Never trust a man who doesn’t shine his shoes: And all the other pearls of wisdom passed on by my tough-as-nails grandmother
21:22 GMT, 27 June 2012
22:08 GMT, 27 June 2012
Sitting in front of me is a photograph of my grandmother, taken in the 1950s. It is a faded and ordinary enough snapshot, taken in a family garden.
Grandma is behind a white rose bush, the purity of the flowers matching her pale dress — and the serenity of her smile.
Some people stand out in your life as examples of goodness, of simple kindness and wellbeing. Often, though not always, they are close to home: family members, usually older, setting a good example across the generations. Grandma Lizzie was like that for me.
Wise woman: Barney's grandmother; Lizzie
Our lives seem so different — she was a working-class cook, me a middle-class writer — yet this one small, quiet woman taught me more than anyone about strength in adversity, the possibility of grace.
Lizzie Bardsley was born in Lancashire in 1892. Her father worked down the pit, her mother was a six-loom weaver. Her mother died young, splitting the family of three girls from each other and from their (somewhat inadequate) father.
Lizzie was sent to live with an aunt in Morecambe who was cruel and neglectful. She kept her nine-year-old niece as a semi-slave in her boarding house.
Interviewed for a family reminiscence tape in 1972, Lizzie remembers: ‘I used to scrub the dining-room floor at 6am and go to school. Then I had to wash up when I came home from school at lunchtime.’ If she fell short in any way, Aunt Maria would beat her. ‘I was frightened to death of her.’
There are 14 million grandparents in the UK
During the summer season, Lizzie was kept from school altogether, to work as a housemaid, and she never learned to read and write properly. This gave her a lifelong reverence for those who worked with pen and paper, which made my choice of profession particularly sweet to her.
In a Dickensian twist, Lizzie was rescued by her elder sister when she was 11 and started a new life in Ashton-under-Lyne. But things were still tough.
Barely past puberty, she went to work in a fish-and-chip shop, peeling potatoes to earn her keep. At 14, she entered the cotton mill. She was a twiner piecer — walking alongside the machines [ginnies] all day, to keep the threads wet with a ‘degging can’, and mending, or piecing, the threads, when they split.
Her memories of those days remained crisp, well into old age. ‘You used to see the girls coming out of the mill,’ she said, ‘with fluff in their hair. We wore a striped skirt and a white apron, with a shawl and clogs.
‘You could see your face in the clogs, they were so polished.’ Her gleaming clogs engendered a lifelong obsession with clean shoes. ‘Never trust a man who doesn’t shine his shoes,’ she would tell me.
Grandma led a typical life for a working-class Lancashire girl. It was into the mill for the women, down the mine for the men. Yet Lizzie was without complaint or self-pity. At 18 she was married, by 21 a mother.
Barney Bardsley treasures fond memories of her grandmother
By the time I knew Grandma, she had enjoyed a second career as a cook in the mill kitchens, a job she adored, and which stopped only when her husband had a stroke — and she was forced to spend the next 12 years nursing him at home, until his death at 67.
‘Home’ is what I associate most with Lizzie. She lived in a small northern council house full of antiquated furniture and quaint aromas — carbolic, bacon and face powder.
It all seemed old to me. The fussy dresser in the bedroom. The tiny scullery. The narrow garden where Grandad grew his vegetables. The creaky greenpainted gate I swung on for hours, pretending that it was a horse.
Out of the pokey kitchen, Grandma produced miraculous food — melting cheese-and-onion pies, rich meat-and-potato bakes, eggs and bacon and floury potato cakes.
Sometimes I would watch her work, her cool hands rolling pastry, or nimbly peeling potatoes for a pie: out of cheap, basic ingredients came a flavoursome feast.
Grandparents play a crucial role for us at an early stage in our lives. If we are lucky, they offer unconditional love — without the white heat of expectation that hovers constantly on our parent’s faces when they look at us.
Lizzie was entirely different to my mother, a combustible firecracker of a woman. Life was interesting around her, but never quiet. Whenever things got uncomfortable at home, or in my adult life, I would conjure up Lizzie’s gentle face, her soothing tones, and feel better.
Through the decades, I have studied different techniques of meditation and contemplation, with many fine teachers. None taught me as much as Grandma, who had never done a moment’s meditation in her life, and would not know a Buddhist mantra if it leapt up and chimed in her face.
She was a natural peacemaker, skilled in the art of wellbeing.
Apart from cooking, Grandma had another great talent — she could sing like a bird. ‘We used to sing for the soldiers in World War I,’ she told me. Her rich mezzo-soprano tones quickly caught the attention of her local church, where she was a leading light in the choir.
It is a person’s voice that reveals most about their character. Grandma’s voice was mellow and effortless. There was melody in her speech, as well as in her song. It was the Welsh blood in her.
These days, I take great pleasure in singing and cooking — the simple things in life. Grandma taught me that. She, like so many of her generation, lived a humble, domestic life.
But she did so with resilience and a radiant spirit. Some of that spirit must have poured itself into me when my husband became ill with cancer, and needed care for the last ten years of his life. She did it for her husband. I did it for mine.
But, in my mind, her hands were always more skilful, her attitude more patient, her wisdom ingrained.
As a girl, I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be like her — even though, of all the family, we are probably the least alike. At 55, I am still aiming for her grace.
In times of trouble, I picture her sitting quietly in her chair, chuckling happily at some piece of nonsense or other. And when it comes to the end of my life, may that be managed like Grandma, too.
When she was 92, she just sat on the sofa and said softly, as if to remind herself: ‘All I have to do now is die.’ And so she did. Drifting off to sleep with a comfy cushion at her back.
Easy in death, as she was in her life. What a gift.