Looking back it, that cherry stone game wasn’t much, but it pleased my grandmother.
Her hands in old age were swollen but she was quick enough to find the brown velvet bag in the cupboard by the fireplace. We would sit facing one another, she in her rocking chair and I on a low stool, holding onto my bare knees, waiting. The rules were simple. She would burrow into the bag of cherry stones and bring out a closed fist. ‘How many now then?’ she would say. I, seeing no way of winning by using skill would guess seven or three, or perhaps none, because an empty fist was her little joke.
Shifting her onto tales from the mantlepiece was a relief. I was allowed to point to an object on the shelf and she would hand it down. There was the scaly brown seed she said had floated all the way from the tropics, a dried sea horse in an old spectacles case. Then there was the spiral of ear bone she let me poke a finger through while she described the whale it had come from. The last thing was the lucifer match box.
‘Ah, the expedition tale?’ She would say. ‘Yes…’ I said, the first time, and held up my hand for the small metal box. It opened with a click when I pressed a metal dimple at the front. I inhaled the ancient aroma. ‘Yes… please.’ I said, my voice hollow as I spoke into the tin. ‘Well,’ she began, looking upwards. ‘Your Great Great Grandmother was only nineteen, but she was allowed to go off on the ship because your Great Great Great Grandfather was the Captain…’ She would then go on to tell me about the shipwreck on the Arctic ice shelf. ‘A few drowned,’ she told me eyes down, ‘but most were saved.’ They found shelter in an ice cavern that looked like the inside of a whale. Everything they salvaged was wet, so they were in danger of freezing. They pooled their belongings and huddled together their hoods up. One man had a tin that contained five lucifer matches. He crouched down and began to strike them against damp sandpaper. The first match broke and fell on the ice, the next fizzled out, the third burned, but died as did the fourth. As the man held up the fifth, Granny’s granny stepped towards them and cried, ‘Wait wait wait! Let us wait’, The Grandmother who was twice times great, took it from him and protected that last match with the little warmth left in her body. The next day it lit the fire, warming the castaways until they were rescued.
It was only much later that I realised the greats that grandma used were titles, not adjectives. I had thought Grandmother in her generous story telling way, was making it clear they weren’t your average ancestors.
Looking back now I am a grandmother, those objects along the mantlepiece, were little more than flotsam, and grandmother’s stories suspiciously inaccurate, but somehow, they did contain greatness.