In honour of International Women’s Day, we were asked at work to tweet a photo that represents what makes us happy. I chose this one. This is my Nonni, my grandmother, at her 90th birthday party, and I’m teaching her all about selfies here. This is the exact moment when she realised that the camera on my iPhone was pointing back at us and not across the room. Such joy!
The photo makes me happy, but it also makes me sad. This was taken in November 2013, when Nonni’s dementia was truly ‘early onset’, and she was still mostly with us mentally. Bit by bit we lost her to the past, her grasp on the present disappearing slowly but surely.
Nonni has had a greater influence on me than even she probably knew. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time sleeping over at her house. Unbeknownst to my parents, we would stay up late, drinking tea (and, eventually, wine) and (occasionally, if I nagged enough) smoking cigarettes, listening to music and talking about everything under the sun. Politics, literature, art, writing, authors, fashion, men, friendships, family. She cooked me pasta, let me watch Headbangers’ Ball on MTV, showed me her old dresses, brought me to Louisa May Alcott’s house, talked to me about the news as if I was a grown up.
But there was one night in particular that shaped the rest of my life. She was sleeping over in my new flat. I was 18 years old and in a relationship my family thought was moving far too fast (which it was, and it did, with the benefit of hindsight). We lay in the dark in my bed, and she told me about the girl she was at my age. Her dreams and her ambitions. Her passions for painting, drawing, acting. Her friendships and her job. We talked about waiting for my grandfather to come back from the war. The dances at the VSO. How happy she was when she gave birth to my mother, and the suicidal thoughts she had when my grandfather was taken by polio so soon before the vaccine was discovered, when my mother was barely one year old. She remarried, a kind and loving grandfather, but an often unkind and hurtful husband. Little by little she lost many of her passions, as did so many married women of her generation. He was a painter but couldn’t stand competition and so forced her to put away her brushes. He wanted her to be pretty, accomplished, intelligent, but never more so than him. And, as with so many women of her generation, she was entirely dependent on him for her survival and the survival of her now five children, my mother, my aunt and my uncles.
That night, in my darkened bedroom, she told me, ‘Never let a man make you give up your passions. Never put your own hopes and dreams behind someone else’s. Never leave yourself or your children vulnerable by losing your financial independence. Never lie in the dark at night dreaming of escape only to know that your captor holds all the keys. Keep your job, keep your passions, keep your independence, and find a husband someday who will cherish you for having done so.’
On the wall in my living room hangs a pencil sketch that she did in 1946, a quaint village scene, probably based on a photo my grandfather took in the Pacific, where he was posted in World War II. It is one of the few things I took from her house when she was moving into a care home last year. It’s signed in her maiden name, when she was 23 years old. After she was widowed for a second time, in the mid-1980s, she picked up her paintbrushes again, and I have a number of watercolours from her in my house. One of those is the first one that she framed in that time period, when she gave herself permission again to create. I love both of these, in their own right, but also for what they represent. I will tell my children about them when they’re old enough to understand.
So for International Women’s Day, I’ll be happy thinking about my Nonni and her joy in discovering new technology so late in her life. I’ll be happy that I had such a vibrant, strong woman who was willing to share her mistakes with me, as well as her accomplishments. It’s thanks to her that I have a fulfilling career and a family and a husband who supports me so that I can enjoy both.