"Never regret growing older, for it is a privilege denied to many. While I cannot recall being held in the arms of my grandmother as an infant, I know that I was and I also know that I undoubtedly benefited from it.
There are many children born into the world who have never had the privilege of knowing their grandparents. Such people have truly missed out on knowing one of the most important people ever to grace a child's existence. Grandmothers are not only a vital link to our past, but are often the mainstay of the present.
I was the first born of seven children to my mother. I was born inside the home of my grandmother's house at 14, William Street, Portlaw, County Waterford, Ireland. To be precise about the location, it was on the third mattress on the floor of the front bedroom. While many an Irish man has been born at home instead of in a hospital maternity ward, most mothers giving birth usually have the benefit of a solid bed and not three mattresses stacked upon each other to give birth on! At the time of my birth, mum and dad lived thirty miles apart; he with his family in Kilkenny and she at her parent's house. Being a small terraced cottage that housed a large family, mum like all the mums of her time, had a home birth and made do with what they had.
I later learned that my mother, aunties Nelly and Nora and Uncle Willie had been born on mattress number one which came from Killenaule, County Tipperary and my uncles Johnie and Tommy were born on mattress number two which was purchased in Waterford. Mattress number three didn't occupy 14, William Street long before my birth and was purchased second hand in the nick of time in County Kilkenny where my father lived. It was carried by him to Portlaw, some thirty miles, rested across the handle bars and saddle of his bicycle, two weeks before I was due to enter the world.
With my mother still needing to work part time after my birth and my father living in another county, my grandparents looked after me a great deal of the time. Now let me say here and now, by 'looked after me' I mean that they were around doing their daily work in the same house and looked in my direction when they happened to pass me. My grandfather was the man in the village who mended all the bicycles from his garden shed. I recall that he would rarely get paid for his labour in cash; often woodbines and home-grown food produce would be the payment offered. He was always busy smoking his woodbines (over forty a day) and mending his old bicycles in his shed. Whenever I went into his shed, he would puff his cigarette in his mouth without ever holding it in his hand and say, 'Your grandma has a biscuit she has just baked for you, Billy Forde. Don't let it get cold now. Now, go away and let me get on mending this bike!'
And sure enough, upon going back inside the house, Grandma would always give me a biscuit when I asked for one. Grandma Fanning was always cooking on her big black range. She baked her own soda bread and would always break off the end of the loaf to eat after she had scraped away the excess burn marks. Soda bread and salty Irish butter has always been a favourite with me ever since childhood. Grandma rarely cleaned her range and always swore that the food cooked and tasted better that way as too much cleaning washed away all the natural goodness.
I soon learned that what happens in grandma's kitchen stays in grandma's kitchen. We had our daily secrets and one of them would be not to tell my granddad that she frequently stole an odd Woodbine of his out of his packet when he wasn't looking. Grandma did not believe that whatever one marriage partner took from the other without their consent constituted 'theft.' I would usually get a buttered biscuit or a piece of soda bread for keeping her secrets, but years later, when I returned for holidays in my teens and smoked myself, I would sometimes get blamed for pinching the odd Woodbine from granddad's cigarette packet when grandma had stolen it and denied it!
Grandma Fanning wasn't a pretty woman in the attractive looks department and had a lived-in face. She'd had a hard life and being the eldest girl in a large family, she'd been forced to miss out much of her childhood years and grow up long before her time. Her skin was lined upon the bones of her face by the weather-beaten years she'd endured working outside in all climates of her childhood when she ought to have been at school, and her early teens had taken its toll upon what little facial beauty remained. She looked older than her years and in the centre of her face protruded a big nose that was large enough to hang a kettle on!
Just before my fifth birthday, mum, dad, me and my two younger sisters (who'd themselves had been privileged with a hospital birth), came to West Yorkshire, where we lived and prospered. Every other year my mother would miss paying the household bills for a week and take us to my grandparents in Ireland for a holiday. She invariably arrived penniless and my grandparents would freely put us up until we'd eaten them out of house and home.
My grandparents loved each other in their own way, but neither were too demonstrative in the expression of their affections. They had this peculiar habit of hardly speaking to each other during the day, but then when they came to bed on a nighttime, they would talk and smoke in bed for hours before they went to sleep.They died within a few months of each other in their mid seventies.
I had reached my twenties by the time my grandparents died. I came to understand in later years that a grandma is only a mum with lots of practice, and who is privileged to have two goes at motherhood. I guess that it is such a privilege being the mother of a mother and that there is no grander person to be. Being my mother's first child and my grandmother's first grandchild made me extra special in her eyes. She used to say, 'Billy Forde, perfect love doesn't arrive until the first grandchild comes along!'
Grandma will always remain a special person in my life and when I die, my wife has been instructed to have a part of my ashes scattered on Haworth Moor, a part on my parents' grave in Heckmondwike and the third part scattered on my grandparents' grave in Portlaw, Ireland." William Forde: February 23rd, 2016.