One of my favourite little pearls of science, is the theory that women are born with their lifetime supply of potential eggs. I love sentimentalising this little bit of information because, like matryoshka dolls, traces of my mother and me were stored within my grandmother’s body as she grew inside her mother, my great grandmother. The female line is remarkable.
In 1923, the year that the BBC first broadcast the chimes of Big Ben and the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed, allowing women to finally divorce their adulterous husbands; in the Wirral, to parents Mary and Joseph (apt because they were big fans of religion) Katie was born, carrying a little bit of my mum and her sisters, my cousins and me.
When England went to war, Katie finished school and started her teacher training (she was the third of six kids, but her younger sister was considered cleverer, so she was backed for university). Katie’s war effort was to undertake fire watching shifts. At Dunkirk, her elder brother went missing, feared dead: he returned home on the day of their youngest sister’s funeral; she died aged eleven from rheumatic fever.
In 1952, Queen Elizabeth took over from her father; that same year, Alan Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” and agreed to oestrogen treatment – simply because he loved a man; Bill and Ben debuted on BBC Kids TV and Agatha Christie’s record breaking Mouse Trap stage run began in London. In Germany that year, Katie met the love of her life, Henry. The way they spoke of the time they met is the closest a sceptic like me will ever get to believing in love at first sight.
When they married, Henry’s mother imparted a grand golden nugget of advice: “Never be able to do anything.” But Katie did many things. As head teacher, she campaigned and raised funds to have a unit built for pupils with spina bifida, seeing no reason that they shouldn’t be able to attend mainstream school. She also devised a Maths teaching scheme that was rolled out across all of Surrey County Council’s schools. She had her first daughter at the (by standards of the day) ancient age of 35. Her second and third daughters were twins – she only realised she was getting two for the price on one on the day she went into labour. Her fourth daughter was born when she was 39.
In her later years, Katie would quote Larkin to me – the only time I’d ever heard her swear, albeit in a whisper: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do”. She was conservative and could be quick to disapprove. When my mum became pregnant with me and before marrying my Dad (a guy much older from a fishing village in the south of Italy), Katie couldn’t cope with the ‘unconventionality’ of it, that went against all her beliefs in traditional relationships. So, she made the choice not to attend their wedding and couldn’t speak to my mother until after I was born. My parents never bore a grudge – and although I pray that there is never a dogma that would cause me to snub my children: I know that families can forgive. I was her first grandchild. Years later, as we excitedly prepared for the birth of my third brother, only for news of his stillbirth to infiltrate our household, Katie stayed with me, day and night – knowing that this would make its own imprint in my ten-year-old consciousness – that one day the experience may affect my own maternal anxieties.
Her home was a key part of my childhood, and my memories are filled with homemade Victoria sponge, Easter egg hunts, baby cousin after baby cousin, our self-directed plays, stories and more stories. I will always remember her pink bed sheets; the smell of her hand cream that she applied every night; the plastic tubs we had our baths in, in the garden on a balmy summer evening; the fancy dress box in the bedroom that was covered in primrose yellow walls and yellow floral upholstery; pots of tea; the way she’d sleep in the garden with a straw hat over her head; cucumber sandwiches, ice lollies made from orange juice, chocolate buttons and lemonade.
One of her most infectious characteristics was her ability to hold people up and relish in their achievements. She called a spade a spade, so her compliments were not arbitrarily dished out to make people feel better about themselves; she was always ready to give endorsement, but her approval had to be earned. Consequentially, I was always keen to prove myself and keen for her to wax lyrical about my accomplishments. She taught me the importance of raising others up, especially women (if only I’d put that more into practice during my teenage years, instead of bowing down to insecurities and competitiveness). She had a ferocity that I both feared and adored – I loved debating with her, trying to shock her – she was almost immune to jolt tactics (or so she let on). We differed acutely on some big social issues, but I learned from her that even if people deeply disagree, and even if I find it hard to accept: difference in opinion must be respected.
People of all ages loved talking with her. Even as her body became frail – her mind remained sharp, as did her contagious laugh and sense of humour. She couldn’t abide people talking down to her because of her mature years. During the last months of her life, I once drove her to church on a wintery Sunday afternoon. My clapped out old car had the suspension of a Victorian horse and cart – so, I was thankful that I’d managed to get her there without fracturing any of her fragile bones. I congratulated her for successfully getting out of the car as though it was one of the biggest achievements of her life. She didn’t hold back at demonstrating her annoyance at my manner, at the way I’d patronised her. And rightfully so – we should never patronise our elders, they have always done far more – and we will one day stand in their shoes.
International Women’s Day makes me think of the women I’m grateful for: Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Stopes. The women I wish I’d known: the Brontë sisters, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Agatha Christie. The people and women I look up to now: Jill Soloway, Chimamanda Adichie, Michelle Obama, JK Rowling, Cass Bird, Cecily Brown, Jane Campion, to name but a mighty few. But really, the most inspirational women in my life are those closest to home – their stories aren’t well known, they are only small. They say it takes a village to raise a child. The only reason I have a clue in terms of how to raise my own children is from watching my aunts with theirs. They say it takes a village to raise a child – my village comes from Katie.
Katie would have backed these initiatives if she was around today:
Plan International: a children’s charity that strives to advance children’s rights and equality for girls all over the world.
Young Women’s Trust: supports and represents women aged 16-30 struggling to live on low or no pay in England and Wales and who are at risk of being trapped in poverty.
Shine: provides specialist support from before birth and throughout the life of anyone living with spina bifida and/or hydrocephalus, as well as to parents, families, carers and professional care staff.