Some of the elderly clients I encountered on the care job have jogged my memories about the last years of my long-gone grandmother, Violet Godier.
She is the bride at the centre of this photo. (Which I love. What a bunch of twisted, roguish, possibly inbred Cockneys I descend from!).
I mentioned her back in Blog 160, and her view that UFOs could regularly be seen over Hackney Marshes.
Today, I dipped into a parallel realm, by talking to her as I sat in a beautifully warm bath. I did so on the basis that if spirits can live on, past death, then they may be hanging out in dimensions right next to us. I thanked her for all the love and generosity she dished out to me as a child, youth and young man. And praised the tenacity and courage she showed in her life, notably after the death of her husband Harold when my dad was in only his second year, and also in her last decade. Told her that I missed her.
It somehow felt like she heard. I wonder.
Blighted by dementia, Dad now remembers very little about his mum’s later years and demise. I told him the other day how, when the tower block she inhabited in Homerton, East London became intimidating and dangerous for its residents in the late 1980s, Maureen and I cajoled a Chelmsford councillor into helping Violet gain a place in a warden-run housing complex just a few miles from us.
Having lived in the East End all her life, Nanny took a while to fit in. She would often phone us for advice, or just a reassuring chat. She hesitated in the effort to find new friends. But would walk half a mile to the local supermarket. Or come across on the bus to visit us. Gradually she acclimatised.
Then, tragically, just a few weeks after our first child Lauren was born, Violet broke her hip. As happens with many elderly hip-breakers, she never fully recovered; never regained full mobility. There were later complications with her bowels. Unable to get out, her mind began to deteriorate.
I had forgotten, but Maureen remembers Violet calling us in the middle of the night with shopping lists. Sometimes, I would finish the next day’s milk round, get the shopping and call round. More than once, I found her stranded in her hallway, leaning on her walking frame, with excrement plastered to her legs. I would clean her as best I could; and find her new clothes.
To keep her spirits buoyed, I would try and visit with Lauren (whose favourite part of the visit was banging hard on the piano keys in the large downstairs events room), but Violet’s growing incontinence started to make it difficult to take a young child. Eventually, her condition meant that she had to live in a care home over at Brentwood, near my parents.
Her condition slowly worsened. As Alzheimers set in, she did not recognise her grandchildren, or really comprehend that she had any. The dementia may have been a blessing: I hope that it took the edge off the utter loneliness that she would have felt in a place full of strangers. I think her stay lasted around 4 years, until her death in 1994. I try not to think about it.
Memories. When we were just kids, my brother Neil and I would make an impolite beeline for her shopping bag whenever she came out to Essex. There would be bars of Galaxy chocolate, and other sweets. Followed by coins for our money-boxes. She called us “a right pair of little monkeys”. When she babysat, we loved to run around naked before bed, chancing that she would laugh, rather than chastise.
Violet liked to take Neil and I on the bus to Southend, when she visited. There was a boat trip from the pier, where she gashed her shin stepping aboard. Typically, she didn’t fuss. 15 or so years later, as we stood together on the platform at Stratford tube station, she saw two lads picking on a younger boy and marched across, flourishing her umbrella at the bullies like a medieval sword.
Boxing Day visits to Hackney stay in my head. The roaring coal fire, lifting the kitchen and dining room temperatures to sometimes unbearable heights. Contrasting with the cold back rooms and hallway. Uncle Arthur, her ‘lodger’/lover. Roast potatoes and chicken, dripping with fat, and quickly followed by dessert in amounts so vast that fullness was guaranteed. Dad falling asleep in the armchair. The outside toilet, traversed across a dark yard, lit by a small battery lamp. Her sisters Lil and Flo lived upstairs. Dad’s cousin Terry and his wife Maureen next door. Old-fashioned family arrangements.
Violet was chirpy, outspoken, good-natured and brave. He sing-song East London voice remains in my head.
There is voluminous evidence concerning near-death experiences (NDEs). Enough to let me at least consider that this life may not be all. If – as so many NDEs testify – there is a tunnel, with light at the far end, I’ve often felt she will be waiting for me.