Grandmother, a Poem by John Thieme

John Thieme

I

“I’ll gladly tell you all about her,
if you have five minutes you can spare.

“She sat there in that seat – yes, that chair there –
quietly knitting her memories of the war.
The Great one? Yes. The Second one as well.
In her final years, retired, though not before she had to,
she spent her days on this back porch, sunburnt,
stroked by rays that splintered through the glass,
just there. Yes, through that large pane –
they shone through that one over there.
“And earlier? Well, that’s another story.
a bursting bag of sewing, sprouts and seeds.
But here … she sat and hardly moved at all,
except to walk her frame down to the bathroom,
ten yards at most along the half-lit hall.

“I asked her once what moment she recalled most
from her crowded life of rarebits, trifles, stews.  
She’d had a stroke and giggled, coughed and spluttered:
‘Women bus conductors in the first of those big wars.’

“More detail? You’d like to know my feelings
and hear my potted bio of her life.
You’re not too bored by what I’m saying?
OK, here goes. I’ll tell you what I can,
part truth, part rumour and the rest is fiction,
my best guess, but I think I’m mostly right.”

II

“Towards the end her body seemed quite flattened,
like the flowers pressed into her herbal,
a browned Edwardian cornucopia,
kept close beside the Bible of her cookbook,
a talisman with recipes she knew by heart.
I wonder who will ever make them now.

“Her coffin was quite plain, in no way special,
no hint of her abounding life
that burst the seams of those who would contain her.
I can’t believe she won’t be here tonight.

“Her floral apron housed so many keepsakes,
its pockets crammed with spices, charms and pins.
Was she really once a cook
in one of those vast mansions
on the outer edge of Regent’s Park,
a downstairs life lived just beneath the ‘great’?
That’s what they said. A letter proves it’s likely.
His clumsy billet-doux, his litany of flattery,
penned in his pride he had a way with words.
I see her reading it by gaslight,
too wise to take him at face value,
too poor to spurn him without further thought.

“I see them meet at Speakers’ Corner
to stroll down Hyde Park’s democratic paths,
an unrestricted garden of desire.
Penny deckchairs basking in the sunshine,
hand-holding, serpentining walks.

“And, after marriage? I see her cornered in his sweetshop,
in thrall to the great mantra of his business:
‘The customer is always right.’
He built a large newspaper empire
and sold his goods across the lines of class,
and she was always, always cooking
for the stomach-marching army of his staff.

“And sometimes there were three-day breaks in Brighton
in tacky bed-and-breakfasts near the piers,
with rock and candy floss and Lucie Attwell.
He loved all this. She waited to go home.

“They said she was ‘a poor soul, to be pitied.
He went with other women, and she knew.’
I see her smiling at this eggshell gossip,
easy for her to crack, but better left alone.
As if she cared. Why would she care?
Just glad to have him anywhere but home.

She taught us how to manage skills that mattered:
poach eggs, play draughts, eat jelly, wash behind our ears,
and seal his letters with his heated orange wax.
She fed stray cats, put milk out for a hedgehog,
inclined her head to let her mongrel lick her ears,
and taught my brother’s parrot how to swear.
And how she cared, how much she cared.

“But most of all she baked and boiled and roasted,
fish pies, steamed cabbage, Scotch broth, mutton stews,
feeding all his staff – her own five thousand –
fresh miracles reconjured every day.

“She made our world secure and safe, unchanging.
She soothed our troubles, never voiced her own.
She read our thoughts before we even spoke them.
She solved our problems, cutting to the bone.”


III

“I’d better stop. I really can’t convey her.
This is her apron. Would you like to touch it?
This is her photo. Do you like her smile?
Her chair? No please leave that alone.”