Gladys and Cecil

At one time or another, and some more than others, we try to muddle through the multitude of questions that day on day seem to spring around us; what’s our real purpose in this life? Does it really matter so much if I don’t get out of bed tomorrow morning? Don’t wash my dirty clothes, or sell cakes to make some money? The balance between healthily juggling these chores, without getting lost in them, and being over indulgent in pondering the bigger questions (something I’m aware I do) is a sticky one to strike.

My grandmother died. My beautiful Mama’s beautiful Mama. My grandparents have always been very present in mine and my family’s lives, revelling in our successes as well as taking on our worries, pains and helping us through our difficulties. We shared so many blissful times with them, childhood trips camping in the lakes, breathing in the crystal air on an Austrian mountaintop, heatedly debating around the dinner table, slow summer afternoons barbecuing in the multicoloured garden they created to share with us, and picture book Christmases at Kidbrook, snow on the thatch roof that granddad put up, squishing into their bed in the morning to excitedly open stockings, big log fire to warm us as we stuffed ourselves with delicious food and played quizzes that my uncle had written. If this all sounds like a fairytale, then it was. It was my own personal fairy story…

I sometimes feel as if I grew up in a fairytale of deep dark forests, snowy Christmases and hazy summer parties. Hair in bunches, dirt on knees, building a ‘waterfall’ in the brook, or carelessly roaming the fields and forests that, at the time, contained all of life’s possible mysteries. Many would claim the opposite; a broken family does not a princess make. But I believe the strength of those innocent childhood memories allows one to construct her own fairytale. Cosy white nights, safe under the dark wooden beams of Kidbrook, the sound of cars whooshing by the cottage. The smell of the place is still so real, I don’t even have to close my eyes to be there. Is there anything more comforting than the crackle and smoke of an open fire? Traditions die hard, and when they were so perfect my question is, when it is over at the age of 27, how do you go forward? The unconventional family unit disbands and you are left with the pieces within yourself to construct your own. Do you mirror the last? You can’t. Will it ever be as fulfilling? Hard to imagine. Day passes day and life is exciting, new, and teaches us so much, but the habit of falling into the ‘fairytale question’ remains at the cusp of the void. Grief allows us to see the people around us for what they mean.

I actually wrote that last paragraph three years ago, when I was still living in Brazil. They were thoughts that I was thrown into after losing my granddad. So where does that leave me now? The ease, temptation even, to lose oneself in desperation is profoundly present, at times insatiable, in the weeks that follow the death of someone you love dearly. It can feel overwhelming, like nothing, no one, no thought, can comfort you or still the swirl in your soul. They are gone, not coming back, there’s a gap. We need to feel this to help us into the understanding of that person’s absence. But what good would remaining in that stage of mourning for too long do anyone? My grandma needed to leave. After granddad died we have continued to share really beautiful times with her, but have known that she was deeply longing for her Cec. The fact that she got up every day after the traumatic way we lost him was true testament to her strength, and we are so proud of her for that. It also taught me something in regard to my original point, that there is always something to get up for. My grandmother, being of a certain generation, was not one to indulge in self-analysis. She simply got up to make a brew, listen to Radio four, and sit in her garden to plan the day ahead, to write a list of what she needed from town, run her expert eye over her beautiful flower beds to check what needed weeding or planting. That was enough.

When we discovered my grandfather had terminal cancer, over three years ago already, I felt that my world as I knew it had ended. The emotions that swept over me were of desperation, like I didn’t know where to put myself, what to say, how to think. I wanted to deny it, to keep living the life I had been till that point. I didn’t want my fairytale to end, and I suppose it was the first time I had that kind of a broken heart. Slowly, with time and the love of our family, I moved past those feelings, into deep sadness and then acceptance. It took a long time. This time has been different, and I suppose that is for a few reasons. I suppose a large part of it is that, being in Colombia, I am so far away. Also I think once you have been through that grief you are better equipped the next time death appears. But more than that, I think I have grown to the realisation that when one has lived a life full of love, blissful times, and devotion to family, mainly doing the things that they love like my grandparents did, then the emotions of devastation we feel are often for ourselves; I realised that every time I drifted into deep melancholy it was often for my self: I wanted to see her again, I wanted her to come to Barcelona with us, I wanted her to meet my children, for them to experience my fairy story…. But these are the things we wanted, and now will not pass. But rather than sink into sadness for the times that won’t happen, I think what we are managing to do is draw peace from the memories of what we did do with them while they were with us. I know all my family have countless memories of moments that heavily outweigh in the comforting stakes than any desire for moments that are now just mirages in the flicker of the future. And that’s the point in the end, is it not? That they have set a love and laughter-filled precedent for us to carry into the next generation of Holdens.

I suppose what I want to say is that sometimes we can lose ourselves in questioning this situation or that circumstance, and not really pay enough attention to the things we inherit from our loved ones. From my grandparents I have been given so much. My grandfather showed me that truly being yourself is the most admirable thing to be. He never played a role to please others. He was in the navy after WWII and travelling to Singapore, Sri Lanka, even Hiroshima, on HMS Belfast, instilled a passion for exploration in him and in turn all of us. Tantalising travel tales have trickled down from one generation to the next. Both my grandma and granddads’ ancestors were boat people, I think maybe movement is in our waters. However, along with the lust for wandering was there also a strong sense of identity and desire to have and firmly maintain roots, both metaphorically by creating an idyllic home for us all in the wonderland of rural Cheshire, along with curious and inspiring ancestral tales, and also literally, through their adoration of gardening; of planting trees, flowers, vegetables and the genuine joy that watching them unfurl brought. I think as I mature, slowly, I am beginning to really see, and really admire, this fiercely protected sense of identity that they nurtured between them, and gave us. We would never role our eyes or tire of my grandparents’ stories of their youth, of how they met just after my Granddad had been discharged from the navy, lying drunk on the town hall steps after the Saturday night dance, white navy socks pulled up over equally white, stick thin legs. The stories were real, and never corny. They were one anothers’ world, and over 59 years explored each other as they did the world; their joys, pains, frustrations, annoying habits, and loveable curiosities. Swaying to Sam Cooke and stiffly bopping to Dwight Yoakum. The feel of being in their presence, their smells, funny quips and little lines, sly smirks and bright little laughs, chin pie and havin’ a mard will be with me always. I am blessed and never tire to say it, that I am a small part of this clan of intelligent, wise, fun, hilarious, kind, endlessly interesting and beautiful people that sprung from the spring of Gladys and Cecil’s pure love. We know you’re there, in each other’s arms, to the hoot and rhythm of Begin the Beguine.