One day, after I’d finished sorting one of grandmother’s email problems, she announced ‘I have some good news and some bad news to tell you’. I braced myself at the prospect of being told I’d done something wrong but it turned out the news of the day wasn’t personal. The bad news was something to do with Turkey that she had just watched on television. The good news was about a charitable initiative that someone had just told her about (perhaps in an email) and she thought it sounded so lovely she wanted to share it with me. She set about relaying a detailed description of a project someone had set up where people donated their children’s old school bags before they started secondary school (or something like that) and filled them with goodies, they were then shipped over to Africa for children starting school there. I was considering mentioning the reservations some people had about this ‘shoebox appeal’ style of gift aid but she seemed so delighted by this initiative as a proof of goodness in the world that I decided to leave it. I quickly felt guilty at my own skepticism towards other people’s good will when she began to segway into a story of her own joy at receiving a similar style care parcel from America when she was a teenager in war-impoverished Germany and how that parcel had even led to her first proper ‘flirtation’ with my grandfather (if you can call it that by today’s standards).
My 14 year old grandparents were on a type of camping trip with school and were playing what sounded like a precursor to ‘spin the bottle’, where each person puts an item that belongs to them in the middle anonymously then takes it in turns to select an item at random from the centre. You are then given a dare to do to the person who’s item you have picked up. As she told me this story, her eyes lit up like a teenager who was giddily confiding something deliciously private to her closest circle of friends. She put her finger to her lips and smiled coyly, raising her shoulders up. I was not to twist this story or pass it on as gossip as it was a very dear memory to her (and she hugged her arms around herself, rotating from side to side with her eyes closed and a big bashful smile, as if blissfully hugging the memory into herself). The story goes, if I remember it rightly, that the item she picked out was my grandfather’s green sock and she was dared to…(giggling pause whilst she wondered if the story was too rude to tell me)…pull out my grandfathers first facial hair! Whilst she had the sock though, she noticed it had a big hole in it and she offered to help darn it for him. When she got out the small sewing kit she had received in her care package from the Americans, she realized that the green wool inside was exactly the same colour and thickness as the sock. ‘These things are fate’ grandmother informed me gravely, with the face she uses when imparting important wisdom before smiling again “I can still see his face as he lifted up the sock and inspected it, trying to see where I had mended it”, she laughed. “He is so much older now but he still makes that face”, she tries to act it out and I realise I know the face too. It’s the face my grandfather uses when reading the writing on something small, glasses lifted, eyes squinting, brow furrowed as he focusses, then as he comes away, he releases his eyebrows, raising them high and making a pouting expression with his lips. I like the idea that such simple and ingrained body choreography can link a person to their former and futures selves and I wonder which defining features I will bring with me into my (hopefully) old age, what will make my grandchildren laugh at old videos and say “oo, that’s the face you always make”?
Recently grandmother and I started reading Heidi together to fill the evening entertainment void left after the end of the euro cup. I was reading her some to entertain her whilst she ironed the priest’s robes in preparations for my uncle’s wedding, when I saw her spray the robes with what looked to me like a can of hairspray. Curious, I asked what she was spraying the clothes with. “Oh my dear, this is for starching your clothes”. I said I thought you wanted to wear the starch out of your clothes not put more in. “Waa, you don’t know how to starch your clothes?”, grandmother seemed agast, as she often does, at my lack of basic haus frau knowledge. Grandmother told me of the days before starch came in aerosol cans, when she’d buy it in a block, dissolve it in hot water then dab it onto clothes before ironing. I asked how she had acquired such expert knowledge and she explained that ironing had been what her mother did for a living. As someone who’s idea of ironing is to spread a crinkled shirt out on the carpet and sit on it in the vain hope that that will somehow make it flat enough to be socially acceptable, the idea of someone training to be a professional ‘ironer’ seemed ridiculous to me. I was told stories of stiff, starched collars separate from the shirt, of heavy irons that needed to be warmed manually and took strong arms to wield, of complex ceremonial garments that required skillfully placed creases and I gradually began to understand. Grandmother explained how her mother had wanted to be a seamstress but couldn’t get an apprenticeship, then she wanted to be a hairdresser, but there wasn’t a space for her to study that either, so she trained in professional ironing, the only apprenticeship available to her. As a generation and culture taught to chase dreams, the idea of accepting a fate as a professional ironer sounded a bit tragic to me but at the same time made me painfully aware of my own spoilt perspective.
As grandmother described the small flat her parents had lived in after the war, I realized I knew the house and was able to picture it from a visit to ‘Oma and Opa’ when I was a child. I remember feasting on an extensive range of Kinder chocolate my sister and I were presented with at dinner, then listening to my great grandparents play their mandolin and accordion together to serenade us. I had such a great time (mainly on account of all the chocolate) that I remember kissing Oma repeatedly as we left in excessive gratitude for our chocolately feast and she laughed that she’d now have enough kisses to last her a lifetime. It was the last time I ever saw them so hopefully the kisses did last! As grandmother continued the nostalgia trip by producing a photo album for me to look through, she lamented that I was the only one who had time to be fed all her years of accumulated thoughts and experiences (I know this is not technically true, other’s have tried to elicit stories from her but she requires a lot of silence and time to tell her tales and most people who actually have lives don’t really have this time spare), then joked ‘I hope you have a good memory’. She doesn’t know I’m keeping notes!