My paternal grandmother, Joan Pearce (Granny, to me), would have turned 99 this year if she were still alive. I always remember the year of her birth because it was the year after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. It’s hard to imagine what her life would have been like as a young girl, coming into consciousness in the midst of World War One, blossoming into adolescence in the roaring 20s, only to live through another World War in which her husband fought with the RAF and was away for years on end on highly secret missions. It’s a wonder my father and uncle Gavin were born; obviously there must have been short spells of leave to return home! My father recalls meeting his father, for the first time that he remembers, when he was five years old, at the end of the war. Having been brought up solely until this point by his mother and his beloved Granny Lucy, it was very odd to suddenly have this strange man in the house.
My first memories of Granny are of visiting her on my own when I was six. I grew up on the Isle of Man and she lived in Montacute, a sweet little village in Somerset with a stately home that had enormous goldfish in a round ornamental pond. I also remember the sweet shop not far from her house where she’d buy me a quarter of pear drops in a little paper bag. And dragging a dolls pram down the back lane which she made for me from a cardboard crate and a piece of string. She also made me an outfit for my doll out of grey woollen material with red blanket stitch around the edges, and she knitted me countless jumpers, my favourite of which was an apple green mohair affair. We’d play hide and seek (I nearly always hid in the shed and locked it) and Grandma’s Footsteps, and I’d make mud pies from soil and water and stick little wild flowers into them. In later years, after she moved to the Isle of Man, she taught me to ride a bike on the promenade in front of her flat, to play Gin Rummy, and to knit, spin and weave. She also told the most wonderful ‘Farmer Guppy’ stories which were always based on my siblings and I and our cousins; my favourite one was about Christmas time when we’d go sledging with Mr Guppy and Mrs Guppy would stay home baking all sorts of treats for us.
A great number of my fondest memories of Granny involve food. As a little girl she’d give me tinned peach halves – two of them in a bowl with some syrup from the tin, and cream floating on top so that they looked like fried eggs. ‘Thunder and lightening’ was soft, white bread rolls split and spread with a magical mixture of butter and golden syrup. For a treat I’d have an orange into which she’d cut a hole at the top and push in a sugar lump or two to suck the juice through. We’d make chocolate chip cookies, which I remember being big, flat and crisp, and we’d eat them straight from the oven while the chocolate chips were still melty. She made a fantastic chicken and vegetable soup with pearl barley, and roast leg of lamb with wonderfully crispy roast potatoes. And she taught me how to cook leeks, braising them gently in a knob of butter with the saucepan lid on, a method I use to this day.
In my late teens I stopped seeing Granny so often, preoccupied with other things, and she eventually moved back to the UK, to Surrey, to be near our younger cousins. But after finishing university and moving to London, I’d visit her quite regularly, catching the train down to Guildford on a Friday after work, and then the bus to Cranleigh, or driving down with uncle Nick and his partner Kiki. We all had such fun together, taking Granny out for a nice pub lunch, or to a garden centre, and then in the evenings we’d do the cooking, telling Granny to put her feet up, although I know she found it hard to stay out of the kitchen. Then we’d chat or watch the telly, getting tiddly on Cointreau or Amaretto over ice.
For her 90th birthday the family threw a huge party in a gorgeous old tithe barn surrounded by lush green fields. It was beautifully decorated with flowers and balloons, my aunt Christine produced a fabulous buffet spread, and the weather was stunning, one of those rare perfect English summer days. Everyone was there: family spanning four generations, and friends young and old including Granny’s bridesmaid, now quite an elderly lady herself! I’d been living in Sydney for just over a year and was about to start my first proper job here; I was very concerned about taking any time off. But my employers agreed to let me go and I was gone and back again within a week, the most ridiculously short trip to the other side of the world that I’ve ever made! I’m so thankful that I did make that trip. By Christmas of the same year she had deteriorated further from earlier strokes, and in May the following year she died.
Thank you, Granny, for being a wonderful friend, a great teacher, and for your wicked sense of humour and surprisingly modern outlook on life. Thank you for fuelling some of my earliest food memories. I can’t look at a tin of peach halves, or a jar of golden syrup, without thinking of you.