My nan died this week, aged 93. It’ll be odd at the next family gathering not having the family matriarch there.
She was a feminist before the term was coined, her philosophy was that ‘any woman worth her salt can do anything she puts her mind to’. She left school at 14 and started working for Cadbury‘s, who were a Quaker benevolent employer who insisted their child employees do a day’s schooling a week (all paid for by Cadbury’s). They also had a grant system whereby employees could apply for funds to further their education; my Nan and her younger sister, Beryl, applied for funds to cycle round Europe. “Who with?” they were asked. “Just us”, they replied and were granted £10 to travel Germany and Austria by bicycle, with backpacks. The passport is dated 1936 (it’s signed by Anthony Eden), and the sisters had a great time (refusing to Heil Hitler, however) and returned safely to the UK just before the War broke out.
In 1940 she joined the Women’s Land Army (as most of the men were fighting, but the country still needed feeding) and learned to drive a tractor and milk cows. She and Stan were married in 1944 just after D-day. She didn’t return to work at Cadbury’s (although it was a very enlightened employer, married women were not allowed to work there: they should be at home.)
My mum was born on the first Sunday of peace in 1945, then in 1948 they moved into the house where my uncle and aunt were born, where my grandfather died (after his cancer was diagnosed as terminal, my Nan took him home and nursed him herself) and Nan lived the rest of her life.
She worked as a nurse at Rubery Hill Asylum (as mental hospitals were known). Wine-making was a favourite pastime. As a boy, I was often sent down to Whitfields the greengrocers in the village to collect some mouldy oranges to be made into wine. At some point in in the 80s, there was the Great Demi-john Explosion which resulted in a colourful stain in the kitchen ceiling. She was also active in her church, as a Guide leader in the Girl Guides and volunteered to help teach adult literacy in her area.
We lived close by, and my parents worked so my brother and I spent most of their school holidays with Nan and Grandpa. They would take us on picnics on the Old Hills, Clent or the Malverns and we’d pick blackberries.
After my grandfather died in 1980, Nan took sole responsibility for the large fruit and vegetables plot and greenhouse they’d built, producing melons, tomatoes and soft fruit. She also made regular trips to the north of Scotland to her sister’s small-holding in Inverness.
She enjoyed holidays in Italy, Turkey, Austria and Canada. Her last adventure was a trip to Australia at the age of 86 to attend my cousin’s wedding in Sydney. She’d often asked me to take her to Bangkok, but the heat and her increasing frailty meant that it was impossible, but she loved to receive gifts from places I’d visited.
As she turned 90, she was becoming frustrated with her inability to walk far, do her gardening or enjoy the activities she’d always enjoyed, although her mental faculties remained intact. While never maudlin (she was a practical, commonsense-like woman), she often said that she was tired, had done all she was going to do and was ready to die.
Her 93rd birthday party was, it turned out, her last and she was very happy that all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were able to get together. A few weeks after that, my mother called an ambulance as Nan had become breathless. As she had a problem with one of her heart valves, she was admitted to the Coronary Ward where she died peacefully.
A life that lasts 93 years, from the First World War to the computer age is hard to sum up. She didn’t dwell in the past, and didn’t become reactionary (she had unsuccessfully stood to be a Council member for the Liberal party). She was positive about technology (although she felt there were far too many cars around). She loved to try different cultures and cuisines, judged people on who they were rather than their religion or skin colour and believed in courtesy, respect, tolerance and hard work.