It was Barb Taub that started me thinking, with her collection of gems learned over the years. One in particular I recognised and yet, on the five occasions when I have been rushed to hospital in an ambulance, all sirens wailing and my life or limbs in the balance, I can honestly say that no-one has ever passed comment on the state of my underwear.
On one of these occasions, underwear was absent from the equation altogether because I was wearing nightclothes when disaster struck. On another, all garments had either melted with the heat or been hastily ripped off to prevent further burns. It would not have mattered a jot whether the pertinent articles had been pristine cotton, lacy confections or the over-washed grey of comfort. They had to go.
In fairness to Great Granny, who had impressed upon me the need for unimpeachable unmentionables, at no time was public transport responsible for my plight. It is therefore theoretically possible that the old adage still rings true and that, had I indeed been run over by a bus, I might have been subject to the sartorial criticism of which I had been warned.
Old habits, however, die hard. Things I learned at Great Granny’s knee still haunt me.
I cannot guarantee whether or not I have pulled faces when the wind was in the east, but the expression has remained fleeting and never ‘stuck’ as I was warned it would. But I still half expect it to remain fixed on my face forever.
Some of the things that we were taught were less debateable and more practical…and such things stay with us. It is only in recent years that I have dispensed with the net curtains which had to be kept perfectly white. Denture cleaning tablets were the thing for that and I had some odd looks when I was young buying the things at the chemist. These days, no would give it a second thought, I suppose. And, although I no longer scrub the doorstep, I still feel the need to keep it clean.
I can’t be comfortable if I haven’t made the bed… and my bedroom is always the tidiest room in the house. Not for any sensible reason, but in case the doctor has to make a house call. It matters little that I haven’t had a doctor make a house call in decades… or that doctors are under so much pressure these days from ever-expanding patient lists that any illness needs to be scheduled at least three weeks in advance before you can get an appointment. Doctors used to make house calls regularly… and the bedroom had to be kept tidy, just in case.
On the other hand, there are some odd little habits which have stuck and which still come in handy. Like cutting the first slice of a fruit loaf and using it as a ‘lid’ for the rest to keep it moist. Or cleaning tarnished brass with tin foil, hot water and washing soda… or ‘oiling’ squeaky hinges with candles. Buying warts to make them disappear or treating chilblains with a poultice of Bay Rhum and soapflakes.
It is not that any of Great Granny’s advice was bad… but while some of it has been useful, other bits were either based on a completely different premise than the one presented, or were very much of their time. Stopping a child from making faces in company was a polite necessity. Clean underwear, a matter of hygiene. Pristine nets and doorsteps could disguise a whole host of other problems. And doctors who made house calls generally walked straight in.
I wonder, though, how many other things were picked up unconsciously from a generation that was born when Queen Victoria still wore the crown?
It was Great Granny’s boast that she had seen six kings and queens of the realm come and go. She been a mill lass, working the looms who had been courted by a young man who had walked miles across the moors to meet her. She had lived though two World Wars and seen her husband and son serve in them. Heard the first radio broadcasts and seen colour television and video recorders come into homes. She had a lot of lived experience from which to teach.
The values of common decency and politeness were absorbed unwittingly. Thrift, the virtues of economy and the ‘make do and mend’ mindset, were part of what she taught. So were hope, persistence and a positive attitude. But I wonder what else was absorbed that would be better left behind?
“A woman’s place in the home”? “Children should be seen and not heard”? It is odd, but although I heard these phrases, it was always with laughter and I never saw them imposed. I learned no prejudice, only acceptance. No harshness, only kindness. No judgement, just compassion. And I learned the meaning of love.
When I started to write this, it was with the intention of showing how many hangovers we might carry from previous generations that are no longer relevant in today’s world. The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that perhaps the most valuable lessons were the ones that were learned but never taught. Like Great Granny, we all live and hopefully learn to make up our own minds and form our own opinions about how, or whether, what our elder’s world taught them might be relevant to ours. And, the more I looked, the deeper my gratitude grew that I was privileged to know these ‘people of the past’, whose own lifetimes are now the stuff of history.
As I watch my granddaughters with their own great grandparents, I can see them learning the same things I learned as a child, safe in a circle of love and continuity. I can feel that we are part of an ancient family, stretching back across untold ages, each one sharing such wisdom as they had learned with their children and grandchildren. And I hope that one day, my grandchildren’s children will smile as I do when they think of Great Granny.