Goodbye Elsie May

Gran was a tiny, spiky difficult lady with a grip which could crush fingers and a tongue which really hurt but she had a silky soft face and a fiercely loyal heart. She was reliable and I knew exactly where I was with her.

Everything about her life was ordered and controlled. Each day had its pattern; it was structured, filled with routines and rituals which would keep everybody safe, fed and watered. The weather forecast was her high point and if we were with her when it was on we had to be absolutely silent. She would stand hunched over in front of the television frowning, head on one side; ear almost touching the screen. One hand would be flapping at us to be even more silent while the other pinched at her hip. At the end of the broadcast she would straighten up and sigh ‘The icy bars are very close, we’ll all have to be careful.’ Then she would go around the house pulling all the curtains tightly closed, battening down the hatches with a tight smile on her face. I always felt she was disappointed if clement weather was the order of the day ‘Ah well, good drying weather’ she would mutter. If a woman presented the weather, she didn’t believe a word she said.

Every summer we would spend two delicious weeks in her little bungalow on the Isle-of- Man. I would sing for sunshine and we would trot off for long lazy days on the beach, exploring the glens or riding the steam railway. She would stay at home always working, getting everything ready for our return. We only ever managed to get her to come to the beach with us once in all those years. She coped well and even seemed to be enjoying herself until the deck chair decided to eat her and that was the end of that.

She taught me how to bake but my pastry is never as good as I remember hers. She always had cold hands while mine are invariably warm. Her crumble was patiently and gently fine textured mine is rushed and clumpy. Every time I take out the earthenware mixing bowls I inherited from her I am transported back to summer on the island and my Gran patiently explaining how to lift the crumble mix lightly and rub gently before allowing it to fall back into the bowl. I would stand on a chair with flour on my nose and in my hair squashing and squishing the mixture as if it were play dough. Whenever I use her pie flute I remember the deliciousness of her shortcrust pastry blanketing sweet apples and served steaming hot in familiar bowls drowned in bright yellow custard. I would eat until my stomach hurt and then curl up on the sofa with a book pretending not to watch Coronation Street or Crossroads.

Gran sat neat and tidy, never sprawling or lounging about. Always straight-backed, horn rimmed spectacles on the bridge of her nose, Embassy Regal cigarette in one hand, gin and tonic in the other. She could smoke a cigarette without inhaling and with such care that the ash could extend its entire length before she stubbed it out in the ash tray beside her. She would do this while standing in front of the weather forecast too and my mum would be hovering behind her ready to catch this incredible length of ash before it fell but it never did. I remember friends of mine watching her fascinated as she unknowingly performed this amazing trick, all letting out a collective sigh of admiration as she lifted it to her lips and took one tiny drag before stubbing it out in the nearest receptacle (not necessarily one designed for this use).

At Christmas and Easter she would come and spend two weeks with us and my Mum would have to find things for her to do, to keep her hands busy. She would polish silver until it gleamed and every day she would trot off to the local shop with her ‘messages’ bag to buy whatever was needed for the evening meal. On her way back she would stop off outside my school and poke a finger of fudge through the railings at me to ‘keep you going ’til tea time’. She found our house difficult as it began to fill with modern labour-saving gadgets. She had a twin tub long after the advent of automatic washing machines and treated my mother’s machine with suspicion inspecting her clothes when they re-emerged and never entrusting it with her ‘smalls’. If she did adopt a ‘new fangled idea’ you would think she had invented it herself. She was completely converted to steam ironing having been a ‘put a damp tea towel on it and press it’ woman and drove my Mum mad extolling its virtues to all who would listen.

As I grew older she gave me what my mother couldn’t as she rushed about looking after us, she gave me time. She would stay in bed until we left for school and she listened. My brother and I would take it in turns to spend time talking in the mornings before school when she was staying with us. We tried out ideas on her and formulated our personalities. She would ask awkward questions and disagree with me in a very annoying manner but she never told me to stop talking.

I wish now that I had asked her about herself rather than just talking about me. I know she went to Art College and that she was a talented water colourist but that she didn’t paint again after she had married. I know she loved walking and cycling and there is a photo of her as a young smiling beautiful woman standing next to her bike in the Lake District with a young man who is not my Grandfather but no-one now knows who he was. I suspect that the same will happen with my children and my mother, and with their children and me.

When she fell ill I was heavily pregnant with my first child. I spoke to her as she was waiting to leave for hospital, her voice was almost unrecognisable. I asked her ‘How are you doing Gran?’ normally she would’ve answered ‘Mustn’t grumble’ or ‘Fine love, how are you?’ but this time she was totally honest and replied ‘Not good, Chris, not good.’ Then she reached out across the miles and gave me my most precious gift, for the first and last time she said ‘I love you’ and I had time to tell her that I loved her too and to say goodbye.

This post is a response to Josie’s writing workshop at Sleep Is For The Weak. I chose prompt 5: Recount the story of a meeting or a parting. It is a bit of the real life story behind a piece of fiction I am working on.


Filed under Writing Workshop

20 responses to “Goodbye Elsie May

  1. Oh Chris that is so beautiful. A wonderful memoir of your lovely gran. You captured her personality so well, and your love for her. Thank you for sharing Elsie May’s story with us. xx

  2. Paula

    In tears again….it’s always the understatement that gets me! Beautiful post hon.


  3. Beautiful Chris. I’m so envious of people who knew their grandparents. She left you with such wonderful skills & memories!

  4. itsasmallworldafterallfamily

    That was beautiful. You’ve painted such a vivid picture of her and all her little idiosyncrasies that I feel I was there with you. I’m glad you got a proper goodbye. It’s so rare that we are able to do that.

    • Thank you. I feel very privileged to have said goodbye. I was very upset that, because I was heavily pregnant, I wasn’t allowed to fly over for her funeral but I knew I had had my moment with her so that made it easier. I have always felt she left the world a little space for my boy to be born into. Comforting thought!

  5. You wrote this so beautifully, I felt I knew your Gran. What a wonderful lady, and what lovely memories she has left you with.

  6. *grabs the tissues* so beautiful.

  7. Beautiful – like those that have already commented, I am wiping away the odd tear. x

  8. What a fabulous lady your gran! I am so glad you had the opportunity to tell each other you loved one another, that’s something you’ll carry with you till the end, a vivid post I really enjoyed it.

  9. EmmaR

    This is so beautiful. I can smell the sea and the apple pie! So evocative. So talented!!!!

  10. I am so late reading this, and what a treat was waiting for me.

    Just gorgeous. You capture your gran with words that are so astute and evocative, and at the same time with a love that shines through that makes your loss of her so heartbreaking.

    She sounds like she was quite a character. How proud you must be to have her as part of your heritage and your history. I bet you love to tell stories of her to your children, and I bet you tell them beautifully too x

  11. mrsljhall

    Wow that was lovely, we can learn so much from our grandparents but sadly so few of us realise it in time. I’m so happy that you had such treasured time with your nan am sure it meant as much to her as it did to you. (off to find tissues and make a cuppa now) x

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