My mother’s mother, my gran, Jenny Sharp, previously Jenny Rutherford nee Janet Dickson was a ‘character’, that blunt-edged term for anyone a bit loud and in your face. I live in fear that people consider me a character, but lots of people agreed that Jenny was one, and – to be fair – she was like something out of a book, gritty realism tinged with humour, ‘A Dear Green Place’ but set in Bannockburn. She was twice widowed, once in 1933 when my mother’s father Bert died aged 26 (TB – he was a milkman), and then again about 50 years later when Joe Sharp – who I thought of as my grandfather – passed away. Joe was a good man, a miner, a fisherman, practical, quiet – well, he had to be.
Gran was not, I fear, much of a parent – certainly, her life as a young widow can’t have been easy, but my mother was really brought up by her own grandmother and her aunt, Lizzie, Jenny’s older sister, altogether a warmer and kinder person. Auntie Lizzie, sigh, what a sad life she had, a Catherine Cookson saga of poverty and bereavement, above which she triumphantly rose, laughing.
The relationship between my mother and my gran was complicated and brittle; on one stormy occasion Jenny said to my mother, ‘Aye, well, I’ll see you beneath the sod’, and she was right, outliving my mother by nearly a decade, dying at 102, her two husbands long dead, her only daughter gone and her son-in-law. I always feared she would see me beneath the sod too.
I have been thinking about Jenny a lot recently.
Mr F is a clever, serious fellow with a pleasingly childlike streak which manifests itself in bad puns, silly songs and a love for anthropomorphic animals, so our home has lots of representations of animals lying about, the oldest being Garfunkel, an orange dog given to me by said Auntie Lizzie for Christmas in 1965. Garfunkel has only one eye now and is a bit shabby, but during lockdown he has looked out on empty Joppa accompanied by a small very cheerful yellow plastic toy which, when squeezed, laughs like a maniac and which Mr F and I call Mr Very Silly Man. There are maybe fifty more ‘animals’ in the house, some of them more or less works of art, and some of them very cheap indeed. So, on his recent birthday, I decided to get him a parrot. Not a real one, of course – actual pets would be messy and bothersome. No, this was ‘Pirate Pete the Parrot’, which (who?) comes on a swing wearing an eyepatch and a pirate’s hat and which, glory be, talks.
Actually, Pete repeats what you say to him. You press a button, say something, and he says it back to you twice, in an appropriately parroty high pitched voice. But right from the start there was something about Pete that was….odd. Regardless of what he was saying, which, initially at least, consisted of mild insults about me – shape, age, silliness – contributed to his arsenal by Mr F, he made me feel a bit weird.
Then I realised. When I say something to Pete, but particularly when Mr F does, it sounds just like Jenny. Just like her. Her spirit is here with us now and living in the parrot. We have been having her say things that Jenny said:
‘It came away in my hand, Jennet.’ My mother employed her mother as a cleaner and – ironically maybe – to provide childcare during school holidays. She broke things frequently. Her cooking was legendary, the astonishing cabbage, four hours on the heat, being a highlight.
‘Just a wee yin for me, son’. This of food. She had a healthy appetite.
‘Are ye winchin’, son?’ Of course, she wanted me married.
‘Away and get the coal in, Joe.’ Retired miners got a generous allowance of free coal, so there was always a big fire. And much hot water – if I was a good boy I got a bath.
‘A sherry, as dry’s ye like, son.’ At some point Jenny decided that dry sherry was sophisticated. She liked sweet sherry. We compromised.
‘Are ye a Catholic?’ This to Mr F, the first time they met. Jenny was 92 and still living in her own house. I had gone to get milk and Ginger Snaps, though she was by this time a diabetic. It should be said, for clarification, that Jenny was not a Catholic, though The Catholic Mothers of Stirling were always very kind to her. The purpose of the question remains, well, unclear.
It is odd having her here. Even as a joke, the parrot has provoked an odd mixture of nostalgia, humour, comfort. Jenny was not easy but it is good to have her back. Next I want to find a big stuffed bear that sounds like my dad.