In a parallel universe somewhere, there’s a lady celebrating her 100th birthday, probably in a cloud of cigarette smoke, playing her guitar and not taking any crap from anybody. Amongst her gifts on this day would be pigs in every possible way shape and form.
In our universe, she was my Grandma and I have never quite got over losing her when I was 17. That was my first experience of that searing grief you feel when you lose someone you love with all your heart.
When grandmothers were being handed out, I got two of the best. They had such an influence on my life and I miss them both terribly. There are times when I can see those two very inspiring and different women in me.
Every time I make another cup of tea, there’s an echo of, Annie Souter, my kind Highland Granny and the stories she would tell. Don’t take kindness for weakness, though. She weathered some huge storms in her life and took them all in her stride.
From my Grandma, Marion Lindsay, I got the stubbornness that has so far kept me going when times were tough and forced me to stand up for myself and against injustice wherever I see it. She wouldn’t be very chuffed that she helped me become a liberal, but it’s a big part of her legacy.
Whereas my Granny was a traditional granny, grey haired, full of stories and gentleness, Grandma was a much more glamorous, tempestuous character. Others in the family had a very different experience of her but I can only really speak for my own which was a fun filled, happy, close relationship. There was hardly ever a cross word between us.
She was heavily involved in amateur dramatics, in the Florians drama group in Inverness. The first practical experience I can remember of this was when I had to run up and down the stairs so my breathless voice could be recorded to be the voice of a ghost in the Noel Coward play Blithe Spirit where Grandma was playing Madame Arcati.
She was instrumental in getting me to attend Margaret Firth’s dancing school in Inverness. At the age of four, dressed as a duck, I took part in a concert in the Little Theatre in Inverness. I liked being on stage so much that I simply refused to leave and had to be encouraged off.
Grandma was also an incredibly talented artist. I remember having to sit for hours when I was four or so while she painted me. I remember the blue dress with red and white flowers I was wearing but the painting, unfortunately, no longer exists. My parents have in their house a portrait of my father as a choir boy when he must have been around ten or eleven and a still life that she painted.
When I was very small, I spent mostly all my weekdays very happily with my Granny and many weekends with Grandma. After I went to school, I went to Grandma’s most Saturday afternoons. I don’t remember anything other than fun. I had a puppet theatre there – I particularly remember having the scenery and characters for Aladdin and we used to enact all sort of scenes. She was always very keen on getting me to write things down and use my imagination. I’ve never really been that great at that sort of creativity but she squeezed every tiny morsel of potential in that direction out of me.
Grandma was not exactly an advert for healthy living. She smoked like a chimney and to this day, I still find the smell of cigarette smoke mildly comforting, which was no doubt a factor in me taking up the habit myself when I was a teenager, an addiction which only pregnancy and motherhood would rid me of. She was a complete sun worshipper, too. I remember many happy afternoons, in her garden, watching her baste herself with factor 2 Hawaiian Tropic which is another smell that I absolutely love. There’s a photo of her, on her 60th birthday, taken at my uncle’s house in Canada where she’s looking amazing in a bikini.
She was also a complete and total devoted Thatcherite. Remember when Maggie did her “The lady’s not for turning” speech – at the same time, Grandma was involved in a production of Christopher Fry’s play “The Lady’s not for Burning.” Grandma actually rang up Downing St to ask if she could display a big cardboard cut-out of Mrs Thatcher saying “What I really meant to say was go and see “The Lady’s not for Burning.” Of course they said no, but she said they were quite tickled by the idea. She was mildly exasperated by my growing liberalism and peace-loving hippyness but she coped with good humour.
I never, ever doubted her love and pride in me. I remember the day after my Higher results came through in the Summer of 1984 a parcel arrived for me containing a beautiful ring, which I still treasure along with the heartfelt letter that accompanied it – on pig paper, of course.
She was obsessed with pigs – she had them everywhere. Cuddly pigs, pig plates, pig tea towels, pigs made of glass, metal and pottery. There were hundreds of them and that probably explains why I have a bit of a soft spot for them.
When we moved from Inverness to Wick when I was almost 12, it was devastating to no longer see her regularly. I’d speak to her on the phone and used to still go to stay with her but it was never enough. When I was 15, she developed bronchial cancer which must have been absolutely terrifying for her. She laughed it off, though, buying herself a beautiful 3 colour gold bracelet which she called her “I stopped smoking cos it gave me Cancer” bracelet. The last time I saw her was in October 1984, when we went for lunch at Eden Court Theatre in Inverness and you could tell how the disease had grimly taken control of her.
I suppose every blog posting worth its salt has to turn to food at some point, and it’s worth saying that two of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted in my life were my Grandma’s gravy and my Granny’s potato soup. Neither I nor anybody else has ever been able to replicate them exactly. I’ve had more success trying to replicate my mother’s deliciously comforting gravy, but I can’t get near the rich, savoury flavour and deep brown colour of Grandma’s.
I feel quite emotional as I write this. I was so lucky to have both my grandmothers. I just wish it had been for longer. I wish I had had them to turn to for help when I became a parent myself. To be fair, I think they’d have given me entirely contradictory advice at times, but I’d have loved to hear it.
Today is Grandma’s day, though. A century after her birth, I remember a life that took her from Wiltshire, through losing her Dad in the early days of the second world war to Germany in the immediate aftermath of the War – how I wish I had asked her more about those days – and, finally, to Inverness and a career in local government.
She was my hero.