Shining a Light on Grandma

Looking at the historic, social, and family issues of the contemporary grandmother experience.

‘Grandmothers are not just for Christmas.’

Here I am, wearing my grandmother’s Cornish Serpentine beads 2019
They were bought in the 1900s when the London side of Mum’s family were on holiday at The Lizard. 

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.

Mum and Dad in their farm clothes, (1970s)  as I mostly saw them.

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. 

New Year’s Grateful Journalling

I am happy to see this Christmas cactus flowering so well. I inherited it and knew it in my childhood in Cornwall.  For a few years it was failing on this windowsill. I had to diagnose a condition chop it up and repot it. 

The cheery fairy has its legs sewn on backwards and Lucy selected it to give me for Christmas. I have given her a strange clay duck made by one of the children at school more than thirty years ago. I thought the fairy with a positive expression on her face would enjoy an interesting ride into the future. I am not going to put her away, she is such a good thing to see on the way up and down the stairs and reminds me that I am grateful to have legs that are the right way round.

Preserving Family History

At the last moment before Christmas out by the workshops I looked at an aluminium preserving pan here at home and thought it was time to pass it on to Lucy. Chris’s mum, her grandmother, had used it for jam making in the fifties and sixties. Frank Cane, (Pop), Lucy’s grandfather didn’t have an allotment, but he always grew vegetables and soft fruit in the garden and Chris remembers raspberry and strawberry jam being made for bread and jam at teatime. We don’t boil jam in aluminium pans anymore, but I thought she would appreciate the vintage vibe, and it would be good for storing something like logs. I wrote a label telling of its heritage, tied it to the handle and packed it in the car alongside the Christmas pudding and the presents.

  I showed it to Lucy and Matt on Christmas Eve, and they said: ‘You’ll have hide it because Marg, (Matt’s mum) is giving us a brass one tomorrow’. ‘Really?’ I replied, ‘That’s a weird example of grandmother synchronicity’. But yes, they were right, she did. It was a much older brass one. It was heavy, gleaming and handsome as a bell. It turned out not to have a family connection though. Marg said she seen it being carried by a man in the street, admired it, and she was told that he was taking it to the charity shop, and she could have it if she wanted. It is heavy so maybe he was glad not to have to carry it any further. 

Putting a Cat on the Fire

Last week after Christmas I was walking around the graveyard in Haworth with my daughter. We stopped by the gravestone of Tabitha Ackroyd, housekeeper to the Bronte children for 30 years.

She was apparently much loved by the family, a great storyteller and was the source for the narrating character of Nellie Dean in Wuthering Heights.

Here is an example of one of Tabby’s stories, showing how chiding children has evolved. According to some commentators, children have moved from ‘seen and not heard’ to being ‘the new sacred’. As a mother and grandmother, I empathised with Tabitha’s creative way of getting around determined children.  The following is in the old Yorkshire dialect with a translation following.

Tabby: Nah sithee, me barns, tha’s nur ‘aving a candle, so tha mun do wi’art. If I can see ter fettle this ‘ere pair o’ Branwell’s britches, tha can all see well enough to mek up thi daft tales. If tha wants more leet, shuv yon cat on’t’ fireback, ‘e’s fat enou’ to gi’ a reight gradely blaze!

Translation: Now look here, my children, you’re not having a candle, so you must do without. If I can see to mend this here pair of Branwell’s breeches, you can all see well enough to make up your silly tales. If you want more light, shove that cat on the back of the fire, he’s fat enough to give a right good blaze!

A Wreath of Christmas

In the run up to this Christmas season I am in Indianapolis at a soccer tournament with three wise men in my life: husband, son, and grandson. There is snow and twinkly excitement in the air because this is a showcase event where college scouts are looking for talent. The lights providing the twinkle are tall floodlights to keep the matches lit from early to late in the evening. The snow is sleety giving the boys red noses. The many, many, pitches are made of artificial green plastic. 

While I watch teen boys lolloping after a ball, I am thinking about a sparkly new film we watched on Netflix last week. ‘A Castle for Christmas’. It’s the one we heard about being filmed in Scotland during COVID last year with Brook Shields starring. It was an extra special trope filled confection. You know the kind of thing. The handsome but poor owner of the castle in his boiler suit is mistaken as a humble servant by a rich American writer, (Brook). They hate each other, all the way to the finale of the glorious Scottish Christmas party (always a tradition in The Highlands as you know). It was replete with be-tartaned, local yokels, dancing jigs. The required last-minute rapprochement came and went, there was papery looking looking snow on the ground, and the exterior of the castle was hung in an overblown Hollywood Christmas style with huge wreaths and garlands that would make Balmoral blush. 

In an attempt to ignore the schmaltziness, I pondered the origin of the Christmas wreath. In Cornwall in the fifties my farmer dad would collect two holly circles from the local florist and take them along the road to the cemetery, where he would lay them on the family graves at Christmas. I remember when accompanying him in the farm pick-up, he didn’t say much. it seemed to be another errand, like picking up a sack of potatoes or dropping off a machine to be mended. We would push through the iron lych gate at the entrance and weave our way between the lines of gravestones to arrive at the one marked Jasper. He would lay the wreaths down on the space in front of a tall memorial stone under which would have been the ribcages of our forebears, then walk away; job done. I don’t remember a moment of contemplation, a sniff or a hanky being taken out to wipe a tear. 

Wreath is from the old English word to writhe or weave. The Romans hung wreaths on their doors to demonstrate status or victory. The pattern of an evergreen Laurel wreath is still on Olympic medals. This weekend the medals handed out at the go-cart place, which served as boyish entertainment between soccer matches, had a laurel wreath pattern. These circles of greenery signifying everlasting life or regeneration, date back to pagan times, and forward to the Christian era. In its vertical position on a front door, a wreath communicates to the visitor or passer-by: ‘Welcome to our organised home, we know it’s Christmas and we aren’t afraid to say so. In a horizontal mode, four candles are set around the circular space at the center of the wreath to mark the weeks of the Christian Advent month. It is interesting to note that in the Pagan tradition of tree worship, four candles were also used signifying earth, air, wind, and water. Add the element of ‘spirit’ and you get a five-pointed star that was placed at the top of ancient winter festival trees. This five-sided star doubles up now on the top of Christmas trees as the star leading the wise men to Bethlehem. 

One other thing my father did to add to the Christmas spirit, was to collect a few sprigs of holly from the woodland nearby and prop them over the pictures and the grandfather clock. When I asked him the reason, he replied, ‘‘Dunno us have always dun it’. Fir trees were perhaps too modern for him. I knew that his mother, my grandma, was strict about what was allowed inside … no may blossom for instance because the bad fairies lived in it, and the holly was always taken down before Epiphany. Her superstitious beliefs were held close to the chest, alongside church going habits. 

The wreaths on the front of the film castle had me writhing with cultural discomfort. Why? It was because their size produced a visual distortion that reduced the castle down to a playhouse castle. Where in the world did these huge decorations come from? The answer became clear this week. Downtown, here in America we saw similar huge wreaths hanging on the concrete frontage of the bank. In the big-shed hardware stores all over America they are for sale… vast plastic fir circles, with gigantic red bows. It would seem likely that they would have been sourced over here in America, shipped in a container along with the plastic snow and trucked by road to Dalmeny House in the Firth of Forth, which was standing in for the fictional castle. Cherry pickers and scaffolding would have been busy for days hanging it all. 

I wonder where all that green plastic is now? Hopefully demonstrating its everlasting ability to survive by being recycled into AstroTurf for Scottish football pitches.  

As children the Christmas decorations were a welcome change from the drab farm life. Our front room had to do a quick change from being a cool, turkey laying out room to the warm centre of our Christmas day. Pallid poultry corpses plucked, drawn and neatly lined up, awaiting collection until late on Christmas Eve, made way for the paper chains we had already licked into shape. The coke stove was lit to warm Santa’s arrival. A little tree in a bucket was decked out modestly. Tarnished tinsel was wound around the lower branches, and from the cardboard box of delicate glass baubles. We would unwrap the fairy from her crumpled yellowing tissue paper coverlet and lift her up to sit at the very top of the tree. 

Why a fairy not an angel? I suggest to you it’s another example of our old beliefs peeping through the Christian takeover of Yule. At midwinter in times past, when it was never certain that the life-giving sun would return, sacrifices and supplications were made to increase the chances of the renewal of life. Green trees were brought into the house at midwinter, hung with edible and shiny things to feed and entice the wood sprites. 

Upcycling in Lockdown

When the charity shops were closed an old sideboard came my way and I repainted it in the style of a mother of pearly or ivory inlay. One of the most exotic but wasteful of the world resources. Using a pearlescent paint, I worked away creating a moonlit scene from our garden. The deer, hedgehog, owl, mice, hare beetle and butterfly we have seen all made an appearance. Around the edge I wrote an apology to the natural world that read: ‘To all the trees in the world we offer a vision of moonlit woodland and an abject apology for the profligacy of the human race.’

It was selected to be exhibited at the online Aberdeen Artists Exhibition for Summer 2021.

I enjoy figuring out how to make patterns, but this old family blanket chest (seen below) was a challenge. It had been upholstered so I cut out zigzagged pieces of old wood to cover up the damage.

I couldn’t resist painting my signature mice breaking through the Celtic pattern.

This is the first table we sat around as a family. It was a nineteen thirties oak table with extending leaves. I bought it for around seven pounds in 1974 at an auction house in Cornwall with baby Tim carried on my back. It is no longer needed as a table. I thought it would make a nice coffee table with side pieces to be used as seats or other small tables. I reused the barley twist oak legs to support a much heavier Ikea table and cut down the Ikea ones for this one. I needed more legs to match so I made more on the lathe.

It started with an ‘X’: How my family came to read and write.

My grandmother’s great grandmother, Mary Treeby, signed her name with an ‘x’ on her wedding certificate in 1794. Her name is from Old English meaning a curve in the river, dating from a time when people had toponymic names. She was marrying Joseph Daw a shipwright working in Devonport dockyard. I see from the records they had eight children. She most likely didn’t have much time or need for letters and figuring things out doesn’t need paper and a pen. The education act didn’t come in to offer all children a free education until 1875. Ten miles from where Mary and Joseph were married, across the river Tamar in Cornwall in my childhood home we have a sampler stitched by her daughter Eliza Daw in 1832. It has words sewn in tiny stitches: ‘Children to your creator God your early blessings pay, while vanity and youthful blood would tempt your thoughts astray’, a verse from a popular hymn at the time. Her great granddaughter my grandmother Lucy Jasper, learned to read and write in a room above the Callington West End chapel in the 1890s. She probably started working full time in the family bakery when she was twelve. She didn’t use long words in her weekly letters to me. She didn’t need to say things like ‘delightedly’ or ‘constructive’. She wrote on lined paper and she mentioned what she’d cooked for dinner, what the neighbours had been doing, and if she’d plucked a goose. And no we didn’t write about her feelings, ambitions, or fears.

Her son my father, drew letters in a tray of sand, then learned to write on a slate before progressing to copperplate script holding a pen he dipped in an inkwell. He milked cows before school and left lessons to work on the land at fourteen. He rarely wrote in his adult life but when he did, it was in an elegant cursive hand. Here is a flyleaf from my birthday present of a flower book when I was eight.

My mother from London studied for a degree after the war and had already trained to be a secretary like her mother. Her mother worked for an M.P. in the houses of Parliament, and used the civil service, ‘sit up and beg’, steel clacking typewriters. Mum inherited it when they were upgraded. She used it for five more decades and the steel letters hit the platen so hard, Mum could turn out a sandwich of four carbon copies. She liked to use a pencil for notes saying she could think better with a pencil. In the 1950s I was taught those looped copper plate letters too, but not with any enthusiasm. That style was falling out of fashion. At ten years old we all had to learn to use a fountain pen for our ‘joined up writing’. The pens with names like Schaeffer and Parker with their gold nibs were new technology and had to be filled from a bottle. We bought ‘Quink’ ink from the newsagents in Fore Street and carried the pen clipped in our top blazer pocket. I think in a way they were a badge to display our skill at mastering the written word. The new tech. of filling the pens apparently baffled some people when it first replaced the dipping pen and inkwell. Then we all began using the cheap ‘bic’ biros, the ballpoint pens invented in France by Marcel Bich. At college in the early seventies I learned to use a new plastic covered portable ‘Olivetti’ typewriter. When our children were teenagers, we bought a word processor which meant we could edit sentences, and that was a huge luxury. Then of course came home-computers, and now I even can speak to mine and it will write down exactly what I say… 

All mist correctly …

What would Mary Treeby have wanted to write to us from 1794 if only she had been able to. Far away, yet so close. It’s strange to think she may have handled the stitched fabric we still have in the family.

‘Here was I living in Paradise and I didn’t know it’.

An American couple having enjoyed a Kit Hill moorland walk one sunny morning in the 1960s came down the footpath and into our farmyard where Dad was carrying on the business of the day and said, ‘You might want to know there’s a fawn in the gorse bushes over there?’ Dad realising they had mistaken one of his pretty Ayrshire calves for a deer, explained it was part of the farm family and its mum was away grazing, there being no wolves about as far as he knew. The visitors stopped to chat and most likely had a conversation about the Old World versus the New. Dad knew little about the Americas but could tell them who in his family had escaped the 19th century poverty of Cornwall to find new lives over there in Vermont, Peru or Michigan. At some point they told him his Cornish land was heavenly, and Dad most likely shrugged his shoulders inside his raggedy jacket.

That dinner time, he regaled us with the exchange, uttering the memorable line. Here’s me living in paradise and didn’ know it. We knew what he meant. Life on that Cornish hill farm was not all ‘pretty calves in the grass’. When the Atlantic mizzle was horizontal, getting the cows milked and the churns down to the gate for the milk lorry to collect by nine oclock, didn’t feel like paradise.

Mum and Dad came to the farm work from different cultural directions. Mum bought the farm in Cornwall from choice, partly as a romantic adventure, an escape from the urban dull life, mapped out for her in post war London. She had travelled, gained a degree in agriculture and seen life alternatives. Dad came from a world of daily toil and non-stop wrestling with the elements as generations of his family had before him. He told me once he saw farm work as lowly drudgery. Sometimes he would hide in his nest of haybales in the the barn with a book like King Solomon’s Mines to escape.

The works of Henry Thoreau extolling the rewards, the aesthetics of manual work had passed Dad by. He didn’t know that only fifty years later there would be books extolling Walt Whitman’s ‘hourly routine of a working man’s life’ and there would be a continued ‘Ruskinian infatuation with the artisan’. For him the artisan work was a burden. Re-building hedges, baling hay, getting up in the middle of the night to check on a calving cow, calling the vet, paying the vet…. Adventure and romance for him lay elsewhere in a gold mine of South Africa which is ironic when you think about it.

 In his retirement, he enjoyed reading and resting in the front room, away from all labouring with a double-glazed window to protect him from the paradise outside.

Even close family can be surprising

I was around twelve years old and out in our cornish fields on my pony Sally. (Dad used to call her ‘Old Sallach’). I saw a sparrowhawk fluttering in the grass. I slithered down, gathered it up, and gently cradled it in my coat. I expect its wing was broken. Making my way back to the farmyard with Sally trailing at the end of the reins. Dad was mending the tractor up by the milking parlour. I offered the injured bird to him. Without a word, he laid it’s head on a tractor tyre and walloped it with the spanner he was holding.

I was shocked. Having read all those lovely stories of grateful animals nursed back to health in cardboard boxes, I thought he would have been sympathetic, and we would have made a plan together. Maybe later I would have trained it to hunt, and written a book called ‘H is for Hawk’. Dad’s solution was probably for the best, but I remember that moment of disconcerting disconnect. Now looking back I see the difference in our cultural backgrounds. He from the early twentieth century closer to the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ having to make a tough living from the land, milking cows before school, shooting rabbits for food and tying carrion to fence posts. Me nearly half a century on, cushioned by Enid Blyton, music lessons and a warm pony.

 I kept a stiff yellow leg from that feathery little creature in my blazer pocket for years. A muddled idea of a powerful good luck charm. Its talons were quite spiky.

Hiding in Plain Sight

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. 

Starchy Grandma

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.