February 13, 2009

Victor Borge used to have a routine in which he kidded the audience. He announced that it was his grandfather’s (or uncle’s, I forget which) one hundredth birthday. The audience’s members, having lost their concentration through having laughed so hard, indulged themselves in a sentimental fit, and applauded generously. After a fractional pause, Borge carried on, “Unfortunately, he couldn’t be here to see it… how could he be? He died when he was 29.” At which point, the audience resumed their hysteria (Borge is almost forgotten, isn’t he? Yet in his day he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world. He is probably better remembered for his voice-overs for Heineken lager (‘refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach’) than for his classical music spoofs and his phonetic punctuation.

Today (Friday 13 February) is my grandmother’s 114th birthday. Pause, Borge-style. Unfortunately…

She was born in 1895, and died in 1967 – born as Mabel Winifred Catcheside. I was only 14 when she died, of breast cancer, the first of a wave of cancer victims in my family – each from a different source: my father (lungs), my sister (eye), my aunt (stomach), my mother (ovaries), which makes me morbidly wonder where I’m going to catch it, and when. Since she was the only grandmother I knew (my mother’s mother had died two years before I was born), she was the only female family member of that generation I knew at all. Her sister survived well into her nineties, but I met her only once (family feud); and my grandfather’s sister also lived into her nineties, but I never met her at all (family feud). In fact, my mother’s father also had two sisters, and one of them lived into her nineties, and I met each of them only twice each (family feuds, although it was more complex than that). The three  I met only once or twice lived respectively ten, two, and one-and-a-half miles from my parents’ house. It was ridiculous.

My grandmother came from a well-to-do shipbroking family in Newcastle, and her own grandfathers had been successful respectively in the grocery and tailoring trades. I have no idea how she met my grandfather, but she was pretty much part of the Greenwell family before she was 18, and she and my grandfather were inseparable, and had, it seemed to me (and to my mother) very few close friends, being intent on each other’s company. And yet this was surely at odds with her nature, which was outgoing and generous and also highly sentimental. She wept her way through my parents’ wedding in 1951, much to my mother’s annoyance, distraught at the ‘loss’ of her son – who moved into the same road as his parents within three years, and into his father’s office at the ship-repair yard within one year – so he hardly absented himself.

She had plainly been something of a Newcastle society belle – or maybe that was Sunderland, to which she moved shortly before or shortly after her father’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1917. And yet, to be honest, there is fantastically little that I can remember about her. I can recall that she drank (as every adult in my orbit seemed to do) a lethal gin concoction – in her case, ‘gin and mixed’, which is a tumbler half-filled with gin, and  the other two quarters filled respectively with sweet and dry vermouth. It would knock me out – especially at lunch-time, which was when I saw her drinking it. She also disliked salt on crisps, and a separate bowl was maintained for her snacking (I think this is where I get my snack habits from). She also used Edwardian slang – ‘ducky’, for instance.

And yet, oddly enough, the most vivid image I have of her is one which I have acquired second-hand. On her last night at home (before her last journey to hospital), she fell out of bed, and could not get back in. She had a live-in housekeeper (who had been living in for 45 years by that point) who could not possibly lift her, and who therefore lay down beside her to keep her company. And what she said was this: ‘I am very worried about Bill. I am sure he will marry a girl one day, and leave her the next.’ At that time, as I say, I was only – and only just, or even not quite – 14. What on earth had I done to suggest this?

It still puts a crease in my forehead.

Mabel Winifred Greenwell (Catcheside) c. 1919

Mabel Winifred Greenwell (Catcheside) c. 1919