Wednesday, July 9, 2014

My Grandmother

Annie Webster was the first live child born into a poor working family in St. Helens, Lancashire in 1914.  Her father was conscripted and spent the war years in the trenches.

In 1928, the death of her mother brought Annie’s education to an abrupt end, as she became the primary caretaker for her father’s household – a two-up two down with a coal fire,  gas lighting and no indoor plumbing, shared by Annie, her two sisters and her baby brother. 

The Second World War (to end all wars) opened up factory jobs for women -- as well as requiring the participation of the family breadwinner in the hostilities -- and so Annie was put to work.   Working, Annie met a boy, they became close; she became pregnant.  She did not explain her condition to the young man, but she explored the possibility of his being willing to give up his heathen Methodism and return to the true Catholic faith, but he was not willing to consider it.  So they separated.

Annie hid the pregnancy.  She wore tight bindings under loose clothes.  She was petrified of her father (who was a gambler and a drinker, and sometimes violent) so she told no-one what was going on.

She gave birth to her only child, my mother, alone, in the tiny back bedroom she shared with her three siblings.  When Catherine came into the room, and saw Annie with my mother at the breast, she became the second person alive to know that Annie was ever pregnant.  That my mother survived to later give birth to five healthy  sons, after such a pregnancy, is astounding.

When grandfather came back from the second world war, he was not an easy person to live with.  Margaret, and Catherine and Sam all married and moved out.  Annie stayed to look after father, and her daughter, Marie, whom her grandfather would frequently refer to as ‘the bastard”.  Annie went to early mass every day, as she did for her whole life, and she and her only child became very close.  There was never another man in her life.

Annie went back to work in the factory.  For thirty years she slaved away, doing the same job as the men, and getting paid half as much.  At the end of thirty years, an imitation gold watch, no pension, thank-you, goodbye.

She was still living in that two up two-down.  Electricity had been installed in the sixties, and there was hot water in the tiny little kitchen that had been added at the back.  The toilet remained outside, at the end of the yard, for as long as my grandmother lived, there was no bath, or shower.

I remember my Grandmother and her sister Margaret (Auntie Meg) coming to babysit for the ever growing tribe of little Rigby boys, every Monday night.  Mom and Dad were both keen on singing, they had choir practice (which eventually included all five of us) and amateur performance of musicals and light opera which usually included me.

Mother taught me how to make a pot of tea, and I remember competing with my brothers to see who could provide the most correctly brewed beverage.  Annie was a lovely person.  I remember her as being very kind, and how anybody I met in her company was always very nice to me. 

She was an excellent cook, and could produce the most delicious pies and pastries in her tiny ill-equipped kitchen.

After she retired, she would spend all day at our house on Mondays – helping mother with the laundry.  She taught us how to iron our shirts, and press our pants.  She let us know when things were different from what she was used to, and she supported all kinds of traditions that were disappearing from the world.

The last time I saw her was in 1980, and she looked absolutely radiant.  She was all dressed up for my younger brother’s wedding.  She had rented a fine white hat, and gloves.  She was clearly very happy to be on her way to a huge wedding with 400 guests.  She was immensely proud of her grandsons. I kissed her, and said, “see you in church”.

On the way to the ceremony, she became so ill, my dad had the limo go by the hospital emergency room.  She was clearly in great distress, but what do you do, you can’t miss your son’s wedding.

In the church, the ceremony was underway, after a delayed start, and the groom’s parents were not present.  Father was due to give a reading.  He went straight from the door of the church to the altar, didn’t even stop at the pew.  Mother sat down in front of me, and Grandma was nowhere to be seen.

We found out later that Grandma died during the service.  Her only daughter Marie, knowing this, but not allowed to speak of it, sat at the high table, in front of 400 jovial wedding guests.  We were told she was not feeling well, and she was being taken care of at the hospital.  When the guests were leaving, father told us what had really happened.

I was living in Texas at the time.  I stayed in England an extra week to help with the funeral, and one of the things I did was to call a house clearance company.  They agree to completely empty the house, and they will pay cash for anything of value.  My grandmother’s assets, after a lifetime of work, amounted to 30 pounds sterling.  In 1980 that would have paid for a halfway decent meal and a cheap bottle of wine.