My Granny died this month. She was not the kind of person you imagine when you hear the word ‘granny’. She was not the kind of grandma hiding in fairy tales, usurped by a big bad wolf. Or described in Roald Dahl stories. My granny was not a dunker of biscuits.
Granny was political, a pusher of Noam Chomsky books. She ate eggs and spicy sambol for breakfast and was briefly a filmstar in China. She married 3 times – divorced once (in the 1940s) and hid Sri Lankan Tamils in her cellar. She lost students in the Tiananmen Square Massacre of ’88. I have a picture of her shaking hands with the president of China – Zhou Enlai – in the 1960s.
I believe in every past generation there have been the women whose mischief and spirit have presented so profoundly in their DNA that, despite the dangers, it is simply impossible to hide it. My granny was that sort of woman. She was also formidable. Sometimes scary. She could be mean.
Whoever she was, she led me to myself. She showed me that a woman could travel, paint, write stories, divorce, survive. Whoever she was to others, to me she was always beautiful and kind.
When we met for the 3rd time – which was the first time we’d met as adults – I held onto her arm all the way back from the airport, watching her smiling dimples in the rear view mirror as she bathed in my unconditional love.
The next morning we sat down for breakfast together and recognised one another. She would shape the contours of my future and I would heal the wounds of her past.
And there were a lot of wounds.
The first when my Granny was just 13 years old. One night, during a card game at her father’s London flat she was raped. Granny fell pregnant and despite the context of the child’s conception, she passionately wanted to keep it. It never occurred to her to be ashamed of her baby. But her mother had other ideas.
My granny and her burgeoning body were sent to her grandmother’s house in preparation for the birth. A healthy baby girl was born and Granny was besotted. But a month later, having been sent back to London briefly in order to fix up the flat with her father, the baby was removed. On her return to the house an empty cot met her and the unexpected news that the baby had died. Years later, after a refusal she ever mention ‘that episode’ under her mother’s roof again, my now grown-up Granny and her old Nanny deduced that the baby had been sent away for unofficial adoption. She never met her daughter again.
My Granny healed these wounds through her paintings. Sometimes one of her Ex-husbands would even pop up in the background as a leafless, gnarly tree.
We wrote letters back and forth for 30 years: her on lined, lemon paper, me from whatever city I was now living in. Our letters were mirrors, filled with stories and drawings, with sadness and friendship. On the news of her death, I have such a strong desire to find my old letters in her Canadian care home and match them with hers.
My granny was 98 when she died. She lived the biggest life I’ve ever known: no time for Netflix or washing the car on Sundays. She unknowingly handed me a map on our first meeting when I was 5 years old that told me: women could be clever, brave, stubborn, angry and adventurous. That women could make mistakes.
If I have another 50 years ahead of me I hope to use that map more often.
Barbara Yearsley 1924 - 2022