I grew up surrounded by female influences – both of my grandmothers, a great-grandmother, an auntie on my mum’s side, three of them on my dad’s. I myself had 2 younger sisters, and I went to an all girls primary school. As I look back on my life, I know that all of these women will have played their part in me becoming the woman I am today. I thought I would share some stories about the amazing women who helped with that journey.
I have been invited to take part in the Canesten #SheHelped campaign, which is based around the small and big things that women do every day, to help other women.
I’m starting off with my maternal grandmother, whom I called Big Nanny. She was born in Lithuania in 1913, and came to the UK with her husband (my grandad, 1908- 1975) in the mid 1930s, for new opportunities. Their families paid for tickets for them to get to London, which back then seemed paved with gold, and opportunity. The plan was to work for a few years, before going back home to Kaunus and buy a farm. But then World War II broke out, and those plans were scuppered.
My mum describes her mother as having to develop balls of steel(!) to cope with the situation she was in. She had to be strong and resilient so as not to let anyone walk all over her. My grandfather, worked in a munitions factory during the war, as he couldn’t be drafted into the military due to being deaf. I think that must have been a small saving grace for Big Nanny; she couldn’t speak much English (but boy oh boy, did she know the right words to make sure she wasn’t swindled!!). She couldn’t read and write well, so relied on my grandfather to help. My auntie (Ann), was born in March, 1940, in a house on Anglesea Street, Bethnal Green.
To think that my grandmother was a new mum, struggling with everything that brings, as well as the start of the war, living in an area decimated by the Blitz (in a street that no longer exists), not being able to communicate fully… I’m not surprised mum describes her as strong.
My mum was born in 1948, in that same house, which had survived the Blitz. Even though war was over, rationing and hard times were still afoot. So having gone through all of that through the war, it had to continue on into the mid 1950s. My grandmother brought up two daughters in a country that she never really called home, always wanting to go back to Lithuania. I can’t begin to imagine the struggles she would have had with that, and the strength she would have had to cope never having the opportunity to go back to her motherland. My grandfather died in 1975, and so, she was now all alone, with no family, other than her two daughters – my mum and my auntie.
I was born in 1976. My dad was an assistant manager at a pub in North London, and my parents were living in a dingy attic room that had tiny cockroaches everywhere. Mum didn’t have any proper cooking facilities, just a little electric ring to heat things up on. I apparently suffered badly with colic, and mum would frantically clean everything in the room with disinfectant, including scrubbing the inside and out of my pram.
She describes herself as being a wreck when I was a newborn, and went to the doctor. He prescribed her Valium, saying she just had a few “ailments” and that she should change her lifestyle! Yeah right, with a newborn, and living in a hovel! Mum now realises she was suffering very badly with post-natal depression. She said how she would phone her mum everyday, crying down the phone, and on one of these calls, Big Nanny said “I don’t want to interfere, but I know you are struggling; come and stay with me for a few months, I’ll look after Michelle, and you can go back to work.”
At this time, Big Nanny was 63, but mum describes her as very sprightly, and young at heart, and so, that’s what happened. Mum and a baby me, went to live at her council house in Chigwell, where she now lived. Mum would catch the tube each morning to Mayfair, for her job as a legal secretary, and Big Nanny, would look after me. Mum said I crawled from the age of 5 months, so I’m sure I kept Big Nanny on her toes! Mum would come home from work at 6:30, and I’d have been fed, watered, played with, changed, bathed, and everything else a new baby needs. I know that having the opportunity to go back to work, at that time spent living at my grandmother’s house, really helped my mum.
Eventually, mum and dad became an assistant manager couple at a pub in Romford, and lived in a small bedsit next door. The manager was happy for mum to only have to work 2 days of the week, meaning that for those 2 days Big Nanny would hop on the bus, and look after me in that room. And then, when my parents became managers of The George in Wanstead, and my sister came along, it was Big Nanny again, who came to mums aid, catching the tube to look after us while mum had to work. In 1984, my other sister came along, and whilst my other sister and I were at school, Big Nanny stepped in again to help out. What a champ that lady was.
Big Nanny died in 1985. We had been on holiday in Cyprus, and she got sun stroke. My grandmother loved the sun, and I loved that she came on holidays with us. I remember how ill she was on that day, and having to help try and cool her down with a damp flannel. She was not allowed to fly back home. In those days, children didn’t have their own passports. My new baby sister was on my dad’s passport, and me and my other sister were on my mum’s… Mum had to heartbreakingly leave her ill mother behind, in a foreign country and fly back home. My dad had to return to work, and wouldn’t be able to look after a toddler on his own. I remember Auntie Ann rushing round to our house, money in her purse to take an emergency flight out to Cyprus. She didn’t need to, as we received the dreaded call that Big Nanny had passed away. She may have been part of my life for only 9 years, but wow, now that I listen to the stories from my mum, and look at old photographs, I realised how much influence she would have had on my life.
I have yet to talk about my fiesty Auntie Ann (1940-1988), and the role she had in my childhood; or how my mum was there for me so many times, including the birth of my son. I haven’t mentioned much about my sisters, and how I was there to help one of them at the birth of their daughter, my darling niece. Or my best friend, who we’ve been through thick and thin with – from our teenage years and loving boy bands, to births, deaths, marriages, break-ups, and more. I wanted to talk about all of that here, in this post, but I realise I’ve written so much, that I want to break it down into another post for another time.
But I’ll close out with photos of all these amazing women in my life, because without them all, and the things they’ve taught me, and helped me with, and I in return, I wouldn’t be the strong woman I am today.
Thank you for reading.
Canesten help women around the world, providing education and solutions for their intimate health. They also want to help those women who are less fortunate than most of us. That is they wanted to support, in any way they could, refugee women affected by the Middle East crisis who are living in sub-standard conditions in camps and settlements in various countries. So they offered a substantial donation of Canesten thrush products (around £320,000 worth) to International Health Partners, Europe’s largest charity coordinator that organises the safe and responsible donation of medical products and supplies to developing countries.
Disclosure: This post has been supported by Canesten, but all thoughts are my own.