Sunday, 28th October
Keyword for the Day: My Great Grandma
Today was my great-grandma’s birthday. I remembered because when you are a child you count your half-birthdays and my half-birthday was on the same day as my great-grandma.
Grandma Jeffcoat was a lovely, gentle lady and she taught me to knit. In fact, she taught me to knit so well when I was five or six, after a couple of years’ practice, I was capable of knitting myself a jumper at the age of nine. It was bright orange and it took me ages.
Grandma Jeffcoat had a friend who lived a few doors away.They sat, side by side every day, knitting, addressing each other as ‘Mrs Jeffcoat’ and ‘Mrs Summerley’ while my great grandad, the fearsome and legendary Tom Jeffcoat, bellowed at them to shut up as he listened to the cricket on his Bush radio (which I eventually inherited).
Gramp used to wee in his ‘bottle’ instead of going to the outside toilet in the yard. He was disabled and used crutches. They all thought I didn’t know he weed in a bottle when he asked me to ‘go in the kitchen and see your Grandma – there’s a good girl’, but I had sussed out what he was doing because I knew he kept his ‘bottle’ in a metal waste bin at his side, covered by a folded newspaper on the top. I remember being very disgusted. My dad would never have done such a horrible thing in our living room!
It was a bit of a revelation to me when Grandma Jeffcoat died and someone told me Mrs. Summerley didn’t live there, but in her own house down the road.
My great-grandparents lived with my grandparents. Years later, when Auntie Rita and I decided to write a book about her life, I began to appreciate the absolute hell my Grandma Jeffcoat and Grandma Foster had suffered as mother and daughter living with such a controlling man.
My Auntie Rita told me that despite Gramp treating Grandma Jeffcoat badly and talking down to her all the time, when she died of an asthma attack he was inconsolable. This is an excerpt from Sunlight on Broken Glass, which covers the period 1922 to 1932 in the Jeffson Family Trilogy. Auntie Rita once told me I had captured her mother perfectly in this description. (We decided to call the family in the novel ‘Jeffson; and Auntie Rita wanted to be called ‘Daisy.’)
Daisy gulped in fright as, from her hiding place, she watched Tom step forward and pull at Liz’s old, threadbare navy blue cardigan, which was liberally dusted with flour in the places not covered by her patterned, faded apron.
‘For God’s sake, gal, what on earth have you got on! Smarten yourself up. Have you forgotten to comb your hair today, ‘cause it bloody well looks like it! A right matted tazz… that’s what it is …and what the hell have you been doing to yourself? You’ve got flour everywhere.’
Daisy watched through the crack in the pantry door as Tom swatted Liz’s floury hair with the back of his hand. She flinched, expecting the contact of his knuckles on her mam’s cheek. Daisy knew her dad’s comments about her mam’s appearance were frequent and cut deep, especially when said in front of her red-lipped, porcelain-cheeked, yellow-haired Auntie Doris, who had plenty of time on her hands to make herself look nice. Her father just didn’t seem to understand that her mam’s time was taken up making sure the house was kept clean and tidy, and she didn’t have the time to have her hair cut and smoothed into a straight, fashionable bob and dress-up in jangly beads to go out gallivanting in the afternoons. It didn’t matter how much her mam tried, either her hair wouldn’t go right, she’d sprout a big spot on the end of her nose or, even worse, blemishes would appear on her face out of nowhere and she’d look a dreadful sight. ‘You’d better not go out lookin’ like that,’ her dad would often say before she left the house to go shopping. ‘You’ll frighten the milkman’s ‘orse!’
Daisy felt the prickle of tears behind her eyelids. Everything they did, day-in, day-out, had to be perfect. Her dad completely controlled them all. It was as if everyone in the family was kept in a prison made of unyielding iron bars.
It took me five years to write the trilogy from our twice weekly chats about the past. Auntie Rita died before she could read the entire first draft when it was a single novel of around 180k words, but I read the last part to her, when she was in hospital after suffering a stroke. She had absolutely no qualms about reavealing all the secrets of her past, and I hope, one day, a mainstream publisher will publish it. Who knows, perhaps the cuckoo will pave the way and Great Grandma Jeffcoat’s voice will at long lost ring out, loud and clear, from beyond the grave, and everyone will know just how much she suffered.