Memories of a Great Gran

As the “Annus Horribilus” that was 2011 draws to a close it dawned on me that I never wrote anything to celebrate the life of my Grandmother who died in May this year only days after we celebrated her 100th Birthday (Typical she said she didn’t want to be 100 – I think she only hung on because we told her she had to so we could see the telegram from the Queen!). It’s hardly surprising though given that her only son (my Dad obviously) had died in February which had hit her hard.
Birthday Card from the QueenSo I was thinking about the times that we spent at her house in Boldon Colliery when we were young and the things that stick out in my mind about those times. In the 50 years I had the honour of knowing her she only lived in 2 houses and they weren’t more than a few minutes walk apart. It was in the first of these two houses that I spent a lot of time as a child and Ihave very fond memories of that time which I’d like to share.

The thing I used to love most about staying there was that she’d let us sleep in her feather bed. The mattress was stuffed full of the things and it had to be fluffed up each morning but the joy of getting into it was unequaled. You would just sink into the mattress and be enveloped by the soft cosiness of it all. Unfortunately it didn’t last and by the early hours of the morning you were lying on a flat hard lump of a bed but it was worth it and we never passed up the chance to sleep in it.

She never owned her own house and when we were very young the house had a coal fire and an old range in the kitchen. Sadly both were lost in the 60’s as the house was modernised and while the fire in the living room was replaced by a coke fire, that gave my Grandfather no end of problems, the range was lost leaving only a little alcove which was a great place to hide. In the kitchen my Gran had a larder which was where she stored most of her food. She didn’t have a fridge for many years and all she had to keep things cool was a little coolbox. One of the disadvantages of this was that she always used sterilized milk which we all hated!

Even though she didn’t have a fridge until many years after they became a fixture in most peoples houses she did have an electric kettle many many years before any other person I knew! It was a big silver one which sat in one corner of the kitchen on top of her washing machine (which in those days only came out once a week on a Monday!). It had a huge big connector which was almost industrial grade and was a wonder to us who were used to the kettle on the cooker which, if you were lucky, whistled when it was ready!

Just to the left of the aforementioned alcove was the best thing in the kitchen – a cupboard that the door pulled down and became a worktop. My Gran would open it when she wanted to make a cup of tea, putting the cups on the rear side of the door and getting tea (or later teabags) out of the cupboard and putting them into the just warmed teapot before carrying it back to the kettle to be filled. She’d then return to the shelf/door and get out the sugar from the cupboard. There were always several packets of sugar in there, in fact there were aways several packets of most things – my Grandfather was a very organised person and the thought of running out of anything was abhorrent! He worked as a storeman in a local factory and in his spare time helped out in his brother shop down in the “Colliery”.

The other thing that was in the kitchen was the back door. This was the main entry to and from the house and the only time I remember the front door being opened would be if someone who didn’ know my Gran came round to the house. The main memory I have of the front door being open occurred every year on Christmas eve when the carol singers from the local chapel would come round and sing outside. It was always looked forward to and usually signalled that it was time for my brother and I to go to bed – which we didn’t mind because it meant Santa Claus was on his way!

In the days before Supermarkets and long before Asda opened their store in the town a trip to the big shops in Sunderland, Jarrow or South Shields was a long bus ride away so most of the day to day shopping was done locally in shops like the one owned by Grandad’s brother Uncle Norman. In addition to these there were mobile shops that came round. One was a mobile grocery and another a mobile butcher. I remember they used to stop outside and we’d go out with my Gran while she bought what was needed. The back of the van would be open and they’d put out a step and you’d get in the back where you’d be served from behind a counter. They knew all of their customers by name and knew exactly what they liked to buy!

But…..the one street merchant we would always love the arrival of most was Tommy, the Ice Cream man! His chimes would usually be heard around tea time and our ears would suddenly prick up and we’d look hopefully at Gran and Grandad. We’d usually get a ice cream cornet with “monkey’s blood” drizzled over it. If we were really lucky we’d get a 99 with a chocolate flake in it. Grandad was partial to an Ice Cream sandwich which was ice cream between 2 flat waifers and sometimes I’d have that. Often he would come before we’d eaten our dinner and on those occasions Grandad would take out a bowl and get it filled with dollops of ice cream which he’d then put in the pantry until after tea – how it didn’t melt I’ll never know!

Gran worked in the (Co-operative) Store in Sunderland, upstairs in the women’s clothing department, she was in her element as she always liked to be smartly dressed. We’d often pop into see her while she was at work which I loved but there was something that i always found daunting! As she worked up stairs we’d have to go up and see her and despite there being a lift my mum would always make us walk up the stairs. The stairs were wooden and open which meant that you could see right through them and this used to terrify me and I was always glad when we reached the top.

There are two things that I remember about being in the Store – the first was that while visiting my Gran at work my Dad suddenly appeared from behind a rack of clothes with a huge grin on his face and announced that he had passed his driving test! The other was most likely in around 1967 and there was a mobile display at the other end of the floor advertising the new radio station Radio1 – my Gran went off to get the DJ to sign an autograph for us and although at the time I had no idea who he was I would, many years later, discover that it had been Alan “Fluff” Freeman who had signed a bit of an old shoebox for her!

We’d go to my Gran’s by bus and this would take two bus journeys. The first would take us into Sunderland’s bus station from where we would have to walk around to Fawcett Street to catch another bus which took us over the bridge and out along the Newcastle Road (passing the bottom of the street we’d eventually move to) and on to West Boldon. There was a house on the right just before we got off the bus that we’d always look out for as he had filled his garden with wooden models of cartoon characters. Once we got off the bus it was still quite a walk to my Gran’s house and the journey would take us down through some open fields and over the burn.

The burn was a small stream that we crossed by an iron bridge but it was also so much more. It was an adventure playground for us kids and it was there we would play with one of the local kids who was slightly older than us (and apparently I found out later our parents hated!). I remember there was a little path that ran down the side of the bridge which gave us access to the side of the stream. It also allowed us to get under the bridge and hand from the supports. I don’t thing we ever managed to get across the river that way but I seem to recall falling in once so we must have tried. In later years we would be allowed to take the latest in a long line of dogs that my Gran owned (all of which seemed to have names that started with an S) for walks along side the burn but I never got to do any courting down there which my father told me he used to do!

Once on the other side of the burn it was a short walk up the other side and then you entered the estate between two blocks of garages. It was here that my earliest memory takes place – I can remember being pushed through the snow in a pushchair and being intrigued by the tracks left in the snow – I have no idea how old I was at the time. You then turned left and walked down the street and my Gran’s house was on the corner number 3. She used to have this really big garden as she was on the corner and we’d have bonfires on November 5th. I remember we’d go round the neighbour’s houses to see if they had any wood for the bonfire. One year my Grandad gave us his cap to put on the guy and that night we watched as it went up in flames. He then amazed us the next morning by coming down stairs wearing the cap! He’d bought a new one and had given us the old one to burn!

Sadly at some point the council took most of the garden back and built a block of seriously ugly garages on the land. We missed the garden but I think it was better in the long run for my grandparents as it was easier to mange and gave them a nice sheltered back garden. Once while playing Cowboys my Grandad helped us build a fire so we could cook some baked beans – he opened a tin and we heated them up over the fire – however when it came to eating them I lifted the folk to my mouth but just couldn’t put them in – I found the smell repulsive. I’ve never been able to eat baked beans and I’m sure this incident left me with a pathological hatred of the things!

My Gran on the other hand had a pathological hatred of thunderstorms. At the first sign of one she’d clear the stuff out of the cupboard under the stairs and replace it with one of the dining room chairs – she’d then stay in the cupboard until the storm had passed and stopped making her heido (never found out what that meant!). When she got older and moved to a bungalow, after my Grandad died, there wasn’t a cupboard under the stairs so I have no idea what she did. Maybe the fear subsided – if it did her other great hatred did not! She hated onions! Couldn’t bear them and she continued to tell everyone this almost till the day she died! My Dad explained in the eulogy he’d written for her funeral that it was because her father used to like to eat a boiled onion after his shift at the mine and in order to “please her man” her mother would spend most of the day cooking it which filled the house with the smell of onions!

The living room always held happy memories for us as that was wear we spent our Christmas’s. I can still remember the apprehension I would feel standing at the top of the stairs wondering if it was safe to go downstairs, had HE been yet? And coming down into the living room to find the floor strewn with toys and presents. Santa always used to set up the main present so one year we came down to find a Hot Wheels track, another year it was a Subbuteo set complete with floodlights and in the year that I have a picture of my brother and I smiling at the camera, still in our pyjamas, it was an Action Man Space capsule!

There would of course be a stocking and a sack full of presents from relations and neighbours like Mrs Dummer or Daisy from across the road. We’d eat all of the sweets from our stockings and never eat our Christmas dinner, much to my father’s annoyance! There was a long standing joke that whenever we sat down to eat on Boxing day a Police car would pull up outside (my Gran never had a phone in that house) and my Dad would be called away to investigate a murder or sudden death. We’d often end up getting the bus home with one small Christmas prezzie that we could carry and Dad would have to go and pick the rest up later!

The other thing that stood in the living room was Gran’s Cocktail cabinet – not that she was a great drinker (and gave up altogether after my father got her drunk one Christmas at our house years later). The cocktail cabinet was in my Gran’s living room for as long as I can remember and it could even have been as old as me! It’s certainly in the background of the Christmas picture and was there right next to her when she died. It was with great sadness that I had to accept that we couldn’t really give it a home when we were clearing out her house. But why was it so special? Simple really – whenever the door to that cocktail cabinet opened it meant something special was about to be given to you. When I was little it was sweets, as I got older it usually meant the Sherry (or Port) was coming out! or she’d have some money stashed in there ready to give us. The most magical words in the world were “Kevin, open that door for me will you…….”

Grandad, on the other hand, kept his money safely under lock and key in one of those old fashioned money boxes in the bottom of his wardrobe. When we went to visit he would always disappear upstairs into the front bedroom and get out the little black box before returning downstairs with it and handing us some money. It was at the window of the front bedroom that I saw him for the last time – he hadn’t been well and we’d been to visit. As we were leaving we l looked up and he was waving at us. Beth, my eldest daughter, suddenly shouted out “bye bye Great Grandad I won’t see you anymore!” much to our embarrassment – but she was right we didn’t.

Sometimes we’d sleep in the little front bedroom where there was only enough room for a single bed so we would top and tail – me at one end and Garry at the other! I would often lie awake at night listening to the sounds outside, few cars in those days but I remember the sounds of people walking home late at night and the clip clop of high heels as they approached and then receded. On another occasion I was ill and my Gran must have sat up with me most of the night as every time I woke she was there. Gran often made us feel better when we were ill as she would always turn up with a bottle of Lucozade, which was quite expensive in those days!

Sunday night my Grandad would go out and he would always have a shave before he did. He would boil the kettle and fill a big metal mug with water and take it up to the bathroom with him. I must have watched him shaving and think that was where I learned to do it as my father always used an electric razor. When he was ready he would head off to the”Chapel” for the Sunday service, he took us once and I recall it was seriously dull (and we were used to church as we’d be sent off to Sunday School every week) – he belonged to something called the Fellowship which I didn’t understand but he has a badge and they sent him a magazine every month. After the worship she would retire to the Wheatsheaf for a couple of pints.

During the times we spent at Gran’s house we would find things to occupy us. Often we would play with the kid down the road (who our parents hated remember – this may have had something to do with him teaching us things like how to spit!) or just with each other. Objects from Gran’s house were pressed into service in our games. My dad had been in the Boys Brigade and had a bugle and a wooden stick from those days. The stick had a brass end to it and was the sort of things that Sargeant Major’s tuck under their arms while barking orders. Once we watched a film about a hammer thrower and keen to try this out we used my Gran’s dog lead to simulate what we’d been watching. Unfortunately when we let go of it the wind caught it and blew it onto a neighbours roof! We tried to think of a way to get it down but in the end we just pretended that we had no idea where it had gone!!

I could go on for ages, there is so much I haven’t covered. Uncle George and his cine camera (that I now own), the wonderful smell of the bottom kitchen drawer where the shoe polish was kept, the day my Gran tried to smarten us us by plastering our hair with hairspray, going to visit Auntie Aba in her prefab or Auntie Edna in Jarrow or even the infamous visit to the Mill photo studio in East Boldon for the “pandies” photo that Sarah loves so much! However there is one last memory I’ll finish with.

At the top of the stairs was the toilet and seperate bathroom. The toilet was quite small and it was lit by a single lightbulb fixed to the ceiling. The lightbulb was unlike any I had ever seen before and I have no idea how old it was. It was small and not very powerful – about 10 watts I seem to recall but it was just bright enough to illuminate the loo. The thing that makes it stand out is that it was there for as long as my Gran lived there. I remember it being there when I was little and it was still there when she moved out. There’s a part of me that thinks that had she still lived there I would have gone to the loo after her funeral and it would have gone pop!

Mary “Maisie” Potts 13th May 1911 – 29th May 2011