100 Thank Yous and More
Issue 61 October 2009
One normally writes eulogies for the dead. Nevertheless, there are times when the occasion is so grand that a eulogy to the living seems not just appropr iate, but positively necessary. My grandmother’s 100th birthday on October 2nd is one such occasion.
My grandmother, alongside my mother, has had the greatest impact on my life as I was growing up. She was the calm in the storm, my safe harbour.
As my mother worked, I spent a lot of time with my Nana. After school each day, and my school holidays, were spent in her company. My grandfather had passed away when I was 18 months old and there is no doubt that I gave Nana company, and she gave me her care. We were a good team. I realise now that this relationship shaped so much of who I am today.
Nana was born in 1909. Her mother was a dressmaker, making fine gowns for Ladies of the Court of St James. Her father was a sailor in the Royal Navy - a chef on the Royal Ship. She was born in an age where things that we take for granted today did not form part of her life: electricity, cars, the telephone. Culturally, Britain was a very different place too. As I have mentioned in these editorials before, when the first brown man, a Sikh soldier, walked down her street, the whole street came out to look at him. Yet, she never allowed these things to limit her. She embraced technology and she embraced the changing face of Britain. I would often come home to find her with the latest gadget and together we would figure out how to use it. Regarding race, her belief in God and in the goodness of humanity overcame any qualms she may have had. People were people, and she accepted them.
Her belief in God upheld my own. It was her prayers at night as I stayed over, her conversations with me, her strong faith, which sustained and grew my own relationship with God. My embracing Islam challenged her though. She hated my scarf. She was embarrassed by it. Yet her love for me won out. Finally, at my wedding, five years after I had become a Muslim, she gave a speech, “I love the person that you are. I love your way of life.” It had been a hard journey for us, but we came through it together. When I was able to take her to Buckingham Palace in 2004 for the investiture for my OBE, it was a day of intense happiness. I was so delighted that I was able to give her something to be proud of; and she was so very proud of me.
I grew up on the stories of the Great Wars. She was young during World War I, but she related the horrors of it to me through the accounts she herself had been brought up on. She lived through World War II as a mother with young children. I learnt about the bombs, the Battle of Britain, rationing, evacuation, and all manner of stories, not from a textbook but from firsthand account. She would waste nothing, for she had lived through such lean years. After the War was over, my grandfather and Nana took in a displaced German girl. The neighbours were disgruntled and they whispered, “A German! After we have just been fighting them!” But she did not care. Her sense of humanity won out over such things.
With four children of her own, she also adopted a young boy; and by all accounts, her house was always filled with people. Certainly, as I grew up, every visitor was treated to good food and good company. She was forever generous. I remembered her showing me two porcelain dolls, undecided as to which one she should give to her friend. “Which do you think is the best one?” she asked for my opinion. I told her, and that is the one she gave away. That small act taught me that you should give to others that which is the best. Her walls were hung with poems and ditties about faith, good character, and patience. I memorised all these things, and they entered not just my mind but into my heart.
Despite my Muslim attire, I am very English because of Nana. I was brought up in a generation not my own, but lived in her generation, with her friends, her pace, her ways. There was routine and order with Nana. Breakfast was always laid out the night before. There was coffee at 11am, and afternoon tea at 4pm. And there was always a small meal before bed. I have a love of fine china, particularly tea sets, as well as embroidered cotton tablecloths and crocheted doilies. I love roses and lavender. And because of her, I am a stickler for manners; I cannot abide ill manners. When I was given a gift of a pair of silver earrings I responded, “I’m allergic to silver.” My goodness! Nana was unhappy.
Nana gave me a steadiness and a stillness of being that is hard to find in the modern world. While there was hustle and bustle everywhere else, her age and her upbringing meant that she was detached from that. I loved that stillness and it gave me peace.
Now Nana is 100. A whole century lived. And what a century it has been. I do not think in the history of humanity there has been a century of such innovation and speed. And things are continuing to change. I am not sure human beings actually have the capacity to cope with such change at such pace, which is why I am grateful for the stillness, which was Nana’s greatest gift to me. Thank you, Nana, thank you for everything.