The great thing about life is when you find out that connection to your past in the most mundane places are the most important parts of you.
After my grandmother’s early death my grandfather then married a woman from Wigan through a Catholic Marriage Agency. This is the woman who I knew and loved as Nana.
During WWII Nana was a member of Britain’s Women’s AirForce. She had flown spitfires from where they were built to the aerodromes where the men flew them into battle. She was always a bit annoyed that she was only allowed to fly them for delivery but no further. She was a bit like a spitfire herself. Small in height but a whirlwind, full of energy. When we visited when we were small she would put on records of the jitterbug and get us to step on her toes and she danced around the room singing the words to the big band tunes. We would be breathless while she just danced and danced.
She grew all of her own fruit and vegetables and made all her own bread. It was no hipster or middle class thing for her. She was a product of rationing and her experience saw her turn the most rocky and poor of patches of soil into rows of spuds, broccoli and her beloved raspberries.
She had a tiny kitchen in her pensioner’s bungalow. A counter with a cooker, and a sink against the window. And what she made would put every Nigella, Rachel and Delia to shame. From the minute you walked through the door you would be fed with her staples of home cured tongue or freshly roasted ham sandwiches with the lightest of Eccles cakes to follow. Then for dinner, two short hours later, a soup from whatever bounty of her garden with roasted meat weeping with taste and juices and roast potatoes that were always golden, crisp and fluffy inside.
And then we would have desert. My favourite was her trifle. Her freshly baked madeira cake and ratafia biscuits, smothered in sherry with her own custard and whatever fruit from the garden.
Busted is not the word for the end of the day when she would then take out the cake.
But it wasn’t just the ingredients, or the incredible skill. It was the love. She lit up when you ate and enjoyed her food. She not only filled our bellies, she filled our hearts. Her cooking was as much a demonstration of her love as the huge hugs and kisses she enveloped us in.
I smile when people talk about being chained to the cooker. When I, a political anorak and activist all my adult life, stand at my cooker I am at my happiest. I love cooking to Nana’s recipes. It’s always trifle at Christmas. No visit to a graveyard delivers the cherished connection I experience to her or my mother’s love and care as that I find when I open an oven door or stir a pot in the heart of our home.
My real granny who I never knew was a Kerry republican with uncles and brothers who fought in the IRA during the Tan War. When I became an adult I was amazed at the connections I felt to Pat, the granny I never knew.
My Nana was not my blood relative and she served with the British army. And I loved her as the most loving, warm and formative woman I could have hoped to have had in my life.
She never wore a poppy but she remembered with pride. She was very brave and she was always connected to the agency being a young woman during the Second World War gave her. It was just her experience which I respected and found fascinating.
I find no contradictions or problems with this kind of complexity. Most families have them. I just find connections. And I am grateful for them.