MY GRANDMA: Ealing, U.S.A, Bournemouth

Everyday we’d see each other, speaking for hours on the phone, talking about EVERYTHING and EVERYONE. I’ve always questioned “Why” I had to be born into my family – not because it was horrendous, I just think I’ve always been more suited to a glamorous and carefree existence. But, I do know I was destined to be closely linked to a woman who exuded beauty, class and an undisputed and relentless ability to demonstrate grit. She hadn’t lived a mundane life by any stretch of the imagination and I made sure people knew she had “lived” by engraving her headstone with: Ealing, U.S.A, Bournemouth. I wondered if anyone would be interested in finding out a bit more about her existence these last seven or so years, but I think that if I wait much longer, I might forget. So, I’m putting it all down on “paper”.

Looking both disappointed yet accepting of where life had taken her, grandma looked at me and matter of factly tells me, “You know my problem? I was born at the end of line.”, before getting back to rolling her tobacco. She was referring to the Central Line of the London Underground map. She loved Hollywood and Frank Sinatra, and would take a job at the cinema in Ealing where everyone would say she looked like Ava Gardner. She did. This 5’10” black haired beauty would turn heads as she walked to the station on her way to another job in Holborn…as a rent collector – her weekly wages going straight to her parents, leaving her enough to take tea and cake at Lyons on a Friday. Of course, rent collecting wasn’t the dream job for this naturally talented actress who was destined for stardom, but those fifteen tube stops were as close as she was going to get to the glitzy West End. She’d often laugh as she’d recall the arguments that ensued between her parents, resulting in heavy items being thrown with great intent and poltergeist-like speeds, across the room. Grandma never understood what the troubles were about, ever, and reckoned they hadn’t a clue, either. The strong Irish accent of her father, and the very heavy Scottish accent of her mother being hurled at each other with such emotion was utterly incomprehensible. The family was the talk of the town. One of the very few Irish families in the West London area, who were Catholic, but actually Jewish, ensured many locals had something “eventful” to talk about across the dinner table on a weekly or even daily basis. Given the number of stories I was privy to, I know the neighbours’ judgements and gossiping kept THEIR lives interesting. As far as I’m concerned, without this Irish family around their lives would have been as bland as old dishcloths. I’m going to create a series about them, but for now I’m going to fast-forward sixty-five (ish) years or so.

All I can say is that I must have made a decision prior to my grand entrance to the world that I needed the Mr Miyagi of all Mr Miyagi’s to guide me in this lifetime, and this fabulous woman – my guide, would end up being MY GRANDMA. Unfortunately, I was far from exemplary when it came to being grandma’s protégée, and certainly, I was no Daniel San.

My grandma wasn’t a yenta – nor was I (to the outside the world), but my goodness, the dirt we would have on people and the character analysis of anybody we’d encountered was better than anything a group of twenty yentas could rustle up in a month of Sunday’s. Unfortunately, much of the details of those moments have stored themselves away in the depths of my memory-bank, but now and again an absolute diamond of a conversation or an “event” will unexpectedly spring to forefront of my mind. Every word she spoke was meaningful and every conclusion had an important lesson with a new perspective on situations. This woman was as patient and fair as a person could be, but boy was she strict, and could she make people quake in their boots with her words, if the situation arose. And “that” look. WHOA! Ninety-nine percent of the time I’d quake in MY boots for OTHER people. Granted they asked for it, but I really would rather have not been present to witness their demise; their egos crushed beyond repair, followed by a deadly silence that would both freeze AND stretch time for what seemed like a very painful eternity. The puff of a cigarette was all the sound that could be heard, accompanied by a substantial smoke poof, filling the room as though a genie had been set free from his lamp, and all I was wishing for was for someone to…please… say…something. ANYTHING! Looking back, it was pure brilliance on her part.

MY grandma was THE undefeated queen of the comebacks. She swore that this talent came with age and experience, but I didn’t and don’t buy it to this day. Had my grandma been born into different circumstances you would have known her from the Big Screen or The Supreme Court circuits. In any case, my grandma was a genius, and Judge Judy is the only person that seems to have been gifted with a mind as sharp and witty. This probably explains why I would find myself watching back-to-back Judge Judy’s after grandma died, for YEARS! If my grandma’s mind was the AK-47 of weapons, her words were the bullets, and anyone in the firing line had better take cover. I eventually stopped watching Judge Judy when during one episode a defendant spoke about watching her show everyday, mistakenly expecting to be thanked and let off the hook by the Queen of the Courtroom. Instead, the Judge said that was part of the problem – they were watching daytime T.V and not doing anything productive. MY grandma was talking to me through Judge Judy, through the T.V. I had to get back out there. Well, I paint a picture as though I just sat on the couch all day, which was far from the case, but when in grief there’s nothing more you want to do than hide away and avoid people as much as possible. This wasn’t so much because of how I was feeling, but because of how so many people, I now realised, were unbearable. There are humans who are your people and humans who just aren’t. Grandma was my wing man, and with her gone, my tolerance levels noticeably dropped.

A woman once suggested that a care home or residential home might be suitable for grandma. Her response: “Why is it assumed that, because I am of a certain age it’d be the best thing for me, to bung me in with a bunch of old people? If I couldn’t stand these same people when I was younger, what makes you think I could stand them now? No thanks.” I was there during that “debate”, and even I thought it was an affront to grandma’s obvious and strong sense of independence, self-sufficiency and free-spiritedness. I always felt during those kinds of moments that I was living THAT scene in any movie where you eagerly await the moment when the protagonist stands their ground in some way, or manages to tame that one rogue stallion. She did – often.

I wasn’t one to comment on how people presented themselves to the world, but there was one particular time where I had somehow befriended a lady who decided to “attach” herself to me. I could understand, her being new in town and not knowing anybody else, but it was a situation I couldn’t seem to shake. CUE grandma. Up the stairs this casually dressed, make-up free lady walks into grandma’s flat one afternoon. To give a bit of perspective, I always did, and still ensure to this day that I have a face full of rouge. Bearing in mind I didn’t know this girl very well, nor had I, in the few conversations we’d had, expressed any sort of self esteem issues whatsoever, the girl lit her cigarette, and speaking as if I wasn’t there, naively commented, “Your granddaughter is so beautiful, but she wears so much makeup. She should have more self-confidence.” Before I had anytime to digest this comment, and in about 0.1 seconds, grandma’s response was, “By that same token, you then, must have too much confidence.” TOUCHÉ. Game. Set. Match. The cigarette was slowly and calmly stubbed out, the lady said goodbye, and that was the last I ever saw or heard from her. Easy as that.

MY grandma would not answer the phone or make a phone call without first applying her bright red lipstick. She would impress upon me the importance of making the best of ourselves, no matter our circumstance. This was coming from a woman who had endured tragedies, losses and hardships on what seemed like a never ending conveyor belt, so I reckoned she knew what she was talking about. “Just because you’re poor, doesn’t mean you should dress poor.”, she had said to me once, along with the importance of not just vacuuming the floor, but taking care of those edges and skirting boards. It all stuck with me. To this day I make the best of myself and you can be sure that my edges are regularly vacuumed. I can’t help but side-eye the edges of the homes I enter into and make a mental note of the state of their skirtings. I don’t know if the residents catch me clocking the joint (I have been told that I have eyes of a dairy cow, so likely quite blatant), but I can’t seem to stop.

Before I sign off, and given this is an “until we meet again’ moment, I’ll tell you about one of the last conversations we had. Grandma was sat diagonal from me in her cuddle chair, and I was sat on her red 3-seater sofa. I knew that she was dying and I knew she knew that she was dying, but it was, until that moment, unspoken. She stopped what she was doing and asks me not to be upset, but that she wouldn’t be “here” much longer. I, of course, became inconsolable and said that she was wrong and would in fact be fine for at least another twenty years. She was only 78, it was possible. From my peripheral I watched her 5ft 10”, 7-stone frame rise from her chair as though she was set to head into town for some shopping. She sat beside, put her right arm around my shoulders whilst her left arm reached across the front of me, pulling me into an embrace so tight that I wished it would never end. As brave as she’d always been in life, she told me that she would always be with me and Oliver (my then three-year-old) to watch over us both. She then went back to her chair (just to clarify, grandma was at deaths door, not me…) soaking up her tears with a fresh tissue from her sleeve. These tissues could be miraculously produced from her sleeves in an instant. It was pretty special. A woman of many skills and talents. We began to talk before I began to cry again at the thought of not having my grandma by my side, as I’d always had. She asked me to get up and met me in the middle of the lounge. We hugged whilst grandma, with all that honesty and truth she possessed, comforted ME (I was useless) by saying, “Don’t be upset, Sugar. I’ve taught you everything I can. There’s nothing more I can teach you.” That was grandma’s tactical brilliance at lovingly telling me I was a lost cause despite all her efforts. I loved that woman. She was one in a billion, and I was THAT lucky to be blessed to have known her as MY grandma, teacher, defender and bestest friend. So, having considered the odds of all that, I’m off to buy a lottery ticket.