One week ago.
Mentally, I'd prepared. And I'd prepared. There were the words - mastered them, but moreover, there'd be the faces - taut, teary, and the small gestures - hands to hands, and further tissue comforts - these could be my undoing.
Following a potted biography of Elspeth, and a brief spiritual (biblical) line - during which I'd been observing the gorgeous leafy vistas from where I sat, I accepted the introduction of HeWhoI'dInitiallyRecoiledAt, for what he anticipated would be a more personal account of Elsie.
Slowly stepping up to the podium, taking the script from the inside pocket, I thought, 'Right, you will do this - a wobble or two is fine, but you will do this'. And, with the addition of a few unscripted lines - [marked as such] - it went something like this:
(I glance at those gathered - there is a general stoniness. My cousin proffers a smile - though I may not have seen her in a decade, her non-verbal support is invaluable. She hasn't changed much in the past decade, despite the children. I lay the script before me - a useful prompt, a steadier of nerves, a safety net.)
'[I've a friend in Staffordshire who advised me against looking at any of you who might be having a hard moment during this piece - your tears possibly being my undoing, kind of thing. Right now, I'm feeling that that friend was exactly right. So if you'll forgive me, I may be speaking to the carpet, at times.]
The few words words that I have to say come from a perspective of having seen a lot of my grandma for the first twenty two years of my life, but having seen much less of her over the past twelve years. These words were put together during a couple of long train journeys, just over a week ago, after speaking with my mum, dad, brother and sister, about qualities that typified Elsie - about who she was, and how she was - to us and for us.
As HeWhoI'dInitiallyRecoiledAt has [so elegantly] recalled, Elsie was a giant when it came to the care of my grandfather. That itself was a commitment that spoke more deeply and loudly of the kind of woman that she was, than could any words that I'd generate for you today. [That said, I'll not be put off trying.]
I think it's entirely fitting that George should be invoked, now, as I think that to a lot of us, Elsie at her best was Elsie with George not far away. And vice versa. To me, it's pleasing and romantic to imagine their being reunited somehow - catching-up - in good health and good cheer, probably sharing a late fish and chip lunch somewhere.
But not only was Elsie a chip-eating giant when it came to the care of her husband and family, for whenever the sporting moment allowed, she would describe herself as having been something of a giant on the netball court too - 'I was a goal shooter', she'd say, with an accompanying arm action and sound effect that I'm sure spoke only of sporting prowess. [And as small a detail as that may seem, it's an important one. As perverse as it may seem, upon hearing of my grandma's death, there was something oddly freeing in how I thought of her - it was like I was suddenly reminded of what a well woman - a vital woman - she'd been for the vast, vast majority of her life. No longer were my thoughts of her tied to the woman with the ailing frame who'd seen her days out at the community hospital and latterly at NineFields.] I mention the netball - we used to catch-up on various sporting matters, but as has been said already, her real passion was family and friends. That was the subject that generated the easiest and most energised talk. From my catching-up with the old bird, over the past decade or so, I'd like to share a few thoughts:
(From practicing, I knew this would be the toughest 'wall' within my piece.)
(A pause, a long pause. I can't look at the family. For a moment, I wonder whether my mum is fidgeting and about to suggest that I throw the towel in on this. That thought produces sufficient resistance to that idea, to nudge me on - slowly.)
[This, for me, is the hardest part of the speech.]
My grandma saw my brother, Mac,...
[In my head, right now, there's all kinds of violin music and... I don't know what.]
She saw my brother, Mac, for exactly what he is... he is big and bluff, and he was superb at entertaining an ailing elderly woman. Elsie would often remark on how he made her laugh. This was of immense importance, in ensuring that she would retain a kind of dignity and humanity, especially in recent years, as her body began to fail her. It was much the same sort of thing that she'd assured for George, through his final days.
Of my mum and dad, and Richard and Jean, she almost didn't have the words to express how glad she was of all of your love and all-round support - which I know came in many forms, could be tremendously taxing, but was always given over without hesitation. I can recall, quite vividly, our sitting in the front room at Roseberry View, and her mention of 'They're good to me' - and I know that she felt the understatement of those words. [I also remember her once whispering - not even so much to me, but more as a thinking out loud, 'I want them to know that' - the kind of line that stays with you, stayed with me. I know you know all this, but I don't think it does any harm to have it mentioned out loud.]
When it came to my sister, Amy, there was something quite broad that was communicated. Simply put, it was happiness - she seemed to be quietly impressed and amused, as she recounted the latest from my sister's time in Sunderland and Newcastle. That amounted to a definite pride in the independence - it produced the kind of glow that I'd earlier witnessed in her commentaries on Jayne (Elsie's second granddaughter - died 1998, aged 24).
And that pride thing is important - the thing that enabled her to walk tall and stand tall - that never left her. (Holds photograph aloft) It was captured perfectly in this photograph from Daisy (eldest grand-child) and Tom's wedding - here on the left, the well turned-out woman, standing tall. [I like this picture, too, for the fact that it has George in it.] [The photograph is also testament to the fact that, with age, Tom's hair improves.]
And finally, I'd just like to share one further object with you. (Holds aloft small knitted doll - niece who created it scrunches face in embarrassment.) [Bianca has no reason to look embarrassed - as with the photograph, it's not about the object, it's about what it represents.] I know that this doll was created by Bianca, and was given to Elsie as a gift. I know this, because during the last couple of visits that I made to my grandma, despite her having little strength or energy to talk, she let me know who made this, and how much she appreicated it. More broadly, this reminds me - reminds us - that my grandma really did appreciate those acts of thoughtfulness and kindness that came her way - whether [flowers from her sister, Joan,] a knitted doll, or the old-skool good neighbourliness of her neighbour, Diane, in Church Hamlet. I notice that Diane is here, today, and I'd just like to say that not only was your support valued by Elsie, but it was also a big comfort to many of our family, knowing that you were looking out for my grandma. So, thank you, Diane.
With that, before we end the service with the imminent closing of the curtain, and outplay music, I will state something that is entirely obvious. We're here today, to say a final farewell to - and to give thanks for, and to, Elsie - a proud woman, a woman of good humour, and a woman who deeply weeply appreciated family and friends. Amen.'
(I raise my head, glance over at the coffin, and on cue, the curtains close and the music plays.)
As I step down, HeWhoI'dInitiallyRecoiledAt shakes my hand and pays a compliment.
I join the procession exiting the crematorium, alongside one of my cousin's children. There is a fervent tap on my shoulder. I turn to see the outstretched hand of Richard, my grandmother's son. I put my hand into his, and he says 'Excellent, absolutely excellent'. That meant a lot.