Thursday, 6 September 2012

With everything that's been going on recently about the erosion of women's rights, I thought it might be a good time to share this story.

A few months ago, I went to a storytelling night at (Good place - if you haven't been yet, you need to!)Their theme for the night was 'Awkward Sods and Local Heroes' and, as my Grandma seemed to fit quite comfortably into both of those categories and was far and away the strongest woman I'd ever known, I asked if I could come and tell them about her. But then, while I was getting my idea together, something unexpected happened, and I found out I had not one, but two heroines in the family to share with them.

My Grandma's given name was Catherine, but no one ever called her that – she was always Kit. The first woman to chair the local Urban District Council, the first female mayor when the town expanded and a holy terror to anyone she thought was messing her around. She lived in the same town for over 70 years and was a Labour Councillor for over 40 of those. She knew the people she represented and they knew her too.

I thought everyone had a Grandma like mine. That it was normal to walk round with her after school posting out election leaflets, or to sit in a draughty school hall and have everyone come and tell you their problems so you could make them go away. I mean, isn't solving problems what Grandmas are meant to do?

But that didn't mean she didn't have time for her family – both my parents had to work so I spent an awful lot of time before and after school at Grandma's. I learned to bake watching her make pastry and getting to play with the off cuts. I also learned from my Granddad that it's possible to put out a fire with your bare hands, but that's a story for another day.

Grandma's house, for me, was always this warm hive of activity. Never tidy as such, but always full of love and comfortable, wide waisted hugs. Especially when you compared it to my other Grandma – my Nanna.

My Nanna was a different kind of person completely. My Granddad had been killed in the war and she'd had to raise my dad on her own. She was precise and guarded and liked everything 'just-so'. A spilled drink wasn't actually a hanging offence but it could feel like it sometimes, especially if you'd been misbehaving. Don't get me wrong, we still knew she loved us, but it was a more formal kind of love, a tell rather than a show.

Guest's at Nanna's tended to be invited, but at Grandma's, it wasn't out of the ordinary for there to be a knock at the door and for this timid voice to ask 'is Kit there...?' and Grandma's front room would be turned into an impromptu surgery dispensing tea and advice. Once they'd gone, she'd set herself down at the telephone table in the corner (for anyone who remembers the days before cordless phones and mobiles) and set about righting wrongs.

I secretly loved these visit because it meant I got to see Grandma's secret weapon in action. Grandma had a magic finger. Didn't look anything special but we kids knew it was a weathervane for her emotions. If she was on the phone making a request it would be vertical and fairly relaxed, just being used for emphasis, as anyone would. But if the person on the phone wasn't listening to her request properly, or showing any inclination to help, there'd be a change. The finger would stiffen and travel through 90 degrees and the request would become a direction. If stage two didn't work then the finger would move again until it was pointing straight down and used to punctuate every syllable until she got what she wanted. And that finger cound drill through concrete. By the age of 3 I'd learned enough to avoid this and was fascinated that many supposedly responsible adults couldn't.

Although she was a lifelong Labour Party member, she never let her political views get in the way of helping people - She even managed to get herself suspended from the National Labour party for a few months because she refused to support a national policy on social housing which she knew would harm the local community. It wasn't a grand gesture of national or earth-shaking importance but it certainly let people know whose side she was on.

She finally had to step down because of prolonged ill health but made sure she went out on the roads with the new candidate, showing him around and making sure he introduced himself to each and every voter. She wouldn't go to to doors with him because she didn't want to undermine him so she'd wait across the road, or at the end of the drive. And he did his best. He knock and wait. Then someone would come to the door and he'd explain he was the local Labour candidate and he was replacing Kit Ward. And they'd listen politely, but all the time he'd be aware of them inching slowly to one side so they could see around him to where Grandma was standing in what Peter Kay would call her 'big coat'. And she'd wave and nod, and they'd nod back and that would be it. If Kit was happy with her replacement, then so were they because they trusted her to do what was right.

I didn't realise how much of a difference my Grandma had made, or how much she meant to the whole town until she died. I'd been working away in Brussels and missed most of the preparations for the funeral. I walked into the church with my family and it was full. Every available space was packed with a town of people who'd taken time out of their day to come and say goodbye to their Kit.

I'd got so many stories about her I wanted to share and was sitting at my desk, trying to remember back the best part of 30 years and squeeze out the stories in some kind of coherent order. It wasn't going well. So I took a break and did something I've done a hundred times before: reach out and grab a random book off the shelves to dip into for a diversion. This time I picked up this book. Doesn't look anything special. It's called 'Selections from Modern Poets' but given it was printed in 1934, they're not all that modern any more. It belonged to my Nanna and when she died, I was given it to remember her by.

So I started idly flicking through it and it opened where a page had been ripped out. I know that doesn't sound like a big thing but this is my Nanna we're talking about – everything dusted and everything pristine. She got the book as a form prize at school and she looked after her things. The idea that she would have ripped a page out of a book was so alien that it got me curious. The book had an index of first lines so I popped on Google and let my fingers do a little detective work and this is what I found.

And it was like I was seeing my Nanna for the first time. I could picture the nineteen year old she was sitting there with this book in her hands, reading this poem and seeing herself in it. And then just reaching out for the page and tearing it out and throwing it away along with the future she'd had planned – a career, a husband – who knows what else – all gone.

And then she picked herself up, said goodbye to the life she thought she was going to have and set herself to raising my Dad on her own.

And that's the point I realised I didn't just have one strong woman in the family, I had two. One was a very public figure, the other more private but strong as steel all the same.

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