In Remberance

Recent weeks I have been woken by the mating howls of the urban foxes taking up residence in my neighbourhood.  This morning the blare of my phone woke me up with a start, frantically I padded around in the darkness dreading getting up.  In my half sleep I was confused though – it wasn’t my alarm but my mother was calling.

I knew what this was already, for my mother to call it only means one thing.   Someone had passed away, my Nan.

She was my last living grandparent, this may have caused some consternation in the family as I recall when my other grandmother died and how upset my mother was, she had stronger feelings for her own mother in law than her own mum so found it unfair in a way that we lost her sooner.

My Nan’s neighbour had noticed her curtains open this morning and popped round to find her in her armchair seemingly having passed away in her sleep.   She had outlived and passed away more peacefully than others who people had cared more for.

My mother had practically been raised by her own Nan, it appears she felt her own mother had not shown as much love for her growing up as she ought to.    Her husband, my grandfather (I have his ears apparently) has passed away before I was born, I think this only filled my mother with resentment as my Nan leaned on her for support insisting my mother share a bedroom with her for company for many years after his death.

Alcohol then took its toll and that was a factor I recall growing up, her smelling of drink (I have her penchant for booze) and often urine, when our smelly Nan came to visit we would sometimes put a towel down on the sofa and we would resist having to kiss her.   At the time it was more or less a game running from having to kiss her, but I wonder how this made her feel?   My eldest niece was the same to me when she was young and now my newer niece is too, Uncle Jon with the scratchy stubble, smelling of stale cigarette smoke.

I have only seen my Nan a couple of times since I moved to London 14 years ago, once on a visit, another at my sister’s wedding when she looked frail having fallen down recently.  At the wedding I showed her photos of my life in London, my home and my cat Lily, I told her she was named after her.  My Nan’s name was Rose Lily, or Lily Rose, how do I not know which way round it is?   My cat Lily was not actually named after her, she was already named that when I picked her up from the rescue centre, but I like to think it made my Nan happy to think I named my cat after her.  Unless she absolutely hated cats then she was planning to write me out of her will the minute she got home.

I had written to her twice in the time I moved away, one were just photos of the first snow I had ever seen in London on the Regents Canal, the other time was after she was burgled 3 times in 3 months, and she never listened to anyone’s advice.  I wrote a strong letter telling her to ask my mother to help her get a lock for her door, £9,000 in cash had been stolen that she had stuffed into handbags throughout her bedroom.   The culprits would return each time seemingly surprised at the ease of her letting them in, one tale was about a guinea pig lost in her garden, she let them in to look for it.

We never really had much to talk about, even when I was young she would often just watch you playing, we used to joke about how it freaked us out, but maybe she just didn’t know how to act, having maybe not known how to with her own daughter aswell.  Not all parents do, it is why I always say parenting is the hardest job in the world and I admire anyone who does it properly, to bring up a decent human being, it’s not easy, not everyone knows what to do.

My mother had a brother, stillborn when the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, maybe this played on my Nan for so long, maybe she had no one to turn to in her grief, maybe we never really understood her.

I haven’t grown up in a house full of love, but that doesn’t make it bad, maybe it was being reserved or just not knowing how to interact.  I recall when my sister went to university the awkward hugs from my parents, now it is commonplace when they meet up, but they have had to be guided through the process, not least by the intervention of my brother-in-law, from a very close family and having suffered the terrible loss of his father in his youth, he found it odd, almost ridiculous that we were so distant to each other.  There is no doubting the impact he has had in helping us connect better.   It’s all my mother ever wanted and her happiness when with her clan is clear to see, she just didn’t know how to do it herself, so I can see why the distance remained between her and her own mother with no one making any strides to better the relationship.

It is strange to mourn the death of someone I didn’t really know, after the news this morning, I got up and showered and left for work, picked up the free paper, popped in my earplugs and went about my normal route to work.   Then a song came on from an old album by indie shoegazing band Ride, called Vapour Trail,  I don’t know what it was but I became very choked up on the packed train.   It’s a sad love song in a way, but something affected me, surprising me.

So I have been racking my brains remembering back to when I did see more of her, we did joke when she came to us about running from smelly Nan, then I remembered happier memories.

My Nan had a mangy white poodle, it was blind in one eye and half blind in the other, it would urinate up against her leg.   We used to lay on the floor looking under its body as its penis would be hanging out all the time which we found hilarious.

I remember her coal fire, we never had a real fire at home, I remember the smells of the coals burning, the fire guard permanently in place and me pulling it away slightly so I could throw things onto the flames and watch them ignite.

I remember the clutter in the cupboard under the stairs, I found a tin drum and hung it round my neck and marched around the block banging away at the drum as net curtains twitched in anger at the noise until eventually I was dragged back in and the drum stripped from me.

I remember the outside disused toilet, dripping in cobwebs and daring each other to go inside.  The huge garden used for growing vegetables, I hated vegetables throughout childhood except my Nan’s runner beans, they were a revelation, and remain my favourite vegetable today, but they never taste as good as the ones from my Nan’s garden.   I remember her cooking roast dinners, the crackling on the pork, deliciously salty and crunchy.

We sat in a formal dining room frozen in time, the ticking of a clock would fill the void and the hourly chimes would ring through the house, I remember the knitted teapot cosy that we would wear on our heads.

My grandfathers portrait hung on the wall, I recognised my ears.   I recognised him when I would wander upstairs and see his ghost on the landing.  I had never met him before that moment as he had died before my birth.

I remember sneaking into my Nan’s bedroom its quilted bright pink sheet on one bed and the other bed where my mum must have slept.   I remember handbags everywhere, under the bed, busting out of the wardrobe, I didn’t know then they must have been stuffed with cash.

I remember the two men who lodged with her, Toby and Tony, who were they?  One sat in silence in the dining room armchair all day, the other one would be chatty and be drinking whiskey all day.

I remember being taken to the pub, we would run around playing, my parents had never taken us to a pub, nicotine stained walls, a dartboard, a roaring fire.  Bars can’t replicate the atmosphere of a pub, the memories it evokes.

A dusty, silent house apart from the chimes of that clock occasionally filled with the noise of 3 children running amok, the old man sat in the dining room, my Nan watching us from her armchair.   I hope she was happy in those times, not regretful for being distant to her daughter growing up and unable to interact with us more.   I hope it was enough for her.

My cat Lily was sat on the landing waiting for me as I dressed for work this morning, I sat on the stairs and kissed her head saying goodbye to her namesake.

Leave a comment


  1. I am terribly sorry for your loss, Joe. Thank you for sharing your vivid memories with us. Your words really touched me this morning. Thinking of you.

    • Thanks Darla, I was shocked to be so affected after not really knowing her, at least for many years.

      I just thought there also goes £10 I would have been sent for my birthday next week, it’ll probably be the same time as her funeral. Enjoy that last laugh Nan 🙂

  2. It’s difficult to know how to remember those we’ve lost. I’m glad you found some details, some of those old jokes that shed a little light on her.

  3. I am sorry for your loss, but I think your Nan would have liked this tribute to her.

    • Thanks Sandy, I regret not seeing her very often, lives take different paths I guess, and I am terrible at keeping in touch with my older life in a way. Good to think back and remember brighter moments though.

  4. Sorry for your loss Joe – I’m having runner beans with my dinner tonight so will raise my glass to your Nan when eating them.

  5. This is beautifully written, Joe. Sounds like despite the lack of contact, you have some great memories of her.

  6. This was moving and sad and funny. I am all torn up. So many people are not easily able to show affection. I grew up in a huggy family, and I forget how lucky that makes me. And when someone dies and you feel like maybe you should feel worse about it than you do. Oh man, you really brought out some emotions.

    • Bottle those emotions up right now! 🙂

      It’s been interesting to write and see my reaction to her death. I always thought I was cool with death, life moves on etc. It does but I never thought I would pause for thought before I wrote this blog, I never did before on previous losses. This is why I love blogging and it enriches my life continuously to have such great support from fellow bloggers.

  7. Despite the distance, you have a very clear view of Nan and seem to have gripped what her life meant to you, even if it left you with some questions. Condolences, Joe. You have paid her a wonderful tribute.

    • Thanks Red, I am looking forward to going home to see the old house, maybe we’ll all learn a bit more about her from sorting through her things and getting reacquainted.

  8. Juliana

     /  January 12, 2013

    I am sorry for your loss. Families are always complicated. I never realised this until I was an adult. I married into a family much worse than my own. Take care.

  9. I’m sorry, Joe. The thing about losing someone you’ve had a complicated relationship with is that you never know quite what to expect of your own emotions. Thank you for a very vivid, very honest tribute.

    P.S. What day next week is your birthday? Mine is Sunday.

  10. Oh Joe Joe, this touched my heart so tenderly. It is funny how the passing of our grands can affect us. Your memories are beautiful even if it is not the Norman Rockwell sort. It is the grandson Joe’s sort and that is the best kind! Much love my dear, keep the memories alive for the happiness to pour in.

  11. A beautiful tribute.

    You may not had made regular contact with your nan, but she clearly made an impact on your life. That’s certainly worth holding on to.

  12. So sorry you lost your last grandparent, but it seems you do have some fond memories of her. Keep those memories close to your heart.

  13. Sorry for your loss, but a good tribute … and hopefully writing it helped you. Personally, this line hit me: I haven’t grown up in a house full of love, but that doesn’t make it bad, maybe it was being reserved or just not knowing how to interact.

    • Thanks Frank, I wasn’t expecting to be so affected, that in itself is a daft feeling as we are related after all but I didn’t know her as an adult myself.

      The house of love bit is because we all get on but I do see other families who show it more obviously, ours was almost implied. We were bought up well and made me who I am, it may not have worked for other people but I don’t know any other upbringing.

  14. I can’t think of anything to say, really, seems a bit trite of me. Truly fantastic piece. Losing people is profoundly difficult, but you seem to have a good handle on things.

    • Thank you Dr. I didn’t know her as an adult which is bad but now am hearing lots about her past, much of it quite salacious. What a shame, she could have been a lot of fun to hang out with.

  15. That’s the thing about life though, isn’t it – there’s always so much we have to do (work and so on) that there’s less time for other people. There’s a balance to be struck, obviously, but it’s often hard to strike it.

    I hope you don’t beat yourself up too much about it, though.

    PS: like Gillian McKeith, I’m sadly not a real medical Dr. I know, shocking, isn’t it?

    • It always puzzled me why she wanted people to eat her way if looking like Worzel Gummidge as she does is the end result

  16. This is a really poignant tribute, Joe. My condolences. Most of us have mixed memories of at least one relative, I guess. I’ve been surprised by my reaction to the death of certain relatives like that myself. I hope the snow doesn’t impede the funeral this weekend.

    • Thank you 🙂 The snow in London all disappeared leaving some dodgy ice which my friend broke their leg on, but as I speak it has now started coming down again. Where the burial is will be in the South Downs near my hometown, so could be quite a nice setting, an old churchyard surrounded by hills, I’m going to take my camera and take photos of the surroundings, hope no one there thinks that is weird! I can wear my Libstrong wristband 😀


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