Pam Johnston, my nanna, died on the 24th December 2021.
I didn’t really like my Nanna growing up. I loved her, as a grandson must love his grandmother. The cards I wrote said I loved her. But I didn’t particularly like her. She was a teacher, and I didn’t like teachers, I still don’t, and when I had finished a day spent with teachers, she would pick me up and become my teacher. She would give me painful lessons on how to pronounce water at a time when I could have told her the intricacies of a roman legion. I was to her, the stupid one because Tom was the clever one. So, each day, after having teachers not see me the way I saw myself, she would become my teacher and see me like them.
And I couldn’t see her love. Yet, she showed it in her actions. Every Monday. Every Tuesday. Driving down from Chepstow in her Citroen Picasso, the ugliest and most depressing of cars. Always warm inside with some warm Tesco value crisps and warm and fake coca cola. Every Monday and every Tuesday she would drive down from Chepstow and cook for Thomas and me. She was a terrible cook, but she made my favourite meal on Monday. Smoked Salmon and orange juice and pasta. I enjoyed the food but didn’t enjoy the company. I didn’t see the love. I just sat through dinner and tried my best, and always failed, to resist arguing with her.
But at times her love broke through my ignorant and selfish wall. She would bowl me cricket balls in the summer. She’d give me an over, before she went back to the sausages (the other meal, the tuesday meal; gravy, onions, mash and sausages). And she would come back from explorations and I would be proud of her. She would make us sit through her photo collection of the trip, and the pain of being told what to do would be forgotten on seeing the faces and landscapes of far away people and places. I was proud of her travels. She was an explorer. That was a pretty cool side to her. I liked her and loved her most when she was a thousand miles away.
Close proximity distanced her from me. She was a woman who must be studied within the frame of her world, and her world was the whole world. Up close, I largely ignored her. Like a roof, or car keys, you only realise their necessity when they break or disappear.
And when she broke, she appeared. When she got cancer and ballooned with an octogenarian pregnancy, mothering the tumour inside her, she appeared. Faced with unbearable pain and certain fate, she fought back with a laugh and an utter disregard for any timings that the doctor’s chart had for her.
Nanna was at her best when life was at its worst. Not in the middle. When things were mildly wrong, she was disastrously bad. But when life was at its utter worst. When she lost her husband and when she lost her own future, her character shone through. She was a stoic and a comic.
All my recent memories of her are of her laughing. And as her recent memories didn’t last, I could make her laugh with the same joke. By the end of it I could tell it really well and she would laugh as though she heard it for the first time, every time, because it was the first time every time.
I will regret, until I forget, the relationship I had with her as a child. I didn’t make it easy for her and never appreciated what she gave us. But her getting cancer was the best thing that could have happened. Because when things were at their worst she was at her best.
These last few years I have loved her, not as a grandson must, but as a person can. She became my teacher again. But this time I was glad to sit at the front of the class. She taught me the same lesson again and again for over 1,000 days. And each time she taught it, I enjoyed it as much as she enjoyed that one joke I told her. She taught me that whining is for wimps and that most things can be survived with a little bit of humour. And that which cannot be survived, can be suffered with a smile and a giggle.
She was a teacher and an explorer, but most of all she was a stoic and a comic.