My much-loved nan passed away two weeks ago. Today would have been her 92nd birthday. Like so many of her generation, my nan lived through an incredible time in history, witnessing the devastation of the Second World War and raising her family in the years that followed.
My nan was known to everyone as ‘Peggy’, I’ve no idea why, her real name was Elizabeth. She was born in the East End of London and I remember her telling me how she was crossing the Thames one day when she stopped to watch a series of planes flying along the river towards central London. This was the start of the Blitz. She ran all the way home to find that half of her street had been demolished. Her own house was still standing but her relief was short-lived as she was then blown off her feet by a subsequent blast. She was unhurt and I’m sure this is where my nan’s mantra ‘There are plenty worse off than me’ must have taken root. This was a line she lived by and one that served her all of her life.
But my nan’s life was far from idyllic. She fell out with her mother when she was in her teens and went to live with her spinster aunt, a story we still haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of and no doubt ever will. She had four children, my dad and his three sisters and my nan nursed her eldest daughter, Sally Anne through cancer before she died at just 36. My granddad never got over the loss of his daughter, he had a heart attack and a series of strokes, which left him suffering from dementia and in need of 24 hour care which my nan provided at their home in Hornchurch.
Never complaining, stoic in nature, fiery and feisty, Peggy Norton was absolute in her conviction that life was for the living. She was a force to be reckoned with and full of courage. After my granddad passed away, she would go up and down the steep stairs at home on her bottom as she was riddled with arthritis. So she took herself off to Belgium after the NHS offered to fund her trip and transport her there by ambulance. The first her family knew of it was when my dad received a call from her in Brussels letting him know that she was getting ‘new knees’. She hadn’t wanted to cause a fuss by letting us know before.
One of the many family anecdotes that I love hearing my dad retell (and there are plenty) was when one of my aunts locked herself in the bathroom as a child. Without hesitation, my nan jumped into action, climbed out of the neighbouring bedroom window and inched along the drainpipe towards the bathroom window. (My nan was a ‘sturdy’ lady so this was by no means an easy task). By the time she got there, my aunt had freed herself and run downstairs, instructing my granddad to get the ladder to rescue my nan who was now, ironically, left clinging to the pipe outside.
One of the qualities I most admired about my nan was her strong work ethic. She couldn’t abide laziness and was always keen to understand what we were doing to advance ourselves and to pass on her own advice whether invited or not! She absolutely wanted the best for us and she believed passionately that hard work would pay dividends.
Nan was an enthusiastic, if not especially gifted cook. She would produce her latest and frequent offerings with a pre-emptive, ‘Here you go, only I’ve.…’, followed by an unfortunate catalogue of disasters that might include the burning, dropping or the even more bizarre ‘putting a curtain pole through it’ of said item. My sisters and I would rearrange our faces before the annual mince pies were unveiled, charred and oozing blackened mincemeat; they became a great source of amusement between my family as we joked that there was more filling on the outside than the inside.
Apparently when my sisters and I were too small to remember, my nan served up a pie for dessert, announcing that she couldn’t remember what was inside. It was covered in custard and dished it up before my family realised that we were eating sausage meat pie for pudding.
Undeterred, my nan continued with her love of cooking and baking, never wanting to turn up at my parents’ house empty handed. And then, when my sisters and I left home and started university, she continued to shower us with food parcels; weighty homemade fruitcakes, value packs of baked beans that were ‘just out of date’ and the infamous and most anticipated, boxes of broken biscuits that she’d bought from Romford market. These legendary boxes of delights were received with squeals from my housemates who still speak fondly of them today. In true Forrest Gump style, you really never did know what you were going to get.
My nan’s legacy is her three remaining children, her three granddaughters and her six great grandchildren. We share a wicked sense of humour, especially in the face of adversity and a bizarre collection of private jokes. These jokes would be lost on anyone outside of our immediate family but will reduce us to tears of laughter, even my own husband is often left entirely bewildered by the nonsensical impressions and expressions that leave my sisters, aunts, parents and I in hysterics.
My nan would always encourage us to ‘laugh at yourself’ at the first sign of self pity and right until the end, nan proclaimed she had lived a ‘wonderful life’ even though she had endured experiences that I pray I will never have to. I hope my children inherit her steadfastness, her humour, her devotion to her family and her generous spirit. If not her dubious cooking skills.
She was the matriarch of our family and we will miss her.