My grandmother goes through her life with a sense of purpose, which is served every moment of the day. Whether she is paying a bill or attending a concert, it is what she is doing. Nothing will distract her from her task.
From rising at 5.00 am, whereupon she immediately sets to work doing paperwork and organising the day’s activities, to 8.30 pm, when she turns out the light, removes her white slippers, and climbs into bed, she is occupied. Even then she has activity, for if she remembers something to be done the next day, she has a whiteboard next to her nightstand, where she can jot down what is on her mind.
And her house follows suit. There is nothing in there that is without purpose or the visual reminder of some story, and whatever is required to live an orderly, fulfilled, and highly efficient life is present. This is evident from the folded blankets in the guest room to the drawer in the kitchen where leftover string, paper bags and clothes pegs are kept. There are ironed tea towels in the drawer above, and a miniature garbage can in the bathroom for stray bits of rubbish.
My grandmother’s house has always been like that. Though fashions change, and mobile phones enter the world, her house is always the same.
It is strange to enter a house you knew when you were four, and to find that although you are now past twenty, the same umbrella stand sits in the hallway, and the same miniature chick balances on top of the balustrade. You go into the living room, where you sit with your back against the same hand appliquéd cushions and lean over to pick up the Sunday Mail. It is there, every week, without question. I consider checking the date of the paper in their house to be a more accurate record of the time of year than calling the weather station.
Now there will be a cup of tea, or, if you are younger, apple juice and fizzy mineral water. The mineral water is kept in the hall cupboard, the fountain of the elderly. You take your drink carefully, and reach for a plaited fibre coaster. An unarmed cup has never been placed on this coffee table. When you are young, you are forbidden to put your feet on this table. I don’t see how they could do any harm, for you always wear socks at your grandmother’s house. The table is polished, and has smooth corners. Many babies have pulled themselves up on it, and snatched at the magazines, only to be hurried away, lest their small hands should tear at the pages.
Nothing is done by half measures with my grandmother. If she eats lunch, it is consumed sitting on the correct spot on the sofa, with the same ironed and folded napkin she has used for forty years with the same number of carrot sticks cut up on her plate. She will have a cup of tea afterwards, served in the Christmas mugs, with a matching tray. If it is a treat day, for example if a granddaughter is visiting, there will be an even number of carefully broken apart dark chocolate squares on it. No one ever binges. The leftover chocolate will be neatly wrapped in foil, enclosed in its cardboard packet and sealed inside a 25-year-old Tupperware container, on the shelf with the tea. Woe betide anyone who keeps chocolate in their underwear drawer, or grazes on a bar whilst doing an assignment.
There was an occasion when the family were preparing to leave after a four-day visit. Although my grandmother was flustered and overworked from the strain of having six young children in her house, she nevertheless prepared snacks for our journey home. When we got to the car, we found individual brown bags of freshly popped popcorn, one per child. Only my grandmother could have arranged such a thing. Only she would have had the paper bags in her bottom drawer, and the popcorn in her pantry.
When we drove away, we could always turn and look back, and see my grandmother, arms wrapped around my grandfather, standing on the driveway, waving goodbye to us. After the car had gone out of sight, they would turn and go inside, to have a cup of tea and recover, to wipe the finger marks from the door handles and to remove the protective plastic covering from the table. They were always horrified by the mess we made, and there was a fluffy yellow cloth kept in the kitchen upon which fingers had to be wiped after eating so much as an apple. They insisted that beds be made before breakfast, and would not let clothes sit in piles. Swimming costumes had to be hung up, and toys kept out of the way.
Although the life of my grandmother may seem strict and unbending to some, to me it is a source of sweet memories and occasional astonishment. In her house there was always order and control. It was a sweet retreat from the rest of the world. No matter how many wars in Afghanistan, or sackings at work, you could always enter their house at half past four and find the television on and dinner underway, with the curtains drawn against a wintery sky. There would be placemats on the table and cabbage bubbling on the stove. These are the best things in the world, and one finds them at my grandmother’s house.