The most incongruous things spark off memories of people. In films, a piece of sappy music, a sunset or the smell of a flower stop the picture-perfect heroes in their tracks. None of the things that set me off down memory lane are particularly poetic, and they would be a total flop in a film scenario. Imagine Julia Roberts on screen, dramatically wiping back a tear and saying “I’m sorry, darling…… my emotions got the better of me. The sight of that slug reminded me of when I negotiated with my grandmother to bring my plastic ice cream tub of pet slugs into the house for the night”.
A limited number of simple things can catapult me headfirst into my childhood each and every time I see them. I think about Grandpop when I see an unusual postage stamp or a globe. My Grandad when I see a chocolate easter egg. My Aunty Laura (-my maternal grandmother, who refused to be called grand-anything at all-) when I see ladybirds, slugs, Ryvita or melted chocolate ice cream.
I think about Grandma when I see swallows and house martins, whisky and the colour purple. I particularly think about her when I’m ironing. Halfway through one of P.F’s shirts this week, I realised with a lurching tum that Grandma would have celebrated her birthday this weekend. She would no doubt have pulled out a bottle of Vimto and a pile of baps, and whopped together her legendary sausage barm cakes. Great Grandma Barmcake – or GGB for short – positively rocked in my son’s esteem after he tasted this bread bap stuffed full of sausages, covered with whatever sauce floats your boat. Mini-Bigfoot admired her to such a point that he felt bad about asking me to unpick the Noddy sewn on the woolly hat that she had sent him for Christmas years before, so that he could continue wearing it to school at the age of six without his schoolfriends taking the mickey out of him.
I saw her every summer as a child when she got on the train and crossed Britain to see us, and I have a huge pile of memories. Memories like asking her again and again to tell me how it felt to work on a sweet factory production line and not be allowed to eat any. Like watching her iron a shirt in less time than it took Flash Gordon to get to planet Mongo. Grandma reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to me at bedtime, with her throaty smoker’s voice and comforting mancunian accent. Chatting on the back step in summer as she smoked her cigarette and sipped her small daily glass of whisky and water, whilst swallows and house martins looped and screeched through the evening sky above our heads. Seeing her carefully picking coins out of her purse for our «spends» to buy sweets at the weekend. My pride when she enthusiastically ate the breakfasts I took her in bed, only for her to admit with a chuckle – once I had grown up – that she couldn’t stand the milk and honey that I systematically put in her coffee and on her toast.
Back in 1980, St Winifred’s school choir spent a staggering 11 weeks in the charts with the ultimately cheesy « Grandma we love you ». By the time it had been N° 1 for two weeks, it was driving my mother up the wall (incidentally, I must remember to fix a date with my sister to line the kids up with their cousin and sing it to their grandmother, just to see how she reacts now that she is a grandmother). The song was force-fed to us on local radio, enchanting grandmothers nationwide – except mine, who grinned and told me I was a “daft bugger” when I sang it to her in my own off-key, off-the-wall way a good ten years later.
But one little piece of this song has now taken on a certain significance: “And one day, when you’re older, you’ll look back and say: there’s no-one quite like Grandma, she has helped us on our way”. There was certainly no-one quite like Grandma, and she’s still helping me on my way. Every time I hesitate about the right thing to do, I apply her sound philosophy on life: « Always look after number one, ‘cos no other bugger will ».
Sometimes I take a sneaky peek at the sky to see if she’s sitting on the edge of a cloud, with a whisky glass in one hand and a Silk Cut in the other. I hope so. Happy birthday, Grandma.