The Grandmother I Never Knew
My father had a stock of platitudes, phrases he always used in particular circumstances. The common ones, those that were the partners of frequently occurring situations, had the quality of catchphrases. I might call them aphorisms or, even better, apophthegms, for no other reason than that the words look impressive on the page and, to most people, actually suggest little in the way of meaning but do much credit to the writer; but for anyone who does know the meaning of these words, they imply that my father's sayings had truth and worth, when in fact they were merely clichés.
My father could not make an arrangement of any sort without 'touching wood'. It mattered not whether the event was intrinsically risky or safe, vague or very definite, involved him or was nothing at all to do with him; he could not allow the appointment to be made without employing this phrase. He used another platitude in similar circumstances which was: 'all being well'. He said this so often it was abbreviated to 'ABW'. Such abbreviations occur in the workplace to the bewilderment of outsiders and this was an example of our family jargon. Religious people sometimes say, 'God willing'; my father wasn't religious so I suppose this was his equivalent banality.
To me, phrases of this sort are expressions of superstition so I was surprised, and not a little amused, when my father, in reminiscing about his mother (the grandmother I never knew) once said he was jolly glad he wasn't superstitious. The context of this statement was that his mother had been superstitious; very superstitious. Touching wood was the least of it. One example was that she had engaged in an elaborate ritual to salute the new moon. I don't remember what the consequences were of not following this observance but most of these practices were essentially about Luck; as if Luck was a fickle spirit who, if she was not kept on side, had it in her power to dispense ill-fortune. It has always seemed sensible to me to avoid walking under ladders, especially if they are being used by butter-fingered bricklayers, and to refrain from opening an umbrella indoors, because, as the saying goes, you could have someone's eye out. On the other hand, my grandmother believed that both of these actions, health and safety considerations aside, would bring Bad Luck; likewise, a black cat crossing her path, seeing a penny and not picking it up, breaking a mirror, stepping on a pavement crack, and probably many others.
Now that I think of it, my childhood was littered with Wishes. If I did not make a wish as I blew out the candles on my birthday cake I was made to understand that I had missed a very great opportunity. My brothers and I fought like Romans to get hold of the wishbone from a cooked chicken; and yet, one of the pair who broke the bone would be left with the short end and the disappointment that his wish would never come true. My mother, a very sensible woman, would invite us to stir the Christmas pudding mixture and 'make a wish'. Into this mélange would go a silver thruppenny bit and, on Christmas Day, whoever found this coin in their serving, under a yellow tarn of custard, would be deemed 'lucky' (assuming they didn't break a tooth before holding it aloft in blessed triumph).
Thus, I considered my father to be superstitious. Clearly he did not operate at the level of his mother but it seemed to me he had been influenced by her far more than he cared to admit, and I thought myself rather a clever boy to have grasped this when he, by then a middle-aged man, was unaware of it himself. On the other hand my grandmother told fortunes and believed she had a gift.
"Did she use Tarot cards?" I asked excitedly, imagining a beautiful deck as used by the sinister cartomancers of old.
"No," said my father. "She used an ordinary pack of cards."
The usual method of telling fortunes with 'an ordinary pack of cards', and certainly the method favoured by my grandmother, was to shuffle the cards and arrange a small number of them in a 'Wheel of Fortune'. My grandmother used all fifty-two cards and the Jokers and each card individually had a meaning and a significance determined by the order they appeared in the wheel. Interpretation was a gift. I did not doubt it. Arrange the cards in front of any fool, I thought, and say whatever the hell you like! Forgive me, grandma. I did not know you and I was young. Besides, I'd just thrown off the constraints of religion and I wasn't about to fall for this claptrap.
"Well," said my father, confronting my youthful cynicism in his usual gentle way. "She had a small following. People believed in her readings."
Superstition is enchanting of course; we know it's a concoction but we'd like it to be true. Why else do we enjoy fairy tales? But here's the thing. Although people believed in my grandmother's readings and she was superstitious and believed she had a gift, there must have been something that held her back from believing in the cards one hundred per cent. Otherwise the following story makes no sense.
Mrs Brown called and asked my grandmother to read the cards for her. (I'm calling her 'Mrs Brown' although my father didn't remember her name and I have to call her something). They sat at the kitchen table. My grandmother shuffled the cards; Mrs Brown cut the cards; my grandmother placed eight cards on the table, face up in a rough circle. Death! Who knows what the cards were (my father didn't know) but the cards spoke Death to my grandmother. She pretended to be puzzled and told Mrs Brown she couldn't make sense of the cards. "I'll try again," she said. My grandmother shuffled the cards; Mrs Brown cut the cards; my grandmother placed eight cards on the table, face up in a rough circle. A different combination of cards but the same message. Death! My grandmother apologised and sent Mrs Brown away and promised to sit with her another day. Two weeks later Mrs Brown died.
"Hit by a bus?" I asked enthusiastically.
"No," said my father. "Some sort of cancer. Perhaps she knew she was ill."
After that my grandmother stopped telling fortunes.
"I think it frightened her," my father said, but this seemed an inadequate explanation if she had believed in Good Luck and Bad Luck and Wishes come true. If faith in her own gift had been absolute then why was she afraid? Clearly my father thought his mother had held back from telling Mrs Brown about her future to spare her the horror of this intelligence, but there is another explanation. Perhaps my grandmother was afraid she might be wrong; indeed, perhaps she'd been wrong before. In which case, this instance of authentic clairvoyance, beyond chance or coincidence, must have frightened her. Curiously, I realised this made her both a fraud and a genuine fortune-teller.