The 2nd January 2022 marked ten years since we lost my Grandma Barbara.
Missing somebody has no rhyme or reason. Days go by where - though never far from your heart - you hardly have the time to spare them a thought, and yet there are days when the torturous longing to be reunited just hits you so hard.
Sometimes it is not just the person you miss, but the memories that the thought of them provoke.
The pain of nostalgia for that particular person can be triggered by many things: songs, smells, places, certain foods...
High, by the Lighthouse Family, was mine and Grandma’s song, and whenever I hear its opening chords, I am choked by such bittersweet grief.
December 2011 was the last time I saw my Grandma. She had been suffering from a deliberating form of cancer for months and had recently relapsed. She had great difficulty talking and was constantly tired.
The nature of her cancer meant that she’d had to have parts of her mouth and face operated on. I know how devastating this must have been for my Grandma, who prided herself upon always looking ever-so glamorous.
As Grandma’s cancer worsened and was deemed terminal, she was taken into a hospice to spend her remaining weeks. My Grandad was reluctant to let me visit as he was afraid that my lasting memories of Grandma would be of her looking so poorly. I gave his concerns a lot of thought, but how could I refuse time with my precious Grandma?
One afternoon before Christmas, Grandad and I went to see Grandma. I was only 18 at the time and I do remember feeling shocked at how fast she had deteriorated. My big, booming Grandma with her bellowing German twang had lost so much weight and looked hauntingly frail and paper thin. Her voice was now a painful-sounding rasp and her skin sunken, but she still had that twinkle in her eye.
Grandma didn’t look particularly impressed to see Grandad (whom she often claimed she would have divorced years ago had it not been so expensive to do so), but I’ll never forget her face when she caught sight of me. She lit up and held her arms out, beckoning me closer.
We had a good chat about college, and I told her about the boy I fancied at the time. I showed her a picture of him on my phone, and she nodded her head fiercely and said, “Now HE is nice!”
Despite the hell she was going through - despite the pain of every word uttered and every breath taken - she never lost her mischievous sense of humour.
I’ll always remember my Grandma as the most beautiful lady I ever knew; a giant, no-nonsense, wonderfully straight talking German stature with a dazzling humour and a great roar of laughter. Every day, she’d style her big, white hair in an elegant bouffant. I still recall the smell of her hairspray. She’d wear flamboyant, floral skirts and zany pink jumpers, even in the house or to do the gardening. She was her own style and always looked so timelessly classy.
Grandma Barbra features in many of my blogs, including a published pieced by Visit Cheshire https://www.visitcheshire.com/ideas-and-inspiration/blog/read/2019/07/wishes-with-dandelions-memories-of-lyme-park-b1108 and a travel blog about my time spent in her hometown of Hannover: https://www.carajasminebradley.com/post/travel-the-hannover-my-grandma-told-me-about
With these in mind, I didn’t really have a set plan for this article. I just thought I’d start writing and see where it took me, no matter how upsetting.
I could write endlessly about Grandma and our countless memories. I thank my lucky stars every day for her presence in my life. She made my childhood the most spectacular place, and I don’t know if there are any words powerful enough to thank for her that. I’m quoting a previous blog of mine here, but she really did give me the very best gift of all: my imagination. She encouraged this trait within me and it has been the most valuable wealth through all of life’s ups and downs. I wonder if she knew that buying me notepads to conjure stories up in, and letting me play horses outside in the rain for hours on end would secure a lifelong happy place and bolthole for me to revert back to whenever I need it?
Grandma’s garden was a veritable treasure trove of imagination throughout my childhood. Together, we planted ‘pixie traps’ amongst the trees behind the shed, trained Grand National horses on the lawn and practised Quidditch on Grandad’s old broomstick.
Grandma gifted me with the ability to maximise my imagination, so much so that I could almost convince myself of pixies behind the shed, and horses on the grass. I never wanted for anything during my childhood, because through the ever-thrilling world of my imagination, I had it all.
While writing this piece, I thought consistently about one particular memory that I shared with my Grandma. It’s not exactly significant, but I felt compelled to include it.
The memory took place during the Easter holidays in April 2008. I was 14 years old; in year nine at high school. If I remember correctly, I was suffering from that sickeningly-agonising teenage heartbreak. (I’d probably found out Aston form JLS had a girlfriend or something! No, in all seriousness though, I think my latest high school ‘crush’ had dumped me AGAIN – cue the end of the world in any 14 year old’s life!)
Grandma was my hero throughout all of the normal teenage angst, from periods to boys. (She once threatened to push a boy from school in the canal after he’d dumped me... You don’t mess with German Grandmas!)
I could tell her anything, even things I didn’t tell my parents and closest friends. She never judged, she’d just listen and respond with reassurance and advice, no matter how pathetic the problem probably sounded. (E.g: ‘What if I never fall in love again?!’ Jeez, 14 year old me was a proper drip!)
Anyway, on this day, Grandma picked me up in the early morning and we headed for Lyme Park in Cheshire, which had always been one of our favourite places to share a day together.
We walked around the gardens. Grandma was in her element, pointing out different flowers and stating their names. She spoke fluent English and had lived here for years, but her accent was still marvellously laced with her German routes. (I’ve blogged about this before, but my all-time favourite example of this was her pronunciation of Liddle, which would come out something like this: Leeeeeeeedul!)
Grandma recited the names of the trees and flowers like they were old friends. She was never happier than when she was in the countryside, or tending to her pristine garden.
We came across a little fountain.
“Here,” Grandma said, pushing a twenty pence piece into the palm of my hand. “Make a wish.”
I stood staring at the fountain for a few minutes, pondering my heart’s desire.
Should I wish that Aston from JLS would marry me? Or should I save my wish for the heart of that boy at school? I think ‘I wish my Dad would let me have a boob job’ was also a possible contender...
But I didn’t want to waste my special wish on something trivial and childish. I wanted to honour Grandma by wishing for something she’d approve of; something that would mean something to both of us.
“I wish I could be a writer,” I whispered as I threw my coin into the fountain.
I skipped over to Grandma, feeling as though the path of my future had been cemented in that very moment.
That was the power of my Grandma’s presence: she made you feel as though anything was possible.
I’m listening to High by the Lighthouse Family as I write.
On my wedding day, I placed a photo of Grandma surrounded by the lyrics to this song on a chair at the front of the ceremony. As Grandma was so passionate about flowers and nature, I also attached a tiny, heart shaped photo of her to my bouquet so that she could walk down the aisle with me.
So much has happened over the past ten years; some of it incredible, and some of it not so much. To this day, I still have conversations with Grandma in my head whereby I tell her everything that’s been going on. Sometimes, when I yearn for her frank advice the most, I try to imagine what she’d say.
It doesn’t get easier and some days the cloak of mourning weighs heavier than others, but it does help to remind ourselves that our heavenly loved ones aren’t gone. They’re there every time we think of them, every time we play ‘their song,’ every time we catch a whiff of their hairspray, perfume or aftershave, and every time we tuck into their favourite dish.
So I listen to the Lighthouse Family, I decorate my house elaborately for Christmas in true Germanic style, I fill my home-office with the scent of hyacinths every spring, and I make strawberry flan, as per Grandma’s legendary recipe. I sing the war-time classics she sang as she washed the pots in the kitchen, the house exploding with the sound of her voice: we’ll meet again, some sunny day...
You will always keep me flying high in the sky of love... ❤
Cara Jasmine Bradley