My grandma died a couple of weeks ago. She’d just turned 91, was in failing health, and died peacefully in a nursing home. There were no frenzied attempts at resuscitation, with medical professionals swarming around her bed to a discordant soundtrack of blips and bleeps from an array of lifesaving equipment. She just ate some porridge for breakfast, returned to her room, then slipped away.
Of course, regardless of my grandma’s age and poor health, it was no less shocking to actually hear the words that she’d died. I hadn’t been a particularly good grandson in my adulthood. Even though I always asked after her and passed on my love during phone conversations with my mum, I rarely saw her in her later years. Always so busy and wrapped up in my own life, 150 miles away.
The last time I saw her in the flesh was probably about five years ago, when I went to her house with my mum and dad to surprise her. I remember her tearfully clasping my hand as if I were nothing but a wispy apparition that could slip through her grasp and evaporate at any moment. Even back then, I was struck by how old she looked. Her soft downy cheeks and plump face had been replaced with a slight gauntness that momentarily threw me. Old age seems to vacuum pack everything that’s bright and beautiful about our faces, instantly making us appear smaller, frailer. Still, at that point, she still had plenty of life left in her.
After I’d been told that grandma had died, I naturally started thinking about the times I’d spent with her. And the one thing that struck me was how easily and quickly the memories came to my mind. It made me realise – to use excruciatingly wanky 21st century parlance – that some of my most treasured memories of my grandma are all saved to my desktop. They’re ever present and immediately accessible. They’re my ‘chained to a radiator’ memories.
I use this term because it’s how Terry Waite spent the first year of his captivity in Beirut in 1987: chained to a radiator in solitary confinement. He later revealed that he attempted to “keep his mind alive” during his incarceration by writing the outline of his first book in his head, as well as composing music and poetry. Similarly, Rachel Chandler, who was kidnapped with her husband by Somali pirates in 2009 and held hostage for 388 days, held on to her mind by “revisiting childhood memories and daydreaming about cherished people and places.” I think that’s what I would do. And memories of my grandma (and grandparents) would be some of the key memories I would choose.
I obviously have hundreds of special memories of my wife and son, but like the line in Wolf Alice’s Silk – “My love it kills me slowly” – thinking about them would gradually crush me. These ‘chained to a radiator’ memories need to be distant enough to lift you, but not so close that they suffocate you with longing.
My main memory of grandma is when my sister and I used to stay with her for a few days during the summer holidays. Breakfast every morning consisted of homemade marmalade on toast while we watched The New Pink Panther Show and Huckleberry Finn and his Friends on TV. Marmalade seemed like an extravagant treat at the time, which makes it sound like I was eating a luxury preserve during rationing in post-war Britain rather than 1985. It’s difficult to explain, but there’s something about those summer breakfasts at grandmas that will forever be comforting.
After breakfast, we would often head to Stanley Park in Blackpool, where my sister and I would perform little skits for grandma in the old bandstand. For some reason I used to regularly impersonate Duncan Norvelle’s ‘Chase me!’ routine, prancing around the stage in a camp, limp-wristed fashion. (All perfectly acceptable in the 80s, obviously.) Grandma used to howl with laughter – a ridiculously infectious laugh – and she continued to do so every single time we rolled out the same tired routines. I loved those days.
I also remember my grandma coming over for Christmas the first year after my grandad had died, when she opened a present from my mum and dad. Spectacularly unenthused, she held up a new nightdress and said: “Well, you can never have too many,” before placing it to one side and continuing to sip nonchalantly from her glass of sherry. I’ve actually got that on video somewhere. That was the year I bought a decommissioned broadcast TV camera because I was going to be the next Michael Moore. I managed to record our 2004 family Christmas and then never really touched it again. But that footage feels all the more important now.
There are so many memories from my other grandparents as well – some of them just fragments – that stick with me. For instance, my Grandad S (grandma’s husband) always used to fart and then smirkily blame a creaking floorboard. I also have fond memories of him taking me to my physio sessions for two months after I dislocated my knee as a teenager, when he used to sit with me while I did my exercises and recount amazing stories from the war (like the one titled: ‘The NAAFI that never was’).
There was also my Grandad T, who used to sing the Brooklyn National Anthem to my sister and me over and over again (on our request): “Spring is sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the boidie is?” That same grandad also used to let us repeatedly style his white hair into a conical shape and dig up his lovely garden, but never once complained.
And I always associate my Grandma T with the thrill of drinking watered-down Snowballs as a 7-year-old, and eating huge bowls of delicious Bonds ice cream. I visited her with my parents shortly before she died and I remember her looking at me, standing there in my garish 80s garb, saying that I looked like “something that had fallen out of a Christmas tree”.
I don’t quite know what makes these memories so special? They’re not necessarily big event memories, but they’re embedded in my brain like tiny pieces of shrapnel that are too dangerous to surgically remove. So you carry on living your life, and they’re just with you every day.
So thank you for the lovely memories, grandma. I’m sorry I didn’t visit more.