Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Dear Grandma

Dear Grandma,

Two days ago your family and friends gathered to wave their final goodbye to you. To share memories; to laugh, to smile, to cry. To cry both because you were gone but also because, really, you'd been gone for a while. They were tears of sadness. Tears of pain. But also, in some ways, tears of relief. For the last 22 years, it's like I had two different grandma's: twins, who at some point, I can't quite pin-point when, swapped places so that, while you appeared to still be the person I once knew, you were also, in many ways, someone entirely new. On Saturday, as I admired the photos of your life, I saw the Grandma that existed even before the one I first knew. The 'Glam-ma' of my mum's childhood; the intrepid explorer and the woman who someone at your funeral described as always having dreamed of creating a family...the woman who did exactly that.

Glam-ma and Grandpa

A family Girl
In the photos of your youth, your beauty and happiness radiate from you like the sunflowers I grew up admiring from your bedroom window. You stand holding my mum, your first, the start of a future where family is everywhere you look. You lie on a beach, Grandpa's arms around you, modelling a Bikini and showing off that famous tan that appears to run through the family genes, just escaping me. In every photo, your hair glowing a dark red, far from the thin grey curls I, and your other grandchildren, are more familiar with. You were a strong woman, a tough woman  who knew what she wanted and would stop at nothing to get it. You fought for Grandpa from when you were 17 and stayed by his side until the day he had to leave you just over 2 years ago. As someone mentioned the other day, you had your bad days, your low times and your relationship wasn't the straightest of roads. But whose is? Everyone who spoke about you as we said our goodbye's spoke repeatedly of the same theme. A theme that is passing down the generations and will always continue to do so. Every friend who passes through our lives is treated as family and family is, and always will be, a most important friend.

The tan and body that skipped my genetics

Forever Holidaying

Anyone walking into your home would instantly realise how important family was to you. Wall to wall, door to door, room to room, photos, and even the occasional portrait on display. A beautiful blend of faces, friends and family, old and new. Photo albums everywhere. Poems and cards. Children's hand-writing, drawings lining every surface. In more recent years, an ever-growing collection of photo postcards dotted around from grand-children wanting to share with you their lives. Cards that you always insisted on keeping out on display for a certain period of time before they could be entered into your expanding collection of albums kept solely for homing these family communications. Although I didn't send you many myself, I loved coming to visit and sitting down to look through the albums and the latest photos and news from my cousins. Particularly those from your oldest grandchild, Tilly, who provided you with weekly updates on your rapidly growing great-grandchildren. Those cards can now be passed down - a diary-equivalent for Penny and Jo, Birdy and Mo, of a childhood filled with the love of a family that you set in motion.

You, Grandpa and your 4 children...
...and 15 Grandchildren
When I think back on my own childhood days in your beautiful bungalow, my memories are not quite the same as those of the other grandchildren I found. While recent weeks have been filled with shared email communications regarding the range of cooking-related memories many of the older cousins have of staying at yours, mine are foggy in that regard. Instead, my memories stray elsewhere: to the many hours I spent sitting on the (what felt at the time to be) incredibly high chair in your kitchen, talking to you while you...well that's where I go foggy...I can't actually remember specifically what you may have been doing...but I remember the chair, and sitting, and us talking. You, smiling. I think of the sneaky treats you always gave me - the 'Grandpa Bob' biscuits in a tin on the counter and the choc-ices in the freezer. I remember that my days with you would often be spent entirely dedicated to watching your vast collection of VHS's, lying on the sofa with you next to me: videos I never had or watched at home but instead were my special Grandma treats: The Worst Witch, Land Before Time, Bananas in Pyjamas, and the first time you introduced me to GiGi. When breaking from a film marathon, I would play with the dolls - the china dolls and Lily Dolls sitting on your sofa, dressing and undressing them. Sometimes, I would colour: going to the cupboard at the back of the room, pulling out all the puzzle books and picture books and your vast collection of pens. Now I think about it...perhaps this is where my obsession with colouring, clearly evident to all who know me today, began.

Each evening, before bed, you would set up the table ready for breakfast. Knives, forks and spoons, a box of cocoa pops or one of those Kellogs variety packs, alongside a packet of pain au chocolat. We would go to the little twin room, whether I was alone or with Felix, and snuggle into bed. The cupboard between us would be opened and out would come the story-books. Thinking now, I vaguely recall a story involving a rat...or perhaps a mouse...I won't, and can't ruin that book for you, but I know it was a good'un. We would settle down for sleep, safe in the knowledge that you were just down the hall, the corridor of hot air balloons hanging from the ceiling. Each morning, if I woke before you (and I normally did) I could go to the kitchen and have my breakfast, because there it was. Ready for me. I'd sit and I'd eat and wait to hear the gentle sound of your footfall coming along the corridor, back under the balloons and up the few stairs, your head appearing over the wall.

Christmas 1996 - Me and You
Sitting here now, trying to bring to mind the meals that you cooked, I picture roast chicken - which I am told you used to serve with Yorkshire Puddings...I'm still shocked by this revelation. I picture shepherds..or was it cottage? pie. I picture bananas and custard. Otherwise my mind is blank. Perhaps I have a very poor memory or perhaps, when your attitude towards food and cooking changed, my mind placed all of those experiences in a box with the key safely hidden for a day in the future when something happens to unlock them.

I do, however, recall one specific meal. A meal we had out in a restaurant: you, me, Grandpa and I believe Chloe. We were eating Chinese. I don't recall the reason for such an occasion  but the memory is vivid. It was the summer holidays and I'd been suffering from severe anxiety. Some form of Hypochondria it seemed. I felt constantly overwhelmed and anxious, on the verge of tears, or in tears with the symptoms of my anxiety leading to panic that I was ill or having a heart attack...I wasn't in the best place. I was approximately 12 years old. I remember you talking to me before we left the house, asking if I still wanted to go out. Reassuring me that we didn't need to if I wasn't up for it. I wanted to. I was determined. So we did. At the restaurant I had a meltdown. A panic attack. Don't ask me why. I remember you and grandpa driving me home and staying with me until mum and dad could get home. Me lying on their bed and you stroking my head and telling me I'd be OK. I remember being so disappointed with myself that, for a reason I couldn't describe or explain, I was missing out on staying with you, snuggled up in a twin bed, before waking up to cocoa pops.

These were years when you still left the house. Where you let Grandpa drive you both - all be it, quite badly - out to dinner, or to your children's houses for Sunday lunches and parties. 

Forever a Glam-ma

So that was the first Grandma. The first half of my memories. I couldn't tell you how old I was then or what age I was when you changed direction. All I know is that at some point you did. At some point, although you'd still join Grandpa in the car, when you got to our house, you'd take a seat on the drawing-room sofa, be brought 'your' drink - 'gin and mixed' or the 'Ruth special' - and stay there for the duration of your visit. While the rest of us ate, you'd be brought a plate consisting of a single carrot, one potato and a thin strip of whatever meat was on offer that day in the Russell household. As we started on desert, a plate of half a carrot, half a roast potato and probably most of the meat, would be taken back to the kitchen. Another drink - "more ice" - and perhaps a ginger biscuit might be consumed over the afternoon. At family gatherings, you'd find a seat and family and friends would come to you, perching and answering your questions. You'd smile at the people around you and laugh when something funny was said. You'd hug your grandchildren close and tell of us "you're my favourite".

When you were given a toy version
of the family dog from mummy's childhood
You even made it to Tilly's Wedding
Gradually, the visits lessened and so did the parties away from the Bungalow. grandpa became ill and the sofa-perching conversations took place in your home, always that little bit too warm with the television on that little bit too loud. The fridge was increasingly empty...or at least empty of nutritious ingredients for cooking a full meal. Microwave meals for Grandpa filled the spaces once filled with the Waitrose shop. A drawer became dedicated to chocolate biscuits so that, were visitors to get peckish, they could have a cuppa and a sweet snack. Doctors orders then introduced bottles and bottles of nutri-shake things...strawberry flavoured replacements for a roast-chicken and yorkshire pudding (I'm still not over that, can you tell?) dinner.

At first, on arrival, you would greet us at the door to the living room, opening it up and welcoming us in. As the months went on, we would let ourselves in, greeting a momentarily surprised you watching Pointless on the telly. Sometimes you'd be dressed but increasingly, your nighties and dressing gowns were the outfit of choice (I mean, in all honesty, that would be my outfit of choice all the time if I was able to stay at home and welcome people into my home - Pyjama parties all day everyday, right?). We'd catch up on life, answering the important questions - Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend? Then lapse into silence as we worked on answering Chris Tarrent's questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? While food may have taken a back seat, cups of tea and packets of biscuits were always just a kitchen visit away. Meanwhile you would make sure your glass was always refilled, occasionally sipping your liquid meals.

Any health professional looking at your daily diet would declare you a miracle. A scientific confusion. Living off largely ice, alcohol and a few calories of strawberry flavoured pink drink. Yet you kept going. While Grandpa's body gradually gave up on him, yours kept fighting.

Still Smiling
In January 2016, the love of your life, the man you had been with since you were younger than I am now, passed away. Your home changed. The man your life and family was built on and around was no longer there and it's like your body decided it couldn't take it. Your heart and your health weakened. Yet, even after all that, you kept going. In hospital, I would visit with mum, sitting on the end of your bed, answering your questions as always, and helping search for that one pair of shoes that you're sure came with you, and you're certain should be in the cupboard by your bedside. No matter how long it was between visits, you would greet me with a smile, remembering impressive amounts of information about where my life was at. With 15 grandchildren to keep track of, I think that's pretty impressive. I'm not saying you were always 100% or that you didn't sometimes confuse which grandchild was living where, studying what or dating who, but since I am unable to tell you what I did yesterday, I'd say you did a pretty good job...

Back home you went, and visits continued. Now, however, your bedroom was where you hosted from. Lying back in your hospital bed, with carers in and out, you were physically weaker, but emotionally and mentally still there. I'm not going to lie and say those visits were easy. They weren't. Not for me, anyway. I found myself struggling to think what to say. Feeling too young and alive to share my world with you - a world filled with possibility while yours consisted of a moving hospital bed, some nutrition shakes and the Daily Mail...

Smiling even in a Hospital bed...
You, Me, Chloe, Tom and Mad 

Yet clearly, something about the world you lived in was keeping you going. Regardless that you were living off barely 200 calories a day, you just kept going. It became a real life game of 'The Boy Who
Cried Wolf': no matter what your body did or how it should have been responding to the life you were leading, you kept on going. Each time there was a moment when briefly the family would worry, you'd bounce back as if to declare "only joking!".

Two weeks and three days ago I almost didn't come and visit. Mum called up the stairs inviting me to join her on her drive and I said no. Anxiety kicked in, feeling unable to change the schedule I had so neatly set myself to work that morning. Yet as I sat there for the following few minutes, the guilt kicked in. That side of me I share so strongly with mum brought the butterflies back in their hoards as I imagined how bad I would feel if I stayed behind and, God forbid, I didn't get another chance. Pulse racing as I thought about Grandma's smile when she sees me - when she sees any of her grandchildren. Mind whirring as I remind myself that I have time to work later...So I went.

Together mum and I drove to your safe, cosy, beautiful countryside cabin and entered your room. For over an hour, we sat and we chatted. I talked with you about the birds and the squirrels, and the beauty of the sunflowers blooming in the fields. I left your room and took photos, finally changing the background on my phone from the Christmas Trees that remained from all those months ago. I
remember thinking how much I loved visiting you and how, if there's one place to be when you're body is aging and beginning to say goodbye, it's that room with that view. As I left that afternoon, I couldn't quite reach past your side table to plant a kiss or two on your cheeks, so I blew one from afar and said I loved you. The kisses could be saved for next time. There's always a next time.

The most beautiful view I know
Three days later, as I sat eating lunch at home, the phone rang. A message for mum to say that the time had come to say goodbye. After a morning of phone calls back and forth between your children, and the continued confidence from all three that this was just another one of your wolf cries and you'd be bouncing back by tomorrow. As in the story, the final call was a real one. In this tale, however, luckily, your children knew that ignoring any warning was not an option. So, you lay there, not quite there, in your hospital bed. I was told the doors were open, that one-in-a-million view filling your vision. Around you, stood and sat your three daughters and eldest grandchild. As you moved out of this world, reaching like the sunflowers for the sky, surrounding you was the legacy you left behind. Family. Not just your children but Tilly, the first-born of your second-born, who during your last few years has brought into the world the next generation. You left behind a life-time of family: of children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. A lifetime of marriage, of cooking and welcoming people into your home.

You and Pandora
You leave behind a hole. A hole only a grandparent can provide. Of 15 grandchildren and 10 grandparents, you were the final one. I never really knew those on dad's side so when I think of grandparents, it's you and grandpa that I think of. A pair that were never perfect, that had their bumps along the road of life, but who left behind the greatest gift of all. Family.



Time to say goodbye,

Miss you and Love you, forever and always,


  1. Beautiful, thinking of you Steph xx

  2. Lovely tribute from my special daughter to my much missed mother. It captures her very well.