He had left home at seventeen, left England even, escaped to Egypt. Time and distance, and a bit of a determined effort on his part to sound more cosmopolitan had softened the way he spoke, erased his broad north country accent, replaced it with something more elegantly BBC-ish British.
Now, our dad warned in a long-distance phone call, when my sister and I, at sixteen and twenty respectively that summer of 1973, arrived in his native Preston to meet our grandmother for the first time, we might have a hard time understanding her, his mother, the grandmother we'd never met.
"Yell be looky t'ken owt" he joked.
[Translation: We'd be lucky to understand anything.]Nancy and I were anxious as we traveled north from London by bus. Nervous to meet her. What if he was right, what if we didn't understand a bloody word? What if she was, as he said, 'a right witch' by which we'd decided, he meant bitch. After all, this was the grandmother that had our own mother flaring her nostrils at the mention of her name. According to our mum, she and our dad had taken our brother Russell to see her in Preston when he was a baby. Instead of spending the entire visit cooing over her grandson, Grandma Good had insisted our dad take her to the pub, leaving our mother and the baby home alone.
"Don't worry about her" our grandmother had reportedly said. "Leave her with a pack of cigarettes and she'll be highly delighted."That did not go over well. This was the same grandmother that according to family lore, had thrown a knife at our dad in the middle—or more accurately, the end—of a bitter family feud. No surprise then, that he left home as soon as he could. As far as we knew he'd hadn't been home since that visit in the 1950's with our brother.
Nancy and I, in England that summer visiting London, staying at our other grandmother's home, were taking a side trip up to Preston on our dad's behalf. The trip represented a peace offering of sorts, we didn't know what to expect.
The Preston neighborhood where Grandma Good lived was nothing like the town of Chorleywood where Grandma Hayden lived. Chorleywood was green and filled with trees, country lanes, and rosebushes, the quintessential modern English village, but just a half-hour from London, filled with affluent commuters who worked in town. Preston was filled with factories and former textile mills. Dark muddy-colored brick buildings lined dreary industrial looking streets. Maybe it was just a dull, dun-toned kind of day but just stepping off the bus, the whole place felt grey and oppressive.
The houses too were different. One clean, expansive, well-tended. The other, likely a council house, was attached to a row of others, was crowded and cramped inside, dank, a bit slap-dash our dad would have said. Spending the afternoon with our dad's mother, Nancy and I were stunned at the contrast between our two grannies. While prim and proper Grandma Hayden, always buttoned up with her grey hair pinned up in a neat little bun, wouldn't dream of going out of the house without stockings and a hat, a cross between Miss Marple and the Queen Mother; our Grandma Good had suspiciously dark hair that bounced in a frizz of curls around her head. No neat and tidy uniform of the old lady brigade for her; instead a bright, silky patterned dress contained her more sizable girth. Only a lacy maroon apron tied around her waist, anchored it from floating free like a sail in the wind as she moved this way and that.
Where Grandma Hayden was measured in her speech, ladylike and refined, Grandma Good shot out questions like bullets. She talked fast and loud as she bustled around in the kitchen while we sat feeling awkward in the small sitting room, thankful we'd booked a room near the bus station. We barely understood her. We must have looked like 'a right pair of daft buggers' in our confusion. Together we worked out that she was asking if we were hungry, did we want tea, how was the trip, how was our father, it had been too long, what were we doing with our selves then, sorry we can't put you up it's a bit tight quarters, where were we headed next, here's the mister now, say hello, oh there's the kettle, did we want a bikkie, give me a minute.
Feeling like strangers, we caught up as best we could: I told her I was paying my own way through school, transferring to UCLA in the fall. Nancy said she was still in high school; it was okay. Grandma said yes, our dad's sister Lillian still lived in Preston. It was true, Lillian and our Dad had always gotten on. Lillian had two daughters now. Not much younger than us. She was sorry we wouldn't be there long enough to meet them. Lillian was at work. The girls were in school.
Before we left, she told our fortunes.
"Didn't your dad tell you then? I'm a bit of a gypsy."She read my sister's palm and predicted she'd marry someone named Mark and have three children. Back home in California Nancy had a crush on a boy named Mark who had a ridiculous mustache. Despite that silly mustache, Nancy was annoyed that my parents had sent her to join me in England just because I was homesick; I'd ruined her romance. Now she couldn't wait to get back home to her true love. Except he wasn't her true love, that Mark turned out to be the wrong Mark. The right Mark, her Mark—truly, my sister married a man named Mark—came a half dozen years later. They had three daughters.
What I recall about my fortune is my grandmother offering to read my tea leaves and then glancing into my teacup and frowning. When will I get married? I asked. No answer. How many children do you see? 'Two' she said finally, checking my hand as well, I see two children.
Nancy and I walked up the hill away from the house, relieved it was over, eager to get on with the rest of our trip. We felt bad we couldn't make more of a connection. Blood may be thicker than water but family didn't mean all that much if you didn't take the time to nurture it. You can't expect to find affection after twenty years of separation, twenty years of silence.
I thought about the fortune my grandmother told me from time to time over the years. Especially as the years passed and an early failed marriage left me childless. Then in my late twenties and early 30's I lived with a man who'd already raised one set of kids and didn't want another. I left that relationship childless too, convinced I didn't really care. It wasn't until I was thirty-nine years old that I met my own Mark. We hurried but time was running out on my child-bearing years and we only have the one child, a son. Don't get me wrong, he's the best son. An amazing, smart, talented, loving person, a wonderful son. One child as miraculous as he is, is more than any mother could reasonably hope for and I've never wished I had another child except as a brother or sister for him in his old age. That's my only regret.
During the early weeks of my pregnancy with our son though, I woke up one morning cramping and in pain. I had what we thought was a miscarriage. I was devastated until I learned a month later that I was still pregnant. I was still carrying a child, a boy. The general consensus was that I was most likely carrying twins. That I had been, in fact, carrying two children.
Maybe my grandmother was 'a right witch' after all.
I'm linking up with Joy Weese Moll's British Isles Friday meme where you'll find book reviews and more from fellow Anglophiles.