I was born on my grandmother's birthday, in the second bedroom of her small terrace house, and it wasn't long before everyone discovered that I'd inherited my grandmother's distinctive red hair. I wonder if my mother's mother looked down at her tiny look-alike, and regarded her first born grandchild as a birthday gift.
My grandmother's birthday was two days ago, and so was mine. Last week my family wanted to know what gifts their birthday girl desired. I thought and thought but couldn’t come up with anything to put on my wish list.
“You can’t have a birthday without presents!” my children complained. “Mum! You’re not making it very easy for us.”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something to give me,” I answered.
I used to send my grandmother a special gift on our birthday, but I don't do that any more. She died a few years ago, just before her 93rd birthday.
I was speaking with my mother on the phone last night. “It was Nannie’s 100th birthday this year,” she said. I was surprised. How could I have forgotten such an important date? I see it every day. I have an embroidery in our living room that I stitched for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. It says:
30 April 1913
My mother's sister took a huge bunch of flowers and a ‘Happy 100th Birthday’ helium balloon to the cemetery on our special day. I like that. It made me smile. That’s the kind of thing I would do.
Having the special connection of our birthdays and red hair, I always felt close to my grandmother. I thought I knew her very well. I enjoyed spending time with her, talking (very loudly because she was hard of hearing) while we shopped, (my grandmother could outshop anyone) or while we sat sipping coffee around the kitchen table. Whenever we parted or met up, she would hug me fiercely and smack big kisses on my cheek. But only a few years ago, I realised there is so much about my grandmother I don't know.
Just after Thomas died, my grandmother suddenly revealed she gave birth to a baby that died a few weeks later, from injuries sustained when she fell down the stairs in late pregnancy. I asked my mother why she’d never told me about the baby, and my mother replied that the day I found out about my aunt was the same day she found out she had an extra sister. My grandmother had kept her sorrow hidden inside her for over 50 years. I wonder what else she never shared.
When we are young the world revolves around our own lives. It’s only been in recent years I have looked beyond myself and wondered about my grandmother. She wasn’t just my Nannie. She was a person in her own right with her own life that didn't always include me. When she was with us and I had the opportunity, I never thought to look beyond the surface. Would my grandmother have shared her stories with me? What could she have taught me?
This year I didn’t need to choose a gift for my grandmother, but my family still had to think of something to give me. Finally I said, "Perfume! I haven't had any of that for years."
So my children wrote ‘perfume’ on my birthday wish list, and they and my husband Andy went shopping.
Last Tuesday I tore off the wrappings from around my birthday presents and I discovered a glass bottle of Nantucket Briar perfume and matching body lotion. I sprayed a little on my wrist and sniffed. “It’s beautiful!” I exclaimed. “I love it. I'm going to wear it all the time.” It's going to become my scent.
Andy let out a sigh of relief. "So I did okay?" he asked. I nodded, and we both smiled.
“You should have seen us in the perfume shop,” said Imogen. “We sprayed so many different scents onto our hands, it got very confusing. Then Dad sprayed his shirt by accident.” She grinned. “He was worried you’d smell it on him when he got home.”
So I was a very happy birthday girl receiving exactly what was on my wish list. But there’s something else on that list, something I didn’t write down:
I wish that one day I will meet my grandmother again and have the opportunity to share her stories.
My sister once said, “Nannie really loved you, you know. She always looked out for you.”
I think I took that love and attention for granted. Did my grandmother ever know that I really loved her too?
Happy 100th Birthday, Nannie. I love you.