1. “If someone asks you what time it is, pretend you can’t hear them or before you know it they’ve cut off your hand and stolen your watch.”
When I was 17, I spent the summer with my grandmother after my grandfather passed away. Still adjusting to life on her own (which involved watching a lot of news programs and murder mysteries), my grandmother spent the entire three months of my visit reluctant to let me out of the house. Even an announcement that I was going to walk to the end of the block to post a letter back to America was met with her locking all the doors, turning on the house alarm, and escorting me to the postbox. She was 85.
Upon hearing of my predicament / imprisonment, my cousin Matthew came over to take me into downtown Twickenham, where the biggest threat to our safety might have been a roving squirrel or a falling acorn. Though also 17, as a boy, it was safe to go outside with Matthew.
After collecting our things, making sure we had a spare set of keys, and opening the front door, my gran offered us this small piece of advice: “If someone asks you what time it is, pretend you can’t hear them or before you know it they’ve cut off your hand and stolen your watch.” When she said it, Matt looked at me as if to ask if she was joking, though we both knew she wasn’t. As we stepped out of her bungalow and into the cold and cruel world, I pictured myself standing on a cobbled street in downtown Twickenham, holding out my bloody stump in shock while Matt looked on, head shaking.
“To be fair, Courtney,” I imagined him saying, “she did warn you.”
2. “I will not allow it. You will be eaten in the street by a lion.”
Though Matthew was allowed to leave the house on his own, or at least escort his female cousin into town, he was not allowed to take a gap year in Africa.
3. “You should never spend more than £3 on wine.”
My grandmother’s commitment to cheap wine was impressive. Whenever my mother and father went to the shop to buy food and drink to make dinner, they’d avoid lectures from my grandmother by removing all price tags and hiding all receipts before they got home. One time, as my sister distracted our gran, our mum told the owner of the off-license about her mother’s position on price-point. He pulled out his pricing gun, made up a couple of £3 stickers, and — with a wink — popped them on the bottles we were buying.
The most surprising thing about my grandmother’s wine budget was that she actually had plenty of money to spend. One of my favorite stories that I like to tell people, which I think perfectly captures her “complexities”, is the time she prepared for her daily evening glass of wine. The news had just started and, as I made my way into the living room to join her in watching it, I caught sight of her in the kitchen squeezing the aluminium bag from a box of wine into her beautiful, irreplaceable crystal decanters.
4. “I’m so excited for your visit, someone will have to hit me over the head with a lead pipe to get me to go to sleep.”
Another visit, she would threaten to take up heroin.
5. “Do you have to take your feet off before you go to bed?”
My friend Cameron is 6’4. My grandmother, barely over five feet tall, loved asking him this question whenever he’d come over to visit and I always found it so weird and hilarious.
Our Betty loved Cameron. Once, having picked me up from the airport, Cameron drove my sister, my mum and my gran over to my cousin’s house for dinner. With gran in the front seat next to him, Cameron joked “Betty, will you please stop putting your hand on my knee?” She roared with laughter all night over this; so much so that she continuously joke-whispered to Cameron to meet her under the tree outside after midnight.
The next time she saw Cameron, he joked that he waited all night for her, and she laughed and replied “you were waiting under the wrong tree!”
6. “The Scots are known for not being funny.”
To be fair, this isn’t the worst thing she said about the Scots; and to be fairer, she said far worse things about basically anyone who wasn’t Irish.
7. “Chinese food is pure monkey.”
My gran once saw an exposé on the news about a random case in the UK where monkey meat was discovered as a contaminant in Chinese food. As a result, she refused to ever eat takeaway from the Chinese place down the street from her house again. Any time someone suggested it as a food option, she would recount in gruesome detail what they were getting themselves into.
“They ship the monkey straight from China,” she would tell us, “with blood seeping through the boxes.”
8. “I can’t understand a single word you’re all saying!”
For my grandmother’s 90th birthday, my entire family flew over to England to join in celebrating. One night early in our visit, my gran broke her Chinese takeaway fast and we ordered it in, packed into my aunt and uncle’s living room and told jokes for hours and hours.
My gran drank glass after glass of wine (the >£3 kind), laughing her head off as the rest of us, led by my brother, descended into a stream of joke telling we no longer bothered to clean up. Hours into the night, through tears of laughter, my grandmother confessed: “do you know, I can’t understand a single word you’re all saying!” It was the best punchline of the night.
At a funeral in which we were asked to please show up in bright colors wearing hats, my gran appeared at the door wearing this. No one had any idea where it came from, or how long she’d had it; but for the rest of the night we called her Svetlana.
10. “It’s too late though, right? It’s too late?”
My father once tried to top up Betty’s wine glass but she quickly put her hand over her glass and began to panic.
“Is everything okay, Betty?”
“When did Lent start? Did it start already?”
She was 90 at the time.
“I was going to give up wine for Lent!”
“I think it just started.”
“But it’s too late now, right?”
“It started five days ago, Betty.”
“Yes, you’re right” she said, waving my father on to continue his pour. “It’s too late. Shame.”