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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
Extraordinary creatures, grandmothers. I don’t know whether you have some of these – most people start off with about two – or whether you had some in the past, but I’m sure you will have noticed that they are quite remarkable in unexpected ways.
Perhaps you are one, in which case you’ll find it a bit odd that I’m writing about you, but do bear with me.
I had two myself, and for the most part they were lovely. They were also curiously quirky, and these were qualities I did not necessarily find in my parents, so I shall have to see whether the characteristics develop over time.
My grandmothers were born in the same year – I don’t think it’s something that anyone planned; how could they? – and the world was obviously a very different place in 1911. Motorcars had just started appearing on city streets; little canvas-covered flying machines were buzzing here and there but not very far; the largest moving object ever built by man was taking shape in Belfast and would be called Titanic; the wealthiest families in big cities were having electric lights fitted in their homes; and Europe was a multicolored hodgepodge of little countries that didn’t trust each other very much.
Some of these things, as we’ve learned, turned out rather badly for all concerned, and when I look back on everything that my grandmothers witnessed in their lifetimes spanning the 20th century, I marvel that they survived at all.
Both witnessed two world wars that decimated generations; both spent most of their formative years in frightening uncertainty over what might become of them or of the world as they knew it. It’s something we might have trouble understanding today, certainly something we’d hesitate to ask about. Nonetheless, both my grandmothers prevailed against all odds and were in their fifties when I was born.
I’m now a bit older than they were when I was born, and honestly I have to say that their character is something of the past. They couldn’t be that way today, as modern grandparents have grown up in my generation, born after the last world war and witnessing the dawn of the computer age, the jet age, the Civil Rights movement, cellphones, microwave ovens and Teletubbies.
Neither of my grandmothers ever learned to drive and neither ever owned a microwave. They both lived until the end of the 1990s.
My English grandmother only cooked food by boiling it, was fond of poodles, and was either colorblind or had shockingly bad taste, as she knitted or crocheted everything in her little house in the most horrific shades of green and purple and brown and pink. It was so overbearing that sleeping under a bedcover in her guest room gave me nightmares that Elton John had been sick on me.
She was a diminutive but full-figured woman, if that’s a polite way to say she was granny-shaped, and she made tut-tut noises about things that meant the same to her, like the weather, Ted Heath or news of a bus crash. The shed in her garden smelled of creosote and was inhabited by the largest spider I had ever seen in my life. Even the poodle was afraid of it.
My German grandmother was tall among her peers but seemed to collapse in on herself as the years went by. Her hair remained a curious chestnut color far beyond natural expectations, and she often wore hats that she had rescued from the British occupation covered in odd bits of fur or rare bird feathers and quite silly-shaped (the hats, I mean; not the British). Among her most peculiar beliefs was that the streets were overrun by homeless orphans and waifs, and if she found a discarded toy anywhere in the house she would promise to throw it out for the beggars.
Coming home from a Sunday afternoon walk, I found a plastic cat lying in the middle of the road and knew immediately that my grandmother had launched it from the balcony.
My grandmothers were remarkable women in their time and beyond. They set examples of staunch persistence and they were delightfully eccentric in just the right measure. Strangely, they only met on a half dozen occasions and never spoke each other’s language. Both kept special cushions on the back of the sofa that you weren’t allowed to sit on or squish.
They were women of a different and far harder time.
Perhaps they always are.