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Granny Connel

Author: Catriona Child

This story is part fairy tale, part love story, part ghost story. It’s a story of what-ifs and if-onlys. Its main protagonist is my Granny Connel, a woman I’ve always felt a strong connection with, even though I only knew her for thirteen years. Back then she was simply Granny, full of warmth and playfulness as all good grannies should be. I never realised just what a remarkable woman she was and now I find myself wishing I could tell her so. I’m sure she’d tell me not to be daft, that she wasn’t all that special. Maybe it’s only with hindsight that we can see these things.

I remember being woken by Dad phoning to say she’d died. I lay in bed listening to Mum’s side of the conversation. A few weeks before that, Granny had told my uncle she was feeling old. She died at 6:30am and our clock stopped at the same time, like a sign of goodbye.

We had the choice of going to the funeral but, my brother said no, and I was scared to go without him. I felt guilty about that for a long time. Grief does strange things to you, makes irrational thoughts seem reasonable. I became superstitious about the number thirteen. I was embarrassed to cry in front of anyone and worried people would think I didn’t care.

In private I spoke to Granny and told her I was sorry and I loved her. I asked her to send me a sign that she knew. Dad found a box of unused Christmas cards in her house and brought them home rather than throw them out. In amongst the blank ones was a card from herself to me, that for some reason she’d written but never sent. I took that as my sign.

Granny was born Margaret Cameron Black in Oban in October 1915. Her own mum died in December 1915 of scarlet fever. Margaret’s Dad struggled to cope: a widower with four children, including a new-born. Margaret was unofficially adopted by the Stewart family who lived next door, so she grew up with two families. That seems like such an extraordinary thing to do to your child, and I wonder how Margaret felt about it. When did she find out that the man next door was her real Dad, and the woman she called Ma became that way only through direct proximity to such sadness?

During WW2, Margaret volunteered in the Royal Observer Corp. The romantic in me always pictures her standing on the coast, manning a searchlight, illuminating the sea. It was then she met my grandpa, Ron, from Luton. He had a pilot’s licence and dreamed of being a fighter pilot but, because of colour blindness, was stuck on a boat in Scotland.

They married in 1946 and talked of opening a cruise business in Oban. On a visit to Luton however, Ron was told he belonged in the family hat business and suddenly they were living a different life from the one they’d planned. Margaret’s mother-in-law was a matriarch in the most negative sense of the word and was known to Margaret’s adopted family as ‘the ghost.’ She relished telling tales on Margaret, for such sins as smashing a plate or spilling her tea. She told Margaret she wasn’t a proper mother; how could she be when she’d had a caesarean instead of giving birth the natural way? Dad was only four but hid a needle in his Granny’s chair. He took great pleasure when she thought it was her corsets stabbing her whenever she sat down. I find it hard to believe such poison from one mother to another; of Margaret bringing up her children while this woman whispered such wickedness in her ear.

In 1958, the hat business collapsed and my grandparents went from owning their own home to becoming destitute. The power would often be cut off and Margaret went without food to provide for her sons.

By 1962 she’d had enough and boarded a train back to Oban; taking her sons and the stray cat who’d followed her home one day and never left. Her adopted sisters ran a B&B in Connel and it was there that Margaret lived until she died.

For some reason Grandpa stayed behind. Maybe it was pride, stubbornness, shame? How many good relationships fail, when how to pay the bills becomes all-consuming? Maybe he just became resigned to a life that never gave him what he truly wanted. It makes me sad that he chose life in a bedsit, working in a factory, while his boys grew up five hundred miles away.

Instigated by the dying wishes of her sister, Margaret and Ron regained contact, but it was not until 1978 that Ron returned North permanently. To live apart for so long and then share your life with someone again must have been hard. I do wonder about the intervening years; if either of them had flirtations or harboured secret feelings that were never allowed to become love affairs.

Grandpa died a month after Granny. They’d spent so long apart but, when she left him for good, he followed. Maybe he regretted not doing that so many years before?

Granny had such strength and compassion. She brought up two boys on her own, while running a business. She looked after her elderly neighbours and learnt sign language to communicate with a friend who was deaf. She championed women’s rights and never missed a vote because of her gratitude to the women who had fought so hard to ensure she had that opportunity. Recently I discovered she talked of writing children’s stories, and I feel that connection with her ever stronger.

The night I wrote the first draft of this I woke to find that the clock, which has sat on my bedside table for twenty years, had stopped. Maybe it was just an old clock running down or maybe she’s still sending me signs that everything’s okay.