We were a bit scared of L, our mother’s mother.  She was much stricter with us than our father’s mother.  L was house-proud and believed in standards and that we all had to follow them.  But I remember her too as someone who cared for us, had a wicked albeit intermittent sense of humour and she was a brilliant cook.

Her sausages, mashed potato, garden peas and thin gravy was something we looked forward to when we visited on weekday lunchtimes.   She made a great tripe onions, which my grandfather enjoyed and we were somewhat wary of.  (Apparently adult meat eaters relish it.)  And in the same oven she would bake a rice pudding with a lovely brown skin.  Sometimes you could see the pinkish tinge that marks the perfect pudding.  Family lore had it that when they were first married, my grandfather showed appreciation for her rice pudding and she made it every day thereafter for over 60 years, although they graduated to tins of Ambrosia Creamed Rice in later years.

Her other great speciality was custard tart.  This was a treat after Sunday afternoon tea.  We were allowed to eat it after we finished our ham salad, which was somewhat problematic.

We visited every Sunday afternoon.  Sometimes we sat in the front room (only deployed on Sundays and other feast days) and watched the neighbours walk to church.  L had all the information about what was happening in their lives.  Or else we would visit a bewildering array of relatives and friends.  I remember names and not faces or faces and not names.  And where they all fitted in is lost in the mists of time.

I remember once we took her to visit a relative, may have been her sister, who was in Northern General Hospital.  We had to wait in the car.  My father remarked that L was afraid of the place because it used to be the workhouse.  She was adamant she was not going to be put in a home.

My teenage years were a bit of a struggle.  L was very adept at mithering.  Going on about some failing at great length.  She was concerned for me but it came out as profoundly irritating.  “Whenuru gonna goan gerran haircut?”  was her battlecry.  And then even more devastating for a teenager, “Whenuru gonna goan gerra woman?”  I disappointed her in both respects.  But I learned later they had experienced extreme poverty after they were married and so she was concerned.  She had all her teeth out as a wedding gift to save on dentist’s bills.

My grandfather died in the early 80s and my mother in 1988.  After my grandfather died she became more dependent on my mother who became increasingly irritated.  She stopped reaching out to family, friends and neighbours.  My father, who she never really approved of, became her main carer within the family.

She had a couple of home helps who were concerned about her and they suggested she might benefit from respite care for a week.  She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by then and so she qualified.  I was drafted in to help.

We set out in my father’s car, she was in the front seat and I sat in the back.  The two home helps followed in their car.  We arrived at the nursing home.  We got out of the car and she refused to move.  She was not going in a home.  The home helps drove up and had a go, for they were professionals.  She refused.  She was not going in a home.  Then two staff came out of the home.  They were even more professional and they were men.  Even they failed.  She was not going in a home.

Finally, the manager came out of the home, called a halt and invited my father and me into his office.  Look, he said, I’m a social worker not a doctor but she had not got Alzheimer’s.  No-one with Alzheimer’s could possibly fight like that.  And so we had to take her home. 

It was bleak but she seemed content to be where she was.  One day, when she was 90, I visited.  “You know,” she said, “I’m 100 years old and I still feel like a teenager.”

Soon after she had a few strokes.  It was a species of Alzheimer’s that progresses in fits and starts.  The hospital put its foot down, she had to go into a home.  My father and I visited a few and found one where the staff seemed friendly.  She was still mischievous.  I remember one visit where she decided she didn’t want a biscuit and so deliberately dropped it between the arms of our chairs.  She laughed.

And then she died.

It was hard.  My father and I tried our best but small decisions accumulate and we found ourselves somewhere we never wanted to be.

In adversity, she chose isolation, to cut herself off from the world.  Apart from the strokes, I don’t believe there was anything wrong with her, physical or mental.  It was grief that consumed her and can any of us be certain we would never do the same?

Day 8/21 of my writing challenge. Every weekday, I publish a short piece of writing on my subject, solitude. The writings are based on a daily prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. Previous: Newspapers. Next: Tale of Two Cities.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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Mark Woodhead - February 6, 2020 Reply

Workhouse: 1834 and all that

Hi Chris,
Interesting. I could go on at great length if you wish (which you probably don’t) about workhouses and the poor law – at Praxis, maybe. Things have changed a bit – but maybe we are heading back that way. There is an interesting reference in Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie – an elderly couple are sent, by the local busybodies, to live in the workhouse, with the assurance that ‘you will be able to see each other once a week’. The closing comment in this episode is the chilling line – ‘they never saw each other again, for they were both dead within a week’.
There are also interesting references to the workings of the poor law in Alf Green’s Growing Up in Attercliffe – you might have a copy. ( Alf’s mother worked for the poor law authorities).

best wishes


Chris - February 7, 2020 Reply

Thanks Mark, it’s a long time since I heard mention of Alf Green. I don’t think I have a copy of his book. Maybe I can look at your copy next Praxis.

The workhouses were feared by my grandmother’s generation. I don’t suppose anyone wants to go into a home but their fear was palpable.

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