Patience, Hope, and Other Deadly Virtues
Grandma was a Primitive Methodist. As a child, I was oblivious to such distinctions, but when I did find out, and connected her with the graceless yellow brick chapel with its mean windows set too high and its plain wooden door shut firmly as a disapproving mouth, I understood at last why Sundays in her company had such a penitential quality.
In Grandma’s eyes, Sunday was the day of rest, entombed in Biblical precedent. I am certain Jehovah deserved His day off no more than my grandmother did after caring for a husband and seven children, most of whom were farm workers who rose at dawn and came home with frightening appetites and filthy clothes, but I do wonder if boredom was His creation or hers. Church attendance, a quid pro quo for this one free day, became impossible for my grandmother, but the ghost of spiritual obligations lingered on, turning rest into an enforced idleness that was affliction for a seven-year-old. Grandma frowned on any activity that smacked of entertainment. In her company, nobody knitted or sewed; the radio was silent; novels and magazines stayed unopened. For my part, toys were put away, and even pencils and paper lay fallow.
There was no escape. Just as firmly as she believed that Sunday should be a kind of desert, she insisted that it was a day for the family to spend together, preferably as satellites orbiting her maternal sun. Consequently, I remember long hours of desultory conversation that fluttered above my head, somewhere in the region of the ticking of the clock, while I learned by heart the contents of my grandmother’s room.
She had tuffets of dark brown leather like miniature ottomans, called pouffes – a misleadingly airy name, for they were uncomfortably hard. I would sit on one of these and stare into a china cabinet like a museum case which filled one corner. She had dainty porcelain cups and saucers with gold rims, and brass bells in the shape of crinolined ladies. There were faded sepia photographs in silver frames, one of my father, much younger, with hair. Pride of place went to a large shell festooned with brass wire twisted to resemble rope, and a shiny brass anchor. The shell was iridescent with mother of pearl, and I was fascinated by the voluptuous curves of its everted lips and its secret creamy depths. On rare occasions, I was permitted to hold this treasure and listen to the sea, and then I would clasp it to my ear, relishing its coolness against my skin as the distant surf sighed in my head.
Grandma had two large paintings, also. I didn’t know anyone else who had actual paintings and felt a certain awe in the presence of Art. I would gaze from one to the other, trying to decide which was my favourite. They hung either side of the fireplace, forbiddingly symmetrical. Each portrayed the head and shoulders of a young woman; these ladies had abundant wavy hair in clouds about their faces, the sort of hair I knew instinctively would be called tresses, and which I recognize now as a pale Pre-Raphaelite imitation. They had complexions creamy as magnolia petals and soulful eyes which gazed off yearningly to their right. The one on the left, whom I preferred because she was a brunette and smouldered rather, was called Patience. The other, I remember, was Hope.
The only other diversion Grandma condoned was reading of a strictly improving nature. She gave me a book once which I did read, for I have always been omnivorous as far as the written word is concerned and could not be put off even by sanctimonious Victorian morality. I cannot remember a single word of it, not even the title, but I treasured it for a long time for reasons that would probably have scandalized her.
It was old, made in the days when bookbinding was an art. The pages had the thinnest gilt edging, so that the book seemed to be made of a solid gold bar when it was closed. It also had two coloured plates, one of a deep red rose, and one of a yellow rose, and these were covered by special pages of tissue paper. A silk ribbon attached to the spine served as a built-in bookmark. I enjoyed the smell of its leather binding, and the satiny gilt, and the reverential care with which one had to lift the tissue pages to reveal the roses, all purely sensual pleasures which were educational, but not necessarily improving.
These Sunday visits often culminated in tea. For some reason it was always summer and hot. We would sit around the table and eat thin bread and butter, the bread already at least a day old and drying. There was no hope of canned peaches or cake before the bread had been consumed. The only thing to wash it down was tea, which I did not enjoy. My grandmother’s was especially grim as she had no refrigerator, and the milk from the little jug with its tiny bead-freighted cover would either slither into the cups in soft lumps like blood clots, or crack as soon as the hot tea hit it. No amount of stirring or surreptitious fishing expeditions with the spoon could eliminate the white flecks floating on the surface. The only compensation was Grandma’s cups, which were square and intriguing. Deciding which part of the rim to drink from made an interesting diversion.
I was never quite sure why the Sunday afternoon car ride received my grandmother’s seal of approval. Maybe her own life had become so circumscribed by that time that she adjusted her principles for the sake of variety. Even so, it was never a casual or relaxed affair, and certainly no fun.
After Sunday lunch, which was enormous – my aunt always seemed to be exempted from rest of any kind, I noticed – we would put on our Sunday best. For me this meant a dress, probably with a scratchy collar, and probably pink. My uncle, who looked comfortable wearing his butcher’s apron or stumping about in gumboots inspecting his pigs, would appear in a dark suit with a waistcoat, throttled by a stiff collar, and stow everyone away in the big cars, from Grandma, square and solid in navy blue with a severe hat skewered to her head with a long silver hatpin, to my cousin’s three small children, all younger than me. Four generations on the move; no wonder the outings took on the nature of ritual.
Armed with a large handbag and boxes of sweets, my aunt would be the last one in, and we would set off. In convoy, we would drive sedately on a circular tour of much of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, not actually going anywhere, just covering the miles through the fens, through the yellow brick villages, past the dikes and cuts, past the endless fields of sugar beet, through the deserted sleepy market towns. The cars were always too hot and smelled of leather and vinyl, the telegraph poles looped past every few seconds, and nausea would begin its slow greasy climb into my mouth. At this point my aunt would open the box of candies, sugar-encrusted jellies in vivid colours with centres that oozed gummily and tasted of cheap perfume. To boredom I added my fear of being sick.
If God was on my side, we would stop somewhere so that I could reel out into the fresh air and recover a little. The usual reason for a halt was a picnic, which sounds like fun, but invariably the site chosen was not a lush meadow beneath noble trees, but a disused airfield. The area was full of them. During the war they had launched wave after wave of bombers on raids across the North Sea. Now they were abandoned and forlorn. The Quonset huts and hangars slowly sagged, and the runways crumbled, weeds shouldering their way between the cracks. Here we perched uncomfortably among gorse bushes on frail folding stools or deck chairs and consumed dry sandwiches and cake, metallic tea out of Thermoses, or bright orange pop. Ants and wasps converged on us, and sand mysteriously penetrated sandwich fillings and stuck to the raisins in the heavy fruit cake.
Then it was back to the cars, hermetically sealed in the sun, and the interminable return. Orange pop and fruit cake roiled in my stomach, and the ghost of the jelly sweets fought queasily for control with the smell of vinyl upholstery and exhaust. By the time we got back, I would be green.
Looking back on those distant Sundays, I am amazed how absolute my grandmother’s power was. It was easy to explain during her life: she was always the ruler of her household rather than my grandfather, whom I remember as a tiny old man with a white moustache, sitting by the fire holding out a Fry’s chocolate bar to my four-year-old self. Dutiful sons and daughters saw to her comfort and gave consideration to her wishes and preferences and ignored their own as a matter of course. By the time she died at the age of ninety-six, still as sharp as the proverbial tack, this behaviour was so ingrained as to preclude even the thought of any alternative. For years after her death, the ritual car rides persisted; the long shadow of her Puritanism still darkened the Sunday wastelands of ennui and distress.
I am a grandmother myself now, but not, I think, in her mould. Grandma has become a shadow figure existing only in the memories of a ruthlessly diminishing group of my older relatives. Yet I sense her survival in my habit of completing the distasteful task before tackling the enjoyable one, in my bewildered reaction to the modern assumption that everything should be fun and easy, in a certain critical asperity, backhandedly in my desertion of organized religion, and in my horror of imposing on others. With hindsight, I can see that those distant Sundays with Grandma when boredom settled on me like dust contained the sort of life-lesson that marks the divide between child and adult. She taught me very early to identify with the soulful yearning of Patience. Hope was always an also-ran.