Thursday, January 08, 2015

About Annie

Sometimes there's so much to say and no clear place to begin. Write any daft thing down, but just start: over-the-shoulder advice from a parent when bedtime was within sight and the homework nowhere to be seen. Even now, an empty page balks back until cleaning the bathtub feels easier. Tonight is just one of those nights, full of so much indecision that going to the pub and finding words for a friend is a hardship. Even when it's not quite clear how else you can spend the evening.

It's this feeling that has me pottering around the flat, doing everything and nothing. I skipped the first track on an album and listened to the rest of it over, as I have done all week. I laboured over a pot of daal, only to freeze it straight afterwards. I wanted to lose myself in the cooking like I might on another evening, cheeks flushed, radio on, wine glass in hand. Feeling it all. But tonight I’m distracted and not at one with myself. This little pocket of mine, this cosy flat isn't cocooning me like it normally does, and it’s unsettling. This is my space, me, champion of solitude, but I’ve found myself going from room to room, as if I’ve put my keys down somewhere. Unfinished tasks spread across the place. There’s a new hole that’s opened up and I hadn’t accounted for it being there. But it’s there, and so lovely I want to sink back into it. It’s appeared out of nowhere, this woozy little hole, growing and getting hungrier and becoming more consuming and it feels alright to let myself get pulled in, especially now. My family is gently shaking, there’s a small quake under the surface, measuring so low on the Richter scale we can barely feel it, but we know it’s there. It’s easier to ride through it when there’s someone else to hold onto, but that’s not something I want to admit, because what if there wasn’t somebody else to hold on? That’s not a very forgiving sentiment to have. But I want this other who has recently started slotting into this space, my space, to be around. And what for? So I can sit here and be equally distracted from my book in their presence?  Maybe I should just start this album from the beginning. I look at the travel-sized bottle of eyewash in my bathroom, so very glad it's there, and curse it for making my flat feel quieter than I feel comfortable with.

"We've said everything we need to say, haven't we lovey?" Granny said before I left her on Friday. These words left me with such a deep comfort. I tucked them away along with "I'll always be close to you" a line that in writing, looks lifted from a romantic comedy, but which made me sob uncontrollably in the corridor outside of my work. Something that she didn't need to tell me, but that felt truer because she had. People don't really go away. I sat with these words, and the photos I took from the big red trunk in her sitting room, and sat on the train back to Manchester swimming in it all. I tried to put things down onto paper, into the very truest eulogy possible. This was tricky in itself because the image of myself standing in front of a crowd kept popping into my head, until it stopped feeling terrifying and started feeling vain. A pre-emptive, self-congratulatory slap on the back, like a drunken best man at a wedding, happier with himself and his chosen words than the sentiment behind them. I wanted to get it right. This wasn't going to be John Hannah devastating everybody, slewing them with e.e. cummings. This is me, talking about my Granny and what she meant to me, to us, to people in a crowd I don't yet know. A tug of war between the past tense and the present, a crowd that isn't gathered yet but will be soon.

So we've said everything we need to say. Yes, and no. In a way. When I'm back in Manchester, the line loses its power. There is so much left to tell you, I think. There are things I have to say but I can't because they haven't happened. Like, "Granny, my book is finished, here's the first copy." or "Thank god, I don't feel repulsed any more. I'm happy and so in love." I even realise now, quite bitterly that I don't know where that bloody potter is! Somewhere near Tetbury, she couldn't even remember, she had to drive around until she recognised the streets and found his shop. She bought me that glazed pot with a geometric pattern for my last birthday, just weeks before we found out she was ill. I opened it at work, telling Polly that it was from "my Mum's Mum" so she would know it was from the writer Granny, the one who writes me postcards about the changes in her garden, the peace of the seasons adjusting. I wonder how many of those postcards she wrote to me when she was ill and none of us knew it yet. I have a stack of them in a drawer, in that tricky-to-read handwriting. Written mostly over the last four years and it was probably growing inside of her the whole time, while she was scratching an itch at the back of her head.

In February she wrote me;
All well here. Life is full of good things. Yesterday I had lunch in the garden! The bulbs are coming up. Spring will be here soon.

She signed off take care my lovely girl and carry on living life to the full!! then there was an asterisk, and tucked into a tiny gap was written *it's a knack we both seem to have...

It's a knack we have because she gave it to me. She plonked it right into my lap, along with the uncontrollable urge to pee whenever in a bookshop, scrapbooking and being kind to souls; one's own and those of others. The latter, a Christian relic from her upbringing as a vicar's daughter, is always a work in progress, of course. Even when we want not to, there are always some people we hurt along the way.

I sat on that train and spread the photographs out. Annie in Mallorca. Tanned and glamorous, heavier and happy. Annie’s daughters sitting at the dining room table, looking the same but also different. Annie standing on a Cornwall coastal path, hair dyed chestnut red, framed by tall grasses and eleven shocking pink foxgloves. A careless grin, the sort produced when the person on the other side of the camera really knows you, and you really know them. It was Joan behind the lens, one of Granny's oldest friends. This was just one of their many trips together; Joan would fly over from Vermont and they would set off on adventures typified by belly laughs and walking boots. As they got older those protective knee-bandages would come along for the ride too, but the Thelma and Louise spirit was still there. Though she was married to Grandpa for almost 30 years, Granny has had dozens of mini-marriages too. Enduring female friendships especially, with women of all generations. Goths, health freaks, university friends, musicians, survivors, pragmatists, her fellow welsh women and crop circle enthusiasts, all picked up along the way. Annie has shared her warmth with them, given them hours over the phone, and all together they created this bubble of incredible female energy, a power you can't bottle, but can’t help but pass on. A bunch of gossips sharing this not-so-great secret on. Surround yourself with this energy, and everything will fall into place. 

To call Granny a 'strong woman' doesn't seem to do her justice, because nobody is strong really. Does strong mean you bulldoze through, not feeling things, never making mistakes? If we change our conception of strength to include flaws, hypocrisy, personal growth and a consistent loyalty it's a much better fit. Granny is strong, flawed and glorious like all my favorite women are. In her red trunk she has a folder labelled 'Life's Work (Professional)' which for anybody else might sound dubiously ambitious, but which for her makes total sense. She's been constantly working; on herself, on her mind, her relationships and her beliefs about this world. The curiosity has kept her young and active. She used to be a teacher, reading DH Laurence to her pupils, and always willing them towards subversion and new tastes. But she's always been a learner too, and I have always admired the fact that she isn't scared to look like a learner, or to look out of depth in her new chosen field of interest, elbowing her way through to the experts as a visible newbie. She's been doing this for as long as I've been here. In the trunk I also found a hand-drawn timeline of 'Important Life Events', starting not at 1942, but at 1992. What had come before was just as important; the Africa years, the births of Lucy and Mary, that Christmas as a child when the popular girl at school got to dress up as Carmen Miranda and Annie had to go as a fir tree. But 1992, aged 50 was when an important chapter started for Annie. She didn't know it then but it would be the beginning of a twenty-year period of getting to know herself again, after her children had left home. She took herself on a six week tour of India, her first trip alone and toed that line of cherishing beers beneath bougainvillaea and then feeling quite melancholy, only to go back to feeling on top of the world the next morning. It was during this time that Annie learned to be alone after Dick died, and came to acquire that knack of living life to the full. She would be formative in moulding my small mind, teaching me that a good life could come from carving out a space for yourself, but also being open to others. I watched her carving her space. She carved it when we walked down the pavement, and she carved it in her little flat, where we spent afternoons after she had picked me up from school. A photograph from the pile on the train table showed a view her garden; courgette plants, yukkas and ivy sprawling in the background, and at the front, a wicker table. Set for one, with a cup of tea and a book open flat in a perfect pool of lunchtime light. I imagined her full of the moment, jumping up to grab her camera so as not to forget that afternoon and the others like it in A Garden of One's Own.

This is where I come stuck, because what do we mean when we talk about living life to the full? She's only 72- that's not full. When Granny first found out she was ill she wrote this wonderful eulogy for herself. An alternative eulogy, packed with white lies and great, big glaring additions. Me and my Mum always joke never let the truth get in the way of a good story, a reference to Granny's skill for exaggeration. So in that sense Granny's eulogy was nothing but true. There was a trip to Mongolia, a fling with a yak farmer, adventures in Morocco. All the while the continuing need for work to be done, all the time out-witting illness.

Granny hasn't outwit this illness, and she knew she wouldn't from the beginning, I think, even when she was making us mad by talking about living for another 10 years, undoing it all by taking sea kelp medication. But the peace and acceptance she has at the end show that she feels she has lived a full life. Not as full as she might have liked but blooming close. And anyway, what's this fantastical obsession we all have with the ideal death? The work is never done. Very rarely is the last page complete. One of life's greatest acts of mischief is that there's never a conclusion. It just yanks the carpet out from under your feet. It's a wonder that we're always hunting for bookends, for closure, when we know we will rarely find them. We all have to go, and Annie is going. We don't like it one bit, but we loved her and she loved us and thank god for that. "I'm going to ignore Dylan Thomas and go gentle into the night." she said recently from her bed. She’s managed to stay in her own home, and that’s been the best bit of all. She said that she’d been going to some deep places during her naps. Going deeper and deeper. Dipping your toe in, I said, taking a rekkie ahead of the journey. I always thought that watching the deterioration of somebody you love would be the most harrowing thing; she's gotten so very thin but I’ve been surprised it's not been so nearly as terrible as I’d initially imagined, because she's still Annie. This is all par of the course, we are all constantly changing on the surface, our bodies as vessels, transforming faster at times than at others. Along the way we are ourselves, great life-long projects, the work of us, and the others we choose to pass the bricks to. She has this bell next to her bed, and she rings it when she needs something. It’s actually pretty funny. She rings it, and summons whoever happens to be pottering about downstairs. There's always somebody now, because she needs them there, and those friends, the energetic females have gathered, because 'in sickness and in health.' Whichever close friend or relative will come up the stairs, like a servant ascending from the quarters. You see, at least I know I’m not making it all up, she says.

Over Christmas I spent a lot of time walking around the park. It's the triangle at the centre of our houses, between my Mum and Andy, and Mary and her family, and Granny. It’s the park I spent three summers working in, making coffees for people and doing the crossword and sweating profusely at times. I walked along the paths feeling so sad, and stumped by it all, but also so alive. That doesn’t sound like a tasteful thing to say in the context of the dying, but there’s nothing like looking down into that strange void for blowing the cobwebs away. When you can walk around a park aimlessly and just watch the trees, and the changing light and go slowly, things add up. Small pleasures announce themselves and the presence of time becomes more prominent. I watched a pack of small boys doing loops around the park on their micro scooters, and was tickled by the one falling behind at the back, absorbed by the tarmac moving beneath his feet, not watching what was in front of him. I could see the blue sliver of Granny's house at the bottom of the hill, and thought of her in bed where she would be watching the tops of the trees, and the sky, with less time than us. I looped around some more, passing the same dog walkers and the same Dad gently saying ‘come on’ as he pushed his daughter uphill on her bike. I recognised them as a pair I had sold ice lollies to.

Use your time and use your words. It's important to use your time and use your words, because I think that's what we mean when we talk about living life to the full. And they don’t even always have to be the right words, because as we know, you always have to start somewhere, even if it feels daft. You can’t always deliver a line that’ll knock somebody sideways with sadness, though actually it’s pretty skilled if you have the knack. I'm back to feeling comforted by Granny's line. We've said everything we need to say, and really she already knows the rest of the words that are still to come. She knows that what lies ahead for any of us is what lies behind for her. It’ll all tick along, almost as before and I’ll still feel her here because we used our time together, all 23 years of them, and it feels almost remarkable that it wasn't twice that amount.


Anonymous said...

So sorry for your loss, it is the weirdest feeling losing a grandmother - I lost mine a few years back and though our relationship was not as close as your's appears to have been, it was still the most baffling feeling of sadness - your bit about walking through the park feeling both sad and alive sums it up pretty well. I have to add, even though I don't know you and didn't know your granny personally -so I hope I am not overstepping a line, I think you have done her a beautiful service through this piece. Just so perfectly put. You have a fantastic talent for writing and I hope writing this was somewhat cathartic for you but also that you are proud of it.

Unknown said...

Despite the consequence, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.
Sometimes we go through situations out of our control. Sometimes we do things for other people simply because they need it.
As a child I found it much easier to accept the world swirling around me, as an adult I find it much more difficult to stay centered. You sound centered.
Beautiful writing, thank you for sharing

Eleni Johnston said...

Oh Stevie
Such beautiful sentiments for Annie,
thank you
Sending you loving thoughts too

Anna Straker said...

Stevie I am in awe of your eloquence, and your sensibility. You do have a lot of Annie in you. I wish you and the rest of the family much love. Anna

Gaynor said...

Beautiful Stevie xx

Anonymous said...

This was beautiful. X

Unknown said...

I don't think you could ever have found better words about loss and love and inspiration than these Stevie. I know they are about your personal grief but you took me straight back to the raw loss I felt when I lost my dad 6 years ago. Your Annie sounds incredible, and I can't help but wish I'd managed to squeeze in as many of those sorts of words with my dad. It is always a funny mix of regret and acceptance, of loss but their constant companionship. I'm sending you my love and two tips- 1. Read Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, if you haven't already. She seems to say everything there is to say. 2. Be kind to yourself. Grief isn't a linear process which recedes in a neat line down to nothing. It raises its head at many an unexpected moment and you have to allow it to wash over you. Thinking of you and yours,

Chambray & Curls

Louisa said...

This is so beautiful and touching. Keep living life to the full, carrying those bricks passed on from your Granny. From a long time reader x

Anonymous said...

Hugs. I know what you are going through. Her beauty already lives in you.

Emma Lavelle said...

This is so beautifully wrote, and so touching. I'm really sorry for your loss, Stevie. xx

mightymackers said...

This post completely knocked me sideways with sadness. Utterly beautiful Stevie, Annie sounds wonderful and thank you for sharing your time that you have spent with her with us too. Lots of love from a long time readers of yours xxxx

Ally said...

I'm so sorry for your loss Stevie. This is such a beautiful and heartbreaking piece. Thinking of you xoxo

Dad said...

Stevie, this is so incredibly powerful, beautiful and real. Just like you x

Jane (Fitton) said...

Beautiful words, Stevie. I will never forget your lovely granny. I fondly remember her reading D.H. Lawrence's 'The Rainbow' and bringing Chaucer's 'Wife of Bath' absolutely to life during my A level years. There was never a shortage of laughter during Annie's classes. I am so grateful to have had her as my teacher. She's a really special lady. Love to you all at this difficult time.

Camille said...

This was beautifully written, and so, so moving. I wish I could find comforting words to send you, but I think the best comfort is to be found in having had such a beautiful, special person in your life. Sending you all my best wishes xox

Gran said...

My dear Stevie - those beautiful, touching words, so full of depth and feeling and love. You are truly gifted as a writer and have a wisdom about life far beyond your years. I know that much of that wisdom has been passed on to you from Annie. All my love. X

logsy said...

Stevie, I can't explain how much this piece of writing (and sad but beautiful story) has stuck with me since reading it all those weeks ago. Completely breathtaking.