unhealthy it was. She once told me I wasn’t eating enough after I said I didn’t want more than one Magnum in a day. Her own diet wasn’t exactly nutritious. At mealtimes she ate very little, only to fill up on cakes, biscuits and her ultimate weakness, ice cream. She would often eat an entire tub in a single sitting, then act surprised when she ended up on the toilet with an upset stomach.

Then there were the fags. I have never known anyone turn smoking into a hobby quite the way Nan did. She smoked less like a chimney and more like a coal-fuelled power station, starting in her teens and continuing throughout her adult life despite some serious health problems in her twenties. Years of smoking had stained her nails and fingertips brown, and she had a nicotine-yellow tuft in her hair. The air in the flat was so acrid that I would get terrible throbbing headaches if I stayed for more than a day. After having to have the walls repainted because they had turned yellow, Nan took to smoking in the toilet. This not only showed a woeful lack of understanding about the nature of smoke, but also made going to the toilet a rather unpleasant experience. On opening the door, we were invariably buffeted by a wall of smoke so overpowering that we took to holding our breath while we were in there.

As well as her hair and nails, the cigarettes also affected her voice, turning it into a deep, monotone drawl. Combined with her habit of prefacing every utterance with “Mmm” or “Oooh,” and the fact she spoke quite slowly anyway, this rendered the vast majority of what she said unintentionally funny. Virtually anything can be made comical by saying it in Nan’s voice, and it is the only impression I am any good at. She was always making us laugh with the things she came out with, like the time she told us “they were burning incest in the church and it made Evelyn’s chest really bad.” We could have told her she meant incense, but we decided it was funnier not to. Or the time she said to our dog, “Oooh Holly, don’t jump up me when I’ve got a hot drink.” I’m not sure how she expected the dog to respond to that.

When it came to her health, Nan was, without doubt, one of the most stubborn people I have ever met. When the doctor prescribed two inhalers to help with her terrible smoker’s cough, she stashed them away in a cupboard and refused to use them. She was advised to go for regular check-ups, but every time an appointment came through she would ring up and cancel it. When I brought this up with her, she insisted there was “nothing wrong with her lungs.”

As far as the grandchildren were concerned, Nan’s devotion was unparalleled. Me being the oldest of the four, I think it’s fair to say I occupied a uniquely special place in her affections. On the night I was born she walked from her flat in Wednesfield to New Cross Hospital, loaded up with bags of clothes and presents for me. It was four in the morning, late November, pitch-black and dismal, but she did it anyway. I was also the most photographed grandchild. Hundreds of pictures document my childhood, the vast majority taken by her. She could never do enough for us, whether it was knitting us little woollen hats and cardigans, hosting our earliest birthday parties or taking us for doctor’s appointments.

Equally endearing was the enormous pride she took in all of our achievements, no matter how small. Every sticker, every certificate, every newspaper clipping-she kept the lot. As a child I used to write poetry, and Nan ensured the preservation of my work by copying every last one of my verses into a notebook, which I still have. She would accompany me to my karate lessons and sit there happily snapping away on her camera. Whenever I passed an exam, she would get the whole congregation at church to sign a well done card for me. She was always telling people about us, what we were up to and how proud she was. I doubt many of them cared, but she told them anyway.

In order to give us everything she could, she herself chose to live frugally. A prime example of this was the lack of heating in the flat. As there was no central heating, the only source of warmth was a gas fire in the living room, which she was often reluctant to switch on. When she did, she would carefully monitor the setting to ensure it wasn’t too high. On one occasion before I was born, my parents went round to Nan’s flat for tea. They found her sitting on the sofa wrapped in a blanket, wearing a thick woollen jumper and still shivering with cold. It was the middle of winter, there was ice on the ground outside, yet the fire was on the lowest possible setting. This prompted my Mom to say, “For God’s sake mother, turn that bloody fire up and I’ll give you the money myself.” When the fire broke years later, Nan refused to get it replaced, as doing so would have involved taking up the living room floor. Instead she purchased a second-hand halogen heater so ineffective that the only way to gain any warmth was to sit within a few centimetres of it. Nan being rather paranoid, she was always convinced we would catch fire through sitting too close. Personally, I think we’d have been hard pushed to toast a marshmallow on it.

Another key example of Nan’s thriftiness, and the source of much hilarity over the years, was her attitude to phone calls. She once told me that in order to save money, she had opted for a low usage landline tariff that only allowed her an hour and a half per quarter. My theory is that this only applied to outgoing calls, but she was adamant it included incoming ones as well. The result was that whenever we spoke on the phone, she would try and get off the line as quickly as possible regardless of who had instigated the call. Most calls lasted between twenty and thirty seconds; the shortest ever lasted a mere twelve. My brother and I turned it into a game, trying to guess how long each call would last and who could keep her talking the longest.

If we did manage to keep her on the phone for more than thirty seconds, it was usually because we had some important news to impart to her. On those occasions, her reactions often left a lot to be desired. When I was diagnosed with severe anaemia during my second year of university, her exact words were, “Anaemia’s nothing darling, I’ve been anaemic all my life.” At the time I was annoyed by her dismissive attitude, but to a woman who had survived TB and rheumatic fever in her youth, anaemia probably did seem like nothing.

When my brother passed on the news that my boyfriend of two and a half years and I had split up, her first words to me were, “Never mind.” I know now that this was her way of telling me it wouldn’t always hurt, that I’d be happy again and go on to love someone else, but at the time I was furious. It felt like she was trivialising my pain, making out like it wasn’t that big a deal. I’d also requested that she didn’t phone me, as I didn’t want to speak to anyone: an instruction she blatantly ignored. Instead, she proceeded to ring me no fewer than five times during the return journey from Exeter to Birmingham. Some time later, my brother revealed that she’d been worried I would throw myself under a train-an idea so ludicrous it actually made me laugh.

Just over a month later, I rang her with the news that I had secured my place on a PGCE course at Nottingham University. She replied with a single word: OK. Not “well done” or “congratulations,” just “OK.” If I had rung her to say I was going to the cinema with friends or even just having a lazy day at home, she would have piped up with, “Oh, I’m thrilled darling!” The more mundane the news, the more enthusiasm it would elicit, for some reason.

The longest phone conversation I ever had with Nan took place after I discovered I had been cheated on by an ex. It lasted an unprecedented twenty minutes, and revealed a fieriness in her that I had never seen before. Her anger and disbelief rivalled my own, and any affection she’d had for the ex in question vanished instantaneously. I, for some mad reason, was planning on going to see him so that we could talk it out. This was back in the days when I would still bend over backwards for people who clearly didn’t deserve it. Thankfully, Nan put her foot down. Her exact words to me were, “Don’t you dare get on a train to go and see him.” I was used to her offering advice, voicing her opinions on what I should and shouldn’t do. I was not used to her issuing such a vehement and explicit instruction, so when she did, I listened.

Nan may have been thrifty when it came to her own needs, but for us she could never do enough. She set up a savings account for each of us so that when we turned eighteen, we had access to a lump sum of eight thousand pounds apiece. She was always there to help with the larger expenses, happily volunteering to pay for my black belt grading and sending me money every week when I was at university. Of course, I was never after her money, but I cannot deny that her generosity helped me enormously over the years.

On top of providing financial support, she was always buying us things. She went shopping most days with the sole intention of buying presents for us, and was disappointed on days when she didn’t manage to find much. If there was anything I needed-anything at all-she would do her very best to get it for me. Sometimes she would tell me I needed things when in actual fact I didn’t, like the time she insisted my winter coat wasn’t warm enough. When I pointed out that it was the coat I’d worn during the winter months in Russia, she did eventually relent.

As I grew older, Nan became my go-to for virtually everything. Whenever I had news, be it good or bad, big or small, she was always one of the first people I’d ring. She supported me wholeheartedly in all of my endeavours, doing everything she could to help me along the way. We stayed in close contact throughout my time at university, with her sending me weekly letters detailing the events back home. Hundreds of letters she sent me over the years, and I have kept every last one of them. I can map out years of my life by the contents of her letters-where I was living, what I was up to, who I was with. Whenever I came home, one of the first things I did was pay her a visit. We would spend hours just sitting and chatting, she would always try and feed me up, and every so often she would take me on a tour of the flat and point out the things she wanted me to have when I had a place of my own.

Nan’s flat was an Aladdin’s Cave of tat, but I loved it. When I was little it was full of toys: Barbie dolls and teddies and jewellery for dressing up. In summer I would spend hours pottering around the garden, picking flowers and looking under stones, playing hide and seek in the conifers at the back. As a teenager, it became a place of relaxation: somewhere I could go to escape the pressures of schoolwork and the stresses of home-life. Nan made it clear that when I was there, I was to do exactly as I pleased. It wasn’t exactly the most stylish of dwellings, but it had a magic and a charm all of its own. Everything was either from a charity shop or some sort of discount store, with no thought given as to whether things matched. If Nan liked something, she bought it. The flat was bursting with all the things she loved to collect: gem trees, crystals, sheepskin rugs, cacti, straw bonnets, brass ornaments, wind chimes and seashells. It is probably from her that I get my love of knick-knacks, or “trinkets and doodads” as my boyfriend calls them.

Nan had some peculiar habits when it came to the flat. She insisted on unplugging all electrical appliances that weren’t being used, and was under the impression that the TV needed periodic rest breaks. The shower was hardly ever used; Nan was afraid to put her head under water because apparently it made her feel like she was drowning. I know it worked because I used it on multiple occasions. But for some reason she started insisting we have baths instead. This involved putting on the immersion heater for just long enough to yield a few inches of lukewarm water. Those were the quickest baths of my life-I was in and out like a shot.

Then there was Edwin. Edwin lived on the floor above and looked like a chubbier version of Ken Dodd. A schizophrenic alcoholic, he was a rather eccentric character with no brain-to-mouth filter whatsoever. Once, on seeing me for the first time in years, he said to Nan, ‘She’s a good looking girl, you should put her on the game.’ Even if it was a joke, it was a spectacularly ill-judged one. Quite why you would say that to anyone is simply beyond me. Still, he was essentially well meaning, and Nan put his odd behaviour down to his condition. She wasn’t entirely trusting of him, however. Once a week she would clean his flat, as he had a tendency to live in squalor if left to his own devices. He had a ceremonial sword on the wall in the living room, and Nan was convinced that one day he would simply flip and attack her with it. She therefore insisted he go out whenever she came round to clean.

Easily the most bizarre story involving Nan dates back to a time before I was born, when my parents first started living together. As they both worked during the day, Nan sought to make their lives easier by helping with the housework. She would often come round while they were at work to tidy up and do the ironing. Unbeknownst to my parents, she was also helping herself to food, having baths and taking naps on their bed. Mom, being blonde, was understandably suspicious when she started finding Nan’s short dark hairs in the plughole and on the pillow. She confronted my Dad, demanding to know who the other woman was. Dad, who has always been unswervingly loyal, had no idea what she was talking about. Mom got on the phone to Nan, who confessed with a casual, “Oooh, that was me, darling.” The mind boggles.

Nan’s determination to help in any way she could was, in my opinion, by far her greatest strength. Never was this more apparent than in the years that followed Mom’s untimely death from breast cancer in June of 1996. The strength and resilience displayed by both her and my Dad during that incredibly difficult time was simply extraordinary. While I don’t think she ever truly came to terms with Mom’s death, on the surface she did an amazing job of holding it together. She had always been hands-on, but now she threw herself wholeheartedly into helping to care for me and my younger brother, Josh.

Over the next five years, Nan helped with just about everything. On school days she would arrive at our house before Josh and I were even out of bed. She would help get us dressed and breakfasted, prepare our lunches and sometimes even take us to school. Often it was she who met us at the gates, she who walked us home and stayed with us until Dad got back from work. At the weekends we would often go and stay with her, a tradition that continued well into our teens. Her entire existence was given over to keeping us as happy as possible in the wake of family tragedy, and she did a truly astounding job.

It only occurred to me years later that this was, at least partly, an attempt to distract herself from the pain of losing her daughter. Nan was always notoriously private about her feelings towards the sadder events of her life. On the rare occasions when we did get her to talk, she would invariably make a few disparaging comments before changing the subject. In the past when I asked her what Mom was like when she was younger, she was less than complimentary. At school she was supposedly “as thick as two short planks,” and had caused Nan a great deal of embarrassment on one occasion by grafittiing the girls’ toilets. Mom may not have been overly academic, but she was fantastically practical. She was a hairdresser, did pottery and woodwork, even made her own wedding and bridesmaids’ dresses. But Nan never mentioned any of that. Instead, she expressed disappointment at Mom marrying someone from a Wolverhampton council estate, and asserted that she never swore prior to meeting my Dad. When I told Dad of this claim, he merely laughed and said, “What a load of bollocks.” Mom swore like a trooper and always had done; she just had the sense to modify her language around Nan.

At the time I struggled to understand why Nan would say such things about her own child. It wasn’t like she and Mom weren’t close. They had their differences certainly, but to hear Nan talk, you’d have thought they didn’t get on at all. This absolutely was not the case, which only made Nan’s remarks more confusing. It wasn’t until I was older, and understood the nature of loss more, that I realised this was coping mechanism. I will never know for sure, but my theory is that she was trying to convince herself that what she had lost didn’t amount to that much. As someone who has yet to become a parent, I can only imagine how agonising Mom’s death must have been for her. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Nan was reluctant to discuss Mom with us, although I’m not sure she realised just how cold and insensitive her comments seemed at times.

Mom wasn’t the only victim of Nan’s criticism; Granddad Clarke didn’t fare any better. Even now, I know hardly anything about him. I do know that he and Nan got divorced when Mom was young following multiple counts of infidelity on his part. Nan told him to stay away, her exact words to him being, “Let them forget you.” For years they had no contact then, when Mom was a teenager, she decided she wanted to see him again. As it turned out, she didn’t like him very much, and their meetings desisted. She did bump into him in the street years later, by which time she was married and I was a baby in a pushchair. As far as I know, that was the only time our paths ever crossed, when I was far too young to remember. He committed suicide in 1992. Money problems. Nan said she was glad. Personally, I can’t imagine feeling glad about the death of any human, never mind a man I had once loved. Was she really glad? It’s hard to say. She was such a closed book as far as matters of the heart were concerned. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she was employing a similar technique to the one she used with Mom. Mask your sadness behind a wall of cold detachment, and no one will ever know how truly cut up you are.

I tried asking her about Granddad several times over the years. The only information I managed to glean was his first name, Michael, that he was “tall, dark and handsome,” and that they used to go dancing together back when they first started “courting.” According to my Dad he was quite a Jack-the-Lad. He liked a drink and loved socialising, and on that evidence alone, he and Nan were polar opposites. It occurred to me recently that Mom must have resembled him, because she looked absolutely nothing like Nan’s side of the family. Which, by extension, must mean I resemble him in some way. I have no proof of this, having never seen so much as a single photo of him, just my own observations. Perhaps this is why Nan was so unwilling to discuss the two of them. Perhaps the one reminded her of the other and so automatically dredged up painful memories. I am merely hypothesising here, but it’s a thought.

Part of me wishes I’d pressed Nan more when she was alive, but past experience had taught me not to. Lately, my curiosity has been growing about the man whose DNA makes up part of my own. Through researching my family tree I have been able to find out where and when he was born, when he and Nan got married and who his parents were. But I have no real sense of who he was as a person, what he was like or how he came to be so desperately unhappy as to take his own life. It is unlikely I ever will. Nan did such a thorough job of obliterating all traces of him that, for a long time, we simply never questioned his absence.

There never was another man after Granddad. Nan stuck fast to her rule that women should only ever be with one man. She had had her one man. It hadn’t worked out. That was it. No second chances. No future relationships. Nothing. She spent the best part of four decades alone, and it was entirely her choice. I do not doubt for one second that she could have snared another man had she wanted to. Instead, she became fiercely independent, and expected other people to follow suit. She once told Dad in the wake of Mom’s death that he should devote his entire life to my brother and me. Dad was twenty-nine at the time, younger than my boyfriend is now. Far too young to resign himself to a lifetime of solitude. Mom hadn’t wanted him to spend the rest of his life alone, and nor did I.

This was perhaps one of Nan’s greatest faults: her attempts to make other people live by her own out-dated values. The one-man-for-life rule is one she tried to impose on me. She wished for me to follow the example of several generations of women in our family by only ever having one sexual partner. I don’t believe she ever expressed the same wish for my brother or male cousin, or even her own son. She was of the opinion that for a woman to be sexually experienced was awful. Again, she made no mention of whether this was true for men. I suspect not, but then I’m curious to know how she thought that would work, given that she was dead against homosexuality. In fact she was so straight-laced, so opposed to any outward signs of female sexuality, that Mom considered her own existence something of a miracle.

Nan and I had some very awkward interchanges over the years. She once asked if she could read my diary, and when I said no, she presumed I was writing about sex. I was thirteen at the time, what on earth would I have been writing? Amusingly, she didn’t say the word “sex.” Instead, she spelt it out in a half-whisper. This woman had three children, but squirmed at any mention of the act that created them. Other words she insisted on whispering included “lesbian” and “homosexual.”

A few years back, I complained to her about having put on a bit of weight. She piped up with, “I dare say he (my then-boyfriend) likes you curvy.” I dare say we’re not discussing what my boyfriend thinks of my body, Grandma. At the time I was embarrassed. Part of me now thinks I should have played it cool, tossed out something sassy like, “Yeah, he loves my bum.” She’d have been mortified, but it would have been funny.

When Nan got wind that I was seeing a guy in my second year of university, she straight up asked, “You’re not sleeping with him are you?” If that wasn’t excruciating enough, she said it in front of my brother. She posed the same question a few months later, only this time with added insult. I was on the verge of entering into a new relationship, but we were yet to make it official. This prompted Nan to ask, “You’re not sleeping with all these boys are you, Lauren?” I was involved with a grand total of two boys that year-it hardly makes me a harlot.

I sometimes got the impression that of the four grandchildren, Nan regarded me as the most wayward. Although she never actually said it, I knew I didn’t fit her idea of what a lady should be. My cousin Meghan was the ladylike one. She was always immaculately turned out, did ballet and played the cello, and seemed far less interested in booze and boys than I was. Just a few weeks ago my family and I visited the pub my stepbrother runs with his girlfriend. I was coming to the end of my first pint when my Dad bought me a second. Seeing me standing there with a pint glass in each hand, he chuckled and said, “Your Nan would turn in her grave if she could see you now.”

Nan’s double standards weren’t just restricted to sexual practices. She had some very backwards views regarding gender roles in general, holding me to a much higher standard than my brother. He could swear in front of her and then breezily deny it, whereas I would be sternly reprimanded for using the word “fart.” It was fine for my brother to go out drinking, but if I had a hangover, I would be met with much tutting and disapproval. She once told me that I shouldn’t ring my boyfriend, that I should wait for him to ring me. I was tempted to point out that if I’d waited for a man to initiate every step of every relationship, I’d have been waiting forever. She also told me I shouldn’t read when he was at my house, implying that I should devote all my time and energy to entertaining him.

Me being female also meant that she worried about me far more than my brother. It didn’t matter that I was older, that I had a black belt in karate, that I had lived abroad and been to university; she still acted like I was a delicate little wall-flower who couldn’t look after myself. If I was catching a train after dark she would ring me repeatedly and urge me to be careful. It didn’t matter how many times I had done that particular journey, how familiar I was with the stations or the route. She also wouldn’t allow me to catch the bus back from her flat on my own, even though I had travelled there on it. Me pointing out that I had caught planes to foreign countries by myself made no difference; she would insist on calling me a taxi.

Our differences didn’t end there. Racist as well as homophobic, she had some truly shocking opinions as far as minorities were concerned. While I understand that she grew up in a time when traditional values were much more prevalent, there were numerous occasions when her words made me want to hurl things at her. She could be maddeningly prejudiced based on no evidence at all, and at times hypocritical. She would cheerily admit to crossing the street if she saw a black person coming towards her, but she was quick to extol the virtues of my karate teacher, who happens to be black. This proves that she was, in fact, perfectly capable of judging people on their personality, conduct and achievements rather than the colour of their skin.

So yes, there were things I didn’t particularly like about her. But none of that changed the fact that she was one my chief allies in life, a pillar of my very existence. A cruel twist of fate meant she became my most constant female presence, and while it is common for grandchildren and grandparents to be close, I always felt that the loss of Mom added an extra layer of intimacy to our relationship. Recent research into child-rearing has shown that in the absence of the mother, the maternal grandmother is generally the next best person to have around: findings that came as no surprise to me, given my personal experience. Nan wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but love her or loathe her, she was an undeniably memorable character. This is just a snapshot, a whistle-stop tour of her life and personality as seen through my eyes. To those who knew her, I have hopefully triggered some fond memories. To those who didn’t, I hope I have given you a sense of who she was, what she was like, and why she occupied such a special place in my affections. She may no longer be with us, but I have twenty-four years’ worth of infinitely fond memories, and they are mine to keep.

Written by

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.

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