Taking a moment, part II
by little red pen
I did this for my great-aunt a few months ago, and yesterday it was for my grandmother. Just paying tribute, I guess. The first eulogy is mine; the second my sister’s.
We’ve come to say goodbye, Granny. The words don’t come easily; all our lives, you’ve been there. But you shaped us and made us whole, and though we feel weak and imperfect today, we know you gave us the strength to honour you and let you go.
I want to spin words for you today — dark, rough, warm words — spin them out of storm-grey wool, keep the wheel turning awhile, draw yarn from fleece. I would like to knit you a story — plain and pearl — wrap you in bright, true colour. Or if I had the skill, I would make you a garden of love — plant gentleness and welcome and care — sit you under a tree and magic up a world of light and good, growing things. I’d let the children run and bring you a cup of tea, sit down beside you, touch my head to yours. But that magic is not for us, not in the way I want it, so I will have to conjure what I can out of memory and story, make do with the worlds in our heads and our hearts.
When we were children, we often stayed with you on the farm. You had a beautiful house and a beautiful garden, with a berry cage and a glasshouse and a tyre swing in a big tree. The garden had stone walls and wooden gates, with secret hiding places and a lawn we played croquet on at Christmastime. Papa died when I was little, and you kept all this up on your own, although I know you missed him very much. But we were too young for that for a long time, so we picked berries and collected pine cones and swept leaves and snuck into sheds and stole grapes happily.
You woke early, and you always got to the kitchen first. You’d check the traps for mice, light the Rayburn, make a pot of tea. The mice ended up, unceremoniously, in the compost bucket — I shiver at it still. You’d make the rounds of our beds with the tea tray, give us each a cup, and a slice of bread with butter and sugar on it. It was a lovely way to start the day, lovely too when I managed to get up in time to help with the ritual. You would be dressed, always neat and trim, but Mum would be soft and warm in her dressing gown, and I loved you both, loved the order of my grandmother and the sleepy arms of my mother.
You and Mum had quite different ways of being women, mothers. But your qualities played off against each other, and in that play you gave me and Fiona room to grow in our own ways, to find our own paths. And you had common ground that gave us a good foundation: hospitality, generosity, craft and gardening, a sneaky love of shopping, a disdain of excessive grooming and frippery, a deep enjoyment of friendships, and an enthusiastic commitment to nourishing and delicious food.
The bond between you was strong, too. You wrote to each other every week, probably for close on 50 years. You took pleasure in each other’s lives, looked for opportunities for celebration, support, or care. I think losing Mum was a blow too heavy for you to bear; it was something you could never fully get your head and heart around. Although we didn’t talk much about our grief, it helped a little to know that you felt it too, that the hole in our lives was also a hole in yours.
Christmas was a big deal at your house. All the aunts and uncles and cousins came, and the cooking started early and the dishes stretched forever. We were allowed our stockings before breakfast, and my sister and I opened our presents to each other. But everything else had to wait until after church. Then the other families arrived, and the feasting began. The uncles put all the leaves in the table, and we used the best crockery and cutlery. We got most of the fruit and vegetables from the garden — teams, hordes really, of children sent out to forage, pod, pick, scrub — and I guess the lamb came from one of the farms. The luckiest adults got the ruby-red glasses that Papa brought back from Florence, and I’d watch them carefully, wondering when it would be my turn.
I was never allowed to read as much as I wanted to at the farm — children needed fresh air and activity — but on a cold day, you would light the fire and then I could curl up beside your chair, its leather worn, cracked, and you’d stroke my hair, your fingers curved, the bones tender against the nape of my neck. You understood balance, the weighting of exercise with rest, work with play, talk with silence. And maybe that is why it was hard to see you these last few years, to see you quiet and still, without the counterweight of activity and independence and work. You drew life from hospitality and conversation and making a home; without that, you were frail, unmoored.
And in that unmooring, I lost part of myself too, as I suspect many of us did. So many of our lines to the past are traced through women — our mothers, grandmothers, aunts. Your talk gives us our history, and it is your arms we return to for support or care. So now that you are gone, we feel unsteadied, unsure on the shaky ground of our middle years. I wish I could bring back that world — even for a day — just to step into it, look around, be small and safe and cared for again. I wish I could take my children there, my friends too, but instead you have given me, given all of us, the harder task: to create our own worlds, build our own homes, and open them to others.
And perhaps the best we can do is to remember you in the small moments — when we light a fire or brew a pot of tea, when we stir porridge or let marmalade fall from spoon to toast, when we pick flowers from our gardens or welcome family and friends to our tables. Perhaps all we can do is carry you with us in the quiet fabric of how we live and be in the world; perhaps all we can do is recognise you, greet you, in a sister, a child, a friend.
Obviously, I have known Granny all my life. However, I’ve realised recently that what I know of someone is in most cases only a small fraction of their whole lives, so this eulogy is fairly limited to my own experiences, for which I apologise. But when I think of Granny, I think of my childhood.
Growing up, my family went regularly to visit Granny at her old house in Lady Barkly. This was a magical place to us, like stepping into a storybook: full of long sun-drenched afternoons, tea and biscuits on the lawn, frogs hiding under rocks and sheep in the fields. Stiles and gooseberry bushes, tennis and bike rides, and cosy evenings by the fire, watching Coronation Street. But my favourite memories of the Barkly are of staying in Granny’s wee sunroom, nestled between her room and my parents’ at the top of the house. Lying awake surrounded by my grown-ups, hearing the trees rustle and the occasional lonely sheep, I have never felt more safe.
It was that safety and sense of peace, I think, that made staying at Granny’s such fun. In such a stable and loving place, we were free to explore, find boundaries and pretend to transgress – knowing all the while that a pot of tea and cheese biscuits were just around the corner. Granny built this environment, it came directly from her. She offered us a space of boundless discovery, and set us free to find our own places in it.
Mind you, us kids didn’t just run wild at Granny’s house – or in my case, lie idle. My idea of an ideal winter’s day is: fire, chair, book. But Granny knew that these things are even better if you split them up with a bracing walk around the driveway to collect pinecones. She taught us the value of a balanced life, one that includes both rest and work, conversation and reflection, simplicity and small indulgences.
I think this was also apparent in her craft. Granny knitted, sewed and made embroidery all her life, and was a skilled craftsperson. There are few memories more comforting to me than the sound of her spinning wheel on an evening by the fire, and us grandchildren cherish her beautiful hand-embroidered Christmas stockings. And to me, her craft was about balance: the economy of clothing your family in hand-spun handknits, and the creative joy of making beautiful things. The pleasure of wrapping your loved ones in warmth, and the pleasure of spending your time in satisfying industry. My mother made her own way into craft and textile art, and I think was influenced by this dichotomy of function and economy, and a love of creative expression, colour and form. I’ve now found my own place in craftwork, and while I regret that I can’t directly share this experience with these women who came before me, I am deeply glad to continue the conversation.
Lady Barkly also a highly social world, for all its geographic isolation. Uncle Hugh or Cousin Mike would often pop over during breakfast, to snag a cup of tea and drop off the mail and the milk. And in the afternoons we would go to see Uncle John and family, or to Margie Divers or another friend. This taught me the value of maintaining family and social connections, but also showed me one of Granny’s qualities that I truly admired: her sense of place in the world. Granny, I think, never felt any great need to define or question her life, to proclaim it to the world or rail against it. She had a life of social networks and strong relationships, of routine and well-established belief. An awareness of what was important to her, and how she was important to other people. This gave her her generosity, her ability to share wisdom and guidance, and an shakeable sense of the right way to do things: how to bake bread, prune roses, or look after guests. I found this deeply reassuring, and loved sharing her world of peace and calm.
But we didn’t always get along, Granny and I. My teenage years saw a prolonged series of arguments, mostly around clothes and appearance. But I like to think we each understood the others’ side of the debate. I knew she just wanted me to have self-confidence and care in the way I presented myself, and she knew I was a bolshy upstart who would grow out of it. Granny cared about presentation: she was never more herself than in a fine knit jersey, hair done, with her pearls and a matching skirt. But it wasn’t just about shallow appearances. Granny believed in the self-confidence and poise that such care brings, and found strength in presenting a strong face to the world.
But the best thing that she taught me was the value of family, and most especially of sisterhood. She and her sister Nan were both widowed young, and lived for years their own lives, separate but always close by. Quite different in their temperaments, beliefs and outlooks, they were able to live side by side, accepting their differences, and finding a true companionship. They were never far apart, and it is hard to remember one without the other. Being lucky enough to have my own sister, I have always been touched by their unquestioning trust and love for each other, and I’m quite looking forward to Mary and I being similarly formidable old ladies one day. We’re practicing. Thank you.