Ode to a matriarch

By , December 14, 2012 12:13 pm

Mary Spiers, 1915-2012

knitting another pair of her famous socks

In this Monday afternoon’s fresh air, we buried my grandma Mary under clear skies and the glow of a winter sun which was doing its best to comfort us despite the distance, and so said farewell to the oldest member of our family.  There were of course tears but also plenty of pride and laughter as we reminisced and celebrated her life with gratitude.

To say that my Nana lived a full life would be a gross understatement. During her 97 years on this planet, she experienced things on a scale we can only attempt to imagine. She saw my dad go from nappies to being a grandparent. She lost her husband (my grandpa) to cancer after 45 years of marriage, and then out-lived him by another 26 years. She saw the world go through transformations which would have been utterly unthinkable at the time she was born: two world wars, radio, automobiles, home appliances, air travel, TV, plastics, nuclear power, space travel, personal computers, and the internet. She was 37 when Elizabeth was crowned Queen in 1953, and experienced 23 changes of Prime Minister. How do you summarise and pay tribute to a life like that?

Mary was first and foremost a people person, and as repeated by a few of her friends who I met for the first time at the post-funeral gathering, no-one who got to know her could fail to notice her loving nature. She was incredibly proud of her family, devoted to friends, and always put others ahead of her own needs. Apparently she originally intended to be cremated, but then recently decided she wanted to be buried next to her husband so that we would visit him more often!!

In contrast to her warm heart, she was tough as nails. There was one time only 2 or 3 years ago when she slipped and accidentally head-butted a fairly thick glass door pane. It shattered and she was bleeding fairly heavily but flat-out refused to allow us to take her to hospital for a check-up, insisting that she was perfectly fine (and she was). This probably stems back to her childhood – she was raised in absolute poverty in Glasgow’s infamous Gorbals, one of the roughest areas in the whole country, but had nothing but happy memories of her early years playing out in the yard with the other kids, where she said their imaginations were all they needed to keep them entertained for hours. The whole family of 7 lived in one room, without the basics we take for granted like electricity, hot running water etc.

There are plenty more stories of her strength. I wish I could travel back in time and meet her as a young adult. She was too unassuming to volunteer information about her youth, but we did squeeze quite a few stories out of her over the years. One of my favourites was how in her early 20s she got mugged on the street by a guy who snatched her handbag, and ran away. She ran after him, caught him up, and wrestled it back! I can’t imagine that ever happening these days.

on a family walk

on a family walk

Around the same time as this story, she moved from Glasgow to Birmingham, but somehow retained her Scottish accent for the next 70+ years. She had various jobs, including a fairly short stint at Cadbury (prematurely terminated by her three sons who were terrified she’d get fat from all the free chocolate), and a very long stint at Marks and Spencer where she made many life-long friendships. But these all took a back seat compared to her duties as mother and housewife. She was particularly famous for her home-made fishcakes, Xmas trifle, and pantry with hidden treats which often got raided by naughty sons and grandchildren. She always kept her house spotlessly clean, even recently cleaning her windows on a weekly basis, and at the funeral we joked that anyone mentioning “dust to dust” would get in serious trouble if she was around.

She was full of energy, fiercely independent, and for the last few decades quietly and continually defied conventions about what is possible in old age. She was a volunteer worker well into her eighties, regularly visiting “old” people’s homes to care for those in some cases over 20 years younger than herself. If I recall correctly, she also maintained a daily keep fit routine (including press-ups of course) into her eighties, and in a similar period joined a country-side rambling club (and then got puzzled why she felt tired after a 6 hour walk). She gave blood for years until finally her doctor said it wasn’t safe any more. She lived independently into her nineties, only reluctantly agreeing to move into a mildly assisted living arrangement when it started getting difficult to walk to the shops. After the initial shock of her only change of environment in over half a century, she quickly made friends and discovered a whole new social life.

in the garden of the house she lived in for over half a century

She was generous almost to a fault and a shining example of the joy of minimalist living, giving away possessions (including recently received presents!) at every opportunity. She enjoyed several creative outlets, including gardening, flower arranging, wood working, tapestry, dress making, painting, and knitting – in particular she was an extremely prolific knitter of high quality woollen socks, and over the years everyone in the family (even in-laws) has amassed sizeable legacies of these coveted items.

She was uncompromisingly honest, to a degree of bluntness which over time we learnt to receive with amusement and delight rather than the awkwardness which is socially conventional when you give someone a present they don’t like or take them to the wrong restaurant! This honesty also brought me some important lessons in life. Like everyone else I hope to live a long time, but it was only through Nana that I realised the cost: you see almost everyone else from your generation die, make younger friends, watch them die, make even younger friends, and so on. I don’t know how she found the strength to bear so many losses without complaining or even expecting sympathy, but it explains why she never minced words and always made sure to let us know she loved us.

knocking up a wooden cabinet from scratch, as you do

knocking up a wooden cabinet from scratch, as you do

You don’t always fully appreciate your blessings until they are gone, and I had to fight hard not to completely lose it as I watched her being lowered into the ground. But the day had to come, and she was more ready and prepared for it than any of us. Just a few weeks ago, she gave my sister instructions “not to be sad when I go”, and after a bit of negotiation conceded to a request for permission to be just a little bit sad with “oh all right then”.

She always loved a good laugh, and even on this occasion managed to get the final joke. She was the most religious member of our family (although that’s not saying much). Just before the funeral it came up in conversation that Jewish law says that mourners should tear their clothing, but my uncle Barry said that there was no way he was doing anything to his nice suit! So of course when it came to helping shovel the dirt over her coffin, he bent down and heard a 30cm long rip appear in his trousers. Days later and I can still hear her delighted Scottish cackle mocking her disobedient son. R.I.P. Nana, you will be missed.

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