Something had been bothering me – something irritating. I’d noticed it when I was putting my socks on earlier and I noticed it again when I got home and took my shoes and socks off; my toenails were long. They were starting to catch my others toes. And it was annoying me. ‘Right, that’s it, where are the little scissors, I’m cutting them now,’ I said. Or at least thought it in my head. But – wait a minute – no, you have to stop! Put those scissors down immediately! You can’t cut your toenails today – it’s Sunday.
Oh right. Yeah. You see, my nan told me I wasn’t supposed to cut my toenails on a Sunday when I was little and so I don’t do it. Genuinely. Never.
Weird? Yep. Irrational. Absolutely. Do I even know why? Nope. But I still adhere to that weird little rule to this day. I assume it’s roots lie in some kind of ludicrous religious misappropriation – don’t mess with the body of Christ on God’s day (the nail of Nazareth!) or something like that. Which is strange, because I don’t believe my nan was even religious. But, either way, this sacred nail-based weekend ritual has been a part of my life for a good 25 years or so and I’m not about to change it. Why? There’s definitely an element of my Freudian superego at work – regulating my actions on nan’s behalf; I neither want to disappoint her nor break the rule and risk something bad occurring (classic obsessive compulsive behaviour). But it’s also a little piece of nothingness which helps me to remember my nan – and that is something I’m just not prepared to give up. It’s silly. It’s dumb. It makes no sense. But it’s also special. To me.
Today (when I first posted this) is 24 September – my nan’s birthday. Davina ‘Dinah’ Naysmith died on Tuesday 21 November 2017 after a brief but tumultuous battle with bone cancer. Her funeral was held in her home town of Tranent in East Lothian (near Edinburgh) – the town in which she lived her whole life – on 5 December. She was surrounded by a strong contingent of family and friends – including her daughter Laraine (my mum) and her sons Jimmy and David. We held a a wake at The Brig pub in Tranent that evening and, in true Scottish style, got absolutely blootered. I performed Take That’s Rule The World on karaoke. It was not good.
Memory and association
It’s funny how such a seemingly inconsequential memory about cutting one’s toenails can have such a wider impact. It’s a sobering thought when one ponders the vast well of conscious and unconscious memories stored deep in our cerebral vaults. Each memory ties to the next in an endless network of correlated signs and symbols – one stirs up another, which leads to something else, which takes you into a different tangent, which opens up a new pathway.
Similar themes are beautifully illuminated by Jacques Derrida in his (somewhat daunting) Deconstruction theory; it’s all about the depth and variety of meaning and association in language – “there is nothing outside of the text”, he famously suggested. It doesn’t just apply to writing, but rather all forms of communication – and Derrida’s suggestion is that there are different truths behind everything we read, write and say. Just think about how often you say one thing but think another – Deconstruction aims to plough the depths of texts to uncover true meanings. There is always more than meets the eye – there are always things beneath the surface, beyond the superficial level, which give you a truer reflection of the reality.
I just realised that I literally did what I was talking about briefly there; I went off on a tangent fuelled by memories of things related to what I was previously writing about. Isn’t the brain just marvellous! Well I’m about to do it again – because before returning to my wonderful nan, I just want to recommend a little (huge) read on memory. Marcel Proust’s much lauded masterpiece A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (In Search Of Lost Time Volume 1: Swann’s Way) has a gorgeous passage on memory. It’s a pretty famous excerpt – the young narrator recalls the complex sensations involved in basically eating tea and cake (a Madeleine to be precise).
But I really can vouch for its beauty – it felt like a good 100 pages on the overwhelming sensory experience of eating a nice treat. It’s the kind of ‘needless rambling’ (I don’t actually think this) that would’ve had the great phenomenologist Edmund Husserl turning in his grave (this is a joke – Husserl’s aim was to reduce sensory experiences down to their purest forms by removing superfluous associations through a technique called bracketing. I’m sure he actually loved Proust). Anyway, if 100 wonderfully constructed and beautifully written pages on the associated memories and recollections inspired by a nice piece of cake floats your boat, give it a whirl. If not, let’s at least agree that memory is a fascinating area of interest. It’s a Sunday, I want to cut my toenails, then I remember that ridiculous rule my nan set, then I start thinking about my nan, and then I have a smile on my face because I start to recall some of her other quirks. Sometimes there is great joy to be found in the superfluous.
All quirk and no play
I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to write about my nan when I started this post. We had a troubled relationship at times, and that is something I will briefly explore, but on the whole I wanted this to be a positive piece and I’m hoping that revealing some of her oddities might help the reader recall some of their grandparents’ (and other lost loved one’s) quaint and hilarious irregular beats. Thanks to my mum and sisters for their assistance in compiling this list – there were things we could all remember, and things that seemed to be particular to each of us. What this demonstrates is that it’s important to tap into your Genuinity and share your feelings and experiences with those close to you – because otherwise you might just end up missing out on something wonderful; no matter how small or insignificant it might appear.
When I was a kid, my nan spent a fair bit of time living with us and helped to look after me and my sisters. She had three pet chihuahuas in that time – Kirry, Midge and Pixie. Kirry was a right bastard who always bit me – I am led to believe he was a very impressive 16 years old when he finally died and was totally blind by then; his tongue used to stick out the side of his mouth and he would stumble around banging into furniture. He never stopped biting me though – it just became a bit more gummy when all his teeth fell out. Midge was a lovely fella – he had a heart of gold. Pixie was a lazy bitch – literally and figuratively. My nan used to feed them roast chicken for dinner every day – I genuinely believe their dining habits were superior to mine in the early 90s.
The hand of vod
Apparently when my nan used to come stay with us, my dad would say, ‘the exorcist is coming’ – because every time she visits the spirits disappear. He had a good sense of humour. And my nan did like a drink. Vodka was her preferred fuel of choice, and I saw her glug a few glasses of Russia’s finest over the years. Whenever I questioned her on it in her later years, she always insisted she’d stopped drinking. ‘I only ever have one,’ she’d say. Not true. And when she did have her ‘one’ drink – ‘Not too much Coke, mind’. True.
There were other strange Sunday-based restrictions – you only wore your good clothes on the final day of the week (seems churchy to me again) – and no-one was allowed in the parlour except when they had guests. And then there was the one about eating crusts – if you didn’t eat your crusts, you wouldn’t have curly hair – I’m pretty sure that’s a result of asymmetrical follicles, but I still eat my crusts to this day. And I don’t even want/have curly hair. Also, if you tried to refute her arguments or change her opinion with science, reason or facts that she didn’t like, she’d just say, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that… sorry!’ You can stick your asymmetrical follicle nonsense, now hand me those sandwiches.
You’re not allowed to put new shoes on the table according to my nan. Old ones are fine though – where’s the logic there? She loved going shopping – for messages as she called it – and her house was full of (how can I say this delicately?) – crap. She had tea cosy-style toilet-roll covers with dolls on the top – seriously. When my mum tried to throw away her old out-of-date tins of food, she’d wait til the coast was clear and then fish them all out of the bin and take them ‘Ben the scullery’ (into the kitchen) again. She didn’t trust the banks (actually quite reasonable in hindsight!) and so kept a fairly sizeable amount of money hidden in little pots, tubs and secret crannies all over her house (even under the floorboards).
She started doing that when my mum was a kid to stop my papa (grandad) spending it all on booze (he always found it though). Apparently back then she used to keep some in the fridge and some in the washing machine, and once laundered (washed, not stole) £500 by accident! Nan loved my papa, Jim Foy, with all her heart, but they undoubtedly had a troubled relationship. Apparently she once dyed his hair green and also saved his life when they were younger – apparently he was drowning and she was a great swimmer. My mum says she always regretted it (half joking). She actually stole my papa off her best friend, too – and also regretted that (probably not joking). When my papa, Billy (an ex-lover) and Walter all died within three weeks of each other, nan was visited by three crows soon after – and was adamant it was the trio returning from the beyond to check on her. She really loved to care for animals and fed the birds that dropped by her garden every day.
She also loved caring for her plants, too – once, my uncle Jimmy gave her some seeds which she thought were tomato seeds. It’s fair to to say she wasn’t best pleased when some time later it was revealed she had cannabis growing in her garden. Nan hated drugs. But she did love a Bailey’s. With one ice cube. We’ll be having a Bailey’s in her honour this evening hopefully. I love Bailey’s, too.
Sixpence none the richer
My nan was pretty well off when she was a girl – her dad used to drop sixpence pieces for her and her sister Gemma to pick up as they walked along. But she never showed any signs of having a spoiled upbringing – she was conservative and thrifty with her spending and loved a bargain. My mum describes her leaving the family wealth to have a ‘shotgun wedding’ with my papa as her ‘riches to rags’ story. ‘I think that’s why she was such a Fagan with money and a total hoarder,’ says mum. The first time she met my papa’s parents (my great grandparents), my mum says they fed her sheep’s testicles and she threw up everywhere.
She could be bigoted at times and had deep-seated issues which brought her disharmony, but I don’t want to dwell on those things too much. I know many people in my generation whose grandparents had views which differed greatly from ours – she was a kind, generous person who loved her family and friends very much, and I think that a great deal of her flaws (and that’s only my opinion) were a result of the landscape of the era in which she grew up. Times can be tough – people are mistreated. It’s not easy to live an authentic, existential life – to take responsibility for the choices we make and realise that is us alone who have a will to power to be free – to embrace our freedom. The safer route is to pass the buck, to shift the blame – but existentialism is a humanism and we are all responsible for the choices we make; you don’t have to act spitefully, spread hate or abuse others. I appreciate our behaviours are greatly influenced by the things which happen to us over the course of our lives – but you always have the choice to be the type of person you want to be. Do not forget that. You are free to choose – that’s what makes you human.
My nan and I had a very different relationship to the kind which most of my peers have with theirs – for a start my nan was only 19 when she gave birth to my mum, so I knew her for more than 30 years. A lot of my friends seem to have been lucky if they even remember any of their grandparents, let alone get to know them as well as I knew mine. That of course meant that I knew my nan in a warts-n-all kind of way, and so we clashed a lot – particularly during my teenage years. She had been consistently mistreated by the men in her life – and this is something she often referred to after a few drinks. It saddens me greatly – it’s the kind of memory that will always inform my behaviour in regards to other people, but women in particular. Respect one another – treat each other kindly. Look after each other. Life is too short for abuse of any nature.
As a result, my nan didn’t always have a great opinion of men, and so that led to us having a strained relationship at times; I felt like my sisters were perhaps treated more favourably (which clearly wasn’t the case) and my nan also wasn’t the biggest fan of my dad. Even after we started to lose dad’s essence to dementia, she refused to show any sympathy for him (he did leave my mum to be fair) and that was difficult to deal with.
But no-one is perfect – we can all be stubborn; we all do and say things we know we shouldn’t. I don’t believe my nan was a bad person. In fact, I think she had a massive heart and her Genuinity flowed through the countless sacrifices and selfless acts she continually committed in order to care for her and look after her loved ones. For those of you who haven’t read my previous blog posts, Genuinity is a concept I have formed which refers to our essence; our inner voice. It is a childish, feminine energy which resides in all living beings; it connects us, it sustains us – it is our genuine entity, it is who we are. Our true selves. And this positive, life-affirming, compassionate quality was strong in my nan.
She dearly loved her children and their children – and their children. She had 14 great-grandchildren by the time she died, with another set of twins on the way! She had pictures of us all displayed proudly in her home – her kids, their kids and their kids. She never missed a birthday; never forgot to send a Clydesdale Bank tenner at Christmas. She spent countless hours looking after most of those relatives – particularly me and my sisters and my uncle Jimmy’s kids – Colin, Lorraine, James and Michelle. It wasn’t that common for women to work back then, but she did various jobs to put food on the table for her family when my mum and her brothers were young because my papa was often out of work. I wish my son Sammy had the chance to know my nan, because she was kind, loving and bloody hilarious – and I see a lot her exuberant, feisty qualities in him.
So let me take this opportunity firstly to say thanks for reading. And secondly, to extol a little virtuous advice – get to know your loved ones. Connect regularly with the people you care about. And create new, lasting memories so you can think about these special people, occasions and quirks later on in life. Because I promise you, it will bring a smile to your face. Let bygones be just that, don’t hold grudges, swallow your pride and don’t miss out on the chance to get to know people you care about over petty disputes. Try to act in Sartrean Good Faith and address issues if you have to – be honest with each other. But also be respectful. It’s often much easier said than done, but either way, be kind to each other. I’m so glad I got to know my nan as well as I did – through all the good times and the bad. I only wish I could’ve known all my other grandparents as well as I knew her.
If you’re reading this and your grandparents are still with us, make sure you cherish them, really get to know them and let them know you appreciate them. And if, like me, you have kids, make sure they get to know their grandparents in the same way. I love the fact that Sammy sees his Lolly and Pop (Pru’s parents) so regularly and that they are such a big part of his life. My mum and her husband Paul live in Spain, so it’s more difficult for them, but we know how much all of their grandchildren mean to them, and we won’t let our kids forget that. We will make sure that love lives on in our shared memories. We are all descendants of someone, and while I’ll always champion the importance of our existentialist free will, I also believe we are influenced more than we’ll ever realise by figures, like our grandparents, who bestowed their wisdom onto us in our formative stages.
Now is the time to create more of those special memories – of all the things that might stand in the way of your happiness, don’t let yourself be one of them. Here are a couple of lines from my mum’s eulogy, which she read out at nan’s funeral…
“Maybe this was not a fantastically, exciting life but it was a life rich in love, and in being loved by all her family and friends. People never die if they live on the lips of the living.”
And in our memories, too.