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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Sex and the married women

Granny’s mother in later life might seem more solemn, not to say proper, in the previous piece about her than she was really was. Let’s just balance the story a little. She confessed to Granny once that after travelling in Europe she left her suitcase unpacked under the bed for a whole year. It was not a matter of her not being as much a slut at heart as her daughter (slut in the English sense Deirdre…) just that she’d trained herself not to be.

Her two best friends were also far from proper. One was a theatrical agent of sorts, a ugly/ attractive divorcee with a wicked sense of humour, an exceedingly louche laugh and all the signs of a far from conventional lifestyle to which Granny alas was never privy. (Had her mother lived longer she might have learned much more.) The other best friend was the local doctor’s wife, an exceedingly naughty lady, famous for her many affairs, who laughed at everything and everyone, very often in the company of Granny’s mother. The last communication Granny herself had with her, a year or two before she died – she must have been at least 80 at the time - went as follows: ‘My granddaughter H. just asked me if she should sleep with her boyfriend. I told her I’d lost my virginity at fifteen and it never did me any harm.’ Whatever you may think of this advice it gives the flavour of her pretty well.. (The granddaughter not surprisingly adored her.) Granny is eternally sorry that as a result of her father’s fleeing their home village after her mother died, she did not get many chances to pick the old friend’s brains. Had she had done so more over the years she thinks she might have learned a lot about both her parents, some of it possibly surprising. She knows for a fact that both old friends could and did laugh in the nicest way sometimes at Granny’s father. It might have been easier for Granny if she could have learned much earlier to do the same.

These naughty ladies she sees as her mother’s alter egos; containing all of her reigned-in unspent selves. She doubts if she was theirs. She does know that both of them loved her as she loved them; though not as much as she loved Granny’s father, stuffy as he sometimes was. What Granny has to try and understand is why her formerly wild child mother got to be so restrained so very proper in later life (too rigorously so for her own good as housewife and wife and mother) in her behaviour at least - she was not always so proper in what she said. Unlike Granny’s father who went on about the importance of A Sense of Humour (very English this) but didn’t have much of one, her sense of humour was wicked. She was also not afraid of saying exactly what she thought to anyone on earth; many of whom loved her for it; when they were not terrified -she did not suffer fools gladly. She also bewildered them by refusing to join in the social activities of her village contemporaries. (Join the W.I. Me? Not on your nelly.) Even so it was always a mystery to Granny why people should be so nervous of her anything but scary mother. But they were.

Part of her mother's rigour, she suspects, stemmed from her perfectionism. This revealed itself very early. She did not utter a word until she was three, then spoke in complete and perfect sentences. (‘You expect me to talk babytalk? NO WAY. I’ll speak only when I can do it properly. Like you.’) So her marriage and wifedom and parenthood too had to be as perfect as she could make them. Having grown up without a mother from the age of 3, having been passed round successions of unwilling relatives until the good aunt took her and elder sister on, she was not going to endanger her own family in some way. On top of that, she had a genuinely deep religious faith at which Granny marvels to this day, unable to share it. It was not like her Dad’s mostly dutiful churchgoing a matter of accepted and comforting social convention. It was the real thing. Granny has the most painful – perhaps wonderful - certainly touching -memory of her mother saying in the voice of a child the last time she saw her, ‘Now I’ll see Mummy again’. How much Granny still hopes that she was right. But rather fears she wasn’t.

Keeping sex strictly for marriage she saw as a significant religious duty. She believed in it for herself at least as absolutely as she believed in her marriage vows; even while accepting - and at times enjoying - the lapses of her friends. For them she was quite unshockable, if not for her children, whose lapses cut her to the heart. Partly perhaps, remembering her own uncomfortable childhood, she did not want to see as a result yet another generation of unhappy children.

She was not, thank God, as religious as her elder sister. This sister became an Anglican nun, and when she had to leave her convent after getting TB, felt she could only atone for breaking her religious vows by converting to Roman Catholicism; ‘perverting’ Granny’s mother said, who was not above laughing at all this despite her own faith. (The same aunt cut Granny out of her will when her first marriage broke up ‘for breaking her marriage vows.’ This is true.)

In various respects, Granny’s mother was not the least prudish. Whereas Granny’s dad, paled, fled, if caught in anything as decent as his underpants, she used to undress in front of her daughters without a thought. One of the places they could talk to her most easily was while she was lying unconcernedly in her morning bath, even scratching herself in the most intimate way sometimes. And Granny knows for a fact (don’t ask how she knows) that her parents had an extremely active and satisfactory sex life for all that they were very ‘modern’ - for then - in opting for twin beds pushed close together rather than the thoroughly Victorian matrimonial double.

Talk about sex to her daughters though she could not. She could not even explain the use of Tampax when they happened on it in her knicker drawer. And though she took them down the garden, in turn, to explain menstruation (oh the horror! that can’t possibly happen to me!) the only sexual instruction she felt able to give them was via a book thrust surreptitiously at each of them, which explained a lot about rabbits but not much about themselves. With the result that Granny who dropped biology long before the very virginal and embarrassed biology teacher blushingly got that far, received most of her sexual instruction – not always accurate – from better informed and sometimes malicious schoolfriends. (Because of the twin beds, Granny assumed for quite a while thereafter that her parents did this unthinkable thing in the bath. Where else would they ever be naked together?)

Years later, when brought face to face with the fact that this – and probably the other -twin daughter though by no means married were also by no means virginal (by then the twins were 22 – really!) Granny’s ma prevailed on her great friend, Granny’s former headmistress, to invite Granny to tea to discuss it. A formidable, ferociously witty, extremely eccentric, woman, the headmistress loved her mother, partly because unlike all the other parents of her pupils, she had never been the least intimidated by her. (First ever conversation, at their first ever interview: HM to new parent, Granny's ma. ‘You’re late.’ NP to HM. ‘So would you be late if you’d had to do all the things I’ve had to do this morning.’ The HM laughed. …The NP laughed. After that the friendship blossomed. As it also blossomed between her and Granny once she had left school: the headmistress had few pupils who went to university. Had she not bullied Granny’s parents on her behalf, Granny would not have got there either. Continuing friendship was therefore an easy option.)

The invitation to tea availed Granny’s mother little.

Headmistress to much younger friend but supposedly erring ex-pupil,Granny, tortoiseshell cigarette holder poised significantly in her right hand. ‘I hear you’ve been sleeping with your boyfriend.’

G to HM. (Startled. She has not been forewarned.) ‘Er. Yes. I have.’

HM to G. ‘Well I hope it’s alright, darling.’

G to HM. ‘Yes. It’s lovely.’

HM puts her cigarette holder to mouth, takes a puff; takes it out again and smiles at granny -or maybe laughs at her a little. HM to G. ‘Is it? Good. I wouldn’t know, darling. I never did it.’

This conversation reported back made her mother laugh at least. And a few months later Granny and the boyfriend got married so that was alright. Despite the decision to do it in haste – partly so as not to get in the way of her father’s very important (to him) golfing tournament– despite the suspicious way in which the wedding guests consequently eyed Granny’s belly, her first child – Beloved Daughter – arrived, respectably, nearly 18 months later. (By which time alas her mother was dead. But that’s another, much sadder story.)


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