Life stories; BRCA1.
Granny was talking once with a writer friend – an Israeli. When she told him she had never known any grandparents he said: ‘But who was there left to tell the stories?’
Yes. One reason Granny has had to resort to websites to find out about her mother’s family, in particular, was that she had no such input. The one grandmother she did encounter briefly was too old to tell stories; or maybe she never had told them.
On the other hand, on the side of the family without a single grandparent, there was one good storyteller; granny’s mother. Almost everything granny knows about her and her family in the past came from her - most of it related to her mother’s childhood, to the family members she encountered then. She too, like Granny herself, had only one living grandparent, the rich one, chairman of Lloyds, MP for Yarmouth, her mother’s father; whose second wife had seen to it that his first wife was written out of history more or less. Granny’s mother's own mother dead, she knew nothing about her grandmother. It took Granny herself much research to discover her name and when she died and what of; aged 31 and suffering from ‘congestion of the lungs’. According to her death certificate too, she was one-legged; for reasons that history presumably, never will tell.
On her mother’s father’s side, Granny’s great-grandfather was also one-legged; in his case history does relate; he lost his leg aged 18 in the battle of Alma, during the Crimean War. Could it be that Granny’s family tended to be a little careless with their lower limbs? He died in his 60’s well before his granddaughters were born. As for his wife, her mother’s other grandmother, she died aged 56. A significant age, given the family lurgy which almost certainly came down through her, Although her death certificate talks of ‘pneumonia’ and ‘dropsy’ – not a diagnosis which would be used by an doctor now – it seems likely that the underlying cause was the disease with which Granny and all her family is over well-acquainted; about which she has yet to write. Though she is advancing on it: oh yes she is. She must.
But not before passing on what she was told of her mother’s own motherless childhood. Of her ten schools; where she was always taken on out of pity for her motherless state much younger than she should have been, though no allowance for her youth was made thereafter. Her exercise books came back covered all over in red ink and 'must try harder.' Then there was the dreadful food –'northpole' pudding, made of gruel seemingly, water and gelatine; soup with rabbit fur floating in it. (Granny wonders how Beloved Granddaughter would have fared..) The horror of having her hair cut off by the school matron when she contracted scarlet fever; the disgustingness of something called Gregory Powder used to dose her when she was sick. The discomfort of her school uniforms, the heavy woollen underwear, the obligatory long black stockings. (When Granny herself adopted the latter in her beatnik days she was asked not to wear them by the school where she was teaching, on the grounds that they set the senior girls a bad example. So it goes.)
It was not a happy childhood. The highlight appeared to have been visiting their father on the ship he commanded during the First World War, where the officers made pets of his two young daughters. ‘We made them all apple-pie beds,’ Granny’s mother reported. There is a picture of the two sitting on the ship, officers’ over-sized caps jammed on their heads; both of them looking glum. Maybe it wasn’t such fun after all. The only thing that saved them somewhat was the adoption of the motherless little girls by their father’s two maiden aunts: lovely souls who made up for it as much as they could. Alas both of whom fell ill in their early fifties, this time for sure of the family doom, breast cancer. One of them died then and there. The other survived into her early 70’s. She continued to look after Granny’s mother till she was eighteen or so.
Granny was away at university when her mother started talking about the family problem; but only to her twin sister, who still lived at home. So she never learned just how frightened her mother was, always, of the same disease catching up with her her. And she was still at university when it did catch up with her. Some time during her last summer term, before schools, her finals, she was summoned to the pay phone in the hall of her hostel – no useful things like mobiles then. ‘Your mother has breast cancer,’ announced her father baldly. ‘She’s having a mastectomy.’ Granny had never heard more than vaguely of such a thing. She did not know for sure how dangerous it was. She was scared just the same. Though not for herself.
Her mother lived for nearly 3 years after that, the last nine months of her life under ever more horrendous treatments. She died aged 53. Her elder sister fell ill too a few years later and died in her late sixties.
Granny still did not fully take in the implications. Both her sisters she discovered subsequently spent their lives in a state of terror assuming that at the menopause this would be their fate too. She did not. As it happened she got hers anyway at the age of barely 40 and still lives to tell the tale a quarter of a century later, more or less. Her sisters both succumbed at 50; her twin survived a mere 18 months; her younger sister, much brasher, more robust, demanded a double mastectomy and is still flourishing – more than flourishing – she represented Australia in the Dragon Boat World Championships in Shanghai last year in their senior women’s boat; she’s like that.
In consequence of all this Granny at last, a few years back, took herself off to be tested in the genetics unit at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London for the BRCA1 gene.
(You will have to wait for the result, reader, till her next post; which will arrive for sure a good deal quicker than the result did. After 18 months to be precise. But don't worry, it's not going to be one of those 'poor little us' stories; let alone 'poor little me.' Heaven forfend.)