Precious Jewels

I had always been slightly envious of my husband in that his grandmother was still alive and all my grandparents had died when I was a child. My memories of my maternal grandad, especially, were very dear to me and, although I don’t have many, the memories I do have I treasure, like small nuggets of priceless jewels. Sadly two weeks ago, my husband’s grandmother died. It was a sad time of reflection for us both, my husband for the passing of his last grandparent, and for me, a reminder of the many years lost as a grandchild. Yet being actively interested in genealogy has helped me build a fragile link to my family’s past and is a constant comforting reminder of a generation lost to me early on in life.

I remember my maternal grandparents the most as they lived only 30 minutes away from us, and religiously every Saturday we would drive over to spend the day with them at their old Victorian terraced house in Crewe. It was a 3 bedroomed, bay windowed house with a very small front garden that was edged with a low red brick wall. This wall used to have iron railings perched on top but, as with most other houses, the iron had been given up for the war effort. Their house was a revelation to me in itself, stepping through the front door into a cool dark hallway was like stepping back in time.

It was the classic layout, with the front parlour, which nobody ever went into except for funerals, weddings and at Christmas. There was heavy dark oak furniture; a gilt mirror hanging on the picture rail and sepia portraits of Great Uncle John and Great Auntie Alice hung balanced either side of the chimney breast. Heavy dark brown curtaining framed the bay window with an aspidistra in full maturity sitting in an upright jardinière in the middle. All around was a faint musty smell as it was unused. The back room was where life was lived, a cosy room with an ever lit open fire in the hearth; two comfy armchairs either side (Grandad always in the right hand side one, Grandma in the left); a kitchen table with four chairs and a glass china display cabinet that showed off all of Grandad’s knick knacks brought home from Belgium, Holland and France whilst he was in the army during and after the First World War.

Grandad was a sergeant in the Royal Lancashire’s during WW1 and, although injured in action when shot in the ear, he carried on and served for many years after the war before retiring to become a manager of the local Co-op (a job far more prestigious in those days). His injuries left him deaf in one ear and I can still remember his booming voice to this day, as he could never gauge how loud he was, and our subsequent shouting in reply to him.

In the summer on our visits, Grandad always took us to Alexander Park in Crewe, to feed the ducks and play on the swings. As indeed Grandma and Grandad had also done when my mother was a child.

Teatime was always the same. In the summer it was tinned salmon sandwiches, with tinned fruit and Carnation for pudding. The smell on opening a tin of salmon still, to this day, reminds me of Grandma’s back kitchen

This was a small dark room with free standing cupboards and a table tightly squeezed in the middle, none of your fitted units like today’s kitchens. In the winter we would have what I always excitedly thought of as a treat; fish and chips, still in the paper and on a plate, with bread and butter piled high on another plate. We ate it sitting round the fire, watching the football results on the television. I smile now as I can recall the groans from Grandad when Crewe Alexandra lost, yet again.

Occasionally we would stay over, something I vaguely recall as not being much fun. Grandma and Grandad would move to the middle bedroom, which was just big enough to squeeze in a double bed, a wardrobe and a dressing table, which I remember as being laid out with one of those dressing table sets in glass. There was a brush and comb tray, a ring holder and a powder puff jar with lid. On the tray was a brush set with hand mirror, encased with a pale blue glass design on the backs. The only other thing on the dressing table was a bottle of the ever present 4711 perfume that Grandma always wore unless it was a special occasion, then it was some strong lavender stuff she kept hidden in the depths of her clip shut handbag, which she always carried rather regally on her arm, as if she had the Crown Jewels buried deep within.

The back bedroom, originally quite large, had been halved in size just after the war to make way for a bathroom. As I recall it was a black and white affair, sort of art deco in style, with a sliding plastic door to the landing that had no lock. Grandad, an excellent singer and member of the church choir would always belt out some hymn when he went into the bathroom, whether it was to warn others of his occupation or whether it was just a sign of his contentedness, I don’t know, but that was just Grandad.

My brother used to sleep in the now very small back bedroom, mostly taken over by junk. I used to share the huge front bedroom with Mum and Dad. The massive (to me as a small child) bed was piled high with bedding and a dusky pink, silky eiderdown. It was like Mount Everest to me and was very slippery to try to climb onto. I hated sharing with my parents as it meant I had to be quiet and behave, very difficult for a toddler perched on two chairs made into a makeshift bed. Apart from that my memories of the house in Crewe were, on the whole, very good ones.

The house, as was quite usual, only had a small back garden, mostly taken up by the outside loo (somewhere I avoided at all costs due to spiders and the cold) and the coal shed. There was a small narrow oblong lawn edged with dark grey slate bricks and borders with winter Snowdrops and later on Lily of the Valley. At the bottom of the garden was a tall wooden gate which opened onto a huge playing field where I can remember playing cricket with my brother and grandad. Most of the time I spent running for what seemed like miles after the ball, while Grandad taught my brother how to bat properly.

When we stayed over on a Saturday this meant church on a Sunday at the parish church where Grandad was a lay reader and also in the choir. This was the church where Grandma and Grandad were married, my mum was christened and also married and where I too was christened. Later on, sadly, it was where Grandad’s funeral was held. On a happier note it was also where Mum and Dad held a celebration for their 50th wedding anniversary.

On Sundays, Grandad always wore a smart three piece suit, adorned with his favourite watch chain and fob (now treasured by my brother), and always a hat. Grandad loved his hats. Summer time saw the Panama hat out and in winter a trilby or, when driving the car, a flat cap would be produced. Grandma would always wear a two piece skirt suit, hat, gloves and again the regal handbag, just like the Queen Mother used to carry, sensible flat shoes, and because Grandma was very small, a pair of stockings which always creased and wrinkled round her ankles 5 minutes after she put them on.

Grandma, in comparison to Grandad, always seemed quite strict. Whether this was because of my own mother’s memories of her which she related to me or my own perception of her I am not sure, but whenever I recall Grandma I conjure up a picture of a tight-lipped lady who I never seem to remember smiling, one who I must always obey and be quiet around. Grandad on the other hand conjures up a different picture of laughter and games and sitting on his knee, listening to wild and adventurous stories of his time in the army, of being cuddled and carried on his shoulders which made me feel like I could touch the sky, Grandad being quite tall.

Grandad sadly died in 1973 of leukaemia when he was 77. I would have only been 10 years old at the time. Grandma died four years later. I can not remember much about his illness except for some sort of anger at the hospital at the time for some sort of slip up that may have resulted in Grandad’s rapid decline.

I don’t remember subsequent years except for the one when Grandma died. Mum, being the only child, had to see to their house; the packing up of all their possessions and selling the furniture. She took my brother and me round once and asked us to pick out a couple of ornaments or knick knacks for ourselves to keep to remind us of our grandparents. I chose a china pair of bookends, blue and white Delft-like figures of a boy and girl, sort of Dutch in dress, which I still have to this day. I doubt they are worth much in money but are priceless to me none the less.

realise that most of my memories of my grandparents, rather than recollections of events, are more snapshots of time, scenic memories of places rather than actions and words. Those in themselves are just as important to me as they help shape my fascination with my past and my interest in genealogy. It’s not the amount of time spent with my grandparents that mattered but the memories I do have, no matter how small, that I can take with me through life as a reminder of who I am and where I come from.

It’s not the time spent on this earth but what we do with it that shapes our memories, and no matter how little of that time was spent with my grandparents I still have a wealth of memories to fondly look back on and treasure.

Jennifer Eccles

© Jennifer Eccles 2007