Today would have been my grandma's 89th birthday. All three of us are Taurus, all three of us stubborn and strongheaded in our own way.... she looked more lady-like than my mum and I maybe, but it was there bubbling under the surface. She made her decision and stuck to it. She often said, 'I married your grandpa very young, I was 18. We met at a party, I was very impressed by him. He wasn't the easiest man. At some point I said to myself, you can stay or you can go. If you go, you have to go now. And if you stay then you can't complain, you shut up. I thought about it for a long time and when I made my decision I lived with it'. I asked her one day why she stayed if she wasn't that happy, 'Well, you know, he gave me a very good life. He wasn't easy to live with but we had a very interesting life, we traveled, we did things. It was a very good life.' And that was the thing: she looked small and fragile and delicate but she made decisions and she stuck to them. She had diabetes from the age of 40, the doctors didn't know if she would survive long - but she lived until she was 88, mostly by taking really good care of herself. She worked with a number of doctors in a diabetes charity helping with their research, 'they knew all about the medicine and about the body, but I was the one with the actual diabetes, and they needed that', for about 20 years and then she went off to work as a volunteer in a museum helping them to catalogue art that got donated. 'I had to look at the art, describe it and write down who donated it. They kept a typewriter for me. I don't know about computers, not at my age I can't learn now, but they were kind and they kept a typewriter and I worked on that.'
She was right, they did travel. My grandpa was an academic who got invited to conferences, sometimes for three months or more. She visited Japan, New Zealand and Canada, and we have sketches from trips to Turkey, Kenya, Jordan and various European countries. 'It doesn't matter if you know the language, you smile, you gesture, they smile, they gesture and eventually you manage to communicate somehow. That's how it is'. She spent a lot of time walking round cities, drinking coffee, visiting museums, looking at art, sketching. They went to the theatre, the opera, and visited other academics. 'I met an awful lot of interesting people, an awful lot. They all knew such a lot, they always had something to talk about. I enjoyed the traveling immensely'.
In many ways, she had a hard life, but in many ways her life was quite easy too: she mostly volunteered, she entertained, and met interesting people. She baked, cooked, and stitched, though she could stop doing a lot of that when ready to wear clothes came in and you could buy ready made food at the shops. 'I remember when we made our own clothes, but now it is much simpler. You don't have to make clothes that last for 20 years anymore, you can buy different things each year, different colours, different patterns. So much nicer!'. The real passions of her life were painting, listening to music and drinking coffee. She used to go for a stroll to the cafe on Aza Road and have a coffee and then walk back. She did that for as long as I can remember. When I was young we would go for coffee and she would sketch, I'd sit and people watch and drink strawberry juice or apple juice. She was so happy when I started drinking coffee at about 13 years old. She would go to concerts and the theatre, and when she came over the visit we would always get a matinee and go to the museums, maybe Madame Tussaud's, or the Planetarium, but always the National Gallery, the Tate, the Hayward. And then sometimes Selfridges for tea afterwards.
I'm sure if she knew she would be cross with me for remembering her today at all. 'Me? What? I don't care about my birthday. When you get to my age you'll see it doesn't mean anything. But you! You should make sure you buy yourself something nice. Make sure you have fun. Above all things make sure you do something nice.' Happy birthday Grandma, who taught me to live while you still can.