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Last week I got a phone call I knew I would have to face some day: My Grandma Francisca had died.

Stuck on the other side of the world the only contribution I could make to her funeral were a bunch of flowers and a few heartfelt words. It didn't feel like enough, not to mark such an extraordinary life, and had there been more space on my Interflora card, I would have filled it with these words.

My grandma was an extraordinary woman, born and raised in a time of chaos:

During the Spanish Civil War, her family joined the 100,000 strong “Caravan of the Dead” who escaped Malaga along the coast road dodging air attacks and navy bombardment. In later years my grandma was still haunted by some of the things she had seen during that journey, especially the young girl she saw die after being hit in the neck by shrapnel.

As a newly-wed she was evacuated to Central London where she lost her first born. Two years later she gave birth to my dad while hundreds of V-1 bombs were raining down hell on the city around her. 

When her young family eventually came home to Gibraltar after the war, she put her faith in her husband’s dreams and went to Argentina in search of a better life: They returned nine months later.

She kept home in Gibraltar in a repurposed Nissen hut with a tiny kitchen built from reclaimed wood and water collected in buckets from a central distribution tap. Entertainment was listening to my granddad reading from some dog eared romantic 19th century novel while they huddling by the stove. That kind of behaviour makes it curious that my father was never blessed with siblings.

He wasn't, and after being widowed in her forties, she continued to raise my dad alone.

Of course I don’t remember any of that.

I remember a woman who scared the bejesus out of me as a child. We didn't see her as often as my mum’s parents, her voice was loud, and rough and the language barrier between us made it hard to connect: We stumbled through conversations awkwardly, looking for common ground and finding little.

There was also the small matter of the shelf in her bathroom, stretching wall to wall and covered with a curtain: I was convinced for many years that this was the last resting place of my grandfather. I'm not sure what put the idea in my head to start with and had I asked I would have been shown it was full of washing powder and bathroom cleaner but it’s not an easy thing to crowbar into conversation.

In my teenage years, I saw her even less, but our relationship reached a turning point when she taught me how to cook.

She didn't, she just thought she had.

Truth was I was a regular cook at home and when she asked me to help her one lunch, I took the frying pan confidently and set to work. I remember her gestures, her caricatured nodding and her shouting updates to the assembled family while she stood, hands on hips, beaming. Dad came to the kitchen door and we exchanged conspiratorial grins, both of us happy for her to have her moment of pride.

The cruel irony was that as soon as we had reached an age where we could find any part of the common ground we had lacked in my childhood, senility took away the grandma I knew.

For nearly a decade I was a complete stranger to her as she lived her life in a happier time: One where her son was at school and husband was at sea.

I stopped visiting her because she was convinced that I was her (despised) sister and it hurt me to sit in the corner of the room with her glaring at me for some unknown slight.

Her senility meant that I was never able to share my marriage or my children with her.

I was never able to ask her about the son she lost or grieve with her as a fellow mother. I couldn't ask her about her childhood or compare our shared adventure of starting a new life in a country far from home.

I'm fairly sure we could have filled many days talking about those things.

My sentimental heart hopes that now she is free from her earthly body she can finally see the legacy she has left behind.

I hope she can see the characteristics she has passed down to us: I'm talking of course about the iron will, the bravery, and the tendency to be overly loud when nervous.

And the awesome teacups. Yes, definitively awesome teacups.


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