When I was looking for a subject for a research project aged sixty six, I knew I needed it to keep me amused for a long time and had to be based on my areas of interest and expertise. It needed to be as complicated as hopscotch, but simple as a skipping rope. It needed it to be as exciting as the rope swing over the river, but snuggly as a bedtime story. Stretchy as potty putty, surprising as a slinky, bouncy as a ball.
I homed in on the subject of women, women of my age and women whose families had travelled way from home. I could interview the women I meet when we go to New Zealand and America on our prolonged visits to our children. I pondered that our generation of women has a new story to tell. The particular beliefs, family history and separation are unique. If it is true that there is no one better to tell the story of a group than someone from within it, then I could be that woman. At the University I was steered towards the department of Ethnology and Folklore and The Elphinstone Institute. I wrote a proposal, sent it, and with guidance from Dr Tom Mackean wrote it again, and again over that summer.
And so it was that in 2019, I began a six-year part-time PhD in Ethnology at Aberdeen University a half an hour drive away. It hadn’t got a title as yet but it was to be on the experience of being a contemporary grandmother and how the subject of family history is being addressed.
So there I was in 1973 aged twenty-one, ready to steer my way through my womanly journey of life, tiller in hand.
I was practical, Chris was kind and funny. I could make jam or a dress and with Chris helping, I even made children. He worked onshore in Cornwall as a Naval helicopter instructor for the three years I worked though my motherhood apprenticeship and had two babies. He was a good sport in taking his share of family life and most importantly didn’t ever comment that the house was untidy. In those days we were grateful for ‘help’ from husbands. I was free to be able to combine minding children with homemaking, wood-work and talking to other women in the same position as me especially at monthly meetings of the National Housewives Register. It wasn’t all plain sailing but together we managed.
Life continued through the decades and was puzzling at times, but then so had been my childhood. I remember thinking there might be better pathways, but the simplest thing was to follow the one that unrolled in front of me. I was just pleased to be moving along. I have always been impatient, perhaps too keen to look over my shoulder, or around the corner when all I had to do was to be patient. From time to time I reflected on the experience of being a woman as I moved through the family roles of daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, and eventually grandmother. I wrote home regularly with paper, pen envelopes and stamps. We visited Cornwall for holidays so the children saw the little Cornish farm on the edge of Bodmin Moor. My mother was a good correspondent and even sent me a birthday card in the year she died, when otherwise she had faded to a wisp of herself. Whilst we didn’t exchange great truths or reveal secrets, the letters contained a comfortable exchange of family news, and they continuing grounding experience. Around my sixtieth birthday when our children and grandchildren lived faraway, my outer life slowed down. Maybe it left more room for an inner life, because around then an imaginative writing muscle decided to make itself felt. I joined a writing group and short stories and poetic lines came to me when i had the weekly deadline. One week, the group homework was to supply a recipe for the group cook-book. I dreamed up an alternative way to celebrate the beginning of my seventh decade, tea in a bluebell wood. I imagined it into a perfection, unlikely in real life.
A Perfect Family Tea
It is universally acknowledged that a woman nearing her 60th birthday is in need of a jolly good family tea party.
Around thirty-five years before your 60th birthday begin growing your family.
About two months before the birthday, take five long (three meters should do) planks into your studio or workshop, smooth them down gently and then paint in your favourite colours. Assemble them over two trestles you will have made earlier. Have carved into the planks your favourite quotations of family life such as:
Rejoice with your family in the beautiful land of life. …. Albert Einstein
Decide on your venue. Now is the time to be as self-indulgent as you wish.
Even though my birthday is in February my choice is a bluebell wood in May. Blackbirds will be singing overhead, and the woodland will be unusually warm and fragrant for Scotland, with just a breath of wind. Just enough to make the new green beech leaves above sound as if they are offering flutter of applause. On the table you may lay for as many of your family as you would like to be there. I am inviting twenty-five of my close kindred, dead and alive.
The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind into happy repose. George Gissing.
For the Tea
Collect pretty china cups saucers and little milk jugs from charity shops. Tea tastes all the better from thin china with flower patterns.
Make good strong tea in well used family teapots. Using loose leaf Assam with tea strainers will make the children stare.
Our son Nick and his new wife Emily have travelled from New Zealand and brought their special home-made Elderflower champagne which they pour out for everyone. Large hand thrown earthenware jugs with rounded waists and curling lips will hold the drinks to be poured into glasses. The pale liquid will sparkle and shimmer.
To make it yourself collect a basket of Elder flower mop-heads and follow an online recipe. The Elder flowers contain a natural yeast. Use plastic screw top bottles to avoid explosions.
Wooden chairs made from coppiced hazel surround the table.
Your beloved family will arrive from wherever they live around the world without trouble or fuss, (I know, remember this is a dream scenario) and will seat themselves without trampling the bluebells. I am so delighted to see my little grandsons who live in America. They are introduced to their cousin for the first time. My own children haven’t seen one another for several years and they all hug and kiss. They are so pleased to see one another, I am overcome with joy and have to sit down to watch.
Call it a clan call it a network call it a tribe call it a family whatever you call it whoever you are …. You need one. Jane Howard.
The best reasons for having dreams is that in dreams no reasons are necessary. Ashleigh Brilliant.
Use fresh crusty bread. Unsalted butter with sea salt black pepper and fresh wild garlic leaves from the woodland.
Egg and tomato rolls:
Mix the chopped boiled egg with some dressing to allow it to hold together. Chopped skinned tomatoes mixed in make a squishy but delicious filling. Be generous because you don’t mind the children’s eggy faces.
‘Hot Soldiers asleep’… lightly boiled Asparagus spears wrapped in bread that has been spread with Horseradish sauce.
There is an empty seat and as the meal ends my long dead London grandfather appears through the trees wearing a 1930s suit. He comes and sits near the little boys, brings travelling chess set out of his pocket and settles down to teach them the moves. They, knowing no better, are happy to see him. I look in the other direction lest I break the spell. There, just within sight I see my grandmother talking to my country grandfather while she sits plucking a goose. I remember seeing her doing that in my childhood, when she wasn’t knitting or stirring a saucepan. She saves the down and feathers in a pillow-case for who knows what. My brother’s girls are moving over to see what she is doing. A young version of my father comes to the table and he picks a piece of Hogweed as he comes. I know he is going to show the younger members of the family how to make a water pistol from the stem and a wisp of sheep’s wool as he was shown by his father more than eighty years ago. My mother’s great aunt comes with one of her famous hats carrying her jaunty bag for keeping money for ‘jaunts’ is over her arm. She will be entertained by the fashions worn by the modern girls.
We all grow up with the weight of history upon us. Our ancestors’ dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiralling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell.
You don’t choose your family they are God’s gift to you. Desmond Tutu.
Fluffy plain Scones with jam and clotted cream:
Bake in a hot oven and serve a half an hour later. Jam spread first then the cream balanced on top.
Victoria Sponge: made with your own free range hen’s eggs, and a filling made from crème fraiche and black current jam.
Strawberry Tarts: Shortcrust, melt in the mouth pastry. A whole strawberry covered in strawberry sauce and surrounded by a halo of heavenly whipped cream.
A happy family is but an earlier heaven… George Bernard Shaw.
Birthday cake: A Rich Fruitcake, marzipan, Pure white Royal icing smoothed over the whole surface. A satin bow tied around it, the exact shade of bluebell blue. 60 candles are arranged on the top and everyone helps me to blow them out.
The interactions between the generations of this blood family thrill me. The contrast between my father’s experience of learning to write in a tray of sand is such a contrast to life today. I feel as if I can see far into the past and into the future, that’s sixty for you.
The food finished, my family of nowadays begin a game of hide and seek, in the woods, leaving me to raise a hand to my shadow relations. ‘Thank you’, I say ‘for having me’.
If you don’t believe in ghosts don’t go to a family reunion. Ashleigh Brilliant
I was brought up in a small farming village of East Cornwall, two younger brothers, a farmer Dad and farmer/Girl Guide captain Mum. We had a telephone, because all farms needed them, and my Mum could drive a tractor and a car having been to University after the war to study Agriculture having enjoyed being a Land Girl for the war years. We got a T.V. after an electricity generator was installed to make milking the cows easier. School was perfectly adequate. I wasn’t marvellous at anything, tried quite hard, and secured enough ‘O’ Levels to get me into Occupational Therapy College in Exeter. Had kissed two boys but hadn’t had any dates … as I write this, I am thinking that I would have said, ‘been kissed by’.… because it wasn’t something that girls actively did… we were passive and waited to be kissed. Has that changed? Discuss.
We had little holidays not far from home. It might be a week at the beach in a caravan park, time at our grandparent’s homes, or day trips with thermos and sandwiches. Trips abroad were unusual although there was a girl in our class who went touring Europe in the summer holidays which we thought exotic. And of course there was Girl Guide camp.
The parents of my school friends were mostly local and mostly from a farming background. I remember a nurse who had come into the village, and married a farmer. We took the same exams as the boys, although not many girls took the science and Maths ‘A’ levels. There was further education, but hardly any of us went to university. Girls had the options of secretarial work or teaching, and the caring jobs of nursing, O.T. Speech Therapy or Physiotherapy. Then there was working in the banks or shops. The thought of a girl engineer, architect or science teacher seemed odd then. There were a few woman vets and doctors. Teacher training was acceptable for both girls and boys although primary schools had more women teachers than men. Most of these courses were still taught in colleges and we achieved a diploma not a degree. It wasn’t until the 80s or 90s that the colleges achieved university status.
Those of us who went off to further education often left the area and never went back.
I left home in 1969 the year Colour T.V. started arriving in a few salubrious places. The effect of Woodstock and the summer of love was making itself felt. We emerging young women had been given a bridge to cross over a Rubicon without knowing it. When I got to college in 1970, curfews were no more. Reliable contraception in the form of the pill was being widely used, and although there was talk of people ‘living in sin’ and although sex before marriage, was still talked about as if it were ‘a big thing’, we were free to have boyfriends to stay over, at college (but not usually at home).
What were our ambitions? We had the idea that happiness could be achieved if we were good. We ought to have a qualification to fall back on, find our Mr Right and buy a sensible house, have a nice little family, and go back to work if we wanted to. That’s what school, parents, T.V. and magazines steered us towards.
I met Chris at Eighteen and we married when I was twenty and he was twenty four. That was early, but fairly normal for the time. I wanted to finish training, and Chris was perfectly happy for me to do so. He was in The Royal Navy and was often away flying helicopters from an aircraft carrier for those years anyway. I stayed living in student accommodation. I qualified in 1973 and Chris aimed to have a shore job at the naval air station at Culdrose so we went to live in Cornwall, a couple of hours from my old home.
At that time women couldn’t get a mortgage in their own right. That wasn’t possible for another decade or so. We usually partnered, through marriage with a man and his salary, and then bought a house that had both our names on the deeds. The question of careers opposed to having children, was still answered in favour of giving up work while the children were small. There wasn’t a lot of childcare, and there was no great financial need. Mortgages were arranged up to three times the man’s salary which was doable on the one main salary. If he were lucky, the husband would be earning between two and four thousand pounds a year. I think a year’s salary at that time for an O.T. was around £1,500. Our first house in 1974 was around £10,000.
In my Cornish family, my brothers and I moved away from Cornwall, but we stayed in the UK. The children of the next generation have moved further. Our three children have ended up with Tim going on a student exchange in Chicago and staying over there, Lucy settling in the Leeds area, and Nick going on a trip to explore the world and ended up in New Zealand.
In our generation, there was no more Sunday lunch with grandma and grandad, and no more driving 100 miles for a summer week at the beach with the kids and dog on the train.
Whilst this scenario doesn’t describe everyone, and apologies to those who this doesn’t resonate with, I think I have described a pretty normal childhood for you grandmas in my cohort, my research group who were brought up in the fifties and sixties. If you had kissed more boys than me by the age of seventeen and had more than three mini-skirts, well lucky you.
We may not have realised it, but those of us born after the second world war, the baby boomer generation, had many advantages never known before. We had parents who survived the war. The newly formed N.H.S. meant health care was free, and antibiotics kept us healthy. We were inoculated against polio and TB. We may have begun our lives with rationing, but by the time we had pocket money we could buy sherbet dips and Mars bars. As we grew and went off to our Victorian built schools and ate our school dinners, we were read to, and then we smashed through all the Enid Blyton books on our own. At least some of our family lived near us and we had the average education that would make us into useful citizens. There was more gender equality than before, helped by women’s wartime work on the land and in factories. We played different school games to the boys in the playground. We played hopscotch, skipping, and bouncy ball. They played football. We sat on different sides of the classroom, but we could wear jeans and were free to roam. It wasn’t all equal though, girls were expected to do housework but not boys. We farm girls could ride our ponies astride which only three generations before would have been frightfully bad mannered. We had access to Brownies and Guides as our brothers had Cubs and Scouts. We could all go camping although strictly separately. We wore school blazers or gabardine macs and our best woollen coat for church.
I remember my first zip-up wind-cheater which seemed so soft and free. Church attendance and Sunday school was still quite normal. We didn’t consider beliefs much, it was just something we did. Discos were a new thing and the concept of a beef burger in a bun with chips was exotic. Mini-skirts and pop music arrived in the shops in Plymouth when I was a teenager. Blue Peter, Twiggy, Dixon of Dock Green, Mary Quant, Crossroads, Jack-a-nory, Up the Junction. We had a few shillings of pocket money, and we could spend it on sweets, books, and a comic, then the first teen magazines.
Girls had the same education as the boys apart from the woodwork and cookery classes which we were separated for. One girl in my class got special dispensation to do woodwork instead of home economics with was breath-taking.
Nylon stockings and suspenders were just going out, as we grew old enough to give up socks. Tights the colour of ‘American Tan’, which warmed up the colour of our pale legs, were coming in. They didn’t ladder as much as the old nylons, but they were still a responsibility and certainly curtailed tomboyish activities. We had a varied diet which included Angel Delight, dried mashed potato and tinned pineapple and soup. Our mothers cooked all our meals. We ate out very occasionally, perhaps on a shopping expedition. I remember we were taken to the Berni Inn at Plymouth once. It was for a steak lunch to educate us children on how to order a meal in a restaurant worked. Dad astonished us by ordering a gin and tonic. I remember staring from Dad, to the waiter, the tray, the bubbles, the slice of lemon, and back to Dad sipping away, as if he did it all the time.
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.