A favourite childhood memory is of Granny reading aloud to us. She came to South Africa once, for three months over December 1969 to January into 1970. After she left, we never saw her again, although she was an important presence in our lives until she died, at 79 in 1979.
She was a tall, regal woman who smoked cigarettes with a long holder; her tipples of choice were gin and tonic (to which she inadvertently introduced me at the ripe old age of twenty months) and the not-so-occasional Advokaat. She was a prodigious knitter and reader of stories. She could not cook.* Hardly surprising, given her upbringing and as she had been widowed with four very young children, and shortly after having been widowed, all four children caught diphtheria and one died.
To make ends meet, I had thought that Granny worked in the Morris Factory in Oxford – making bombs and that she had taken in young evacuees from London (sewed into brown paper for winter warmth), billeting soldiers in the family home.
I’m not sure how these “memories” became “fact” for me, so I am delighted to have been given the real ones from one of Mum’s sisters, Susan. Having seen the original of this post, this is what she wrote about Granny, whom the three sisters referred to as Flossie:
“During the war she went into the war factory in Cowley. All women who did not have very young children were called up to do whatever was local and needed. The factory was called MPRD – metal produce recovery department. (It had made bodies for cars in peacetime). Their jobs were dismantling crashed aeroplanes for recycling. She absolutely loved it – it was a whole new world to be with lots of people – all women on their own mostly – and they had a lot of fun.
“Flossie was a star member of the dramatic society and continued with that after the war. She and her sisters used to make up plays and act them – and become the people in them!
“She and her sisters had had quite a sheltered life with a governess and servants but after their mother died (at the age of 42) the younger two, Bobby and Terry, went to boarding school and I don’t know what happened to Jilly who was 5 when her Ma died. Flossie was 18 and took over the parish** visiting so had never had much fun…
“… They worked very long hours 7 – 7 and 7 days a week in the early years of the war….
“We all became very self-sufficient children and most of us were ’latchkey’ kids. But times were different then and there was always someone about to keep an eye out on children.”
“It’s been interesting talking to Jane [the middle of the remaining (now two) sisters] over the years as we remember very different things from those times. Flossie absolutely adored babies and very young children (like you were before Jim and Ula [my parents] were back in SA) …
“We never had evacuees in the house (though they gave most of us head lice) but we did have a soldier billeted on us for a bit, and after he left we had an air force officer – and he certainly helped out with the finances. Everyone was hard up in those days but equally, apart from food there wasn’t much to spend money on. As clothes were strictly rationed and very utilitarian, one didn’t feel out of things – we were all in the same boat!!”
Back to Granny: in addition to her reading to us, and knitting madly at the same time, my memories include her singing “Scarlet Ribbons”.
and reciting Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat***
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
Now knowing about Granny’s love of amdram, I have an insight into why her reading and singing were so particularly memorable.
I’m not sure whether the subsequent love of this particular poem was prophetic or not, but as I have mentioned before, I have long had a love affair with cats and began collecting owls long, long before the current fad. They became, for many years a lucky charm, particularly after a competition at school (although I’m not sure that it really was a competition), about legends and symbols. My contribution was a pencil-drawn picture of an owl on the branch of a tree, with the moon behind it. I’m sure it was inspired by Lear’s poem and the ubiquitous illustrations that went with it. Anyhow, the teachers seemed to think it was prizeworthy and had it framed. It was presented to me during morning assembly; this was the only time I ever walked across a stage in my academic career – until I graduated from university. I have no idea what happened to that picture although it hung in my parents’ bedroom for years.
My second pussy-cat was a tortoiseshell, and a rescue, acquired after Comfrey had decided that he would rather live in his old territory. He moved in with the new tenant of my old flat (using cat food as a bribe, the Cat’s Mother had to negotiate that agreement). Calico was my companion for the next ten years, moving to two new towns in two different provinces, watching me marry and then divorce. She must have approved of The Husband because she went to kitty heaven not long after we had got together; she must have known that he had set his heart on me…and that all would be good in my world.
Owls are much in evidence in the house… on top of the CD stand, in a tablescape in the guest room and on a newly-acquired teapot. Some of them, like the glass one in the bottom right picture, has travelled with me for twenty-five-odd years after I bought her bought from Ngwenya Glass on a visit to Swaziland in about 1991. She’s made from recycled glass coca cola bottles, and that, long before recycling was “in” and Ngwenya had become a “brand”.
Others have been with me so long, I have no idea whence they came.
The garden is not “owl-free” either:
All these owls are made by a local craftsman, Fabian, who learned his craft from, Koos Malgas.
So, whether having had cats as constant companions all my adult life, and my sometimes ill-disciplined fascination with owls, can be attributed to Granny and Edward Lear, I don’t know, but they are all enduring reminders of both!
When I first wrote about Granny, it was based on my memories and of what my mother had told me. In the last few weeks I have, happily, learned more about her. This from Aunt Susan, the youngest of the four daughters and whom I last saw in 1991 – the year after this photograph was taken, and the only one I have of the two of us.
*I know this because, before we left the UK for South Africa, I was, at three, shipped off to Granny so Mum could pack unencumbered. I have a few memories of that visit: other than black doors with handles I couldn’t reach, cold, white sheets and burnt gravy that Granny could not disguise – even with tomato sauce (ketchup)! The latter fact was also corroborated by cousin Jonathon (Susan’s son), on a brief visit to Cape Town, some five years ago.
**As I recall, her father was an Anglican priest.
© Fiona’s Favourites 2015, updated 2016