This is my Nan. She is 80 years old today.
I know what you are thinking – she does not look a day over 25, right?
Check out her fabulous legs too! I wish I had inherited those pins.
Unfortunately, my legs came with 75% extra free.
That’s my Grandad in the photo with her, he passed away suddenly when I was 12.
My Nan was around the age I am now, when my surprise arrival made her a Grandmother. She’s had another 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren since then.
She was born in East London within the sound of the Bow bells, which makes her a true cockney. Although to my knowledge, she is not a gangster. She likes a strong cuppa, loves to read and enjoys the cigs.
She was only six when she was evacuated with her brother and sister during the war and packed off to Oxford, where they traipsed the streets hand in hand, trying to find someone to take them all in. Her only belongings were her gas mask, which she carried over her shoulder, and a little rag doll that my great-grandmother had made for her.
They lived in three different houses over six-years. One of which they had to be removed from due to neglect and another, they had to clean from top to bottom in order to earn their keep.
By the time she was returned back to her parents, she was 12-years old and had three new brothers. My great-grandmother loved to go out and have fun – she would still have been dancing on tables in her 90s if someone had given her a leg up to it – so it naturally fell to my Nan to clean the house and look after her younger siblings.
No wonder she married young, at just seventeen… and gave birth to her first daughter, Susan, 2-months later. Quite the scandal in those days, I should imagine! The young family stayed with her parents initially, but space was tight and with no room for a cot, my Auntie Sue had to sleep in a drawer. Realising this was less than ideal, they moved in with my great-grandmother on my grandad’s side instead. However, this was not much of an improvement as they all found themselves sharing one room and converting another into a joint kitchen/bathroom area.
Despite this, they still found a way to have another two baby girls – my Auntie Linda and my mum.
Eventually, the family moved in to a home of their own, where three more babies were born! Two boys to even out the brood, Mick and John, and then another girl, Jackie, finally completed the family.
Nappies were being washed and hung out to dry so often that their friends nicknamed their house Nappy Valley.
With six children, you would think there was no time for socialising but my Grandparents would still throw parties every single weekend. Like her mother before her, my Nan loved to dance. The house was always bustling with people popping in and out to say hello, to have a drink and a chat.
With six mouths to feed, my Nan took a job at a local Old Age Pensioners Club and ended up running the place. The club was a place for retired folk to hang out together during the day. They could play cards and bingo, join a keep fit class or just have a gossip over lunch with friends. I remember going there with my sister every day after school to wait for my mum to pick us up. My Nan also used to organise a big party for the members there every year at Christmas, which as I got a bit older, I was allowed to waitress at. I’d always order Snowballs from the bar and sneak a spare one out the back to drink with my cousins.
Even when she was working, she still put a home cooked meal on the table every night – some of my mum’s fondest memories are of steak and kidney pudding, bacon and onion suet pudding, lamb casserole and many many roast dinners.
Every week, all the kids would have to line up for a spoonful of cod liver oil. They went on big family coach trips to Walton on the Naze. All the girls’ dresses were hand sewn… and often identical.
I am not sure when, but at some point when I was young, my Nan was diagnosed with having lupus. At the time, lupus was still very rare and poorly understood. There was so little information about the condition available that she was held up as a special case, and asked to stand in front of student doctors as a test study.
Although she would live with this illness for the rest of her life, she refused to let it define her. She made few compromises to her lifestyle and continued to work like a horse, party like a rock star and smoke like a chimney.
Her remarkable life has spanned nine decades. There have been ups and there have been downs. She has raised six children and run a business. She lost her husband too soon, but travelled the world. Her beginnings might have started poor, but she has led a rich life. This weekend, the 44 members of her immediate family (including one via skype from Australia) will meet to surprise her with a big birthday celebration. Four generations of one family are to spend the night together in the same house, just as they might have done in the olden days, although this time no-one will be required to sleep in a drawer.
It will be a good old-fashioned cockney knees-up.
My Nan may not be up dancing on the table at the end of the night, but there is every chance that we all might be.