Looking at the historic, social, and family issues of the contemporary grandmother experience.
‘Grandmothers are not just for Christmas.’
When my parents were in their eighties, my husband Chris and I, took them on holidays, to places we knew would intrigue them. They were farmers and had always been interested in local heritage, family histories and the industrial archaeology of Cornwall where they lived. I remember excursions from my childhood, that would typically involve a holy well, a moorland stone circle or the source of a river. In the seventies, Mum and Dad helped to create the their local history centre and took their turn to be on duty there. It wasn’t unusual for Dad to point visitors from Canada or Australia looking for relatives, to their cousins. He knew who had married whom, back in the thirties and forties.
In their old age they were delighted to be taken away from Cornwall, to visit Ely Cathedral, Lindisfarne, Iona, Orkney, and the Hebrides. Their enthusiasm was catching, and those subjects previously associated with my childhood sulks, came alive for me.
In a way, it feels as if they are accompanying me now, while I research the subject of folklore and in particular the experience of being a grandmother. During this reading and writing journey I am finding them more co-operative now, than they were in real life.
If you would like to join the three of us on this ethnological journey you would be very welcome. There will be all kinds of history, ideas and folklore associated with the experience of women to uncover, as I explore and interview over the next few years.
Along the way we will be looking at the experience of being a contemporary grandmother and asking the questions:
Who are we, and where do we come from?
How does society view us?
What is it like being a grandmother for our generation, born after the war with all the advantages that were offered at that time?
What family history are we able to share with the younger generation?
Do they want it/need it?
Are we finding new ways of connecting with our faraway families?
Lastly, do we have a community responsibility to link our family future generations into their family past.
All these questions are relevant if you think, like me, a grandma is not just for Christmas.
From personal experience and my interviews with grandmothers, some things in families can be hiding in plain sight.
Here is the familiar visage of the Sutton Hoo helmet. It has recently been in the news because of the film ‘The Dig’.
It was only pieced together after the war and the reconstructed regal anglo-saxon helmet was first seen in the seventies. The moustache turns out to be the tail of a strange flying dragon. Do you see? The eyebrows are wings.
I have had the idea that in a family there are people we know well and love, but if we care to look closer, they are actually part mystical creature, one that is staring us in the face.
Starch: Most of us have not given a thought to the process of starching laundry or even using spray starch during this year of lockdown. I suggest starch has been given short shrift. No one has bothered with a shirt let alone a starched shirt.
Before wheat or potato starch, we apparently used the root of cuckoo pint arum maculatum also known as the starch plant.
Gerard records in his Herbal, that the nuns of Syon Abbey were using it to starch altar cloths because it nicely whitened as well as stiffened the cloth. Then ‘starch for kerchiefs’ was listed in a 1440 dictionary. Gerard also records that the cuckoo pint root ‘was most hurtful for the hands of the laundress that have the handling of it, for it chappeth and blistereth and taketh the hands rough and rugged and withall smarting’.
Yes, I bet it did smart.
In Elizabethan times, starched ruffs were a sign of the elite. Distinctions of class, rank and profession were maintained by the clothes people wore. When wheat starch was discovered, ruffs were made bigger and wider. These status differences travelled over in the Mayflower to the first colonies. As a reminder goffering irons that make those ironed concertina folds have recently been dug up at an archaeological site near Jamestown in Virginia. So women had to keep up the home country rules of society, even when pioneering. (The word goffer means to crimp or frill by the way). At the time of the colonisation it was considered that keeping the hierarchy was an important part of a new settlement. Ironically, (for an ironing product), when the settlement was starving, the highest born men had an advantage. They were able to eat their own ruff starch, as a gluey porridge.
We can laugh, but matrons and sister’s uniforms had complicated headpieces that needed starching not so long ago.
I want to bring the subject of starch to your attention as an example of the value or not, of women’s work and effort. In particular women’s work as a value in itself, supported by encouraged by and even insisted upon by the patriarchy.
‘If a woman was defined by her ability to rear the next generation’ writes Judith Flanders in her interesting book, The Making of Home ‘and her house was the crucible that shaped these children, then the woman’s ability to keep the house became central’. The upkeep she says was seen to be in part labour but also a measure of the housewife’s morality. Purchasing readymade products in the Victorian times of the 1860s were frowned upon. Advice books warned against readymade products because they replaced labour. ‘It is not half as cheap’ they vaguely advised women. I like this example of starch. Starch in 1842 was manufactured and available in the shops. It worked as well as the laboriously homemade starch made by processing potato peel and was actually cheaper. However the advice from magazines was that it was better to make it yourself at home. Not specifically better, just better, as if your own fair hands made a better product’.
This is what you would need to have done before any shirt was brought to the ironing table.
Recipe to Make Starch from Potato Peelings:
Line a colander with two layers of cheese cloth and place the colander over the bowl.
Grate the potato, using the smallest set of holes on the grater, into the cheesecloth.
Fold the ends of the cheesecloth up and over the potatoes to cover.
Press down on the cheesecloth until the starchy liquid from the potatoes drains into the bowl.
Open the cheesecloth and pour 1/2 cup of water over the potatoes.
Cover again with the cheesecloth and squeeze the potatoes to drain into the bowl.
Repeat steps 5 and 6 with the remaining 1/2 cup of water.
Place two cans on top of the cheesecloth and leave them for 1 to 2 hours to squeeze more starch from the potatoes.
Remove the colander and discard the cheesecloth with the potatoes.
Carefully pour the liquid into a separate bowl without disturbing the starch that has settled at the bottom of the first bowl.
Discard the liquid and let the remaining potato starch dry before using.
Looking back it is easy to see the flaw in the argument that the harder the work, the better the result. I mean we all get the magic of the ‘made by hand’ when its jam or knitting, but when easily wipeable tablecloths were considered to lead to uncleanliness one has to stop and say, ‘wait a minute, who is saying that and who the heck is doing all the work here?
It was ‘said’ and we don’t know exactly who said it, Mothers? Grandmothers? people filling up space in the popular new magazines? that: ‘Convenience in housekeeping leads to dirt and carelessness’. It is true that dirt without antibiotics, then, was more dangerous than dirt now. The fear of carelessness though? This sounds like a worry that the slippery slope of carelessness would lead to impurity and the embracing of the sweet carefree. The over-arching notion of Christian living wasn’t to encourage you to enjoy life. The clear (and stiffly upright) concept that comes across the years is that the value of housekeeping was somehow measured in the amount of elbow grease, the sheer brute force of effort, a woman put into it. Keeping women out of mischief is another line of thinking we could consider.
Is it possible that the oppression of doing empty futile work, is partly why housekeeping has got a bad name? Futility… no one likes a futile job. That is why pointless jobs like treadmills were introduced into prisons, as punishment to break a convict’s spirit.
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.
When I approach family history writing, like many people I am phased by the enormity of the task, and the question of what will treasured after I am gone. Developing the strategy of thinking about a little moment has been useful. It usually leads to something else, which fleshes out the tiny memory and sets it in time. Let’s begin by looking at a rare birthday where I was able to sit in the sun among the crocuses I have been digging and moving for thirty years.
They say saffron crocus stamens were traded for tin by the Phoenicians three thousand years ago in Cornwall. I can’t comment, except to say that a hard fought for underground metal, which when combined with copper, makes the very valuable material, bronze, as a barter for crocus stamens to make your bread a different colour, seems a strange deal to have made.
Mind you, I liked saffron cake. My mother not being a Cornishwoman didn’t make it, but a rich yellow saffron loaf was ordered once a week from Pearce’s the bakers at Kelly Bray. It was called ‘Best Cake’ as it had more currents than the other saffron cake they made. A slice was eaten spread with butter after bread and jam at tea-time when we got home from school at half past four. Dad had a soft spot for ‘Pearce’s. When his family gave up their business, the Jaspers bakery, the young Master Pearce who I knew as an old man bought the Jasper baking tins. Dad had a memory and a liking for objects and perhaps he enjoyed the connection.
My mile walk home from school in the sixties passed by Skitter House not far from Kelly Bray, on the site of an old Cornish mine. It was half-way up the steep skittery hill before the flat road home. One day, inside that house I watched saffron cake being made. I remember a slate flagged floor and the woman wearing one of those wraparound aprons, sitting, working on her lap. She held a large china bowl between her knees. This was pre fitted kitchens. On the table next to her, was an enamel bowl of warm yellow water (I know what you are thinking, and no it wasn’t). She poured it into her bowl of flour. I stayed and watched while she explained about kneading and how she had soaked the saffron in the water over night. Two things strike me now, one, how did I come to wander into the kitchen of a stranger? … and two, children have long memories, so grandmas, remember, anything you do and say now, may be written about in sixty or more years’ time.
I remember the saffron buns which were made and eaten locally too.
Late in his life, when I was searching for conversation with Dad on a birthday lunch out, I asked him what his birthdays were like as a boy. Did’n ave em’ he said. ‘Nah didn av em’. And that was the end of that. What did happen around the time of his birthday, he later explained, was the ‘Church Anniversary’ trip down to Looe, a fishing village and beach resort on the south coast of Cornwall. Before coach travel, and after horse and cart, in the nineteen twenties a motorised char-a-banc (a bank of chairs) was hired, and they were given saffron buns to eat on the way. The buns would have travelled well on the twelve-mile journey, and one can imagine them having been made the day before by the worthy ladies of the church and handed out from a basket as a filling sweet treat.
I was given this recipe in the picture by another elderly Cornish family friend. I have kept it as you see, but I still haven’t made it myself. I see on the internet that the loaves were baked on sycamore leaves in some parts of the country, which makes me want to try that. I like the amounts on the recipe. None of your measly one pond or fancy butter, it begins with four pounds of flour.
Do you have a carbohydrate-based bread, biscuit, or cake that defines where you come from and is part of your family history? Do let me know.
We are all familiar with shortbread… it is eaten all over the world. It’s a simple good-natured foodstuff.
Made from butter, sugar and flour it doesn’t even mind how it is mixed. The butter and flour can be delicately rubbed together with fingers before the sugar is added, it can be rudely food processed or the butter and sugar can be beaten together and the flour added to the creamed mixture. All those methods will make a solid lump to knead, press and mould into a baking pan before baking in a medium oven for about 12 minutes. They should be cooked but not at all brown.
So far so easy but what about it’s mystery name? We know a biscuit is baked, flat, crisp and usually sweet not short or bread-like. What is short about shortbread and why is it nothing like bread? It makes no sense.
‘Ah ha’ we might say to each other, ‘Isn’t it in language that we find out things about our history? Yes, because language has a long memory. Maybe if we travel back in time together we could work out why short bread came to be given such a strange name.
Lets go. Swoooooosh.
It is around seven hundred years ago. We are in a kitchen by a hearth. There are two children watching their mother baking. It is smoky and there isn’t a table. She has been making bread in a clay bowl balanced on her knees. You can smell baking. She has some of the mix left over and seeing her children’s hungry little faces she rolls it in some crushed hazlenuts some caraway seeds and adds some honey. When the loaves come out she puts it in the oven and it’s left until the embers die down. We wait an hour… (time travel is hard work sometimes). When it is taken out of the oven we can see it has become a crisp rusk like snack… Dunked into milk her children love it.
This is how the first biscuits came to be and they became known as Biscuit bread, from the French word bis-quite meaning twice baked or the latin bis coctus meaning twice cooked. (You may be more familiar with the term Cookie from the German word Kuchen meaning cake…. Can you hear the cooking word there again?)
Various versions of this cookie/biscuit/snack were eaten all around England and Scotland.
If we move on a few generations we can see the biscuit part of the name travelling across the world to America with the early settlers. Well it didn’t exactly travel with them but in their memories of home, in their hearts and in their recipe books. It stayed there in the southern states as a scone type of bread to be eaten with gravy or stew. Biscuit also went off to adventure with the British Navy where it was baked into hard tack and fed to the ships crew as ships biscuit. Back in Scotland butter was being added to the biscuit bread recipe. Butter in baking is called ‘shortening’ because it makes bread and pastry crumbly, less able to stretch. This twice-baked sweet bread with butter became known as short biscuit bread. That was a bit of a mouthfull, so it was shortened to short bread.
This version is the one we know today, one part sugar, two parts butter and three parts flour. It was making itself very much at home in Scotland by the 16th century. We know Mary Queen of Scots was fond of it in the fifteen hundreds. At that time it was baked into triangle shapes called petticoat tails referring to the shape of the patterns used to make the hooped under skirts of the ladies at the court of Queen Mary.
You might be surprised to learn that short bread was a rich persons food. Although Scotland grew oats for flour and there were dairy cows there most people couldn’t afford butter and sugar with fine flour all the time. It was saved for special occasions like weddings and New Year. When foods are used in celebrations they can start to work their way into the active part of the occasion. For instance in the Shetland Islands shortbread was broken over the heads of a newly married couple. If the shortbread broke into pieces it meant good luck. In Scotland a bride might break a piece of shortbread when she crossed the threshold of her marital home for the first time.
Culture is built around food, celebrations, language and stories. When people take part in familiar rituals they feel an increased sense of identity and belonging. If we feel we belong somewhere, to someone then we know we are at the a warm cultural hearth at the heart of something.
Believe it or not those two words: hearth and heart are linked. The Greek work for hearth is cardia which means heart. While you are digesting that let’s travel back to today to the Kalamazoo supermarket. How many different types of biscuits or cookies can you see? Dried fruit, chocolate, lemon and orange flavours and ginger iced or sandwiched with sugary cream. Hundreds. The shortbread is nothing special is it? It’s just three ingredients, sugar, butter and flour in the proportions of one two three.
Somehow though it has retained its significance.
The Walkers shortbread company is still exporting countless tons of it around the world. Perhaps for the 34 countries in the Scottish diaspora it is a reminder of home. Some of us still send it at Christmas time as a present. Tourists who visit Scotland still buy pretty tins of shortbread as a reminder of their time there. You could say it has moved from being a snack to becoming part of the Scottish culture and transforming into to becoming a commodity. With highland cows and a mountain on the front and a tartan ribbon it has all the romantic associations that say ‘Hey, I was in this strange place called Scotland’, and doesn’t that take the biscuit… or here in America you would say it takes the cake.
David Brooks in his essay ‘The Odyssey Years’ describes the usual four familiar life stages: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. To this he says two have been added in the last generation. I suggest that both have resonances and relevance for us the grandmother.
One is the active old age from which we are benefitting, because it gives us time, space, health, and energy to attend to our grandmother activities. We are able to see more of and be more actively involved with our grandchildren than ever before, even when they live faraway.
The other stage he describes is the one he refers to as ‘The Odyssey Years’. In the decade between twenty and thirty where our generation, the so-called Baby Boomers married and began a family, the millennials are delaying because the reasons for doing so have largely been removed. Secure employment jobs aren’t for life. This impacts on mortgages buying houses and postponing moving away from home. The old recipes for success, like further education or working your way up through a company are no longer guaranteed. Courtship rules have been scrambled. Marriage provided women with income, a status and a sense of identity. Now with efficient birth control women are no longer pressured to get married. If they have well paid jobs, they no longer need a second income to raise a child either. One-parent families are not stigmatised, and active grandparents are often able to provide cheap childcare. For a decade or more after they enter adulthood young people are now able to travel and change jobs. They do still have traditional aspirations though. They report that they think of parenthood as a significant life choice, and one that will curtail their promotion at work or hamper their social and travelling lives. It is taken seriously, and until there is a right time, couples are postponing starting family.
So although we the older generation have the time and energy, we may have to be patient.
Does this story of Raymond Briggs’ parents paint a nostalgic view for of a more familiar bygone world, making us feel wistful or would that be casting a rosy glow over that post war time that had its own challenges.
I’m looking at a brown envelope addressed to me from my mother in Cornwall.
I don’t know how many hundreds of times I have seen my address written in that hand.
She has always kept up with her correspondence, dating back to strict Edwardian parents.
For more than fifty years, she has sent me letters, from my first school trip to wherever I have journeyed.
And I have written back.
Those threads of care, as strong as linen, sewing me in, keeping me safe.
This envelope’s been used before, of course it has.
She likes reusing paper, thread, margarine containers.
Retrieved from its place beside her carefully wound-up string and a bottle of liquid gum, the aged paper is as soft as skin from long storage in her bureau.
No one uses manilla anymore; that government cheap alternative to bleached wood white.
It was made from the left-over hemp rope used on sailing ships, the beaten fibres showing through on the envelope’s surface.
The thing that isn’t the same, is the writing.
The capital ‘M’ of Mary, is written too carefully, as if she is leaning on my name. There is a tilt to the written lines, a hesitancy that doesn’t compute with the woman who rode her motorbike from London to Cornwall to buy a farm in 1950.
There’s no town name at all.
She probably hasn’t got that down in the address book.
It was too obvious for all her years of memory… unnecessary when I’ve lived in Aberdeen for more than thirty years.
So here it is then, just my name, the house, and the postcode hanging too low down on the envelope.
The address has taken on her stooped posture.
The misshapen letters, the folds of her writing arm.
One of my joys over the last few years has been wrangling my own story into a shape I prefer. Take for instance my memory of a teenage early morning drooping about on a dirty pony searching for a cow and calf on Bodmin moor in the mist. It can be made to sound all sorts of heroic, mystical, remarkable, bucolic, dangerous child abuse, or dull. Or even actual wrangling I suppose, although you with cow knowledge will know that when located in their hiding place under a gorse bush, a cow and calf are reluctant to move. The mama cow puts her head down and stamps threatening a mild-mannered pony. No, my job was to grumble back with coordinates and the parents would go and collect the cow and calf after milking and breakfast. I would then be at school in the valley, damp and slightly smelling of …. hill.
Where was I?
Yes, I was going to share my new collection of thoughts to add to the grandmother experience. They aren’t grandma rocket science but then as we know even rocket science isn’t rocket science.
They are part of a wispy mist I see appearing and disappearing through my interviews.
Wispy pockets of air or whoopee cushions.
I have selected them as important because they are part of the complexity of being a grandmother. Another aspect to them is that they appear differently to close family members.
Here are the five things I need to find out more about:
1 The community suspicion of older women Where does this come from? Is there a historic link?
Even today we have seen the accusations of witchcraft aimed at Mary Beard and Hilary Clinton.
2 The mother-in-law issue…. What is it exactly, and why were there all those jokes when being a mother in law does not seem to be something to laugh at.
3 The notion of the mother/son romance. This is not the same as the mother daughter love. How does this emotional attachment affect our relationship with daughters in law?
4 The mental load, sometimes referred to as the cognitive, or woman’s load. This is applicable to the grandmother experience when looking at who remembers the grandchildren’s information and preferences. From my contributors I am told it is most often they, and not grandfathers who do all the remembering of birthdays choose gifts and send them. As men take on more childminding this may be change in the future.
5 The lure of the handmade. The perceived love of the maker is embedded in the handmade item. Are
grandmother’s handmade gifts for grandchildren more valuable when they contain this symbolic love?
Is she happy to offer a lot of time in such activities and would the item be part blessing for the new baby.
Do some people value the handmade more than others and why?
This week on our walk down the path through the trees I saw a patterned caramel coloured wing feather lying on the ground. It was underneath a regular dark holly tree owl roost I took it home and sent it to our young grandson Noah aged six. I began by saying the poet wrote it just for him. Well its true isn’t it… poets write for everyone of us or no-one.
We don’t have the white Barn owls as far north as here it’s too cold for them.
We have the Tawny ones and at this time of year we hear the young ones calling across the fields to be fed.
I remember an older friend who was third-generation wise, before I had got to that point, said her method of coping with adult children’s families was, ‘Take every opportunity…… to say nothing’. I think she was agreeing with the wise old owl who sat in an oak listening, while keeping her beak zipped.
Had she known, my grandmother friend was describing ‘communicative competence’; the knowledge of the language, and the social situations in which to use it. The linguist and folklorist, Dell Hymes developed a theory of Noam Chomsky, who in 1965, pointed to a distinction between linguistic competence and the performance of it. Through ethnographic research Dell Hymes looked at how people relate to one another, and his work is called ‘Ethnography of Communication’.
It’s a wise old grandma owl who is competent in communication.
Hymes, Dell “Introduction: Toward Ethnographies of Communication”.Journal Article: American Anthropologist. (1964).
This Australian moth is called the Grannies Cloak (Speiredonia Spectans).
From a purple patterned soft cloak shape, we can see a grandma stare.
Is there such a thing as a metaphorical grandmother’s cloak I wonder? A cloak that a grandmother uses to keep her family safe from harm. We have heard about the menopause allowing effort to be diverted to the new generation because of the lack of children in later years. We know from our personal experiences she will step in as a regular care giver and sometimes be a rescuer when the middle generation is unable to cope.
Just how interested is she in protecting the progeny of her children? Will she move home, even across continents to be near them? According to my contributors, yes, she will. They will up-sticks and begin new lives to be near the growing family.
A Study in Canada has shown how Grandmothers from China, (Arber and Timonen: 2012) even moved into a different culture. In some cases they chose to leave their elderly parents behind in China. They went to Canada to offer childcare for their academic offspring who had gone to Canada’s Universities.
We seem more excited to experience being a grandparent than grandmothers in the fifties.
Sarah Ballard one of my contributors said of her upbringing in the fifties and sixties said, “There were so many of us grandchildren, my grandma used to called us all ‘chickabiddee’, to avoid having to remember names”.
‘It was like falling off a cliff.’ says journalist Lesley Stahl, about the love of seeing her grandchild for the first time in her book Becoming Grandma.
Grandmas seem to have an inbuilt feeling of wanting the best for the offspring of their offspring. Is it the same urge as they felt for their children, or are they bringing a different energy to that grandmother stare?
Grandparents says the statistics say (Stahl:2016) that since 2005, expenditure in America of grandparents buying big pieces of equipment like cribs and car seats has gone up by eight times.
Can I stretch the moth metaphor and ask if you have ever felt helplessly drawn to the flame of family? There you are Grannys Cloak moth, fluttering outside a dark window of family, staring inside, wanting to get nearer the light of kinship and community? I know I have.
Arber Sarah, Timonen Virpi, Contemporary Grandparenting: Changing Family Relationships in Global Contexts (University of Chicago Press 2012)
Stahl Lesley Becoming Grandma: The joys and science of becoming a new grandma (2016)