This is an image from the British census, my grandmother's name on the final line. Born in a Welsh coal mining village, by 1911 she's a domestic servant in London, coming of age during the Edwardian Era made famous by Downton Abbey. This is who she really was.
My grandmother bewitched us as she encircled us with love. She was a chameleon, a style and language sorceress transported from a two-room railway flat in the mine-gouged grime of southern Wales to the elegant drawing rooms of Canada. We did not know this while she lived. We thought her someone else entirely. Her facade rarely broke. She remained poised and graciously restrained until someone took a pratfall. Then she laughed with such bawdy joyfulness that everyone around her was infected. We know now it was her indelicate roots poking through.
One of my earliest memories is falling down the stairs in her tasteful lakeside townhouse as we were getting ready for a swim. She and my mother had inflated a large, multicolor, plastic beach ball which they held between them. As I tumbled, they placed the ball to break my fall, bouncing me back up two steps.
I sat stunned and confused as the women I loved collapsed in laughter, tears running down their faces, legs splayed, shoulders touching for support.
* * *
By the time my grandmother immigrated to Canada in her mid-20s, she spoke in the plummy accent of her English upper class employers – albeit with a strong Welsh lilt – and presented herself as an impoverished gentlewoman trained as a nurse to make ends meet after a string of family tragedies, about which she never spoke. In reality, she was an escapee from the grim poverty that faced mining families in Abersychan and the surrounding ore-laden valleys of southeastern Wales.
She married my Canadian grandfather (a doctor) out of true love and we were never certain he knew the truth. My mother and I discovered it in Wales after my grandmother’s death when we used her birth certificate to follow a trail down the narrow alley where she grew up.
The disclosure of my grandmother’s background failed to shock me, as it did my mother. Familiarity with the reality of her gritty Celtic heritage finished her for me, left me energized and completed. One of the credos she lived by came sharply into focus:
Once a decision you make
Decide it and then forget it
For it’s not so much the decision that counts
As the willpower not to regret it.
I had heard those words to the point of irritation all my life. Now they moved into context. It must have taken unbelievable resolve for my grandmother to transform herself. Except for the laughing part, the heritage she couldn’t – or didn’t want to – shed.
That gift of unrestrained laughter is her legacy to me, my mother, my sister and our daughters. Without exception, we all break apart at the slightest pratfall, often to the confusion and irritation of the victim. We do it when we fall ourselves. It is a releasing, cleansing, exceptionally personal experience, and I love my grandmother for endowing us with that.