(Inspired by my Mum’s poem of the same name, which is reproduced with her kind permission below this article)
On June the 11th 1986, I went along to the poky offices of the Citizens Advice Bureau in Moorthorpe, between South Elmsall and South Kirkby in West Yorkshire, for my regular stint as a volunteer adviser. At the age of 24, I had two abortive stabs at Higher Education behind me, I’d gained a rather sketchy qualification in computer programming, and I’d worked as a hospital gardener and as an assistant school caretaker. The bright young lad from Ponte was off to an indifferent start to what has turned out an indifferent career. But I was still optimistic back then, and I assumed I’d serve a breezy apprenticeship in advice work, and then a CAB of my own would just drop into my lap, and I’d be set. CAB Manager somewhere, they’d promised; inspirational motivator and trainer of volunteers, solver of multifarious problems and crusading campaigner on burning social policy issues, that’d be me. Rob Atkinson: success.
That it didn’t quite work out that way is incidental to this tale, but such was the backdrop to this particular sunny morning. It was a watershed in my life for quite another reason though; for on that unsuspecting June day, my Nana Cawthorne died. She was not the first grandparent I’d lost – I’d already run out of Grandads. Nan’s husband, Walter Michael, had died relatively young in the early 70’s when I was a skinny rabbit of 10 or 11. He’d been an object of terrified fascination for me, prone to loud bellows, snapping his leather belt suddenly and shatteringly, rattling his false teeth at me with no warning, and holding forth stridently about his health problems, the ones that eventually got him (they stuck a tube up my arse, the buggers, and drained about two pints of blood out, two bloody pints!) When he died, my Mum was deeply upset, as you might expect, and we kids dashed upstairs in tears when we heard. For myself back then, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt, but it seemed polite to join in the weeping. I think I was too young to appreciate what a character Grandad Cawthorne was – he’d been a Regimental Sergeant-Major in the Army, and was a bit of a lad all round – so my main impression of him was his larger than life scariness. Years later, I wished I’d have known him when I was older and could have better appreciated him as a bloke, but at the time I felt more sympathy for my Mum than any real sense of loss myself.
My other Grandad – my Dad’s dad – had been a vaguely gentle sort of man, a pillar of his local Working Men’s Club and much given to pulling a wooden trolley behind him as he wandered around his neighbourhood. He’d bring it home laden with various bits and pieces which he’d then stash in his shed, hoping they’d be useful at some unspecified future date. He also used to draw busy farmyard scenes in blue biro, and I remember watching these take shape and being impressed in a one-step-removed sort of way – I was really more of a reader, myself. Harold Atkinson died in my mid-teens, his passing eased and attended by my Mum, dutiful daughter-in-law, through the wee small hours of a summer night. We boys were left at home, and my brother Gray and I got up really early, still unaware of Grandad A’s demise. We went for a walk down to the Rookeries to watch the sun rise – because we could – and nicked a pint of milk from someone’s doorstep on the way back, to make Angel Delight for breakfast. When I heard I was now Grandad-less, I once again felt a weird and slightly guilty sense of detachment – a feeling that this didn’t really involve me. They told me my Nana Atkinson’s reaction had been to say “Oh dear, who’s going to run my errands now?” which did evoke a regretful feeling that this wasn’t much of an epitaph.
So, two grandparents down, and I was starting to wonder if I had any finer feelings to hurt. I’d been more upset so far at the passing of various small pet rodents, than these actual bereavements where I’d lost close relatives who’d embellished all my childhood occasions. It seemed strange, and a bit worrying. I think I pondered over whether I was some sort of emotional black hole.
But my Nana Cawthorne was different. She’d always been my special ally in family squabbles, and we used to swap books and share our opinions. She’d sit me down in front of her chair when she came to visit, and tell me stories of her days as a young girl “in service”, as they called it – when she worked as a lowly maid in some rich house. She was from the south, and her accent was music to my ears – she’d talk away gently, knitting all the while, and I was mesmerised by the flow of her narrative, punctuated with knitting-needle clicks and the odd chesty cough – she was a compulsive smoker until her last days. Many, many afternoons passed happily by like this, and yet I can’t now, for the life of me, recall any of the tales she told. I think perhaps it was the tone of her voice, calm and soothing, with a gentle southern burr that delighted me. I just know I was always happy when she was around, content to sit on the rug before her bony knees, looking up occasionally at the thin face behind the flickering knitting-needles, with its folds of skin and rheumy eyes, the wispy cloud of grey hair. Yes, I certainly loved my Nana Cawthorne.
In the normal run of life, though, I saw less of her as I got older, and of course I was away from home for a couple of years, discovering that I was not cut out for academic life. Then there were various brushes with the world of work, and I was seduced by the twin Sirens of beer and amateur theatre which, between them, pretty much accounted for my social life in my young adulthood. There was football, too, and I was either playing it for a lot of the early 80’s, or rampaging around the country following Leeds United in a more or less well-behaved way. All this time Nan grew older and steadily more crotchety, so I heard. It felt natural that I saw less of extended family now I was busy with friends in different spheres, and it became an infrequent treat for me to see my Nan and catch up. After I’d stopped gardening and computing and caretaking, I drifted into voluntary work of various types as a reaction against the rigidity of the Thatcher government, always doing something connected to helping people in dire situations. As with most types of volunteering, the money was non-existent, but the satisfaction was great, and there were evidently prospects. I landed up in the Citizens Advice Bureau in my Nan’s village, so I’d see more of her into the bargain. Good move.
Nan had recently accompanied Mum and Dad on a camping holiday – I think it was shortly after she’d had to have a spell in a Residential Care Home because my aunt and uncle, with whom she was living, had been away. She hated the Home – and made no bones about the fact. She’d also been prevailed upon to stop smoking, because of the state of her lungs, and her generally frail condition. I still think that these two unavoidable factors were the beginning of the end for my Nan.
The camping holiday itself was not an unqualified success, as Nan was in a wheelchair by now, and needed a great deal of looking after. I think she also harboured a lingering resentment over her time in the Home – “that place” – and was not disposed, on that account, to be all sweetness and light. Whatever the whys and wherefores, it seems that all was not harmony, and my Mum was weary and disillusioned when they got home. The last time I saw my Nan properly – in an able-to-chat, compos mentis sort of way – was when she came to our house just as I was ready to go out somewhere. As she was getting through the front door, I was heading down the hallway, and I gave her a quick kiss and asked if she’d enjoyed the camping break.
“Not really, Rob,” she said. “It was all a bit too much.” I distinctly remember thinking this was a little ungrateful after all my parents’ efforts, and I brushed it off as I departed, saying, oh well, never mind, see you soon. How I’ve regretted that, ever since.
The next time I saw her was on that pleasant June day which proved to be Nan’s last. After getting to the CAB to start my advice session, I got a phone call from Mum, who was at my aunt’s house in the village – she told me that Nan was very ill, and I’d better get up there to say goodbye. In a bit of a daze, yet with a sense of occasion, I asked the manager, Joan – a very dear friend – if she’d come with me. And off we went to say a last goodbye to my lovely Nan, and again I had that unsettling worry over just how I was feeling.
When we got to the house, we were ushered straight up to Nan’s room, and there she was, in bed and virtually breathing her last. I looked down at her, and immediately felt the sting of tears in my eyes as I realised a big part of my life was about to slip over the edge into eternity. She was quite far gone, just about beyond the power of speech, but as I bent over her she opened her eyes slowly, and almost smiled. “Hello, Nan”, I whispered. Her eyes had closed again, and when I looked at Mum, she just shook her head slowly and sadly. Thinking there was not a great deal I could do, and wary of getting in the way of Mum and my aunts who were also gathered around in the small room, I edged towards the door, whispering to Joan that we might as well get back to the Bureau. “See you later, Nan”, I called softly. Her eyes didn’t open this time, but again there was almost a smile, and now she breathed a barely audible “Goodbye, Rob.”
My thoughts were tinged with slight embarrassment as I made my way downstairs, because I’d nearly cried in front of everyone, and that doesn’t sit easily at twenty-four. Suddenly though, I was aware of the most delightful, wonderful fragrance, really heady and overpowering, but absolutely beautiful. I turned to my aunt and smiled, “Blimey, Mags, that air-freshener’s gorgeous!” She gave me a puzzled smile back, but said nothing. Joan and I drove back to the CAB in that silence that you can have quite comfortably between good friends, and I got on with my day as best I could.
Later, in the afternoon, I got another phone call, from my Auntie Mags this time, telling me that Nan had passed away. No doubts now over how I felt, but neither the urge nor the need for showy tears. I just cuddled the hollow sense of loss, and thought back to that last time I’d seen her coming through the front door at our house. As I have many times since, I wished I could go back to that day and have a final good old chat with her, the way we’d done so many times before. It was my first real taste of the dry ashes of bereavement. I headed back to Mags’ house, alone this time I think. The time for goodbyes had been and gone, but I could hug my Mum and talk to everyone who’d been there as Nan faded out of this life. And I could see my Nan at peace. She looked, to me, almost unrecognisable. Her face had smoothed out completely, all the wrinkles and folds that a long hard life had written over her features had been relaxed away by death. She looked even smaller than she actually was, and very, very still. It was the first time I’d seen someone dead, and I was duly impressed by the sheer, awesome finality of it.
The following morning, I was back at the CAB, and Joan gave me a hug and asked if I was alright. I was fine, I said, and I was happy to be back at work, happy that my Nan was out of a life that had become onerous to her and happy that my Mum was preoccupied with sweet memories, rather than their occasional tiffs and fallings-out. Joan smiled, and then she asked me if I remembered the previous day, and going down the stairs after Nan had said goodbye. “You could smell flowers, or something just as nice, couldn’t you?” she said. I nodded my head; it was a vivid memory – I’d never known a scent like it. Joan smiled again, a little sadly. “Your aunt couldn’t smell anything you know, Rob, and neither could I. The hairs on the back of my neck stood right up when you said you could smell it. It’s supposed to be a sign that someone close to you is near to dying, but that they’re going on somewhere wonderful.”
It’s 27 years now, since my Nana Cawthorne died. From that day to this, it’s as close as I’ve ever been to a supernatural experience, and I’m still not quite sure I believe it – though it’s an experience that you can see has been shared by others, as a Google search will readily confirm. I can’t deny that I definitely did smell that overpoweringly beautiful scent, and that it took me aback – enough for me to remark upon it. I’ve known nothing like it, before or since. And I’m assured that it was an experience confined to me alone, undetected by anyone else. Was it my Nana saying goodbye, as she had in so many words just a minute before? Did she know that she was leaving us, and was she certain that she was heading off in glory to somewhere better? I just don’t know, but I like to think so.
What I am certain of is that my lovely Nan was at peace that day, and that she would have smiled that old familiar smile at me if she’d been able to – she tried, twice, but it was beyond her. That she somehow gathered the strength to say “Goodbye, Rob” is something amazing that I’ll always be grateful for. And I’d love to think that she’s somewhere beautiful right now, and that maybe I’ll see her again one day. These are things I just can’t make up my mind over – but being with Winifred the day she died has taken away from me any horror or fear of death itself. A gentler passing you could not have witnessed; I know this, even though I wasn’t there at the moment she left us.
Nan had it sorted, in the end. She always was of an independent spirit, and she seemed contented enough, that last day. She was ready, she’d had enough, and she went. Whatever the ins and outs of supernatural signs, and wherever she ended up, if anywhere, I honestly don’t think anyone could ask for more or better than Nan’s final moments, when their tide finally runs out.
Winifred’s still with me, too. Whenever I smell flowers on a warm summer’s day, I smile – and think of my Nan.
“When Winifred Died”
by Lesley Atkinson
On June the Eleventh, Winifred died
We sisters two, sat by her side
This is our mother, she’s dying we sighed
Our brother was waiting, our children were too
The cotton-wool clouds in the sky so blue
Were taking on shapes which blocked our view
Sometimes she was wicked, sometimes she was wise
Thinly-veined eyelids hid summer-blue eyes
She’s going, we said
She’s gone! we cried
The mother who tricked us so often, so sweetly
Had gone within seconds, and gone so completely!
We opened the window, her spirit rose free
Into the waiting sycamore tree
The sisters, the brother, the children all cried
The world lost a witch, when Winifred died
Thanks again, Mum xxx