Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Annual Trek to Granny's


At Christmas time each year, the layer of unhappiness lying over our childhood home in Ireland was more tangible with each year that passed.

After they got married, my mother went to live with my father and his widowed mother. My father was the only son in a family of six - all the girls were older than him and all these women he grew up with literally adored him. He never had to lift a finger. After about six months, when my mother was pregnant with me, she and her mother-in-law had a huge fight and my mother left, towing the beloved and forever worshipped son behind her.

From then on, she refused to have anything to do with her mother-in-law but parcels would arrive occasionally for me in the post, containing dolls or games.

On Christmas Day, the unspoken hovered around the turkey and the tree. Because my mother refused to have her mother-in-law in her home, her own mother was banned as well, thus absenting both grannies from our table.

On St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day), pre-car ownership, my father would pack up a few of the older children and take us by way of train but when that service was cancelled on a bus all the way down to his mother's house which was in a small town in east Cork. I remember it as always raining, with steaming windows and smelly wool coats on everyone.

My grandmother would be overjoyed to see us. I was always a little afraid of her, she was thin as a rail and wore her hair in a tight silver bun and called my father by his diminutive "Jimmy" which I found very amusing. Her table groaned with goodies, endless tins of biscuits, another turkey, fruit cakes, sweets in boxes, and extravagant presents for the children. We were on our best behaviour because we knew what was coming.

Her beloved Jimmy and herself would get caught up on all the news. Even then, I noticed a tightness to her lips when my mother's name was mentioned. I would study the odd British type pictures on her walls and she had the only chaise lounge I had ever seen in a house prior to then. It lay in glory by the front window, upholstered in red damask with a shawl draped carefully across the back of it. And I remember wondering if Granny ever fainted on it when we left and did she have smelling salts to revive herself.

She asked me about my "books". Books in those days were an old-fashioned term for the class (grade) you were in.

"What book are you in?"

"Two, Granny".

"Ah," she'd say,nodding, "You'll be writing them soon enough. Now who does she look like Jimmy? Not like our side at all."

I never could take a conversation with her anywhere. I never could respond beyond her first question as with her next one she'd always involve my father who would always turn the question back on her.

"Mother," he'd say, "Sure I think she's got a great look of you, myself."

Which I knew to be a great white lie, as everyone said I looked like my other granny.

When we left, stuffed to the point where we all should have been mounted on her parlour wall, she'd catch the wrist of each child in a strong grip and lay on the coin. Huge amounts for those days. I would get a whole half-crown and the boys would get a shilling each. In farewell, she would never kiss us or hug us and she'd shake my father's hand and watch us all as we traipsed slowly down the hill from her house.

Daddy was always irritable on the endless, steamy bus-ride back to the city. We'd be complaining we'd missed the Wren Boys, we always missed the Wren Boys every year because of the trek to Granny's.

But fondling the magical possibilities of the coins in our pockets made up for a lot.

19 comments:

  1. A wonderful set of memories about strong women. My two Grannies were like chalk and cheese; one of them dyed her hair black and told me to call her auntie. The other was plump, pretty, smiling with a bun in her hair. She hugged me and made me feel special. Lessons in how to be a grandmother! Thanks for sharing yours.

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  2. Isn't it amazing how different two grannies can be. I only remember my paternal granny as a dark shadow, yet mammy's mother was a wonderful fun person to have around.

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  3. Anon:
    I adored my other Granny who in a lot of ways was like a mother to me and spoiled me in very special ways. She never let me forget I was her favourite which was terribly unfair to the other grandchildren.
    XO
    WWW

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  4. GM:
    My paternal grandmother tried desperately but there was an inner coldness to her which was quite frightening.
    XO
    WWW

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  5. A very evocative memoir WWW - I wonder what the source of the feud between your mother and paternal grandmother was, though I don't doubt even the most tolerant families would have known their ups and downs trying to co-exist in the same house like that.

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  6. I love family stories and this is a great one.

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  7. "stuffed to the point where we all should have been mounted on her parlour wall" - Loved it!

    I have that wonderful recording of the Clancy Brothers at Carnegie Hall, on which they sing the "The Wran Song" It was, of course, a barbaric tradition - now, thankfully, the live bird is replaced by a fake one.

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  8. It's too bad when we are prevented from loving our grannies for whatever reason.

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  9. I used to be disappointed in my parents for not being the grandparents to my kids that I wished them to be, but now that I am a granny myself I have considerably more understanding of that issue. My own maternal grandmother scared me too, that same apparent inner coldness. But catching a glimpse of that in myself now, I am humbled. Family politics are complicated, being a grandmother is not so easy.

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  10. I loved visiting my maternal granny. She always had wise and witty things to say, and was forever cheerful and indulgent. And my father would be on his best behaviour, as opposed to his usual bad-tempered self, so I was always disappointed when our visits ended.

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  11. I enjoyed reading your fine memories, WWW, so finely written too.
    :-)

    I was very close to my maternal grandmother (and grandfather), I lived with them for a period during the worst of the blitz on our city of Hull during WW2, so a very special bond was formed, which lasted all of our lives.
    Paternal Gran died fairly young after having 10 kids of her own and bringing up 3 or 4 assorted others. Worn out, I expect! She was a good and kindly soul though - wish I'd known her better.

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  12. Laura:
    Like all enormous familky quarrels it was based on something so small in retrospective. My father hated beef. One night my mother cooked it for him in her MIL's kitchen and he lapped it up. MIL exploded (never at Precious but at her DIL)as to how she 'forced' him to eat something he so despised and it was so unfair of her to do this to Precious.
    Seriously.
    This is how world wars begin.
    XO
    WWW

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  13. Marcia:
    We are all full of them aren't we? Thanks!
    XO
    WWW

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  14. RJA:
    There was something fearful and gruesome about the "wran", and all children love gore and scaredy stuff. I too have that recording and saw them perform it live.
    XO
    WWW

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  15. Nora:
    She was a hard woman to love. My other Granny like I said, I adored.
    XO
    WWW

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  16. Annie:
    I agree. Being a grandmother can be fraught with the landmines laid by our children. We sometimes walk a fine line.
    I could always be myself with my maternal grandmother, the one I write about I was always performing as a "good" girl.
    XO
    WWW

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  17. Nick:
    Lovely memories. You should maybe write about them?
    XO
    WWW

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  18. T:
    I too lived with my maternal grandparents for a while. it seemed to be constant fun, music, the smell of pipe tobacco and rising at the crack of dawn to get the rabbits from my grandda's snares.
    Lucky you to have such lovely memories too.
    XO
    WWW

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  19. So wonderfully written, and so tinged with sadness. Your family memories are so lovely to read - thank you for sharing them with us.

    I adored both sets of grandparents, and the older I grow, the more privileged I feel to have known them all and to have had the chance to learn from them as well as to love them.

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