Growing up I was totally in awe of my paternal grandmother. She was a north-eastern woman, very much of her time: hard working, resilient, but also generous and kind, putting the needs of others before her own.
Born in Aberdeenshire in 1879, she was twelve and just left school when her parents and siblings emigrated to Illinois in America. She refused to go and started work as a kitchen maid at a nearby farm. She never saw any of her family again - her mother died in childbirth over there and her father remarried. She herself was wed and widowed young, but not before she had produced eleven children. Her eldest son, Andrew, joined the Gordon Highlanders and was killed on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele on the 31st July, 1917 - six years before her youngest, my father, was born.
She was a formidable lady and the matriarch of a huge extended family. By the time I came along she had only one eye and an empty socket with a slit where the other one should be. I don't recall ever being frightened by her appearance but the explanation she gave to me for her disfigurement was alarming. She said the cat had scratched it out. As a young child who believed all her many stories told with twirling thumbs at the fireside of an evening, I had no reason to doubt her. Certainly, as well as the hens, ducks and dogs, the place was overrun with cats. It's definitely not acceptable now, but in those days, it was common practice on farms to dispose of yet another feline litter down at the burn and I often accompanied Granny on theses occasions. It therefore seemed logical to me of tender years that she was probably exacting some sort of revenge for the missing eye. Ironically, she was particularly fond of a couple of cats who were allowed in the house and on her lap.
Needless to say, I grew up slightly wary of cats and it wasn't until I was in my later teens in conversation with my Dad he happened to refer to the time long before I was born, when the whole family was called to the hospital bedside of Granny who wasn't expected to survive a brain hemorrhage. The resulting operation necessitated the removal of the eye and she refused to have an artificial one. I was astounded - not that she had pulled through, for she was definitely a survivor - but because all those years I had just accepted her story!
She lived in her house on her own - with her cat - until the age of ninety, still physically active and her mind sharp. In 1969, my parents went on their first holiday abroad, to Austria, and explained to Granny they wouldn't be visiting her on the Sunday. 'Fa div ye ken there?' was her first response and then, 'Weel, ah'll nae be here fin ye get back.' Ironically she wasn't. Whilst hanging out washing she tripped over a stone and broke her hip. She died in hospital a few weeks later.
Pre-Covid, I used to visit Spain as often as I could and a friend said, 'Fit wye div ye nae jist bide there?' Her question was the catalyst for the poem 'Bidin' which highlights Granny's life and the huge influence she was in mine. The last verse relates to us both:
'Fa div ye ken in Spain?' she'd speir,
nivver further than she cwid traivel.
Reid-het pokers pynt at a brichtnin sky
an the sun guddles in her droonin burn.
Ah canna win awa; it's far ah'm fae.
It's fa ah am an far ah wint tae be.