It’s always around this time of year that I start thinking about my grandparents. Their lives and pasts were very different and it made me feel sometimes that I was living across a huge divide between the two polar opposites of the sides of our family.
Today’s story is about my Nanna (Doll or “Babka”). She never cooked. She couldn’t use the gas cooker in her council house and whenever she tried, she never failed to set her hair or eyebrows on fire. She would never use the pilot light, but always tried to use a piece of paper lit from her cigarette, a lighter, or something else. Once she tried to make toast under the grill and almost set the house on fire! Come to think of it, I don’t even know what they ate? I know her sister lived down the street, so maybe she came with food? I just know that we’d have bread and butter or cheese and tea or pop. The stodgy kind of white bread that kept the fingerprints from your fingers and tasted like play dough. Nanna always had whisky or vodka in her tea, to chase the demons, she said.
I do remember going for walks with her, up to the “moors” – a wild piece of land behind the last housing estate of the town, next to the protected park land. Sometimes we’d look for mushrooms or elderberries. Sometimes we’d make a small fire and make ‘stick bread’ – which was basically unleavened bread wrapped around a cleaned stick and set over the fire. Sometimes, we took pop with us – lemonade or fanta – in those glass bottles that you got 10p for returning to the shop. We’d wash them and return them for money to put in Nanna’s electric meter. It sat in a wee cupboard in the kitchen and you had to put 50p in at a time. I remember often the power would run out and we’d have to run down the corner shop (Saunder’s, which wasn’t actually on a corner and is now some kind of pizza shop) to change money or take a load of washed bottles to get money.
I don’t have memories of food or recipes, really, from Nanna, except things we picked together or the basic things we made in the kitchen, which really wasn’t very much. She told a lot of half-stories, unfinished, forgotten, in front of her fire. Hunched in her chair, cigarette dangling. Neither her or Granda really spoke about their families or pasts. I know some of their history, which I’ll get into later. But, for now, we’ll leave it here!
I don’t really remember celebrating Halloween growing up, but I do remember one year, when I was about eight or nine, dressing up as a witch – complete with homemade black hat (a black paper cone on a black paper donut that was a little big for my head) and cape and my grannies “besom broom” (one of the ones with the twigs tied together for sweeping leaves and dirt outside). We walked around the neighbourhood reciting little poems. We didn’t get many sweets, but it was still fun.
We did make lanterns every year, though. They were seen as positive things, frightening away the spirits of the dead. Growing up in England, we would carve turnips and not pumpkins. It was quite difficult, as turnips tend to be a lot smaller than pumpkins, but it was still a lot of fun. I do remember I loved the smell as the turnip warmed up from the candle inside. We would string them up and carry them around with us. Usually, the faces weren’t very intricate… just two triangle eyes and an ugly slit for a mouth. Granny Edíta would always stew up the turnip for lunch the next day – nothing ever went to waste!
Sometimes, we’d even make little dudud lights from potatoes and set them along the path to our house or in the windows. They were much, MUCH harder to make than the turnips and didn’t really last as long either. Often we wouldn’t even put faces in them, just hollow them out and set small candles inside (usually the ends of taller candles).
We didn’t usually make any kind of special food. For Halloween we played dookin (ducking/bobbing for apples) and drank Lamb’s Wool (Lamasool – warm stewed apples mixed with milk, cinnamon, and ginger – though adults often mixed it with more whisky or rum than milk!)
It’s become so much more commercialized now, even in my old hometown, with pumpkins, pie, and decorations becoming ubiquitous. I do miss those simple old days when we’d light our turnips and dudud to keep the spirits at bay.