I was scared of her; this tall, aristocratic woman who believed children should be seen and not heard. This day she sat in her usual carver chair at the head of that solid oak table, carving chunks of cheese with a fierce looking cheese knife and layering it lavishly onto fresh white buttered bread.
She ignored me as if I’d forgotten to come.
My five-year-old heart beat fast as I kept my eyes focused on my vegemite sandwich. It was the longest lunch I can remember. I hated the silence almost as much as I hated the rose covered cheese dish with its square china lid that seemed to be far more endearing to my grandmother at that moment than I did.
She didn’t fit the picture of a grandmother that I held in my imaginative mind, warm, cuddly and full of fun. She came from British stock and the story goes that somewhere in her lineage was a duke or an earl. It seems to make sense as her table was always set with the best china, stiffly starched serviettes and silver serviette rings. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
The table was the centrepiece of the formal dining room of her very grand house. Everything was large including the dining chairs. My feet dangled helplessly high above the floor and not much more than my nose peaked above the tabletop. It was not a table designed for children but then I doubt my grandmother was designed for them either.
It was a modest home but my memories of meals around that table are filled with warmth and fun. My grandmother was an exceptional cook. I still remember her apple and blackcurrant pies and the way she cooked fish to perfection. Her Christmas pudding was a rich, dark, moist, dense slice full of joy, sprinkled lavishly throughout with threepences and topped with custard made the way only a Welsh woman can. Somehow I always had room for an extra slice of pudding in the hunt for yet another threepence.
She made baking-dish sized cakes in her postage-stamp sized kitchen; in fact I can’t imagine how she turned out such a volume of food from such a small space. Her table groaned with food, there was abundance and more to spare.
And while good food hangs in my memory whenever I think of her, it is the warmth and joy that flourished whenever we shared a meal around that table that I remember best. She was a woman who had been tried by life.
She spent her working life ‘in service’, brought up four of her siblings when her father was left alone, and endured the hardship of life on the coalfields. She lost 2 daughters, one at 10 days and the other at 10 months and as if that wasn’t enough, she lost a son in WW11.
I sensed in her a sadness that she had never quite overcome. Yet, unlike my maternal grandmother, she still gave of herself abundantly in the generosity of her table. She wasn’t given to frills and flounces and her table held no fancy cheese dishes, starched serviettes or silver serviette rings but children were welcome and memories were made.
Somehow the simplicity of that scrubbed pine table filled with home cooking, mirrored the image of this five-foot-nothing, unassuming woman from the Welsh valleys who had experienced life in all its rawness and yet continued to give to those who met around her table.
Two women from very different ends of the spectrum, mirrored in their tables like snapshots in my album of memories.