A letter to my grandmother

Dear Nan,

In this age of mindfulness, and greater discussion about mental health in general, would you have opened up about your troubles, I wonder?

You talked to me about so many things, shared secrets that, as far as I know, you didn’t tell anyone else. And yet, you never did talk about the one thing that was the most obvious of your problems.

I will never understand how the words eating disorder were never mentioned to you.

Maybe your doctor did bring it up, and perhaps you brushed him off with a funny comment.

You were neither bulimic nor anorexic. You knew you were not fat. You knew you were skinny. Everyone knew you were too skinny, and yet, we all danced along with you, never daring to ask what was causing you to punish yourself.

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It’s not that you didn’t eat anything at all; rather, you didn’t eat enough.

Your diet consisted mostly of crackers and cheese, and some fruit. I honestly don’t remember seeing you ever eat breakfast, but you must have had something, surely, to be washed down by your black coffee?

You never joined us at meal times around the table. Instead, you’d perch on the sofa, with a little plate of crackers and cheese, while the rest of us tucked into a roast dinner.

Grandad was the exact opposite of you; he had a large appetite, and would happily eat whatever was put in front of him. I always had to remember to set his place with the knife and fork the “wrong” way around, because he was left handed. We never set you a place.

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You didn’t have an easy life. You were very open about how your own mother had died before you were even two years old. You had no memories of her, just a couple of precious photos. One was always at the side of your bed.

Raised mostly by your grandmother, in Tottenham, London, you were heartbroken when she died just a few days after your wedding. A wedding one week, a funeral the next.

Nine months later, on Christmas Day 1945, you became a mother yourself, at the young age of twenty.

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So there you were, with a husband returned safely from war, and a new baby, all living with your in-laws.

I don’t know when, but at some point in the 1950’s, you had a nervous breakdown and ended up in hospital. Within a few years it happened again.

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That’s when your eating issues began. Suddenly, you just didn’t eat normally. It was crackers and cheese all the way.

I don’t know how you sustained yourself. You had a heady cocktail of tablets and pills from the doctor, and you always looked tired. Arthritis and tinnitus took their toll, and antidepressants were a constant in your life, I assume, ever since your breakdowns.

You never recovered from Grandad’s death; you were a broken soul, lost in a sea of grief. You didn’t quite reach sixty years of marriage, but came close. I know how lonely you were without his company; we wrote to each other, opening up about grief and love. I was thousands of miles away in Japan, and longed to be able to come over to hug you.

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You didn’t want to go into a care home, but you were too confused to be left at home alone. In a way, I’m thankful that you weren’t more aware of what was going on, because you would have hated it.

The one good thing about the care home was that you ate more normally. Shared mealtimes were the new routine, and I think as you became more confused, you somehow forgot to punish yourself.

You told me once, after another operation, how you had woken up in the recovery ward, and a nurse had said to you don’t be so hard on yourself after overhearing you muttering something as the anesthetic wore off. You fretted over what on earth you might have been saying; I’m guessing it must have been something to do with how you mistreated your body, depriving it of the nutrition it needed.

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Your body was frail, yet you were so full of love. For years, you were the only person who told me you loved me. Motherless, yet so motherly. Starved, yet so giving. Hard on yourself, yet so kind to others. Every time you hugged me I thought your bones might snap.

You were especially close to your cousin, Gladys. You looked alike, even though you were so skinny and she a little plump. After you both had died, another cousin, on his death bed, revealed a family secret. Your dad had also fathered Gladys. She wasn’t just your cousin, but a half-sister. I wonder how you would have reacted had you known?

Your family tree was a tangled mess.

After your mother’s death, you father remarried, providing you not only with a stepmother, but two stepsisters, like a 1930’s version of Cinderella. They later had a son together, your half-brother. Your father liked to drink, and was a bit volatile, according to you. When he died in the 1970’s, you refused to go to his funeral, which indicates just how little you respected, or loved him.

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I am so thankful that you attended my wedding, and that you hung on just long enough to meet your great-grandson. Introducing him to you on your death bed was not ideal, but at least you were finally able to touch him, having previously only seen him on Skype, from across the other side of the Atlantic. He was almost a year old.

Quite honestly, I am surprised you lived as long as you did, into your mid-eighties. You were my last grandparent to die, but as a child, I always thought you would be the first, because you seemed to fragile and frail.

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Despite any inner turmoil and darkness you were experiencing, you were the most fun grandmother. You always sat on the floor with us to play, and let us make as much mess as we liked. I remember sitting in your dining room, bashing pots and pans with a wooden spoon, pretending to play the drums. I remember us opening the fridge, and the eggs all fell out and smashed on the floor; instead of being angry, you couldn’t stop laughing.

I was lucky to have had you as a grandmother for so long; I was in my late 30’s when you died. You watched me grow up, and had waved me off as I went on adventures to foreign lands. We always wrote to each other wherever I was in the world; I have kept all your letters. They are my treasure.

I miss your stories. I miss your hugs. I miss your love. I wish I could have helped you banish your demons, but I didn’t know how.

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