Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Small clarification.

It occurred to me, reading over the previous entry, that the last line has a rather spooky saints' relic-like association, and may in particular confuse readers for whom English is not their first language. I mean, of course, that my hands have the same shape, down to my fingernails and a particular kink in my little finger, as my grandmother's and my mother's, and I think Sebastian may have it too. I have always liked that, and I think of them as a kind of living heritage, which I suppose it what genetics is all about. It is comforting to have such a specific reminder of my grandmother that is part of me too.

Heather Durr, nee Turner

The day before yesterday was my grandmother's 91st birthday. Here are a few things I know about my grandmother:

She was born and grew up in Algeria, ever proud of her English heritage (her parents came from a small town near Manchester), in a predominantly French colonial society. I don't know much else about her childhood, but in her twenties she married a Frenchman called Maurice Doreau, my grandfather.

As a young, attractive woman, one of the few who spoke English, and blessed with a fine pair of pins, she was very much in demand at dances with the English officers during the Second World War. For many of those young men she probably gave them their last taste of youth, beauty and fun. She often advised us to get up to as much as naughtiness possible whilst young to look back on in our old age. I've tried to follow that advice.

Also during the War, she helped her father smuggle secret messages and hide stranded Allied soldiers, in stories reminiscent of scenes from "Allo Allo".

The War left her with an abiding fear of loud noises, thanks to incidents such as my mother's birth in hospital in Algiers, as bombs fell all around and everyone else huddled in the basement for safety. Her coping strategy for loud thunder storms: lock herself in the loo and sing until they had passed.

She experienced her fair share of tragedy: when she left her first husband (my grandfather) for the man who would be her second she begged to be allowed to take her two daughters. She wouldn't see them again for over a decade. She gave birth to 7 children; one little boy died shortly after birth, her only other son died at 18. My cousin, I suspect her favourite grandchild, died in a motorbike crash when he was 13.

When we visited as children she would lay on a feast, tell naughty jokes, pop her false teeth to make us scream, feed us forbidden sweets and do this funny thing with her knees and hands - flapper style - that never failed to have us laughing hysterically. Her husband was a frightening presence: old (or perhaps not so old), large and prickly, he mumbled at us incomprehensibly and then gave us little presents and went out to the garden to pull up carrots for my sister.

She used to send my father outrageous lacy, feathery, sequinned knickers for his birthday, because it amused her that as a barrister he received briefs.

When I was five I went to spend a week with her, during which time she spoiled me outrageously and I earned her admiration by negotiating arrivals, passport control and baggage reclaim alone, the airline having forgotten that I was travelling as an unaccompanied child.

She died yesterday morning, having remained independent, living in her own home, and abosolutely lucid until her last few days.

I have her hands.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Got to fly.

Well I know you're all dying to know whether I was successful in my appeal in the case of the tinted windows, but unfortunately I've been too busy to go and check. (I should mention the value of the fine at this point: about $8.) And as I'm off to the bush tomorrow for 12 days birding with Malcolm, you'll just have to hang in there a little longer. Ta-ra.

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