Knowing I had a few weeks of summer left, before the new semester started, I took a week to visit both of my grandparents. My Grandpa, Old Tin Boot (that’s what we call him – it’s a long story) lives far up north whilst my Grandma, dear Milly, lives on the south coast. Since I had spent two weeks on the surf and sand, it made sense to visit Grandma first. It had been quite some time.
Grandma is one tough granny. I don’t think she’s a malicious bone in her body but she’s notorious for her temper. She throws horrendous threats to the squirrels that help themselves to the grains in the bird feeder and she conjures horrific insults to the postman who wedges her parcels through the letterbox, crumpling every order into a misshaped cardboard polygon. But it never went more than that, and her slurs were never within an earshot of another person. Except for us, of course, but we’re family.
I asked her a question. I asked why her and Grandpa split, back in 1943.
“I’ll tell you, but only once,” she said. Her cigarette flapped on her bottom lip with each syllable like a tiny, glowing maggot. “Your grandfather and I weren’t made for each other. We never should have been together. I’m not sure why we ever married. Now, we shall never speak of it again.” That was that, apparently. It was rather the taboo subject, to talk about their past relationship. Mother told me never to mention it. Grandma never spoke of it before, and any questions were quickly shut off. However, I had caught her on a good day, for she told me that much, and that’s the most I ever knew.
Grandma’s a great cook, and she’s aggressive with her preparation. When she dices, the blade hits the cutting board fast and hard. That poor onion, it shrunk so fast and seemed to melt under the metal. After she scooped the lot into the pan, she began rapidly slicing the bell peppers. The knife, held tight in her old hand, went through the orange and red flesh with ease, producing sharp slithers that rocked on the wood when freed from the body. The rib shavings and seeds flew out either side as if they were spewed from a combine-harvester, some hitting the floor in tiny tings. Her cuisine never met her hygiene, as the food was garnished with her tobacco smoke; I didn’t look forward to tasting it later.
While I wasn’t entirely sure what she was preparing us both in terms of food, she made herself very clear in her words, repeating three times “We were too different.”
She hadn’t seen Grandpa for fifty years, never heard from him, never spoke to him. They met, they married, they gave birth to my mother, and split. Some relationships aren’t meant to be, and I’ve grown quite content with that fact. Better to have two happy people, separated, than argument-fuelled, polar opposite parents who can’t stand to be in the same room as each other.
Grandpa, on the other hand, was calm. I don’t think he’s ever raised his voice, let alone shown any signs of anger. The Thompson boys threw a brick through his window and he only mustered a shrug. It’s not healthy to be so calm all the time. Frustration builds in anyone, it must. I found it hard to believe, how he was. When I saw him two days later, he spoke the same words. We were down at his allotment, picking green beans and courgettes, spring onions and beetroot, when he told be about his past. “Your grandmother and I, it was a mistake for us to be together. We are grateful for your mother, of course, but that’s that. No more questions, youth.”
Not either of them wanted to talk about it. Looking back, I know it’s only fair. It ruptures my gut thinking about my past partners. No good came from it, and I regret I let curiosity find its way to asking them both the same question. I should have listened to mother. Nothing came from it. It didn’t matter.
Despite their differences they so adamantly proclaimed, I loved the small similarities. They both had this ruthless nature with food. Grandpa was tossing the beetroot into the wheelbarrow. The bulbs bounced in and around the metal with harsh thuds. He ripped the spring onions straight out of the ground with full fists of dirt and slung them over his head, not caring where they landed. Whichever green beans weren’t ready, he picked them anyway and dropped them into a pile on the woodchip path. Just like Grandma with her slicing and dicing, commanding the vegetables to uniform and submit to the blade, telling them where to go. When they rolled, she clawed them back, held them down, and split them into halves, into quarters, into eighths.
After spending a lovely day with them, they both had this gentle side that bloomed, just once, in our short time together. Grandma was extremely delicate with the parsley. She gently chopped it with kind, soft, silent strokes as she grouped it with her fingertips and thumb. She lightly lifted the pieces, cupping them in the palm of her hand, and sprinkled them onto supper. Grandpa, on his hands and knees, nimbly picked his spinach leaves as if they were egg shells, and placed them into the hand basket. After, he neatly nourished the naked stems with cool water whilst singing an old blues song, one I can’t now remember. They turned to me, and despite not having seen each other for half a century, they shared the same advice. It’s as if they both said it at the same time. “Be careful with the greens, they easily bruise.”