In 1990, Age Concern introduced the idea of Grandparents Day, which since 2008 has been on the first Sunday of October. It is not widely known about, but I thought I would use it as a reason to share something about my paternal Grandmother, Victoria, who had a profound influence on me.
It is the late 1960s. I am sitting watching my grandmother putting on her makeup. This is the first time I have been allowed to do so. She will be dead in a few months, so unbeknownst to both of us, it will also be the last time. Grandma is the only woman in my small 8 year old world who wears makeup. She is in her late sixties, but has a timeless glamour with her brilliant red lipstick, hennaed hair, whip thin figure, style and elegance.
Her morning transformation is my first real encounter with what it is to be a ‘glamourous’ type woman. As she applies face powder and tea rose perfume (the aromas of which still conjure her up to me), I ask lots of questions, like why should women wear makeup and worry about their outfits?
“Because,” she says, “a woman should always be ‘finished’. You never know who you are going to meet during the course of a day. It could be the person who could change your life.”
"But," I ask, "why makeup, why stick paint all over your face?"
“Because to get on in this world, a girl has to be seen to be pretty or intelligent.”
Taking my chin in her hand, she looks at me intently and says, “And you, my dear, will have to be very intelligent.”
At the age of 8, none of this means a lot to me (although I know enough not to recount this episode to my mother.) For one thing, I am a tomboy whose greatest ambition is to be John Wayne, or any other cowboy, and cowboys have never struck me as needing to be either pretty or intelligent. However, as I grow up, reach my late teens and start getting interested in being female, subconsciously I start taking Grandma’s advice. I try to dress as well as my budget will allow and even when I’m being casual, always make sure that I am “finished”. This has stood me in good stead when I have been called to a job interview with 4 hours notice or have met someone at a casual event who turns into a future client.
I have also taken the intelligence bit to heart, keeping an open mind and a willingness to learn. When I got the results of the degree I undertook in my 30s, my first thought was for Grandma. I think she realised that I was like her in many ways. She was a strong, self-reliant woman who never let circumstances beat her, who was always looking on the optimistic side and who, if something went wrong, would just brush it off and move on to the next thing. She was a single parent who went from crying on finding a coin in the gutter because it meant she could buy food for that night, to owning her own house. She never saw a reason why being a woman would have to stop her doing anything she wanted (although pragmatic enough to know that sometimes, it paid to play by 'the rules' of the time, hence the pretty or intelligent comment). I think she was aware that I would not, as an 8 year old, get upset and take to heart, negatively, what she had said. But I do wonder if she knew exactly how much what she said would shape my life and who I am.