A woman remembers her grandmother’s house, which was not the stereotypical “grandma house” filled with sunlight, smiles and baking.
By Sara Kirkpatrick
When I think of my Grandmother’s house, I picture rooms waiting for someone to open the curtains, or to switch the light on.
I remember feeling nauseated as our car pulled up outside her end terrace in Yorkshire – it was about 25 miles from where we lived and I got car sick as a child. I don’t recall feelings of excitement, and not only because the journey made me ill. I didn’t look forward to going, and I know that my mum didn’t either – there was some hostility between them.
The house is where my Dad grew up. It was a fairly small, two-up two-down end terrace, and when my dad sold it after his mother Maisie’s death in the late 1990s it went for about £12,000. I don’t recall thinking of it as a small house when I visited as a child, although I do remember being glad we didn’t live in a “joined-up” house. We weren’t well off, but we lived in a rural area and our house was detached, with a garden.
When I imagine entering through the dark hallway, I remember the smells of cigarettes and instant coffee, and something else, a sort of cooking aroma, of food boiled, not roasted. The house was always a little cold; Maisie was not a fan of central heating, believing that it made you “soft”.
There were two rooms downstairs, plus a kitchen and a downstairs toilet. This had originally been an external structure but had at some point been reattached to the main building. Upstairs were two bedrooms and a family bathroom.
This could set a scene in which a frail old woman appears, leaning on a cane, but Maisie was in no way frail. She wasn’t old either – of course she seemed old to me at the time because I was a child, but she wasn’t particularly old as a grandmother. Maisie had raised six children in that house and at the time I used to visit she had 11 grandchildren, but it didn’t have that lived-in feel of shared meals and laughter.
The television would usually be on; she liked to watch the soaps. If she wasn’t watching soaps or cleaning she would likely be doing a crossword puzzle with a cigarette and a cup of coffee. In my memories, the interior of the house is shadowy. There are colours – dark sea greens, greys, brown and beige – but they are muted, as though it is January outside. I know this can’t be true, as we visited at different times of the year, and in fact the longest time I spent there was about a week during a hot summer in the 1980s.
Of the two reception rooms downstairs, the one at the front was never in use. It was a formal sitting room, saved “for best”. This meant that the other room was the main living area, too small really for the furniture that it had to contain: the television, a small sofa, two armchairs and a dining table jostled for space, and the hard dining chairs had to face a blank wall. There was one high window, and a lower one that looked out onto the small courtyard, but there were buildings all around so you couldn’t see much.
I remember there was a polystyrene seat cover attached to the downstairs toilet seat, to insulate your bottom from the icy porcelain. I thought it a bit odd because I didn’t know anyone else who had one, and now it seems incongruous, a rare concession to comfort in a home where there was otherwise very little.
When I think of that front room I feel sad. Dark furniture, a piano that we weren’t allowed to play. A record player, lid closed and only touched when dusted. Cushions arranged neatly on a firm settee, and a cabinet of crockery that I never saw used. I realise that for working class people of Maisie’s generation this wasn’t unusual, as there needed to be somewhere that visitors could go, or where an important occasion like a funeral or christening reception could be held. With six children in the house and not much money, she couldn’t risk the good stuff getting broken or dirty when it couldn’t be replaced. But she maintained this tradition long after it was necessary either culturally or financially, and I wonder why.
How much of our memory of a place is affected by our feelings towards the people who lived there or went there with us? Much I suspect, and probably more the greater the distance of years and the more additional information (real or imagined) that we add.
I know I didn’t like going to Maisie’s house. Maybe I picked up on my Mum’s animosity towards her, I don’t know, but Maisie was not a friendly, cuddly sort of grandmother (or mother, for that matter, as I subsequently learned).
I think of her as “my Dad’s mum” rather than “my grandmother”. When I was small we called her Nanna Maisie, but once I was a teenager I saw her less and less. Eventually I stopped referring to her as Nanna, maybe because I associate the word with softer feelings than I have towards her. I didn’t dread our visits, but I was always glad when we left.
About Sara Kirkpatrick
Sara Kirkpatrick is a freelance writer, based in Cambridgeshire in the UK. She is fascinated by the ways in which we seek to connect, and the little bits of evidence that we leave around us, in words and in images. Sara writes about mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues, and is currently collecting stories about women and friendship. She also writes some poetry, though it is highly likely that it will never see the light of day. Visit her blog at http://herewewere.wordpress.com
“dead flowers on wall” Yuka Mao @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
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