You might want to settle down with a cup of tea and a mince pie, since this does run rather long, even though these are only the briefest of the stories I could tell…
I’ve been knitting for my new nephew this year. I like to knit and sorting out needles and wool always makes me think of my Great Aunty Ivy, eldest of my maternal grandmother’s sisters, who taught me to knit and crochet when I was about nine. When she died, all her needles, hooks and the Singer sewing machine that had been a wedding present to her in 1919 came to me. It still has the instructions including notes on the correct needles to use for whalebone and an attachment for goffering the frills for maids’ caps.
Ivy hadn’t been expected to live to be married, having had a life-threatening goitre requiring a drastic operation in 1917. Gynae complications meant she could never have children and then she was widowed in the early 1950s, when her husband had a brain haemorrhage. But you just have to get on with life, she told me. So she did, robust in her opinions and in her vegetarianism, a staunch advocate of that since the 1920s. Woe betide anyone foolish enough to dismiss a meat-free diet as hippy faddishness in her hearing.
Born in 1900, she was, as she liked to tell us when she visited my grandparents at Christmas, the last Victorian in the family. Not that she had much time for ‘Victorian values’. I remember, one summer visit in my early teens, as we sat knitting together, her making some remarkably forthright enquiries as to what I knew about the facts of life. Once she was satisfied that I was properly informed, she told me about the day she and Betty, her other sister, had needed to reassure my startled grandmother returning from a bike ride with a bloodstained skirt. Ivy had only recently learned the full facts herself, on her wedding night when her husband had found himself patiently explaining what he was trying to do with and to her. None of the women of that generation had any objection to me, my siblings and cousins co-habiting before marriage. Very sensible, they called it, out of their husbands’ hearing.
The last conversation I had with Aunty Ivy, not long before her death, included her asking me all about the boyfriend I was living with, since he had been invited to my grandparents’ 80th birthday party, mostly so my Grandmother could meet/inspect him. Ivy, at 88, had been too frail to attend. Apparently the report was sufficiently favourable that they had decided between them he would make an excellent husband. They weren’t wrong. We’ve been married since 1989.
I’ve been thinking on my Grandmother today as I do some Christmas baking. A recent newspaper article agonising about how to bake a decent chocolate cake baffled me. I was taught to make a sponge mix with one quarter of the flour by weight replaced with cocoa powder. Job done. I’ve also made mince pies today, using the pastry recipe my Grandma taught me; half fat to flour, fat consisting of half butter* and half lard*. They always come out beautifully.
(*goat butter since I can’t eat cow’s milk and Cookeen if vegetarians are expected)
Grandma worked in ladies’ fashions at Bourne & Hollingsworth, Selfridges and lastly at Harrods in London before the Second World War. She was there during the Abdication Crisis, when the shop girls regularly overheard the Countess of Wherever discussing the scandalous details of Edward’s infatuation with Wallis Simpson with Lady Whosit in the changing rooms. When the first reports appeared in the foreign press, all the staff were summoned to a meeting where they were told if anything appeared in the British newspapers, they would all be sacked, regardless of whether or not such tale-telling could be traced back to the shop. My Grandmother was quietly unimpressed by bombastic male authority, I realised, even when Grandpa was laying down the law as he tended to on a fairly regular basis.
Though Grandma and her neighbour did listen to the ARP warden who told them off for going out and stamping on incendiaries in WWII, to put them out before the flames took hold. Air raids were a constant threat as she lived on the South Coast with twin baby girls and a husband away doing air traffic control for the USAAF. One particularly bad night, she couldn’t face going down to the shelter for the third or fourth time so she simply got under the bed with both babies and the dog. That’s where she discovered my Grandfather’s tobacco ration from the Americans, which he was drawing even though he didn’t smoke. Remembering cigarettes were supposed to calm the nerves, she broke open a packet of Lucky Strike and lit up. Because you just had to get on with things. There was no point in making a fuss.
When I make my mince pies, I used the pressed steel tins we got from my husband’s grandmother. Well greased, things never stick to them and the pastry is never soggy on the bottom. Steel, not stainless steel, mark you. So they need to be washed promptly and then put in the cooling oven to dry.
I met Nan when I was living here during a year’s medical leave from university. That was a tough year for all sorts of reasons and I used to go and see her when I needed some company. She was calm and quiet and welcoming and we talked about days gone by in the Cotswolds and her life in service as a daily cook to a local wealthy family and what was on the telly and oh, all sorts of things. She and my husband and his brother were all very close since she had helped see them through the tragically early death of their mother from cancer. In one of his last conversations with her, she told my husband ‘you should marry that girl’. He told her that he would, even before he’d asked me. Like my Aunty Ivy, Nan could see we were right for each other long before we were certain.
I have had to replace the basin for the Christmas pudding this year. Nan’s has developed an ominous crack so we’ll use it for fruit from now on. When I was younger, family Christmas puddings always came from my step-father’s mother. Granny was the eldest of nine born on a Lincolnshire farm just before the First World War. Her mother died young so she pretty much raised her brothers and sisters. She still found time to help out her neighbours though, particularly the ‘city girl’ a local gamekeeper married. Other locals were inclined to look on with disapproval. Granny called round to see how the new bride was getting on – and found her in tears, trying to pluck a hare. So Granny helped her skin and cook it, and kept an eye on her thereafter. Right into her latter years, Granny was quite capable of stopping to wring a pheasant’s neck when she saw a car clip one and leave it injured by the side of the road. And take it home for Sunday lunch.
She trained as a nurse and worked ‘on the District’ all her professional life, with that same blend of compassion and practicality, driving her Morris Minor all round South Yorkshire. She spent the Second World War nursing the wounded as well as raising her young son with her husband away serving as a radio operator on Lancaster bombers. Just getting on with it.
Meantime, my Granny McKenna was getting on with things in Plymouth, all through the air raids while her husband worked as a fitter in the Royal Dockyards and she raised three children including one hospitalised with osteomyelitis after breaking his leg. The doctors wanted to amputate but Granny wouldn’t let them, insisting that she would nurse my uncle through the bone infection and she succeeded. She did all this while wearing a fearsome back brace of leather and steel which fascinated me and my brother as young children. As a young woman just over from Ireland, she’d been hit by a brewery dray and when she’d recovered consciousness, she walked to the hospital with a broken ankle and several fractured vertebrae.
She’d come over to England to be as a priest’s housekeeper, initially working at the De La Salle teacher training college in London. An orphan from the Magdalene Laundries, that’s what she’d been trained up to do with her life. Except she met my grandfather who was working as a groundsman at the college and that was that. In her sixties, when she applied for her first passport, Granny McKenna discovered that the details the nuns had supplied about her original name, age and birth date were all incorrect. So she simply celebrated two birthdays for the rest of her life. There was no point making a fuss. Incidentally, she needed a passport to go on a parish trip to Lourdes. Not on her own account, you understand. She was going as a helper for those unfortunate souls who needed such a blessing.
These are my foremothers and I always find myself remembering them with admiration and affection at Christmas.