“Take what you want,” my mother tells me, as we are sorting my grandmother’s life into boxes.
It is 2013. Winter. Late November. My breath forms faint, transient clouds in the chill of the flat. We’ve already told the gas company that it is no longer occupied and they've cut off the supply.
“We’ll bring a heater if we come again,” my mother says, and I hope that we’ll be done today, and won’t be returning to this shell.
My grandmother is alive, but she can no longer live here. We have tried, for as long as we can, in as many ways as we can, but the time has come, and she can no longer live here. Her flat will be sold; she’s not coming home.
It's a small, one-bedroomed property, which my grandmother has lived in for nearly ten years. Before that she lived in the next county, in the house I had lived with her, my grandfather, and my mother from six months old, through to the end of primary school. As age started to state its intentions for my grandmother, moving closer to family seemed the best way to support her independence.
In the corner of the lounge is a heavy polished mahogany sideboard. My grandparents owned this cupboard since as far back as I can remember, perhaps even before I was born, and if I could keep this, if I had anywhere to house it, I would. Not because I like the design or need the storage space, but because of its sentimental value. It has always been there, a physical embodiment of that old phrase “a part of the furniture”. It was in the corner of the lounge in my grandmother's former home, and its position here almost mirrors that.
When my grandfather was still alive the left hand drawer of the sideboard was his. Although I don't remember ever being told not to look inside, I never once touched that drawer or its contents. It was mysterious to the point of mythical. All I knew was that when my grandfather needed something, anything, it would duly be produced from that drawer. A screwdriver, a magnifying glass, matches, super glue, a map. Anything. It was all in there. I didn't need any of those anythings, they were mostly the kind of things that would be labelled “keep out of the reach of children”, and although the drawer was well within my reach, they may as well have been locked away. Over the twenty years since my grandfather’s death, the use of the drawer has remained confined to tools and knick-knacks, as though sacred for this purpose. I still have an underlying reluctance to open the drawer, despite neither of my grandparents being present or aware.
Conversely, the right hand drawer has always been my grandmother's, but has always been open to all. It is sectioned into three compartments, and contains things that once fascinated my young mind. There is a felt needle-case that my mother made as a child, her initials hand stitched on the front. My grandmother has kept it all these years, and inside, tucked neatly, are rows of needles and pins. Next to that, a smooth wooden mushroom. To the younger version of me, it was a toy, but to my grandmother it was a tool for darning socks. Clothes were always repaired rather than replaced. We would “make do and mend”; that was my grandmother's way.
The middle section of the drawer contains an address book, filled with the names of family and friends. I flick through and see the names of my great aunt, who reached her centenary before her death, her daughter, taken by cancer last year, my grandmother's best friend, now six years deceased. All my former addresses and phone numbers are logged, the previous being struck through when I have updated my grandmother with my moves. It is a history book as much as an address book.
My grandmother has faithfully sent Christmas cards to those listed in the book, and I wonder if she has sent cards to those people who are no longer with us. The number of cards she receives has lessened, but there are still names I recognise, family close and distant, friends met on holidays, ex-neighbours. I make a mental note to contact everyone to let them know that my grandmother will be moving. She is at the stage where she might, some days, remember who they are. She might recognise their names, or when we talk about shared memories, she might recall, nod and smile. This stage is frustrating for all of us, but it is not as bad as what is yet to come. There will come a time, only three years from now, when I will stand beside my grandmother and she will not know who I am. There will be a vague flicker that she is aware that I am someone that she should know, but that is all. And soon after, that will also be gone.
I put the address book into my bag and continue to search the drawer.
In the right-hand compartment, a heavy oak cribbage board, and two packs of playing cards, each wrapped with an elastic band to stop any of the deck from wandering. Blue-backed, shiny, but well used. With these are a bag of coins, pennies and ha’pennies, jangling tarnished bronze. If you asked my grandmother her thoughts on gambling, she would give you a disapproving glance and shake the thoughts away. However, it was she who taught the primary school-aged me a range of card games, which we played for the pennies and ha’pennies in the coin bag. Not exactly high stakes Hold ‘Em at the Bellagio. I never learnt cribbage, although the board fascinated me; an artifact of something unknown. We played gin rummy, Newmarket, “Chase the Ace”, all of which involved the staking of the bronze coins, and all of which she invariably let me win.
At the end of the game, the coins would be returned to the bag, and the bag returned to the sideboard drawer. A place for everything, and everything in its place. It had been a while since I had sat with my grandmother and played cards, though she had later taught my children the same games. The cards, and the pennies, had remained.
When I was eight years old I awoke one morning feeling decidedly wrong. My mother, of course, didn't believe me, and told me to get up, get ready, get to school. I would not, and indeed could not. There was a savage ache in my abdomen that turned out to be quite serious, and, as it turned out, quite contagious. I would not be getting up and going to school for the next month.
During that month it was my grandmother who looked after me. At first I was too ill to appreciate the novelty of not having to go to school. By the end of the third week I was sick but bored. My grandmother sat by me each day, brought me food and drinks, and helped me to occupy my time. We played cards so frequently that I'm sure she must have tired of it long before I did. She never let it show. She was patient and treated her patient kindly, always. Now, I remember to always be patient with her. When communication between us is difficult, which now it sadly is, I remember what was given to me, and I repay the kindness. I would love to take the cards and the pennies, and to invite my grandmother to a game when I visit her, but games that once seemed simple pastimes would now be far too complex. Reteaching her to play the games she once taught me would be more stressful for her than therapeutic.
The cards go into a box for the charity shop, and I continue my task.
After two months of disuse, the bathroom has a damp, unpleasant aroma. It has been left spotless, of course, the flannel neatly folded next to the oval translucent bar of soap on the edge of the sink. The familiar face of the toilet dolly smiles benevolently from her place on the small, high windowsill, still guarding the spare roll of pink quilted paper. She appears unfazed by our presence, by my grandmother’s absence. Sadly, I lift her from her vantage point and unceremoniously toss her into the bin bag. Her orange crocheted dress lifts up, covering her face, shielding her eyes. The flannel, the soap, an old red toothbrush and its white plastic tub holder, join Toilet Roll Lady in the trash.
There was a time when my grandmother used to knit and crochet. She would make cardigans and jumpers, and all manner of dolls and teddy bears, which would be filled with soft cotton clouds. The toys were mainly for charity, the knitwear for family. Toilet Roll Lady’s dress was not produced by my grandmother. I hadn't seen her make anything for years, not since she was knitting cardigans for my children. Although they might have been seen as old-fashioned, outdated, I had dressed them in the clothes she had made, and was proud to do so. I hadn't kept any of the jumpers she had made me over the years, and now I wished I had. She would never knit for me again.
Above the sink is a wooden cabinet, old-fashioned pine with a spotlessly clean mirror. On the single shelf within are two items: a hairbrush and a pot of face cream. I would call it moisturiser, but to my grandmother it has always been face cream. Back in the 1980s, it was a common birthday and Christmas gift for my grandmother. A pink box with black decor, and the face of a mysterious lady. It seemed exotic to me, then. Not just a lotion, but a potion. A magical substance that my grandmother rubbed into her skin every morning, that kept her looking, always, youthful and beautiful. Still now, of course, she is beautiful, if somewhat less youthful. Having turned ninety earlier in the year, this was to be expected, irregardless of how much moisturiser was used.
The cream is still in its box, though I can see that over the years its name has changed and the box now has a more modern, cleaner design. I remember it as it was throughout my childhood. I take it from the cabinet and draw the bottle from its coffret. No longer a glass container, somewhere along the updating process there has been a switch to plastic for the bottle. The elegant glass, the sophisticated packaging, both gone now, changed into something else. I flip the lid, squeeze the bottle lightly and coax out a little of the pink lotion. (“Beauty fluid” the box tries to tell me)
The air that has sat atop the liquid in the bottle since it was last used is expelled first, light, floral, and creamy. The powdery-rose scent spreads from the bottle into the bathroom, like a conjured genie.
An image flashes into my mind of the dressing table in my grandmother’s former house, my grandmother was sitting on a velvet-topped stool, gently applying the pink cream to her face. A younger, much younger, version of me stood in the doorway, observing the ritual. She sang quietly to herself, as I watched, and listened. The tune, one that I had heard her sing often.
“Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone”
I flip the bottle closed, carefully tuck it back into its box and put it in my bag. I'll take it with me next time I visit my grandmother. Applying the face cream had been an everyday ritual for her. Perhaps, even within the fog of memory loss she misses it. A part of me wonders whether the scent will be able to evoke memories in her as it has in me, whether it will stir something that words and sights cannot.
In the bedroom my mother sorts through what remains of my grandmother's clothes. We had packed the essentials but the home she has moved into has little storage space. Not only that, but we have found already that the laundry practises are somewhat lacking and. My grandmother has been seen in socks, jumpers, and even shoes that we know not to be hers. She does not know, and the staff seem unconcerned. I try to make a point about how her clothes are part of her identity, a part of her personality, and I am greeted with hums and nods, but no actions. We send off for name tags, embroidered green monograms, the same kind she once stitched into my school uniforms.
Propped against the side of the wardrobe is my grandmother’s walking pole. Not a walking stick. Not the kind of support you would use because you have become old and find it more difficult to get from home to the shops, to get around the flat, to o keep you upright and mobile. Not that. The telescopic aluminium pole had been a Christmas present from my mother to my grandmother around five years ago. Bright blue and still shiny, despite daily use, it is a serious piece of kit for someone who loves to walk. Walking is what defines my grandmother.
She would walk to clear her head if something was troubling her. She would walk to the market to browse, to shop, to pass the time. She would walk as her primary method of transportation, never having learnt to drive. Rather than take a bus the four miles into the town centre, she would walk. Not the direct route, along the road, past stone brick houses and dark abandoned mills, but the scenic route, down the hill to the canal path, past goats and horses, locks and barges. If you're going to walk you might as well see something on the way. This walking continued right up until she moved into her new home.
It's more difficult now than it was. Partly because of age and of reduced mobility. She has an actual walking stick now, a smooth wooden cane that she doesn't always need but is glad to have when she does need it. Now that she lives elsewhere, in a care home, the opportunity she gets to walk is more limited. My mother sat with the care team and tried to explain how important walking is to my grandmother; how taking walking away from her is like taking food or water or oxygen; how essential walking is to her very being. Somewhere it is documented that the care team will support my grandmother to continue to walk but they remind us that she needs to be supervised, that there isn't always a staff member available to provide that one to one care, and we vow to walk with her as often as we can. Every time we visit she goes for her shoes and coat and we walk.
I don't know it yet, but five years into the future my cousin will bring me, and the rest of my large extended family, to tears with a eulogy at my grandmother's funeral, which describes this love of walking. How she would put on her shoes and coat every day and walk. Somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. How she appreciated the flowers and the trees and being outdoors. My mother will share her own story of how my grandmother took part in a sponsored walk, making her way six miles to and from the start and ending of the set path in addition to the actual twelve mile event. We will all smile and nod and say, “Yes. That was her. She loved to walk.”
The love of walking been a double-edge sword of late. My grandmother has started to wander at nighttime, leaving the house without a coat in the early hours of the morning and walking, walking, walking. We know this because she has been found by the police, and brought home. My mother has received phone calls at the time of the morning when the only phone calls come from police or hospitals, and fortunately so far it has only been police. Last time she was found, a mile or so along the main road that leads from her current home over to the town where she used to live. She was looking for my grandfather, she told the police. She wanted to go home to him.
This was one of the contributing factors to her need to live somewhere more secure. What nourishes us destroys us.
There’s only the kitchen left to clear, and I imagine it will be straightforward and non-sentimental. The cupboards contain glasses and plates, cookware and cutlery, and we start to box them up for charity.
On the worktop there is a microwave oven, which used to belong to my mother. When she replaced hers, she passed this on to my grandmother, and spent several months trying to show her how to use it. My grandmother is not one for technology though. She uses the hob and the oven, whisks by hand rather than using an electric device, prefers to use a kettle on the gas ring rather than the plug-in variety. This has, unfortunately, recently led to problems. My grandmother used her kettle in the gas hob, not recalling that the kettle is a plastic, plug-in model. There's a patch of hardened residue on the hob that we can’t clean off, and we have replaced the electric kettle with a stove top model. Things like this, the occasional mishaps, the mistakes and accidents, the wanderings, all of these things have added up to an inescapable total: my grandmother is no longer able to live here.
In the storage space behind the sink, tucked away at the back, behind wire racks, baking trays, a spring-form cake tin and a Pyrex glass measuring jug, I finally find something that I know I want to take home with me.
I know as soon as I see it. I know because of the pounding in my chest and the way my lips raise into an involuntary smile.
It's a very ordinary looking earthenware bowl. Thirty centimetres tall, shaped something like a flowerpot, and glazed a hearty, rich brown. The glaze on the inside of the bowl is cracked and there a fracture running down the side of its wall. My grandmother, at some point, has ventured into my grandfather’s drawer and found some kind of magical glue that is holding the bowl together. I'm not sure if it would be safe to use in an oven any more. The wrinkles and damage and wear and tear of age have taken their toll.
This bowl, I remember from my childhood. It is a multi-purpose superbowl. My grandmother cooked everything from scratch; traditional meals, meat and two vegetables, stews, cakes, puddings. I would come home from school at lunchtime, preferring the ten minute walk back to home cooking over whatever the canteen could offer. “Sons and Daughters” would be on the television, and the aroma of lamb, gravy, and vegetables would drift in from the kitchen as I sat and waited. My grandmother would produce the brown bowl from the oven, brimming with lamb, cooked on the bone and stewed with vegetables and plump, delicious dumplings.
If the bowl hadn't been used for the main course, there was every likelihood that it would be presented at dessert, filled with deep yellow egg custard, speckled with nutmeg, sweet and indulgent, or creamy, rich rice pudding. I'd ask for the brown, crispy skin from the pudding and it always felt like a prize when I received it.
Sundays would always bring some kind of roast dinner. There would be potatoes, rolled in flour and roasted in lard. Cabbage, carrots, fresh from my grandmother's walks to the market. More potatoes, boiled and mashed. In the afternoon, from some secret stash, leftover potatoes would be produced and crafted into small round heavenly cakes. Soft and fluffy on the inside, smooth and firm on the outside. These were my grandmother's signature dish. Nothing fancy, not anything that you would find in a restaurant, but my God they were a delight. The potato would be mixed and moulded in the brown bowl, combined with flour, butter, and love. There must have been other ingredients, because I had tried, repeatedly, to reconstruct these patties in my own kitchen, and they never tasted anywhere near as good.
It was my grandmother who taught me how to cook. When she was busying away in the kitchen, I would be allowed to sit and watch, and eventually attempt. We would listen to her cassette tapes on her little black stereo.
“Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone”
She would sing along, every time.
As she chopped vegetables, added meat and stock and kneaded flour and suet into dumplings, I watched and copied. Her with the brown bowl, me with a smaller Pyrex dish, practising, not quite perfecting. My dish contained just enough food for me, a child size bowl with a child sized portion, but it also contained a lot more. It was filled with pride, with enthusiasm, with love. Sharing that time in the kitchen with my grandmother, learning from her, singing with her, sharing experiences, when I had looked at the bowl, all of that surfaced. I take the bowl from the cupboard as though I have found the Holy Grail.
There's a warmth that fills me, the rush of my memories, studying the artifacts of our lives. With this is a sadness. A deep, cold sadness. My grandmother will never make potato cakes for me again. So many of the things we have done that I have taken for granted, we will never do again. Although my grandmother is alive as we pack up her life into boxes, things have changed beyond the point of any return. Leaving behind this home means leaving behind much more. Despite what is lost, it is also true that there is much that I will keep. Not only in the physical form of the bowl that I will cherish (and try and fail to blend potato cakes in), but also in what I do, and who I am because of my grandmother. This is what I will keep.