Grandma the Formidable

In 2011, two weeks before Christmas, my last surviving grandparent died, my paternal grandmother. It is an odd feeling to realise you are a generation up. I have posted many times on Twitter about the huge impression both my grandmothers made upon me, for very different reasons, when I was growing up. They were both very different but massive influences on me and I think if you asked my parents they would tell you they can see both of them in my personality. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say my second novel is dedicated to them both; there is a lot you can learn as a nascent homosexual from an Irish woman and Yorkshire-woman fighting your corner, believe me.

Today, June 25th, is the anniversary of my Grandma Myers’ birth. I do love to post on Twitter about her numerous exploits – including running away with a postman (she came back), threatening to murder my grandfather on a gameshow, and terrorising her neighbours. But she was also a keen writer – birthday cards were full of her own verses – and something of a dreamer. When she died in 2011, I knew her funeral would be quite empty – it was right before Christmas, the day before my own birthday in fact, and the weather was terrible. Plus, your reward for living so long is that many of your potential mourners go before you. I’d been to a few off-the-peg funerals by then and had always hated the bland, generalised niceties the well-meaning officiant mould trot out. I had hated meekly listening to my Irish nana’s service years earlier, and refused to let this powerhouse go into the great unknown without some kind of recognition. I believe there were a few objections behind the scenes, but I sat and wrote a eulogy and, without showing it to anyone first, walked up to the pulpit and gave it. It was, looking at it now for the first time in over seven years, a masterclass in diplomacy because there was absolute scandal beneath the surface  but I hope I did her justice.

And here it is. Happy birthday, Grandma, you nightmare.

“I’m only going to talk for a short while. It doesn’t pay to go on and on at these kind of things and Grandma wouldn’t thank me for overstaying my welcome. It might seem odd that there is little to say about a lady who lived for 85 years, (“I was born in 1926; they all went on strike when I was born – in protest” she would always say) but the truth is that you really had to experience Grandma first-hand to get any sense of who she was. No words read out from a piece of paper like this – no matter how sincerely meant – will really capture the essence of what Grandma was all about. Read from paper, I must, however.

A picture of Gwen’s life before her family comes together only from what we were drip-fed over the years. We were told only what she wanted us to know. The oft-repeated stories of being left on her own grandmother’s doorstep, or being tied to a table leg while her granny went shopping or, more famously, slapping a mustard wrap onto a cat’s arse, helped give us an inkling of what Gwen must have been like as a young girl. In one word: a handful. Grandma grew up tough – she’d had to be, and it’s something she never really let go of. She wasn’t ashamed of her past; it defined her, made her who she was. I think she was always grateful that it was over, though, that she’d moved on to something new, something better.

Grandma was a fairly complex character who made mistakes. You realise as you get older that your parents and grandparents are just like you, flawed people who screw up, say the wrong thing and do things they shouldn’t have done, and come to regret. Gwen was a perfect example of this and could be at times vitriolic and a force to be reckoned with – you wouldn’t want her for an enemy. Her tongue was razor-sharp to the very end, and she would seldom miss an opportunity to let someone know what she thought of them, often in public.  Just ask any of her neighbours who lived to tell the tale. Yet she was fiercely loyal to those she cared about, strong-willed, loving and an exuberant character.  She truly cared about people, liked looking after them at home and work. Her willingness to speak up for others led to her eventually being made shop steward. She was a firebrand, and said things other women didn’t say. Yet she was very highly thought of, her outspokenness made her popular.  Few would cross her, and those who did would only do it once.

Grandma was warm and affectionate and kisses were bountiful when we were children. Love was never scarce. She would defend to the death anyone in her family, no matter what. She was also very kind and exceptionally generous; she would give you anything to make you happy. She would never miss an opportunity to let her hair down. She was a man’s woman, make no mistake about it. Always happier drinking in the back room with the boys than swapping knitting patterns – although she was a fast and ferocious knitter. Being a wallflower was not what Grandma was all about. Where there was music, she had to dance. First up on the dancefloor and often cajoling an unwilling participant into joining her. The centre of any room, with all eyes upon her, was Grandma’s natural home. No spotlight too bright. Her sense of fun was infectious; she insisted upon it. She could only truly have a good time if everyone else was along side her. Killjoys would get short shrift.

Her relationship with Grandad was tempestuous to say the least, but there was never any doubt in their minds that together is where they were meant to be. The sparks would fly and tempers would fray, yes, but they did begrudgingly love each other and I am glad that Grandma is not alone any more. She seemed lost when he died, first of all rattling around in the family home and then moving out to a succession of new places. She never settled; something seemed to be missing. It’s only when one half of a couple dies that you take into account what a perfect fit they are for each other. Distractions came and went, but there was only ever Grandma for Grandad, I really believe that – no matter what each of them would say when you asked, if you dared.

Years and years ago, after Grandad had died, Grandma would become wistful and tell me that she’d “had a good life; I’ve right enjoyed myself”. She was not morose, nor morbid, but appreciative. Proud. She made a lot of controversial decisions, yes, but they were hers to make; I don’t think she made any of them lightly.

It is odd to think she is no longer somewhere out there in the world and I will miss her coarse, throaty laughter, zinging one-liners and unforgiving tongue. A true one-off. And thank goodness for that: I don’t think the world is quite ready for another Gwen. Goodbye, Grandma.”


Main image is the amazing Mollie Sugden, obviously – my grandma was very much like her, right down to the withering facial expressions and telephone voice.

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