‘Tell me, what was your granny like?’
I paused, sniffed, and smiled.
My granny was brilliant. And terrifying. Extremely loving, but formidable. Get on the wrong side of her at your peril! Partly it was the matron in her; this was a woman who had nursed prisoners of war, seen unimaginable horrors, and yet, had never let despair get the better of her. People adored my granny (but they still didn’t mess with her!) In her time at St Paul’s Cathedral, she’d unceremoniously told all sorts of people to get over themselves when it came to women priests or gay clergy, but heaven for-fend an unsuspecting minor canon rock up thirty seconds late. My motto growing up was ‘if mummy says no, ask granny.’ It was a winning strategy! My granny was brilliant, my granny was formidable.
My granny would have had no time, and I mean no time, for my conduct in the service of remembrance my church had on that cold, November afternoon. She’s have been mightily unimpressed by the way I sobbed throughout, trying to sing ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’ as a film of phlegm formed across my throat, popping at ‘unbounded love thou art.’ And she’d have told me to get it together as I tearfully hugged the vicar, painfully twisting my neck as I suddenly panicked that I would get mascara on her on her brilliantly white surplice.
My granny would have had a lot of time for another service where she was remembered a few months earlier: her funeral.
My granny had a very dark sense of humour. That, and she was incredibly pragmatic about death. While other people’s Christmas traditions include playing board games or going for wintry walks, my granny used to take Christmas lunch as an opportunity to reel off a list of people who had died that year and then explain that she didn’t have much longer left. Once she told me that I didn’t have much longer. I was twelve…
As part of that, she was pretty open to jokes being made about her death; she was especially taken with my suggestion that I would put her ashes in a Super Soaker to make it easier to scatter them along the Thames riverbank. (This was vetoed by my mother who, when I accidentally knocked the bag containing the ashes against a railing said ‘Will you stop hitting your grandmother?!). I also used to joke that I would take her funeral, but I’d do it in my charismatic evangelical style with drum kits and smoke machines, rather than her diligent and longstanding open catholic Anglicanism. She told me I could do that over her dead body to which I said that I actually could do it over her dead body.
Does anybody else have a family dynamic like this, or is mine just weird?
And so, on a beautiful August day, I stood at the front of a crematorium, room full of family and friends, and took my granny’s funeral. In what I know was the Holy Spirit, my inner core that day was the same formidable spirit by granny wonderfully embodied. My voice never cracked, my resolve never waived, the words of the Church of England funeral service were never clouded by tears. I sang ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’ one hundred per cent phlegm free. In preparing for and taking that service, God spoke to me gently, yet profoundly. And I think my brilliant, formidably granny would have been proud.
One of her favourite prayers that I included in the service was this:
God be in my head,
and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes,
and in my looking;
God be in my mouth,
and in my speaking;
God be in my heart,
and in my thinking;
God be at my end,
and at my departing.
My granny was understated in many ways. She wanted to eschew a funeral service altogether because she didn’t ‘want to cause a fuss.’ She embodied this prayer. In her understanding, in her looking, in her speaking, in her thinking, God was there. At her end, at her departing, God was there, and it was my privilege to be there too.
One year ago today, she departed. My brilliant, formidable granny.