The Hidden Village of Aspergers

November 14, 2010

Thank you.

Filed under: childhood — kankurette @ 6:38 pm

I’ve got a lot of Asperger’s and mental health-related stuff that I want to blog about, as I had a pretty nasty experience earlier today. Thanks to chocolate, rest, and the supportive words of my friends, I’m feeling a lot calmer, and it’s made me realise that I need to stay out of discussions of politics on the internet. I am beginning to recognise my triggers, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid them. I’ll be talking about this in a future post, so bear with me.

On Thursday, it was the anniversary of Armistice Day. Today, it is Remembrance Sunday. Yesterday was Remembrance Shabbat, which I spent in synagogue with my fellow Jews, a poppy pinned to my dress, saying Kaddish for the members of the congregation who gave their lives in both world wars. It was a pretty emotional experience; some of the men turned up with medals and ribbons on their suit jackets, while a woman who had been on the Kindertransport read a poem about Jews in Berlin before the war began, and the fates they met. Despite what some people would like to believe, I am a patriot. I love England despite its flaws, it is my home, and I am proud to have family members who served in both world wars. One of these family members was my maternal grandmother, Margaret Carder nee Esling, and she is the subject of my entry today.

I was recently grilling my mum on the subject of Gran and the war, and discovered that she, like many other teenagers at the time, had lied about her age in order to get into the WAAF. She was a secretary, as opposed to being on the front line, although she did do some radio / intel work in Scotland. I wasn’t too surprised; it was fairly common for people to lie about their ages (my grandad did the same thing), presumably because they wanted to do everything they could to serve their country. There are pictures of her at Mum’s house in her uniform. She was a great beauty when she was younger, and had dark wavy hair like mine. Her fiance at the time, an Australian pilot called Des, was killed in the war, and when Gran died, a picture of Des was one of the things that was placed in her coffin (I say coffin, but it was made of wicker and looked more like a giant shopping basket). She also lost several friends in air raids. She did talk about the war sometimes when we were kids, but I didn’t hear the full details until after she died.

Gran lived an amazing life. When she was a kid, she trolled her music teacher by playing a pop song called Shoeshine Boy, instead of the classical piece she was supposed to play (unfortunately, it backfired as she wasn’t allowed to have any more piano lessons), a feat which was repeated by me in my GCSE Music exam when I played a Space instrumental song on the piano, as opposed to some crappy piece on the flute. She lived in Africa, where my auntie Debby was born, and unlike many other white settlers there, did not look down on black people, but treated them as equals. This egalitarian outlook would surface later when she was running a sweet shop, and among her customers were kids from poorer areas. Gran may have been a little snobby about manners (something Mum and I have both picked up from her), but she was never snobby about social class, and never looked down on those kids.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that mental illness ran in our family. My grandad suffered from severe mental health problems and attempted suicide several times, and eventually left Gran for another woman, leaving her to bring up her four children – my mum, my two aunties and my uncle Andy (who I never met as he died when I was really little) – alone. As well as divorce and poverty – for Grandad being too ill to work meant that the family had very little money – she also shouldered the death of her third child, Robin, who died from a hole in his heart when he was a few months old.

My memories of Gran are as vivid as ever. She got on well with my other grandmother, who was a child during World War Two, and my dad. She had a collection of bells of all different shapes and sizes, and I used to enjoy ringing them all in turn. She also kept all my auntie Nicky and uncle Andy’s old books and toys, and me and my brother used to play with the toy Wombles or this weird game that involved getting balls down a tube. She was a fantastic cook, and had this recipe for stuffing which she never disclosed to anyone. (I joke that if Mum and the aunties contacted Gran at a seance and asked her for the recipe, she’d go, “I’m not telling you, neener neener.”) She had a tiny orange car with no seatbelts and a bonnet that was always flying up. The toilet in her house made strange noises and scared the shit out of me.

She could be abrasive at times, particularly when she was nearing death, and I was a little frightened of her, but she was also immensely funny and warm and eccentric, and didn’t slow down even when she was in her eighties. Mum knew something was wrong when she was taking Gran shopping, and Gran announced she wanted to go home. She had always said that the minute she gave up shopping, the end was nigh, and she was right.

She died in 2005 after suffering from strokes and bleeding on the brain. The programme for her funeral was filled with pictures of her and her children and grandchildren, and the centrepiece was a picture of Gran surrounded by the things she loved, from Radio 4 to Tom Lehrer. At the funeral, we listened to the Beatles, and Mum read a piece she’d written in which she talked about how Gran’s qualities had been passed onto her grandchildren. To me, she passed on her sense of justice – she was a prolific letter writer, as was I – although I’d say Mum missed her love of food.

My grandmother was an incredible woman, and I’m proud and grateful to have known her for those twenty-one years before she was reunited with Andy, Robin, Des, and all those she’d lost over the years. Doubtless, every other war veteran and their family has a story to tell, and this is mine.

Thank you to all those brave men and women who fought and died for us. And thank you, Margaret Carder, for being one of the strongest and most inspirational women I ever knew, and for being my gran.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the Sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Lawrence Binyon

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