Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Eileen B. White, 1912-2014

Today should have been my Grandma’s one-hundred-and-second birthday. Sadly, instead today is her funeral. I can’t be in New Hampshire for the ceremony, so I’m remembering her here.

I had the great privilege of knowing two of my grandparents well into my life, my Dad’s dad Walter and my Mum’s mum Eileen White. Both had long, active and determined lives. Both were fiercely independent. Grandad was fit and active until shortly before his death aged 95, back in 2006. Grandma was the same for around a hundred years, and only started to fade in the last couple. I remember Mum telling me she’d had an operation a couple of years ago after which, when the hospital insisted she stay a few nights to see that she was all right, she immediately booked herself out and walked home.

Grandma was widowed when my Mum was just a girl, so I never met my maternal Grandfather (my Nana, Dad’s mum, died when I was a teenager). She did marry again, and I did know him for a while as Grandpa, though he’s been gone quite a while too. She lived in many different States of the USA, but for the last couple of decades had settled in Concord, New Hampshire, and I suspect the Granite State’s motto “Live Free Or Die” is one she’d have identified with, at least if endorsing someone else’s motto didn’t compromise her stern independence (only once, I think, did Mum tease out of her how she voted: after gently probing several times to see if she was backing President Obama in 2008, Mum carelessly tossed out, “So you’ll be voting for Vice-President Palin, then?” which gained the response, “Do you think I’m a complete fool?”). She was a formidable lady.

I wish I’d seen more of her, and been in touch more often. Some of my favourite memories of her are from the Nineties – my twenties, her eighties – when she was able to come over here and I had one of only two trips so far over there. In 1998, I was in the USA on business of a kind for three weeks and travelled up to New Hampshire to see her on one of my two days off, where we got on very well and had a rather lovely day together. That’s when, discussing politics, she told me the story that I’ve most often told on here from her, most recently in telling My Political Story – Why I Am A Liberal Democrat. I remember her nodding and telling me that she could see I’d be political when I was aged four and strutting about naked on a beach and told a big boy off for kicking down another boy’s sandcastle. She was probably right.

My absolute favourite moment was in 1996, when I got my Mum into trouble. Sorry, Mum. I’d been pretty much out to the world since I was seventeen, badges and everything, with only a handful of notable exceptions. One was Grandma. Mum had prevailed upon me not to tell her, because she was old and we didn’t see her often and she didn’t know how she’d react. So when she came over sometime in the mid-Nineties, I saw her a couple of times but never quite found the moment or the courage to talk to her properly. And I regretted it. So, eventually, I composed a long letter that walked on eggshells, knowing she’d probably be upset and wanted both to reassure her and to be honest with her, because by then I’d been with Richard for a couple of years and I knew I always would be, and I didn’t want to shut her out. So I sent the letter, and waited on tenterhooks.

A week later, the phone rang. I think it was the only time Grandma ever rang me rather than writing. And in fact she rang me twice in quick succession. The first call was more abrupt and to the point. It went something like this.
“Why are you so upset?” she asked.
“Well… I’m not,” I replied, taken aback. “But I thought you would be. I’m completely fine about being gay.”
“And why would that be?”
“Well… Mum thought…”
I think that’s about as far as I got in that conversation before there was a determined
“Right! I’ll ring again in a minute.”
One what I understand was a curt mother-daughter bollocking later, she rang me again, and we had a long and charming conversation in which she was all sweetness and light. That is, after the first explanatory explosion:
“Does my family think I’m wrapped up in cotton wool? I’ve known for years!”
So remember that when ignorant people insult all over-seventies by trying to tell that you they’re bigots who know nothing.

I loved her for all that I didn’t see her much, and I’m deeply sad that I won’t be able to see her again. Five months from today, Richard and I plan to be in the States on our honeymoon, and I wish I could do as we’d planned and visit Grandma with my wonderful husband. But it’s not to be.

Mum and Dad travelled over far more often. For the last few years, they’ve always gone to the States and been with Grandma on her birthday. This time, they’d barely landed in New York, planning to travel up to New Hampshire the following week, when they heard that Grandma had had what seemed to be a minor heart attack and was in hospital. They went straight up there and found her suddenly very frail in the hospital, and were with her for about two hours before she just slipped away.

For complicated reasons, I’ve not been able to speak to them and have had a chain of emails, but I know they’re having a very rough time and my heart goes out to them.

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It's so difficult to be so far away from beloved grandparents. I'll be thinking of you and your lovely parents; I'm glad they could be there with her even though you could not. x
Thank you, Holly.
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