One Sunday, not quite two weeks ago, Granny and Beloved Son took apart a chest of drawers and loaded it, with difficulty, into her car (actually Beloved's car; a substantial vehicle, no, not a Chelsea tractor, more modest than that, bought originally to transport such things as wheelchairs, and very useful for as long as it lasts - it's getting old - when moving house). She drove the assorted drawers, the wooden frame, from Kew to the Goldhawk Road and still with the help of Beloved Son took it up two flights in the rather basic lift of her block of still mostly council flats. Then they put it together again in a room in her new flat (which is not basic at all; with its two balconies and view of sky and trees, one minute away from busy streets, it was well worth the weeks of hassle to get it; worth all the packing, unpacking of boxes, tears dropping onto her possessions the while.)
This mahogany, elegant, almost certainly eighteenth century chest of drawers holds much emotional significance. She first encountered it in the early days of her ecstatic love-affair with her first true love, her first lover, her first husband, in the days of their ridiculous youth. It stood in his little room up a flight of very narrow stairs in the house on Richmond Green lived in by his parents. He had found it ruined in a junk shop, bought it for almost nothing and lovingly done it up; stripping it, re-polishing it, replacing its handles with authentic brass ones, finally cutting it neatly, beautifully, in half, because it could not, otherwise, be manoeuvred up the attic stairs to his room. It accompanied him and Granny throughout the days of their married life and stayed with her - she was glad about this - when that marriage fell apart. To this day she is grateful for its neat division; it has spared her removal men, men with vans, whatever, as on this so recent Sunday, making it light enough for her to manage herself, with a little help.
Granny’s son had a cup of tea and left. In the afternoon, Granny filled the chest with her clothes, crying a little with grief for the boy who rescued it fifty years or more ago. It has changed very little since those early, ecstatic days. There are a few more stains on top. A brass handle fell off, years ago, got lost in one move or another. Granny being less practical herself and surrounded by less practical people has replaced it with a scarf tied in a knot. Maybe in honour of her dead ex-husband, her long ago lost love, she will one day soon trek round the street in London – Percy Street is it? – where such things are still sold and get another authentic-looking brass handle and screw it on.
The chest brings back everything she ever loved about the father of her children and loves now in memory, in her grief at his sudden death. His weird and wild sense of humour; his love of birds - if she can distinguish the song of a blackbird from a thrush, if the swoopings and shrill callings of a flight of swifts turns her heart over to this day, she owes all that to him, who communicated his passion to her. She thinks with pleasure of his love of music, a love she did share from the start; but there are still pieces he introduced her to that she associates with him. Throughout the last few weeks there has run through her head an exquisite song asking the wistful question 'Bist Du Bei Mir?' which one summer afternoon, not long after they met, he played to her in his room at Oxford. Above all, perhaps, she loved his wonderful competence at such things as restoring chests of drawers, at carpentry of any kind, at all kinds of practical matters. Though his working-class mother had run off from his printer father long before, with a mad Catholic lawyer, though the family on Richmond Green lived an anything but working-class life, he had spent a lot of time as a child round uncles who earned their living with their hands and bodies and taught him how to use his too. In the world Granny grew up in boys didn't learn carpentry or even gardening. They learned Latin and how to play cricket. In the good days of her marriage, watching her husband tackle his garden, she contrasted the easy movements of his well-trained body with the awkward way the stockbrokers, accountants, lawyers in neighbouring gardens jabbed at their soil and loved him for it all the more. As she loved too the fact that unlike her, unlike any other men she has ever met, he taught himself as a teenager to operate a sewing-machine and make dolls’ clothes for his little sisters, without any of the ridiculous sense prevailing round the boys Granny knew before him that such activities would be shaming, to be left wholly to women.
The marriage couldn't last, despite the early passion, despite the children they had together that both Granny and their father loved. Granny and her husband were much too different to remain together permanently; as the years went on they made each other very unhappy. It was Granny, though, always the noisy one, the one who in her misery sometimes publicly disgraced herself, decided it could not go on; it was she who decided to leave, knowing as she did so that she would be the one therefore to take the flak. Though in the end they both found people more suited to them, who could make them truly happy, she still sometimes finds herself taking the flak: just a little; or feeling that she is, maybe not quite the same thing. But she can't complain really. Sigh as she might, she knows it was the price of things, the bargain she settled for. She knows that despite everything her decision was the right one.
The breakup happened more than thirty years ago now. But in the aftermath of his death it seemed like yesterday. She was taken aback by how raw and immediate both the good and the bad still felt; the love, the anger - the guilt – came up as powerful as ever. This was all the more so because, inevitably, the main family business, took place, had to take place elsewhere, round his new family. Granny felt deeply for his wife, his young daughter, theirs the true, the most awful kind of loss. She felt deeply for her children’s loss of their dad, a deep, unique grief of saying the last goodbye – so unexpected this time - to a parent. At the same time because the solace of the communal, shared, domestic grief was necessarily denied her, she was mostly thrown back on, left to centre too much on, her own pain, something not helpful to her or anyone else. It was another price she was bound to have to pay. From the support she has had from friends, acquaintances who've been through the same thing, she knows now how common such experiences are when a family has been divided in this way. ‘A pain like no other,' Pat of Past Imperfect called such deaths, in a comment on Granny's last post. Yes. But then major decisions, even the right ones, have their downside- go on having a downside – for all those involved for the rest of their lives. To resent, that, to continue wailing 'if only', is a waste of time. Years ago, after Granny's twin sister died, a friend said to her, 'When someone dies there is always unfinished business.' Yes. And the older you get, as more friends and family disappear, whatever the circumstances, the more you have to accept the truth of that. If with the odd, regretful, sigh.
This: on the other hand. What is it about Granny’s generation of women, many of them still her friends, mostly her oldest friends? None of the women are that old yet, none have reached their threescore and ten. Their husbands too, though older, have not, had not, attained the average age which men can now now hope to attain before they die. But of all those once golden lads, whether left long ago or more recently, or whether still married to their wives, all but one - and he is ill - are dead, leaving their no longer golden girls behind. What can Granny say about that? Not much. But it makes her mournful.
She is back on her island at the moment; it is its usual charmless summer self; windy, cloudy, up where she lives, dry, dry, dry, everywhere. At the same time it is very humid - just imagine this! - a place where, simultaneously, your garden dries up and your kitchen walls grow mould. She is harvesting her figs and making jam. For the moment that will do. As this piece will also have to do. Having posted it, she intends remaining silent for a little longer. Bear with her.
Labels: family stories