Annie: The most inspirational grandma I could have wished for

Annie Clegg, previously Annie Cummings

Grandma got her PhD at age 72

My grandma was one of the most inspirational people in my life. It’s still pretty weird for me to say “was”, because she only died seven weeks ago. Or maybe these things remain surreal forever?

People’s memories of a loved one can differ so much. I’m sure you’d be told a different story if you asked my grandad, or my mum, or one of my cousins. But this is my tale of her, nothing more, nothing less.

Grandma was a dancer. A ballet dancer, a “disco” dancer, a tap dancer, a gymnast. That was the number one way I thought of her as a kid. When she came to stay we’d push all of the furniture to the edges of the room to make a dance studio, where she would do handstands into bridges, splits and quadruple pirouettes until I was well into my teens, making her at least 70. She was the one who taught me how to dance “en pointe”, the old-school way without the pads that my classmates would use. That meant you had more feeling for the floor- but also more blood in your shoes afterwards.  I switched to some light padding later; I don’t think I told her.

Grandma was a dance teacher for most of her working life and she ran her own dance school for 44 years. Whenever we went for a walk with her and Grandad around their area, people would stop us to say “hi, remember me? You taught me when I was five and now I’m 70”. They’d always be beaming, also at Grandad. “Remember when Jack fell through the hill you built?” Maybe I’m mixing memories… They’d definitely say something about one of the many shows that Grandma and Grandad put on with hundreds of local kids in them, and someone definitely fell through that hill, although it might have been Jill.

The dance school wasn’t the original plan. Just like I did 70 years later, my grandma made her way to London to “be on the stage”. She was only twelve though, less than half the age I was. She worked there for a season and would probably have done many more, if it weren’t for a minor inconvenience: The Blitz. Her parents didn’t feel it was safe (which it wasn’t of course) and kept her at home. I can’t remember her complaining, but even when I was little I thought how tragic that was. However much I was in love with the idea of Grandma’s very own dance school, it couldn’t compare to the London stage, surely? Could it ever to her?

My grandma the dancer

My grandma the dancer

The second thing I saw my grandma as, was a writer. She saw herself that way too, but unlike with the dancing, the world didn’t agree with her. She had some children’s stories published in the sixties as well as a number of panto scripts, but the two full-length novels she self-published in the last decade of her life didn’t take off, and there are a few hundred copies of them crowding my grandad’s lounge and hallway. But she encouraged me to write, and I would be prolific when I was visiting because a) she, the writer, would read and comment on my work, and b) she would give me as many notebooks as I could fill, and by that time I had already developed a passion (obsession) for stationary. Like most things at my grandparents’ house, the notebooks were bought wholesale to save money, so there were always some going spare.  I’m not sure why it never stood out to me before that the two areas that Grandma encouraged me in are still major parts of my life: performing and writing.

Grandma did everything her way, fuelled by a defiant, almost angry energy that wasn’t always pleasant to be around. Some people close to me might spot a familial resemblance…  Her attitude did mean that she achieved some pretty impressive goals, like getting her PhD in philosophy when she was 72- I think that’s when the picture of her at the top of the post was taken. Not bad for the daughter of two mill workers who originally left school at fourteen. The topic of her thesis embodies her approach to life: “Children’s Rights to Greater Freedom and Self-Determination. A Philosophical Appraisal of the Ethics of Autonomous Education.”  If anyone with any authority said one thing, to Grandma the opposite would be true. We fought whenever I thought I knew things, which was often, because I liked school and took it seriously, and to her that was the daftest way to be. But I did inherit her challenging spirit; nothing is ever impossible just because someone else says it is. That is probably the single most useful belief a girl can have passed down to her.

I wonder whether I’ll ever meet anyone who enjoys finding new ways to look at the world as much as Grandma did. Take, for example, her conviction that inanimate objects are conscious (panpsychism). “When you drop a bag of frozen peas, some will land on the table, some by your feet, and others roll all the way under the fridge where you can’t get at them, just to annoy you. How do you know they haven’t chosen to do that?”
Philosophy gave Grandma’s singular way of thinking free reign and legitimacy, and it was a fantastic outlet for her (not so fantastic for anyone who ended up in a heated “philosophical discussion” with her, a big fear for many family members!).

At this point I feel I should tell you something that I don’t want to tell you. I don’t want it to colour the impression you might have of my grandma so far, but it’s part of the story: Grandma suffered from mental illness. I’m not sure what the official diagnosis was, or whether she ever really got one. When I was studying clinical psychology (possibly indirectly another influence of hers?) I tried to diagnose her in hindsight, and the closest I got was psychotic depression. She had her most serious episode when she was in her forties, at a time when she was still home-educating two of her four kids as well as running the dance school. I still have no idea how the family coped with what must have been utter devastation and chaos. Grandma was medicated for years with what I’m guessing were heavy-duty barbiturates, and she received the electroconvulsive therapy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest infamy. She always said she didn’t have any memories of that decade, and her experiences must have eradicated any hope she had of overcoming her already deep-seated fear of hospitals, doctors and medication. This proved problematic when she started suffering from dementia in the last few years, and it was heart-breaking when she had to be sectioned for a while when the care homes couldn’t cope with her opposition.

There was one positive, unexpected side-effect of her treatment- or at least, she believed that’s what it was. As scientifically minded as I am, I honestly can’t say for sure that she wasn’t right about it. There’s a lot we still don’t understand about how mental health treatments (or any treatments) actually work, and I quite like the version of events in which she got a kind of superpower out of the whole horrible experience. You see, Grandma thought the interventions had made her a bit psychic. Believe what you will, it really doesn’t matter, but I hope you enjoy this little story which I cherish very much:

When I was eight years old, I got acute appendicitis. I was rushed to hospital, and as these were the days before mobile phones, my parents didn’t have time to tell anyone else what was going on. I was operated on immediately that night. Grandma, in the meantime, was desperately trying to get hold of us. She had had a dream about a small monster (that would be me, obviously…), and knew there was something wrong. What made her think that? The monster had been opened up; it had a zip all the way across its monster’s belly.

The incident sparked the idea that my grandma and I were connected somehow. I still feel that way even now she’s gone, although I miss her terribly. I’m so proud of everything she achieved despite facing obstacles that I will probably never fully understand.

My grandad has very kindly given me permission to publish one of Grandma’s short stories on the blog, so the next post will be one of her own personal tales, in her own words. I hope you can join us for it, I know she would love you to.

Thank you for reading about Annie!

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One Response to Annie: The most inspirational grandma I could have wished for

  1. Pingback: A Trifling Incident | Bird With A Tale

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