When you talk to your older relatives it is sometimes hard to picture them as children or teenagers. Like all of us they have misadventures they might have gotten up to in those early years – and in wilder times sometimes wilder adventures were possible.
As I watched my Nana get older and her memory of what happened just yesterday become increasingly transient, still a certain glitter in the eye started to appear.
As our memory of today sometimes begins to fade, the longer term memories of our formative years seems to come back into clarity, and many a giggle was induced by asking my Nana to talk about her earlier days.
That glitter look is one that says,’ as I’m telling you this, and I’m not an old woman sitting in a chair I can hardly get out of, but I’m my 16 year old self again, and I’m enjoying it.’
I tried to get that look from my Nana as much as possible over the last few years of her life, and she was always ready to oblige. Some aspects of her childhood were unlike mine or most other people I know – I had the advantage of a proper schooling and was not forced into work in my early teens, for example.
Other things were perhaps more consistent with perpetual experiences of that age; how, for example, do you bunk off work to spend the afternoon in the back row of the cinema with that handsome young sailor (who would in due course become my grandfather) without (1) losing your job at the hotel and (2) without your father finding out?
My Nana was up to it though. Cue giggles.
Her hard start to life helped create some interesting attitudes during wartime too. One of her favourite tales was as a teenager working as a maid at the Grand hotel near Newcastle Central Station during the war. One day she was cleaning at room at the hotel when a bomb went off nearby. Taking cover as glass from the windows saturated the room, she rose, unharmed but furious; she had just finished cleaning the room, and now there was all this cursed glass to clean up!
But her favourite story was about turnips, or rather a particular turnip.
Growing up in a large and poor family near Marsden in South Tyneside, you had to take what you could get. That included what came free to eat, including the blackberries that a lot of people ignore nowadays. But they were seriously worth grabbing, and one year when she was eight or nine my Nana was sent out on the mission to get as many as she could. Unfortunately for her, the kids from Sunderland a few miles down the coast had been let out of school earlier than her and had stripped the brambles bare by the time she was able to get to them.
Downhearted, my Nana started out for home, desperate that she had nothing to bring her family.
On the way home she passed a field of turnips. They were beautiful turnips, big and ready to harvest.
Surely this was the one and only opportunity she would have. Not as sweet and special as blackberries, but still…
So my Nana used her hands and dug up the biggest turnip she could carry and scarpered. She raced towards home with her prize, but it then started to rain heavily, and in a mix of both hiding her theft and, as she indicated to us, protecting her prize from the ensuing downpour, she took off her one and only coat and wrapped the root vegetable in it.
So she arrived home, soaked to the skin and with all her clothes covered in mud, proudly bearing a stolen turnip.
Of course she received a beating for the act; that’s just what happened at that time.
But my Nana always brushed that off (as she dabbed the tears of laughter away) because, as she explained, afterwards the family went onto eat the turnip anyway.
And then she would look at me with a twinkle in her eyes and grab my wrist with a tiny hand that still had a grip like iron. She would pull me towards her so she could whisper:
‘And do you know what?’ She would say,’ I still love turnip today!’