Eilidh McCabe is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter based in Glasgow. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. She is the short fiction editor of the Glasgow Review of Books and is currently working on her first novel.
My grandmother lived to ninety-two. By this point she rarely recognised her family. When she swallowed, her food went into her lungs instead of into her stomach. Two choices were presented, not to her but to my mother: stop feeding her and let her die from malnutrition, or feed her and let her die from the infection it would cause. She was handed a pot of yoghurt. She ate it all.
She left behind paper. A lot of it. There were books of poems and songs, both her own compositions and those she’d liked enough to copy down. There were letters dating back to her childhood in the 1920s, and scrapbooks packed with such almost implausibly wonderful artefacts as a newspaper article headlined “BLIND PROPHET PREDICTS THERE WILL BE NO WAR”, dated Sunday April 23rd, 1939. Also, there were diaries, decades of them. The first complete diary opens with an entry written on June 3rd, 1949. She was then twenty-nine, as I am now.
My mother sat on the floor in the midst of the paper sea, diligently checking and labelling each item. Letter from Lizbeth, on getting all her top teeth out aged twenty. It took weeks. I dipped in and out of the diaries, looking for something specific while having no inkling what that was. These paper versions of my grandmother obscured as much as they revealed. Her slang-spiked speech patterns were flattened into standard English. She also noted that she censored herself for fear of my grandfather reading what she’d written. But all the same, I was seeing something she had never shown me.
Two weeks ago I went up to my parents’ attic and brought the papers downstairs. Bag after bag, trip after trip; at last the overflowing carrier bags were crowded on the living room floor. I sat down beside them, leaning my back against the sofa, and tipped one of them out. I wanted to read my grandmother properly this time, from the beginning: 1949.
That year and the next were contained within an A5 notebook with a faux leather cover. It opened with a description of a troupe of Indian dancers and musicians. The performance had made a great impression on her; “alienating”, she approvingly called it. I looked for some mention of where it had been held. Maybe I could go there, play at being her. But there was nothing.
Over the following pages, my grandmother confided her great desire to learn Greek; her despair at my grandfather’s rudeness in the cinema during The Thief of Baghdad; her hope of reaching her dead mother with the assistance of Mrs Helen Hughes, a “famous spiritualist” who had recently moved to Nithsdale Road. She wrote about the intense sickness brought about by her pregnancy, and her conviction that she would miscarry, as she had done before. And then, a thought important enough to warrant a paragraph of its own:
I loved that line. It demonstrated so perfectly my grandmother’s fascination with the small things, even when the bigger picture was askew.
Her bigger picture certainly was askew. And yet, her references to her unhappiness were always oblique and nonspecific. It was these omissions that carried me along. What had fallen between the lines?
The exact nature of the “bonds” she refers to was never revealed; nor was the worst of my grandfather’s selfishness. But her disappointment was always in the background, colouring every word; her resentment of marriage and how it had joined her forever to a partner she considered arbitrary. She mentioned, later, that she had read a book on marriage by Isabel T. Hutton. It had awakened in her a longing for a successful union like the one Hutton wrote about, and left her “rather despairing.” The diary was littered with fragments like the following, never elaborated on:
I sent my boyfriend a text message: “It’s so incredibly sad that my grandmother never experienced what a wonderful thing a good relationship can be.” As I tapped send, I realised the smug condescension carried in my words. I might as well have written, “what a waste my poor grandmother’s life was, what a waste most women’s lives throughout history have been, not to have been like mine.”
The evening was drawing in now and the living room was becoming gloomy, but the disruption of getting up to put the light on would be too great to seriously consider. I held the diary close to my face and squinted to look at it. The screen of my phone lit up with a message but I ignored it; I was back in the diary.
My grandmother read, sang, practised her German. She went to the Highlands and saw bats, swifts, a “plague of snails”. She was alert to the presence of animals everywhere, even in Bridgeton, where she lived. She gave birth. She did three washes a day and hung them up to dry. She argued about Communism with my grandfather. She walked up and down Dalmarnock Road pushing a pram. She collected sticklebacks from a local pond. They never seemed to fare well.
And then she declared herself a feminist, a word I was surprised to find in her lexicon. She observed with concern her own negativity towards men, and checked herself for it. It had never been overtly stated, but it was something that had always been evident to me in little things: her distrust of my father, her subtle preference for me over my brother. Her opinion that a mother’s love was the strongest power in the world. A mother’s love for her daughter.
I felt a sense of shame, that, in a time and place where it was so much easier to do so, I had not considered what being a feminist might really mean until quite recently. But at twenty-nine, in 1949, this shy lady had already been wearing that dangerous label “for some years now.”
I marked the page with a sticky note, then marked another – the one which read: