For Nan Jan
Love you always, Laura x
A lifetime of memories...
I’ve been writing with a lot of sadness over recent weeks. It’s been a difficult time, weeks of preparing to say goodbye to someone so special. Yesterday, that day came. I am heartbroken.
I started writing this some weeks ago. The day after my Nan Jan passed away, on the 1st September 2023. Since then the days have passed in a haze of sadness, but one thing that can be a comfort when we lose someone we love, is that we are never truly alone with this. Dying is one of the absolute certainties of life. It happens to each and every one of us, and with that, every single one of us will experience loss at some point in our lives. Even for those of us who spend our lives feeling so different to others, losing our loved ones is something that we do share with the wider world. It’s not an abnormality. Over recent weeks, I’ve spoken with friends, family members, my lovely cousin’s wife in Australia, who has become like an older guidance sister to me, and of course, J. People understand. They have lived it too. Grief touches us all.
Yesterday, we said goodbye through a beautiful ceremony with family coming together from across the country and beyond. It was truly so peaceful and really reflective of who my Nan Jan was. Her independent nature, her strong will, and her love of animals (over and beyond people every time). For the first time ever, I stood in front of a room of people and spoke some words that I wrote for Nan Jan, and read to her before she died. It is one of the most special things I’ve ever done, and I am truly honoured to have been asked to do so. I was terrified, but I did it because I know that she would have encouraged me. Above all else, my Nan Jan gave me courage. Courage to be myself.
- The courage we hold is that which our loved ones leave behind -
My Nan Jan was such a special person. One of the last things I told her was that she is one of the strongest women I know. She was truly inspirational. For that reason, I don’t want to use this space to talk about illness and dying, because this is not how I will remember her. I know that everyone who loved her will agree, that Nan Jan lived life independently, often in the wildest far-flung places, overseas, on boats, in caravans and in more recent years in her lovely little home on the coast here in Wales with her beloved four-legged companion, Cassie.
I don’t know the entirety of my Nan Jan’s life. I was still learning new things about her in recent weeks. That’s one of the nice things about being together when someone is passing. You come together as a family, cringe as it sounds it really is like a circle of love. Life is usually so busy. Family coming together like that only usually happens around Christmas or other annual events. But when someone is passing it can be a nice time too. You come together, you talk. You talk a lot and you share memories - things you didn’t know about each other and your loved one. I learnt that my Nan Jan was a creative, an artist. I didn’t know that before. The way I knew Nan Jan was quite different to that which I will come to shortly. But her creative side was something special about her. I recently found a cross stitch she made for me on my 7th birthday which is now on the wall beside my bed. It's a design of Benjamin Bunny. I had to read up on Benjamin, but seems he is a clumsy character, anxious, gullible and ‘comfortable being different’. I think she must have seen me at age seven, before I even saw myself.
My Nan Jan was a very private person. She didn’t like lots of fuss, photos, attention being drawn to her etc. She is the Nan who hid her Christmas presents down the side of the sofa, the Nan who always sat quietly listening to everyone else nattering away. She was happy to live quietly. I’ll never forget her smile when I spoke about my passions. I’d be talking to whoever about a new project or whatever I was doing at that time, and then I’d glance and she would be sitting there quietly with the biggest most encouraging smile. I’ll never forget that smile. She was beautiful. Although even saying that, if she was here now reading this she would say, ‘Oh, for heaven's sake Laura’. She was so funny.
1998 - In Scotland, revising for my exams with Nan Jan and my dad.
The one thing that has always stood out to me about my Nan Jan, how I will remember her and what I carry deeply in my heart is the childhood she gave us in Scotland. Scotland is difficult for me to write about clearly as it is such an emotional thing. Whenever I think about Scotland, so much flows back at once. I think about both of my grandads - Grandad Scotland (we always called him that) and Grandad Jack in Dumfries. The days of being young and carefree. Scotland is me and my dad. It was his wilderness at eighteen and my emotional wilderness today. It was a huge part of my childhood, and a huge part of Nan Jan. When we recently went to Scotland back in March, it struck me hard. It was so beautiful. I promised Nan Jan before we went that I would bring back new pictures and memories for her. I joked with her in recent weeks that we all just needed to pack up the car and run away to the Highlands. We didn’t make that trip, in the end, we didn’t need to. We’ve a lifetime of memories from Scotland. It’s a place that is deep within all of our hearts. Nan Jan loved Scotland, for a long time it was her life with my grandad.
Nan Jan and Grandad Scotland lived on various farms across the northern Highlands. Some of these I only had recollection of through photos, but the place I hold most clearly in memory is their farm near Banff in Aberdeenshire. First, a little about my Grandad. He was a wild man. My dad tells me he would have been ‘fully signed up’ to Aunty Social World as he didn’t like living near people and would go to great lengths to find the most remote locations. My mum’s told me the stories of her and her siblings going off up to Scotland in childhood in the back of a van. Parking up and sleeping in the back if they hadn’t got to where they were going. My grandad was doing wildvan life years before it took trend as we see it today. I’m told this is what they did when they moved out to Spain some years ago. Sleeping in the car in the quest to find quiet. My grandad really didn’t pull any punches. There was a time when he was in a pub about to leave, and someone had blocked him in. He went back in and asked them to move, yet they refused so he went outside, got his crane and moved the car himself. I kid you not. There was another time when he demonstrated a new saw by going into a pub and sawing the bar in half. That was my grandad, wild. Yet his life in Scotland with my Nan Jan was a quiet one, just them and their animals. Minimal people.
When my Nan Jan and Grandad lived in Scotland, we would go to visit them regularly. All seasons, summer, spring, autumn and winter. There are so many memories but the simplest ones are how I will always remember Nan Jan. In the winter, I would get up early and go out with my Nan Jan to feed the calves. I felt a sense of pride in being allowed to do that at a young age, it was brilliant. I’d go and fill up the water barrel, hoisting it back into their pen and then giving them their food. They were such gentle creatures, their noses were dribble but they’d lick you and let you stroke them. It was the same routine each morning. After the calves, me and Nan Jan would also go and sort the pigs together. I don’t know if you have ever been in a pig pen but little pigs nibble little feet. Nan Jan taught me how to move through the pen and help her round up the pigs who needed vaccination. Then there were the evening routines. Nan Jan had baby chicks that had just hatched. They lived in a tiny little shed with an overhead heat lamp. I always remember that was something that was just me, Nan Jan and her big friendly sheepdog, Jodie. Jodie was huge, but he absolutely loved the chicks, he was very protective over them. Whenever we went into the chick shed, Jodie would come with us and just sit guarding them. It was lovely.
Nan Jan’s resident farm cat was a sweet, timid little tabby called Tigger-Puss. Tigger-Puss was very rarely seen. I remember Nan Jan saying that she would only come out if you were very quiet but I was already a very quiet child so that wasn’t a problem. We would go into a shed where the farm equipment was kept. There was this shelf by a hole in the wall which was quite high up. Nan Jan would sort the evening meal for Tigger-Puss at the same time as the three dogs, Jodie, Hannah and Midgie. Once the dogs had their helpings, Nan Jan would say, ‘Just wait now’. We’d stand there quiet as mice, the only noise being the dogs chomping down their dinner. Then, you would see her. She would creep out of the hole onto the top shelf and come down apprehensively, eyeing us and the dogs. Looking around, but if you kept quiet and just let her be she would then eat her food. My mum is quite loud so she never came to the Tigger Puss feedings. I don’t remember anyone else being there but Nan Jan, me and the dogs. So that’s why I want to share this memory, the joy that comes from quiet moments.
What I will always remember about Nan Jan is how she always encouraged me. I was a nervous child, and I’m still a nervous adult today. But Nan Jan pushed me to let go of fear. The best example of this comes from childhood memories of Flossie. Flossie was Nan Jan’s shetland pony, she was the calmest and most placid of ponies, so gentle. Riding didn’t come naturally to me. I’m quite clumsy and I remember being scared of falling off. To this day, I’ve sat in the saddle on many horses but I’ve never cantered, galloped or attempted any jumping. It terrifies me. Flossie was a brilliant pony though, she was so calm and completely ‘bomb proof’. Everyone in our family has a beloved memory of Flossie, she’s a family legend. Nan Jan taught me how to tack her up with her saddle and bridle and would then take me off for a hack around the farm, the dogs bounding around us. On one of these rides, Flossie had a foal to foot, he was a lovely little thing called Rufus. There are some photos of this, some of the only pictures I have of Flossie but they are so special. Even when I was scared, Nan Jan would continue to encourage me, reminding me that I would come to no harm. We’d talk about riding later in the evening, sitting around the kitchen table. My mum and Nan Jan both chatting with me, helping me to develop my confidence. Tomorrow was always a new day.
In later years, Nan Jan and Grandad had temporarily moved to a farm in the hills, somewhere near Welshpool. This memory is so special. As it was closer to home, home being Shropshire at that point, we often used to take day trips to see them there. There was this one day when we had gone up for a trip at the same time as my Uncle, Aunty and my cousins. I remember there was a lot of commotion partway through the day. At the time I didn’t know what was happening as I’d been off exploring with my cousins finding pot eggs and whatever else we could come across. I remember that we were told to ‘stay out of the shed’. I had no idea what was happening in the shed but I remember thinking it must be something very serious and potentially upsetting. But then Nan Jan appeared with our mums and they shared something that I will never forget. A new foal had been born. A new addition to our family. This new arrival was a beautiful newborn thoroughbred, a boy. I was standing with my Nan and the dogs one day looking out at him enjoying being out in the field. Nan Jan was considering names, and I said, ‘Do you think he looks like a Rupert Nan Jan?’. She smiled in thought and said ‘Yes, I think he might well be a Rupert’. And that is what Nan Jan called him, Rupert.
When my grandparents moved back to Scotland, baby Rupert had grown into a strapping young colt. My best most awesome memory of Rupert and perhaps Scotland overall, is sledging. This memory is one that I’ve spoken about widely with family. It’s a simple story but such a beautiful one too.
As we all know, Scotland has serious snow. We were up visiting one winter, at the farm near Banff. It was a really cold winter, I remember the snowfall being up to our knees in places. We were kids after all. I was around eleven at this point. Up and out early one day whilst everyone else was still in bed and Nan Jan and Grandad were out doing the morning farm jobs, I took my sledge out to the field. This field was perfect for it, huge, with lots of big hills. You could see for miles with not a soul around. It was so quiet too. There was very little traffic out there, not even the sound of a distant tractor at that time in the morning. I only had one companion in that field, that day, Rupert. I took my sledge to the top of the highest hill and went flying down to the bottom. The snow was so thick it was the kind that you just glided over as a child. As I reached the bottom of the hill I heard a soft neigh and sudden movement. I looked up and there was Rupert beside me, wanting to join in with the fun. As I walked back up the hill, Rupert walked up beside me, and as we reached the top he turned around and cantered back to the bottom. He stood there looking up, waiting patiently for me as I sledged back down the hill. I walked across to another hill and exactly the same thing happened, I chose a spot to sledge, Rupert watching me from the bottom, waiting for me. It was as though he was joining in the game, but also protecting me. It was a big field away from everyone and everything - not so much that it was unsafe but if anything had happened like an avalanche or something equally as wild, I know Rupert would have saved me that day. He was Nan Jan’s boy, a truly beautiful boy. Nan Jan always enjoyed this memory, that’s why I wanted to share it.
If you haven’t realised this already, a large part of who Nan Jan was and how she will live on through our memories of her is through her love of animals. Nan Jan was someone who truly loved and appreciated the animals who gave her so much companionship throughout her life. The final few words I want to share about Nan Jan is her love for her best friend and closest companion, a very special girl who never left her side. Cassie is a beautiful dog. She came to be with Nan Jan all the way from Romania. We don’t know Cassie’s entire story, but what we do know is that Nan Jan gave Cassie the love that she needed. Nan Jan was Cassie’s protector, encouraging her to find herself, away from her past life. Previously so timid, Cassie has developed confidence and become such a happy dog. Quiet, gentle, calm and loves treats. It’s Nan Jan who healed Cassie, held her, nurtured her and gave her so much love. Cassie did the same for Nan Jan also. They had such a special bond, just the two of them living quietly together. They were best friends. Their relationship really shows who Nan Jan was, a quiet nurturer who loved animals. But also, someone who encouraged others to come away from their fears, to not be afraid, as in the end things will be ok. This is something that will stay with me.
These are just my own memories of Nan Jan. If you were to go and speak with my aunty, mother or any of her grandchildren (there are around fourteen of us altogether including great-grandchildren now), there would be lots of different stories. Some are similar to mine, some completely different. She was truly inspirational, living life in her own way. I’m going to miss her so much. We all are.
Just to finish with a beautiful song that I've listened to a lot of late.