Memories without Food

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.

The white building with the blue frontage was where Saunder’s shop was. They were dark inside, had iron bars covering the windows, but sold cigarettes, pop, basic necessities and most importantly, sweets and ice-cream. Many the time I went by to get a “ten-penny mix-up” where they’d randomly select ten penny items from the sweets – usually flying saucers, coke bottles, jaw breakers, milk bottles, candy cigarettes…

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!

The old town marketplace with the market cross and the cattle market. It happened every week, I think. The farmers would bring their cows and sheep and chickens to sell and the local “Gypsies” and “Tinkers” (Romanichal and Travellers) would bring their flowers, pot-mending, and wood-working skills to sell.