My grandmother

by Barendina Smedley

My grandmother was born on a US Army base in the Philippines, in a bed with the Stars and Stripes draped across the headboard, just after the beginning of the last century.

Her father was a colonel in the US 16th Infantry who had been posted to Luzon in the course of the Spanish-American War. He was Dutch by birth — his clergyman father had left the Netherlands in the 1840s along with his congregation in the doctrinal split the Dutch call ‘the separation’ and moved to Michigan — and an idealist by conviction. His various projects over the years included a plan to improve the lives of prisoners by encouraging them to take up gardening and early support for the infant League of Nations. During the First World War, when German-speakers in the USA risked lynching, he demanded that his two young daughters learn the language of Goethe and Schiller.

His Calvinist upbringing notwithstanding, he died a Shinto Buddhist. Although he came to fatherhood late in life — his daughters were born in his 65th and 67th year respectively — and suffered a serious stroke during their early years, he remained the object of their unending hero-worship. Years after his death, they would watch ‘Gunsmoke’ in his memory, and debate whether he’d have voted Republican, as my great aunt believed, or Democrat, as my grandmother insisted.

My grandmother’s mother was a formidable person in her own right. During the Civil War her own father had joined up, aged 15, in support of the Union, and had served with considerable distinction. She was in her mid 30s — which is to say, very old by the standards of her time — when she finally met a man who seemed in any way her father’s equal. She was won over by his strong views, kindness and good looks, he by her strong views, intelligence and biscuit-baking proficiency. He proposed marriage, and she followed him out to the Philippines. There he would wash her hair for her whilst lecturing her about the Gold Standard. Despite a generation’s difference in age — or, possibly, because of it — theirs was an idyllically happy marriage.

All of which brings us to my grandmother. Because there are photos of her childhood in the Philippines, and because I can just about remember her telling me about it, parts of it stand out as clearly as memories of my own early years. There was a sweet-natured native nurse who can be seen in one photo, gazing with a mixture of pride and anxiety at her two little charges, each festooned with frills and lace in the best Edwardian fashion, as the jungle looms purposefully behind them.

On one occasion my grandmother and her elder sister wandered off into the jungle, where they were rescued by a friendly tribe of cannibals, who fortunately held the colonel in high regard and, thus, returned his wandering infants to him in good order. On another occasion my great-grandmother contrived to drop her engagement ring onto the floor of her house, where it fell down between the oriental carpets, through the timber floor and into the mud underneath, where the local pigs gathered to escape the heat of the day. History does not record how it was that the ring was eventually recovered, although it must have been, as my own mother used to wear it — four large diamonds on a gold hoop. My great-grandmother had designed it herself.

Photos of the house in which my grandmother spent her earliest years conjure up a vision of imperial privilege. Brass-bound teak furniture, screens inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the aforementioned carpets and an unruly sea of miscellaneous bric-a-brac at once embraced the East yet kept the barbarism of the jungle at bay. For all that, though, my grandmother must have realised early on that her parents did not behave like most of the officers’ families around them. Scandalously, my great-grandmother socialised with actual Filipinos — not just the Spanish-speaking colonists, either, but indigenous natives as well. Meanwhile my great-grandfather gave evidence to a Senate Committee criticising in explicit terms the conduct of US anti-insurgency operations in the Philippines, particularly the failure to win hearts and minds, the use of indiscriminate violence against the native populations and the prevalence of torture. It is hard to imagine that this did much to advance his career prospects.

All the same, my great grandfather continued to command his regiment in the course of a variety of postings, the strangest of which was perhaps Ft. Seward, Alaska, where my grandmother was given a baby bear cub which, when it grew too large to make a satisfactory or indeed remotely safe pet, was carted off to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

It was in Washington too, I think, that my grandmother and great aunt had their debut into society. They made a striking pair — my great aunt an icy, aloof, Garbo-eque blonde of extraordinary elegance, my grandmother a serious-minded beauty with wavy auburn hair and huge, violet, always slightly hurt-looking eyes.

They were, I imagine, much-pursued by eligible young men. It was thus odd — and, perhaps, the source of a bit of later friction — that they should both fall for someone who was not, whatever else he might have been, entirely appropriate. The man in question was a young officer in the infant Army Air Corps, a Great War veteran who by 1925 was commanding a training squadron at Langley Field, Virginia. He was dashing, intelligent, strong-minded — and also divorced, with custody of a young daughter. He first began courting my great aunt, who was apparently much smitten — but then changed tactics, and pursued my grandmother instead. They were married in the late 1920s. My mother was born in 1930, and my uncle a few years thereafter.

As I mentioned above, I remember my grandmother, although she died when I was only five years old. Her death was a terrible one, in which a malignant brain tumour gradually chipped away at her abilities until she lay in a coma, those beautiful violet eyes never to open again, although devoted nurses combed out her hair, which by then had turned a stunning, almost metallic silver-white. She was only 65 years old.

She had been a widow for years. My grandfather died long before my birth, in 1955. I don’t think his last years were particularly happy. A proud friend of Charles Lindberg, he not only proved unwilling to drop him when the great aviator’s political views had rendered him suddenly unpopular, but insisted on leaving America First pamphlets lying about prominently on the front hall table — very much in keeping with a longstanding inability suffer fools gladly, to play army politics or to care overmuch what other people thought about anything. So although during the Second World War he was gazetted up to brigadier general, when the war ended, down he fell again to the lowly rank of full colonel. I don’t think he minded enormously for his own sake, but I think he knew my grandmother would have enjoyed the cachet of being a general’s wife, and he minded quite a lot about that. Racked by arthritis, continually in pain and bored out of his mind after a life of exciting, risk-taking activity, he, too, died at age 65. His children all revered his memory.

And what did they remember of my grandmother? I never knew my half-aunt, so her version of the story is now lost to me, but I have listened both to my mother’s and my uncle’s accounts of my grandmother, which for all their differences — my mother and uncle suffered a massive falling-out after my grandmother’s death, and never spoke thereafter — nevertheless tend to converge. The woman they depict was sometimes anxious or unduly precious about things, cared a great deal about appearances, was a bit of snob, painted rather well,  was tender-hearted to a fault, loved following the news and arguing about politics, was ‘ladylike’ in a way that virtually no one alive ever is today, and was capable to the end of enchanting those around her with a strange combination of beauty, resolution and vulnerability. She was also, by all accounts, a devoted wife and conscientious mother.

My own mother, very much the ambitious career woman, rather despised my grandmother’s lack of a ‘real’ career, while my uncle thought that, in contrast to my action-hero grandpa, she was ‘no good with boys’. Each, needless to say, was certain that she loved the other children more than she loved them.

What I remember about her directly is, in fact, very different. To me, she was simply the most enthralling human being imaginable. For a start, she was really hearbreakingly beautiful, even in her last years, when — it was sort of petty vanity her children were quick to condemn in her — she didn’t allow anyone to take photographs of her, fearing that she looked so much worse than she had in her youthful days. She need not have worried, though. Always immaculately well-dressed — I remember pearls, printed silks, and the most feminine of lavender-coloured tweeds — she was also infinitely charming. I loved her and I am sure she loved me too.

It was famously the case that, on the little table beside her pale violet canopied bed, she kept portraits of all her grandchildren in silver frames — with the portrait of me at least twice the size of all the others, and always pushed to the front. Was I her favourite? In my heart of hearts, I have to admit that, even now, it pleases to me to think that this might have been so.

My grandmother lived the sort of life that no one seemed to live any more, even back when I was five years old. She owned a large old house in a pretty town in the Bluegrass part of Kentucky. When I say ‘old’, of course, I mean this by Kentucky standards, not English ones. Roseheath only dated back to 1815 or so. Still, it sported a simple, handsome, Federal-style façade, while the rambling back quarters spoke of a leisurely, artless evolution over many long decades of comfortable living. It had been a very attractive house from the start, but my grandmother had spent the years of her widowhood making it, if possible, even more attractive. She filled it with antiques, arranging things with taste and wit. She also creating a magical garden around it, full of box, some fairly rare irises and, of course, the Queen Anne’s Lace that she refused to regard as a weed, whatever anyone else might say about it.

Her method of gardening involved standing on a herringbone path of handmade bricks in a smart tweed suit, court shoes and pearls, directing a gardener, just as her method of cooking involved providing a cook with intricately detailed instructions. In both cases, however, the results were generally a success. ‘Shopping’ consisted of ‘having things sent’ — I do not think my grandmother ever lifted a parcel in her entire life, although she was adventurous enough to have gone up in an aeroplane with my grandpa on a few occasions. Even in the 1970s, her house was heated by coal fires, which glowed at night. And her cellars, where the coal was stored and into which we were only allowed with massive adult supervision, had by legend served as part of the famous Underground Railway, by which slaves were smuggled out of the South northwards towards freedom.

My grandmother’s domestic establishment was, by the standards of 1970s Kentucky, rather grand. After my great aunt’s death, her ‘companion’ came to live with my grandmother, half-nurse, half-souvenir. My grandmother also kept a cook and a maid, as well as a gardener of vast and terrible antiquity whose taut black skin made him look exactly like a recently-unwrapped Egyptian mummy, and who could accurately predict the weather ‘in his bones’.

The garden at Roseheath was a place of pure enchantment. Away from the flower beds, quivering with those much-cossetted irises, a tree branch was fitted with a swing. From the top of the arc one could see the green rolling countryside for what seemed like miles and miles around. There was also a cherry tree that predated the Civil War but still bore fruit. The ripe cherries were consumed with some ceremony in the parlour, children included in the party, over some good Chinese rugs. My grandmother must have had strong nerves. The outbuildings included an ice house and a smoke house, both of them brick-built and so precarious that we were forbidden ever to enter them, adding hugely to their allure. There was an old iron water pump of irresistible creaking charm, the occasion of much squabbling between grandchildren as we all wished to have a go. The water the emerged, in that part of Kentucky, was basically diluted limestone. We regarded it as nothing short of magic.

What of Roseheath? There is little to say about the way in which the house was furnished except this. I last saw the place at the age of five, on the day of my grandmother’s funeral. When, in my mid forties, I once again came into contact with someone else who had known the place, my reaction was to write up a great list of everything I remembered about it — every single Chinese embroidery, engraved sword-hilt and jewel-like glass light-fixture — only to run up against a very strong emotion indeed when I learned that, in fact, it had all been exactly as I had remembered it. It is like being told that an improbable, age-old fairy-tale is actually literally true.

My grandmother and I used to sit out on a screened veranda overlooking part of the garden, with fields and dry stone walls running away beyond into the distance. She mostly talked about her father, although she told me a little about her own childhood too. She talked about her father’s experiences in the Plains Wars, about how he once had to seek refuge inside a recently-killed buffalo when stranded out in a blizzard on the freezing Plains, about how he came to know Sitting Bull who respected him for taking the time to learn quite a few of the relevant Native American languages.

We sat in fan-back wicker chairs that had come from the house in the Philippines. I felt very grown up, being taken into her confidence like this. At the foot of the veranda stairs was a large iron pot in which grew a big clump of parsley. To this day, I cannot nibble fresh curly parsley without being taken back to Paris, Kentucky and these early-morning conversations with my grandmother. I also remember that she and her Garden Club friends were all hugely impressed when, aged 4, I was able to identify, correctly, a hosta.

The myth of the garden to which we can no longer possibly return is a potent one. For me, that garden is always accompanied by a house, equally enchanted and equally unrecoverable. I cannot really explain why it is so important that I mention my grandmother here, except by saying that, even now, I wish more than anything that I could take her by her slim, elegant hand, show her round our Norfolk place, tell her about the furniture and the pictures, let her see the garden. What she would make of the sight of her grand-daughter washing up after dinner for eight, scrubbing down bathroom floors and shouldering 70-kilo bags of compost, I am not entirely certain. Doubtless she would take it in her stride, perhaps even find it rather funny. An intelligent woman, though, she would soon, I think, discern for herself the broader tacit compliment here — that so much of what I care about in life, so of how I think things and indeed people ought to be, comes more or less directly from her own, much-cherished example.