Some people never have the joy of having grandparents. I was lucky enough to know all of mine, although both grandfathers died relatively young. I did however have effectively three grandmothers.
Not being the result of weird 1970s fertility experiment, this was largely because I had a Great Aunt who effectively adopted me as a grandson. She was my dad’s aunt and the next one down in age order from my actual grandmother and one of many siblings, who first exposed me to the kind of kindred mafia that can occur in bit families, the kind of thing that can be summarised as treating each other on a spectrum of toleration to outright conflict between the siblings, but woe be tide anyone from outside the clan that dared to criticise; and instant, instinctive, closing of ranks and a momentary forgetfulness of ongoing bitter feuds in the face of a common attack on the Family.
So, my Great Aunt lived across the road from myself and my parents (I’m an only child, if you do not count the dogs). I have no idea, thinking back, how this state of affairs came to be, as the family did not come from the Chester-le-Street area, coming mainly from Gateshead and South Shields. I never questioned it as a child and I do not know if it was coincidence (highly unlikely) or whether she moved to be close to my parents – and me – which is much more likely.
My Great Aunt had an interesting life. Like my grandmother, and most of the clan, she left school early as the important thing was getting some work to help ends meet and they both worked in one of a small chain of fruiter’s shops in the North East (many were the horror stories of large and terrifying spiders etc. crawling out of the bananas; apparently, there was only one young man who worked in the store and he got the unenviable job of dealing with the unwelcome stowaways). What changed things was that for reasons unreported, my Great Aunt ended up married to the man who owned the chain of shops.
Suddenly, she had status and money, and there are several pictures I have of her dressed up at meetings and conferences in the south of France or Rome. One of my most treasured possessions is large bronze medallion she gave me, an award her husband had received at one of these do’s. they had no children together, which is why she ‘adopted’ me. When he died young, he left her with a generous allowance but left the real money to a daughter from a previous marriage. She never got on with his daughter; as far as I remember she never even mentioned her in the twenty years I knew her and only found out about she existed from the comments from my dad when he was executor to her will.
Of course, this ‘good fortune’ meant that the relationships with siblings became extremely strained. She had broken ranks and was now ‘above herself’. The only siblings she ever stayed on speaking terms with was her younger brother – and he was the sweetest and gentlest of men, I was always fond of Uncle Albert – and my grandmother – although in the latter case this was largely by necessity as they had to share me. I remember many Christmas days, which would have a section where my grandmother would go over to my Great Aunt’s house for sherry and cake (suspiciously without my parents, my mum could be cunning when she wanted to be!) and I would sit and watch the tension build to the point we would leave just before the outbreak of actual hostilities.
But I loved my Great Aunt; she was always kind to me, happily let me play with her collection for brass ornaments with my sticky fingers without complaint, and they would be shiny and clean the next day ready for me to abuse them once more. She made wonderful scones and her apple pie was, and I mean this, ambrosia; I so regret never getting her recipe for it, because I have never tasted better. With hindsight, I was the grandson she never had; and I’m proud to add her to my roster of grandparents. I think she’d be very happy to know that.
This week’s soundtrack: ‘A Lady of a Certain Age’ by The Divine Comedy, not because of the sentiments but because it’s a bloody good song.