(An assignment piece)

The jam jar sat on top of Gran Chapman’s mantelpiece. Everyone who visited her was shown her gall stones, removed during her first ever operation when she was in her 70s. They were her showpiece.

Gran Chapman was my mother’s maternal grandmother, my great grandmother. She was a gentle, caring lady with a peaches and cream complexion and not a wrinkle in sight.  She looked me in the eyes and touched my hand when I spoke to her as though whatever I was saying was the most important thing in the world at that moment.

When I was 15, I secretly entered a competition in the “Evening Times” newspaper.  It was early December and the prize was a Christmas hamper sent to a person of choice.  I had to write about someone deserving of the hamper so I wrote about Gran Chapman.  I was so thrilled when I found out she had received it although she never knew where it came from.

My story explained why I thought she was deserving of the hamper but I can’t remember what I wrote.  I must have sensed her life hadn’t been easy.  It wasn’t until years later when I began to take an interest in my family history that I decided to find out a bit more about her life.  I realised then I had never actually known her name.

Her birth certificate informed me she was born Jemima Taylor. That made me smile.  I had named my daughter Tayler.  The next thing to bring a smile to my face was to see on her marriage certificate that she was then just 17 and worked as a biscuit icer.  After that I found very little to smile about.

From various documents I learned that Gran was born in 1886, married in 1904, had five children and died in 1977 at the age of 90.  A life well lived but it told me very little. When I placed her dates on a timeline, a bigger picture began to emerge.  She had lived through two world wars, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Depression, the sinking of the Titanic and other major world events. I began to see her in a new light.  My gentle, caring great grandmother had lived through some of the world’s worst tragedies but it was her personal tragedies that rocked me.

We visited family often but, as a young person, I didn’t really give much thought to the relationship between my aunts and uncles.  I didn’t consider them to be sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.  It wasn’t until I started researching that things began to fall into place.

My mother talked about her own mother who had died at the age of 51 from heart problems soon after she and dad were married.  I remember her telling me that I first kicked in her womb at the precise time my grandmother died.  Perhaps that has something to do with why I reminded my mum of her own mother.  Connecting the dots, I actually gave some thought to the fact that my late grandmother was Gran Chapman’s daughter and how sad she must have been to outlive her. The many family get-togethers of my childhood would have had an element of sadness, of someone missing, that I was completely oblivious to.  I wonder how many times my mother, Gran Chapman, my aunts and uncles looked at me and my two sisters, mourning the fact that their mother, daughter and sister never got to meet us.

Gran Chapman outlived her husband and three of her five children.  I assumed that my great-grandfather had died in a war but his death certificate told a different story.  The similarities were there.  He was also 51 when he was killed in his taxi after suffering a heart attack.  Gran lived for another 42 years without him.

I never knew about their little girl, Maimie, who passed away at the age of two.  I desperately want to know that story, to find out what happened to her but, so far, have found no records.  Recently, after listening to a lecture, I turned the issue around and asked myself ‘why would a young child die in the Gorbals in Glasgow in 1911?’ I then read that, back then, 145 out of every 1,000 babies died in that one area due to social problems and diseases like diphtheria, TB and typhoid.  My family were quite poor and the Gorbals area was known to be dirty and overcrowded.  It links too perhaps with the fact that Maimie’s brother, my Uncle Bill, contracted polio around the age of seven and had his leg amputated.   As a grown man, he got around on crutches, worked as a watchmaker, and he and his wife, Mary – also a polio survivor who had callipers on both legs – often enjoyed nice road trips in their little mini car with hand controls.  I believe, in the end, it was his heart that let him down too.

Gran Chapman would have nursed her young children through these diseases.  She was just 25 when she lost her baby daughter and 28 when Uncle Bill had his leg amputated. Later she would have to deal with, amongst other things, another son being badly injured in the war and losing two grandchildren to still-births.

The irony of this story is that when Gran was in her eighties, she was diagnosed with gangrene in her leg and had it amputated.  As she approached her 90th birthday she was told she was to lose her other leg. I remember visiting her in hospital just before her second operation. When I bent to kiss her cheek, she looked me in the eyes, held onto my hand and whispered “why won’t they just let me go?”  It still brings tears to my eyes.  I felt so powerless.  She had already suffered enough.