This weekend, while the rest of the country goes Olympic mad cheering on Team GB as they rack up the medals at Rio 2016, Zephyr and I will be busy with our family celebrating a somewhat different milestone: On this day, 100 years ago, an inspirational woman, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great grandmother was born. Greta Taylor – my Nanny and Zephyr’s Great-Nanny – turns 100 today. It’s hard to comprehend a hundred years of life when you’ve totted up a mere 37. Even less so when you’re two; when I asked Zephyr how old Nanny was, he gleefully replied “Five”!
Nanny was born in Calcutta, India in 1916. Life in India in 1916 was a million miles away from life in Surrey, England in 2016. She lived in India until she was 37 years old, the exact same age as I am now, and she bore the first 8 of her 10 children there.
What different lives we have led! Whilst I cannot claim to have any understanding of what Nanny’s life in those ‘early’ years must have been like, the tiny glimpses I’ve snatched through conversations over tea and Nice biscuits (Nanny’s favourite) have portrayed a life many worlds apart from my own. Growing up Anglo-Indian in colonial India conveyed a certain status and Nanny was raised with the help of ‘ayas’ – Indian servant nannies – after her mother died. At the age of 7 her father too passed away and so she was sent off to boarding school where she was taught by German nuns. From then on, her strict Catholic upbringing meant her options were limited: join the convent or get married have children. On meeting Grandad at a school dance at age 16, Nanny fell in love and by 19 was married. Not long after, her first child Shirley was born. Over the next twenty years, Nanny would give birth – all of them naturally and many of them at home – to ten children. As a mother of one I struggle to imagine what raising 10 children must have been like. Raising one is challenging enough. Ten is incomprehensible to me! I do know that Nanny ran a tight ship – my mum, aunts and uncles can attest to that! But by the time us grandchildren (and the rest) came along she had softened somewhat in her old age.
My childhood memories are of weekends spent mischief making with cousins at Nanny and Grandad’s house in Whitton, south west London. We’d hide ourselves away in the bathroom creating potions out of shampoo, Oil of Ulay and Nanny’s satisfyingly effervescing dentifrice tablets. Nanny would berate us when she found them weeks later stashed behind the toilet cistern. Whilst Nanny filled the house with the familiar smells of our favourite anglo-Indian fayre (prawn and marrow curry, rice and lentils and potato chops), we’d be sent off on errands to the corner shop or given strict instructions to polish the brass step – even when it gleamed from over-polishing. On Sundays we’d accompany Nanny to church, chattering and giggling through the sermon before dutifully reciting the Hail Mary and praying silently for everyone we knew in our sheltered little worlds.
Growing up in south west London and then Surrey, life was easy for us. The choices Nanny and Grandad made all those years ago made sure of that. With their eyes set on a college education for their sons and suitable husbands for their daughters, Nanny and Grandad set sail for England in 1953, leaving India behind for good. Once in England, Grandad worked hard to buy a house and provide for his growing family. Nanny meanwhile devoted her life to her children. After her 10 children came 22 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and 9 great-great grandchildren.
Family is hugely important to us Taylors. From a very young age I remember being surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins. Every weekend we would see each other, every evening our mums would be on the phone to each other, we’d go on holiday together, we’d go to church together and at Christmas and New Years we’d have big family parties. Always there’d be a focus on the children (the Santa suit worn by successive uncles each Christmas time has been in the family since my mum was small) and always there’d be a focus on food. Growing up with such a strong sense of togetherness imbues a certain confidence in a child that I imagine is hard to replicate through any other means. Of course, like any other family we have our problems and our fallouts and we don’t by any means always agree (the lively pre-Brexit debates were a case in point) but being part of the Taylor clan – with Nanny, our matriarch, at the helm – has been a defining feature of my life.
Nanny, you’ve taught me what family looks like. The strength I experience through being part of this diverse, quirky, loving and lovable family is a big part of who I am. The closeness of family is something I feel been blessed to know and I honour you for creating and sustaining that through all your long years of life. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when you’re gone – and I know that may not be long now – but I am eternally grateful for the love, passion and commitment you have modelled for us all. I wish you peace, love and ease as you mark this milestone. Happy 100th Birthday dear Nanny.
I leave you with this poem, written a few years ago when I visited Calcutta, the place of your birth and the place you most love to return to when we natter over tea and biccies:
What is it like to be born here, to feel this land as your own?
What is it like to live this as your life and to call this land your home?
And what is it like to leave this land and to travel far away?
To say goodbye to all you have known, to the city atop Bengal Bay?
How does it feel to journey so long and arrive in a foreign land?
To start from scratch for the sake of your sons and the love of your daughters’ hands?
After a lifetime away do you long to return to the times when things were good?
When life was simple, fruit abundant and servants prepared your food?
Do you miss the sights and sounds and smells, the colours, the warmth, the taste
Of a land and its people in all of its chaos and order within all the same?
Do you remember with fondness the trips to the market for spices, for daal and for ghee,
The hustle, the bustle, the haggling down, the family and friends you would see?
And the churches so open with pilgrims a-plenty, pray tell do you miss them too?
How does it feel to have known all of this but accept change with grace as you do?
And what of the railways, the source that sustained you, do you dream of them as well?
The apartment they gave you, the ticket office counter, where still I see him stand tall.
Do you picture the long trains, carriages packed, the whir of the wheels and the breeze
That cools the faces of travelers weary as chaiwallahs attend to their needs?
I ponder all this as the stations pass by, the landscape a green-brown blur,
The rhythmic sound of train upon track brings me closer to where you once were,
The movement it tells a story of a time that resides in my blood
A part of you that’s a part of me and your love who rests up above.