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Useful And Fantastic: Great-Grandmas

Val Yule says great-grandmas are a bridge to another world and should be treasured.

I am old enough to remember my own Great-Grandma, who was born in 1850. She took me on her lap, as dressed in black satin or some-such past material, she rocked in her rocking-chair. And old, old Aunt Mem, born in 1848. I wish I could keep my hair tidy with a pretty lace cap like hers. I have never seen a plastic hair-covering to save bothering about hair. Why cannot pretty lace caps return for the over-eighties? We great-grandmas would look good in wimpled headscarves too, as fashion statements, not necessarily as offerings to God or Allah. Our Queen wears headscarves at Balmoral, but of a type that I cannot keep on.)

I can remember my Grandma, born in 1871, and her Family Gatherings at a table that could seat twenty (she was the eldest of 13, of whom eight survived), and the family concerts afterwards, when Grandma played “The Battle of Abyssinia” on a peculiarly twanging and banging piano, or sang “Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” Aunt Doris sang “Robin Adair” very loudly, and we grandchildren recited “I Love a Sunburned Country” or worse. We were never asked again after we combined to sing “A Hundred Green Bottles” and would not be stopped.

I have saved some of the old books and magazines from their time. They have gloriously readable print, so different from some of today’s fancy fonts and white-on-black.

Old Harmsworth thought that now there was universal education since 1987 people would want to read the best if they were given it. And so, Arthur Mee’s wonderful Children’s Encyclopaedia, in blocks of topics, and Harmsworth’s 1000 Great Books of Literature encapsulated in 42 issues, and ditto for Great Philosophy and Great Science.

I have the Family Bible, bigger than several telephone books, because the print had to be big enough for the youngest to read it, with the engravings of the “mighty men of valour” and dreadful catastrophes with lightning and you could see the thunder. And the old Punches, still well worth reading, though some profess to think them nothing. And great-grandfather’s self-improvement books: every art and craft he could collect, to make everything yourself non-electronic you would have to buy today.

Kitchen tools. My grandmother’s bread-knife, which never ever needs sharpening and can cut anything from plastic to pumpkins—its blade gradually getting thinner. Great Grandma’s knickers, I found a pair at a sale recently, the sort with a bit of leg. How winter-warm and comfortable! And how healthy and clean, being loose and not tight contact. Sexy? The Victorians found them so. The non-minimalist love of lots of everything—the magic drawers full of buttons and badges and mysteries that we loved sorting through.

They had hankies, not tissues. Iron the best ones, but just smooth and fold the others. Also bedsocks in ski patterns.

Fashion – ah. I am old enough to have had to hand-sew a camisole in Sewing Class, long after any of us ever wore one. But mine was never finished – strange – and my mother had only to machine-sew up one side and we had a lawn pillowslip.

The long winter nights without TV, the ceilidh tradition, and other things we did together.

The d’oylies for the hope chests.

The kitchens with sculleries and pantries.

And now I am a Great-Grandma too. I have my Best Dishrack, plastic-coated iron staves, not like today’s flimsies. I have stretch-fabric covering my furniture, still going strong in Britain, but apparently not in Australia. Today the problem is you can’t make standard sizes for six types of sofa only, you have to custom-make. I have my Twin-tub washing machine, saving water and energy at the cost of exercise. And why not? Likewise a carpet-sweeper when you do not need to vacuum. Hills Hoist, yes. And in the garage waiting for some unthought of retro, a daisywheel printer with recyclable ribbons. And still in the house, my IBM Selectric typewriter, for when all computers go wrong.

Across the road, they have pulled down a better house than mine, to build a MacMansion. Everything scraped off the earth, garden and all. What will happen to my haven of the past with its lessons for tomorrow?

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