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On becoming my grandmother

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my paternal grandparents, William and Dorothy Hillyer.  Universally known as Dolly and to me as  Grandma, she has been particularly in my thoughts because I’ve just realised I’ve morphed into her. History repeating itself, generational patterns and all that.

I was very close to Grandma, who lived on to her 92nd year by which time her cherished little granddaughter was over 40 and mother of two teenage boys. We lived with them when I was very small because my war-generation parents had nowhere to live after my father was demobbed from the RAF. Grandma looked after me (and her cantankerous old mother-in-law) as well as shopping, cooking and cleaning for the entire household of seven. No wonder she always nodded off when we “listened” to Mrs Dale’s Diary after lunch. Meanwhile my parents went out to work to try and amass enough money to get us a place of our own. When they eventually did, it was just 200 hundred yards up the road so I saw my grandparents almost every day for the rest of my childhood and adolescence. The result of all this was that Grandma and I always had a special bond – helped, I suppose, by my being the first grandchild.

Fast forward 20 years and she’s around the same age that I am now – dealing with major illness in her beloved spouse just as I am today. In their case it was throat cancer which finally killed my poor grandfather, aged 73 (My Loved One’s current age) in 1969 a few months after we were married. She coped magnificently with his illness, finding solutions to the hideous problems the disease threw at them. For a long time before he died he had a naso oesophageal tube to by-pass his trachyeostomy so that he could “eat”.  She made nourishing soups from the home grown vegetables in the garden and poured them cheerfully into him via the funnel. She was convinced that the good nourishment was helping him and with hindsight I suspect her 5 star care really did keep him going for a bit longer than might otherwise have been the case. She visited him in hospital daily when he was local and wrote him nice letters (a few of which I still have because he kept them and his papers eventually came to me) when he was in the Royal Marsden but home at weekends.

I just hope that I’m doing even a tenth as well as she did. My grandparents swore they’d never rowed in their 48 year marriage and I certainly never heard either of them utter a cross word – not even the mildest expression of irritation. I’m not remotely like her in that. I get really cross when I’ve said the same thing four (or six or ten) times and MLO still hasn’t retained it. Then I get loud, snappy and say lots of things I regret very soon afterwards. I get ratty when he doesn’t feel well enough to do what I think he should do too. Grandma would tell me off roundly if she were around to hear it. I often have her voice in my head saying “Don’t talk like that, Dear” or quoting one of her aphorisms, often Biblical or Book of Common Prayer. “In sickness and in health, Dear” she would probably say to me now.

I think I’ve got some of her practicality though. Suddenly, after sleeping flat on a single pillow for 50 years, MLO has started sleeping propped up like a Victorian gent and says that he’d like a second pillow. So I “borrowed” one temporarily from the spare bed and have now been out and bought a couple of additional ones. I’ve taken to writing down for him very clearly where I’m going and when I’ll be back when I have to go out too. I’ve sorted out his glasses and insist that he puts them in a particular place to try and minimise the number of times they get “lost”. And, like Grandma, I do my upmost to provide really healthy, nutritious food because that’s one of the few things that’s actually within my control.

I am, of course, better educated than she was. Grandma left a Dorset village school, aged 14 although she was a whizz with words puzzles and she could add a column of figures faster than I’ve ever been able too. She was blessed with a lack of imagination too but it meant that she failed to face the inevitability of where she and my grandfather were headed. That denial meant that she fell apart totally when he died although she picked up again in time and went back to work in my uncle’s business for further 15 years. She didn’t “do” retirement any more than I do. I am, however, much more of a spade-is-a-spade realist, and more knowledgeable about illness, than she was. And I have Google. Perhaps it helps, bleak as the information is.

Meanwhile I look at myself and see Grandma every day. Some of MLO’s peripheral health problems now create an awful lot of washing. I seem to put big loads out daily. The neighbours probably think I’m taking it in as side line. Bit sad really because MLO used to be family laundry monitor. Twitter folk will remember how good he was at ironing and how we used to joke about it. Now he sits and watches me ironing his shirts.

But Grandma would have loved it. Washing was her passion in life. To her dying day when I rang once or twice a week for my regular chat  she’d say almost before she’d said hello: “It’s a lovely day. Have you got your washing out, Dear?” or “What shocking weather! What have you done about your washing, Dear?  When she stayed with us, as she often did, she’d be trotting into the garden every five minutes to feel the clothes on the line. Then there’d be much folding – without my ever asking her to do it – ready for ironing. I do all that and  more now and smile as I remember her

If she were alive (she’d have been 122 this month) we could compare notes about sick husbands.


Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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