MY GRANDMOTHER'S PENCIL
A ‘family incident’ which occurred about ten years ago in 2006.
My mother is laughing uncontrollably, her face wet with tears, she is holding her hands over her stomach, and rocking back and forth, shaking her head and stamping her feet. She tries to speak, but the words don’t come out. She coughs and she sobs, and moans a bit. She is a woman who laughs often and easily and her laughter is infectious, so I too am laughing, but not as manically as she is. I am worried - she is 80 years old, and this is so intense, and goes on for so long, that I am fearful that she may have a heart attack, so I try to diffuse the situation.
I extend to her the object which appeared to have started this episode off, but before I can say a word, her eyebrows arch, she ups her volume and the pitch increases dramatically, then throws herself forward to hold on to the back of a chair for support. I make a move to hold her and she waves me off, calming slightly, and then, she’s off again, screeching and guffawing, even more loudly. By now, my Dad, who has been in the next room is curious and has joined us, and is bellowing with laughter too, although he has no idea why. I see the ridiculousness of this situation, and the absolute abandon of the moment. I surrender, and the three of us are now laughing hysterically. Every time we make eye contact, it sets off fresh peals of laughter, my Dad is slapping his thighs, yet his eyes has e a look of utter confusion “What the hell am I laughing about?” as mine do, for I too, have no idea what this is about.
Minutes pass and the laughter levels slowly decrease, punctuated with fresh outbursts of laughter, but shortly we three are almost contained. My bladder has been challenged, I am desperate to wee and I dash to the loo, which makes my mother snort and laugh some more.
When I come back, my parents are both red faced and breathless, their eyes wet with tears, their stomachs move now and then with a suppressed laugh.
“What WAS that?” I ask, and my mother giggles and throws her head back, threatening to start again.
This is the story. Looking for something, I was going through a box of stuff in the hall cupboard, and found a small brown very old leather purse, which I brought into the lounge to ask my mother about. I have it here on the desk beside me now. It is cleverly and simply designed, and has a concertina base, so it can stretch to hold its contents, and a single button opens the first double section of its interior. Once open, there are two buttons which open the next single section of its interior. My mother recognised it immediately as I handed it to her.
“That is Granny Guthrie’s purse.” (My Dad’s Irish mother, who died in 1968 in the north of England where she birthed eight children whom she reared alone after her husband, husband, my father’s father died of alcoholism.)
She opens it with care, and extracts the contents from the first section.
A cloth button, black with age, and now with the aid of a magnifying glass, I read what is inscribed on the metal backing “CLIPMOLD REG. 36 LINES” (military?)
A small silver safety pin
Three long hairclips
A 9P Silver Jubilee stamp with ER, the Queen’s head, and 1952-1977
A tarnished metal nail file
Three single silver shillings, 1953, 1960, 1963
A 5P coin
And surprisingly, an Australian dollar coin, 1988, which clearly must have been placed there many years later after her death.
We have carefully placed these treasures on the table, and my mother opens the second section to reveal one more small silver safety pin – and – A TINY PENCIL, of normal width, but at most an inch long.
This is when she started The Laughing.
And it is only now several minutes later, that I get to understand why. My Dad has already ‘got it’ as soon as he saw the pencil.
Apparently, Ellen, my Granny (who I was named after) used this pencil every day. Frugal by necessity and canny by experience, she sharpened it with a razor blade but only when absolutely necessary as it was ‘wasteful’. And yes, this pencil has hardly a point on it, and so tiny it can hardly be held between thumb and finger to write with. My parents houses were yards apart, and my mother Vera and my Dad’s sister Pat were best friends all of their lives. Granny Guthrie would call the two little girls into the kitchen, tear off a white corner of a sheet of newspaper, open her little leather purse, extract the pencil, moisten it with her tongue, and write a list of shopping she needed. It was abbreviated to fit on the scrap of paper, but these are the kind of things they bought. (For those who do not know, ‘d’ is equivalent of a single penny).
1d worth of broken biscuits
1d worth of lard from the butcher (they took an enamel bowl to put it in)
3d worth of bruised vegetables and fruit from the barrow man
6d worth of ‘end bits’ of meat for the pot
So this was the source of my mother’s near hysterical laughter. That stub of pencil represented so much. The memory of Granny Guthrie and her ability to feed her eight children, her friendship with Pat who became her sister in law, the torn piece of newspaper and a stub of a pencil, the paltry shopping list, the responsibility of being given a shilling and having to account both for it and the quality of their shopping, and their survival despite unimaginable hardship and poverty.
As the story unfolded, I found myself weeping, my heart constricted with pain for their suffering all those years ago. Yet I could understand her laughter, for my mother always insisted that there were many happy times. And I understood her tears. And I felt enormous gratitude for the strength and resilience of my Granny Guthrie, and for all she taught my father and my mother. For they were the ones who taught me.
Footnote: I have my mother’s red purse in my wardrobe which was in her handbag when she died. I love that syncronicity. Perhaps someone will keep mine when I die.