March 21st would have been my Grandmother’s 102nd birthday. Her name was Nellie, and she was a young grandmother and very much a part of my life until I was in my early 30’s. She was a true matriarch, the glue that held our family together, in a quiet, gentle and unassuming way. Family meant everything to her, and she left us in the most perfect of ways. She fell asleep in her chair one Christmas Eve – after a stream of family visitors – and just never woke up. It was devastating for those of us left behind. But it’s the way she was meant to go. She hated to be a bother.
Nellie was born at the end of World War I. Later, she’d get married and give birth to two children (one of whom was my father) during World War II. I don’t consider myself that old (a couple of years shy of 50) and yet her stories and her experiences to many are like ancient history.
I had a conversation with my father a couple of days ago. We were talking about my grandmother as her birthday was approaching. She loved the sun in her face and the early bloom of flowers, so the first day of spring has always seemed the most appropriate day for her birth.
We teased my grandparents, playfully, about how they only used their telephone for emergencies and birthday wishes. Their car sat in their driveway except for the handful of times when they took their grandchildren on day trips to the seaside every summer. They got around on foot, which kept them young and healthy well into old age. They re-used teabags until there was no tea left in the bag. Boiled water was kept in a thermos flask so it would take less time to heat up in the kettle when it was the next teatime. Impossible though it may seem, my grandparents were able to split matches. All of this was to save money and waste nothing. Because that’s what they knew to do.
At every grocery shop, my grandmother would pick up a couple of extra items. Her box room looked similar to most of our pantries at the moment – lots of canned and dried goods. She was stockpiling for who knows what. Because that’s what she knew to do.
My grandparents were married in Belfast in 1940. My grandfather sent for Nellie by telegram and she sailed across the Irish Sea, alone, at age 22, during war time, to be married. Her family could not be sure they would see her again. They were married that September, with two witnesses, people they barely knew. There was no white dress, no party. Just a wedding and a ring. The wedding photograph hung on their living room wall, and you’d never know it was a wedding picture at all.
It was dangerous in Belfast and my grandfather worked as an electrician in the shipyard. Air raid sirens were a regular occurrence. My grandparents used to laugh about how they had nowhere to go when the sirens started so they would just go to bed. In the morning, walking to work, some of their neighbor’s homes were no longer there. My grandparents were lucky each time, I suppose.
This last week has been really difficult. We don’t know the ending to this story yet and that’s what makes this even more challenging. I don’t need to point out all the reasons why we are afraid, uncertain, and anxious. We’re all feeling it and we know why. But, I’ve started to remind myself of the positive things we have: modern technology to stay connected with family, friends, clients, colleagues; roofs over our heads and warm beds; decently stocked grocery stores; sources of information any time of day; movies and music.
So, I can’t get a manicure, meet a girlfriend for a cocktail, go out to dinner with my husband or spend my Saturday afternoon shopping. But I’m safe, I’m connected to those I love, and I can sleep at night and not worry if my home will still be there in the morning.