Annie, my Grandmother, c.1925

I never knew my grandmother, as she and my mother were estranged, and even though she lived until I was 14, she was never part of my life.  All I knew was that on the early death of my grandfather, my grandmother forbade my mother, then eighteen, to take up the scholarship place at Oxford University that she had been offered just before her father died.  She was to stay at home and keep house. In the end, my mother lived at home and went to Leeds University: but she never forgave my grandmother denying her the opportunity – still unusual for a young woman of her background – that she’d worked towards throughout her time at Grammar School. I grew up with no warm feelings towards this woman whom I had never met.  In this piece, I’ve tried to look at my grandmother with fresh eyes and to see the world as it might have seemed to her.

Annie, the Vicar’s wife: c. 1925

Annie, probably taken in the early years of her marriage.

She sat there: no thoughts, no plans. Just a fog of tiredness behind her eyes, gritty with exhaustion. A thin skin congealed on her breakfast cup of tea. Beside her, a loaded and overflowing laundry basket.

The children had long since disappeared to school. There was the Vicarage to clean.  Always there was the house to clean. Mouse droppings in the kitchen, little rodents scurrying behind the skirting boards, day and night. Bats in the loft. Buckets in the bedrooms every time it rained.

Charles didn’t mind. Charles didn’t notice. He’d been brought up poor, but his brains had propelled him through school, won him a scholarship to Cambridge, while his sense of duty and his love of God had sent him to theological college, then to failing parishes, where he preached, visited, networked, did whatever God willed to fill the pews and make the church and parish life the centre of the community.

Where did Annie fit in with this? Fifteen years ago, Annie had been dazzled by the handsome young curate: his charm, his popularity, even his clear-eyed faith. What a privilege when they began to walk out together, and then to marry!

But Men of God earn very little. Men of God live in draughty, ill maintained and ill-equipped vicarages with large unwieldy gardens. Men of God rely on the women in their lives to run their parishes with them. What’s a parish without its Women’s Sewing Group, its Mothers’ Union, its Young People’s Fellowship?  What’s a parish without a Summer Fair, a regular diet of church socials and a harvest supper? And who, unpaid and completely taken for granted, manages the fellowships and all these events?

Well, here in Morley, it was Annie, wife and mother. Mother of Betty, brainy Betty, hothoused by her father, top of the class in her grammar school in Leeds, and thinking of nothing but wanting to be the first girl in school to get a place at Oxford. Mother of Arthur, fumbling bumbling clumsy Arthur: a bit of a dunce really.  What would he be fit for when he left school? Such a worry…

And besides Charles hadn’t been well, though hardly anybody realised, because he worked every single day.  He said his was a calling, not a job: no days off for him. Only Annie knew that he had been diagnosed with diabetes.  Only Annie was allowed to help him with his daily injection of the new wonder drug insulin. But he was supposed to be very careful, eating regularly to a strict diet. He did neither. Annie knew Charles could – probably would – die. And Annie knew what happened to vicars’ widows. When the vicar of St Agnes’ died last year, Mrs Atkins, poor Mrs Atkins and her four young children were put out of the Vicarage within the month.

Whatever would she do?  Whatever would she, Betty and Arthur do when Charles passed?

35 thoughts on “Annie, my Grandmother, c.1925”

  1. It’s funny that you have ‘reflected’ on her life in this way as I have often done the same thing regarding my grandparents on both sides. They all died many, many years ago now, and I was a mere kid at the time. Before my parents died I had asked them for details, stories, memories and events that featured in the lives of their parents. Alas, they didn’t share experiences in perhaps the same way as we do, so when they all passed, their life stories also passed with them. Like you, I can only piece bits together ‘construct’ what their lives must have been like.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading that – we forget why for example Grandma was tight with money – she married at 21 with a tiny cottage to live in and two younger brother-in-laws to feed. Then they got a nice house had holidays but WW2 came along!

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  3. This sounds so very possible, most probably was…. Even my grandmother, on my mum’s side, was well and truly the ‘Master of the House’, Manager of ALL sorts, it was SHE who took on over 20 refugees to her home and put them up to sleep under the roof (I think that my parents took down 23 matresses when they had to clear the house), she cleaned schools and kindergardens, had a large veggie & flower garden, minded the chickens and her 5 surviving children plus one child of her husband’s first marriage, and, and, and. Plus, my grandfather was a hard-working but not very educated ironmonger. They had at least a house to live in and enough grounds to have vegetables and fruit and berries.
    This also could well be taken as a testimonial to ALL THE PEOPLE we don’t really know anything much about. Through our various stays in different countries and amongst different attitudes, cultures and education we have learned to never ever judge a book by its cover (unless it’s a REAL book with a lovely cover, of course!) and we have also learned, over the years, to be far more understanding and compassionate about people we would, in our earlier lifes, just judged as ‘horrible, hard, harsh, narrow-minded, dumb’, in short: not worthy of our time and attention. How wrong we were then!
    To all those people, so very sure of their ‘being right’ and being ‘supreme’, I’d always recommend to go away from their country and live for a while, even only some months, amongst other cultures, and I’d like to meet them again after that – we sure wouldn’t have many of the problems we have with racism, sexism, looking down on others (and you may count Brexit in as well, just to get the jug overflowing….). Thank you for this view of a unloved grandmother. I hope she feels that nowadays not all is looked at as it was then.
    And to finish this very long comment, let me just add that I hardly talked to my father for nearly two years after he strictly forbid me to study at university – and I’m in a very different age group than your grandmother was. Only later I realised that I did FAR better as a secretary (and later personal assistent on high levels) than I could have done as a teacher – my goal in my younger life (a story for another day).

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    1. Oh, Kiki, you’ve got to tell that story one day. And yes, of course I agree with you that a sustained dose of living elsewhere does nothing but good. And ‘elsewhere ‘ doesn’t even necessarily have to be abroad …. so many different ways of life, even in this small island.

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  4. How to categorise this piece, Margaret? A re-imagining? A story? An interpretation? It’s so evocative. To me it reads as the beginning of what could become an extended story stretching back and forth from your mother and grandparents. There are so many questions hanging unspoken: why did your grandfather encourage his daughter so? He was ahead of his time. Were there discussions between him and your grandmother about his beliefs and intentions for bright young women of the day? Perhaps there were and perhaps your grandmother did not agree with him. Perhaps she firmly believed that a woman’s place was in the home? Perhaps she couldn’t see how her daughter could possibly benefit? Perhaps she was fearful for her daughter? Or perhaps she simply wanted her daughter to remain at home for company? Totally rhetorical of course – just an indication of the immediacy of your writing and my reaction to it. Family history is so fascinating!

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    1. I’ve gone through my whole life disliking this woman whom I never knew. This has been a salutary exercise. I feel much more sympathy for her now. As far as I know, my grandparents remained close, but their ideas and aspirations were quite different, and I think my grandfather must have been quite unusual in wanting his daughter to be academic. Perhaps he poured all his hopes into her as his son was not in the same intellectual league? I know so little, and it’s far too late to ask……

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  5. This is a fascinating exercise in seeking understanding, and maybe forgiveness. If only we all could be better at putting ourselves in the shoes of others, rather than just judging harshly. Was your grandfather such a dreamer/ idealist? Do you know? Or is this all pure (and possible) speculation?

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    1. My mother idolised him, as you might expect of a young woman whose father died young. He does seem to have had high ideals – as evidenced by his refusing a day off, and his documented ability to put failing parishes on a better footing. I wish I knew more.

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  6. I have read this several Margaret. It is sad and unsettling, as so many family stories can turn out to be, even in families that can seem so “normal” from the outside until one gets more intimate glimpses.
    I wonder how isolated your grandmother was and where her motivations stemmed from. It is hard never to be able to know these things in one’s own family. Perhaps it is painful and yet strangely freeing to imagine on behalf of your grandmother, even now in the wake of her adverse decisions that had such a profoundly detrimental effect on your poor mother and on their relationship and any possibility of a relationship also with you, her granddaughter?
    Besides all the other potential trials and tribulations of many women having to be self-effacing and unrecognized housekeepers and more for their whole lives at that time, I can’t help noticing your grandmother’s tiny waist in the lovely photo of her. I expect that she was likely to have been highly and unhealthily corseted. I wonder about the effects of the disabling corset on one’s mood and psyche in addition to its adverse effects on breathing, digestion, circulation and posture! It may seem like a frivolous point but I am sure it is not!

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    1. I’d never thought of the corset problem, but of course you are right. And I wonder if the hardest thing about her situation might have been that as the vicar’s wife, wife she probably had nobody to have a good old moan to. Interestingly, as I’d never known any grandparents, I found I had to learn how to be a grandparent, and probably made far more mistakes than I should have done. This post has thrown up a lot of things to think about for me. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

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      1. I think that learning as we go along can be very effective as it can be naturally interactive and self-correcting 🙂 And thanks for your post. It has made me think about many related things too in addition to wondering about your grandmother’s possible motivations for stopping your mum from taking up her place at Oxford.

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      2. I suspect poor old Annie felt a little left behind as my mother and grandfather studied together quietly. So when Charles died, perhaps she couldn’t face life alone for the first time in her life. They were indeed forced to leave their home within the month. Our grandparents left behind so many untold stories, didn’t they?

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      3. So unfeeling to make them leave their home so soon when grieving. It is sadly ironic that if her intention was to keep her daughter close it drove her away.
        Yes many untold stories. There are some that I suspect might be best not to know 🙂

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      4. Yes we need to talk before it is too late, but sometimes circumstances are such that things don’t align so as to have those conversations satisfactorily. But its good to try despite any such complications 🙂

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  7. Your imaginings seem to me to have a good foundation in fact, Margaret. Selfish as I am, I felt enormous sympathy for her and can’t ever imagine wanting to be a vicar’s wife, with all it entailed. I’m currently reading an Upstairs, Downstairs type light-hearted romp called Aprons and Silver Spoons. We don’t know we’re born, do we? 🙂 🙂

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