A couple of weeks ago my granny was killed in a traffic incident – she was 90 years old – and ever since I have been at the centre of what has felt like a whirlwind.
I was her eldest grandson and despite falling out with her last May I was arguably her closet relative – hence why I was charged with organising her funeral and being executor of her estate. Neither task are things that I wanted and neither have filled with me with any real joy.
To give some context, my granny, Mrs Margaret Hilda Coates was a difficult person whose passing was acknowledged more than mourned.
Still for the funeral I needed to find something positive because regardless of the feelings we have, nothing is ever black and white, it is very much about the shades of grey and for me my granny was the epitome of shades of grey.
Infact she was very, very grey.
The sad thing was that her wishes, upon her death, were that she should have no service at all – something that others did not want and as a mark of respect to them I felt the need to straddle different perspectives because the truth is that funerals are not about the dead they are about those who are left behind.
I found myself therefore with the need to tell a story and the story I choose to tell was of a woman who could have lived a good, fruitful life but choose to live in the shadows of her own shortcomings and how we could all learn from that.
My first draft was too dour, too angry and so I sat down and treated this as a presentation I was giving to a client that way I could find the things that made my granny human and I could connect with the part of me that remembered the good times – I found this incredibly challenging to write.
Below is a copy of what I wrote;
I stand in front of you all here and know that the thing we share is that we’ve all annoyed Margaret Coates at one time or another. I’d say if you didn’t ‘have words’ with her then you probably never met the real Margaret.
My grandmother was an unusual lady in many ways but she was also incredibly traditional and conventional and when I think about her now I reflect on how how she found modern life bewildering and it makes me smile.
‘What is this social media?’ she would say
‘Why isn’t there football on TV anymore?
‘Why do you do your hair like that?’
‘Why do they use aspartame?’
‘Why don’t you ever get me female autobiographies?’
Margaret was an anachronism, out of place in a time she didn’t understand and wondering what it was all about. In the last decade especially, as my own life developed roots and hers meandered towards its twilight, we would spend time discussing the way life was – covering topics like politics, religion, media, sport and history. Our opinions were so far apart that it made good sport for us to goad one another and poke fun at the other. Even as her ability to debate and argue waned she hated to lose and worse than that she hated to be wrong, it’s a character trait we share.
I occasionally took my life into my own hands by taking her on holiday or by having her visit me when I lived in London. We would go on theatre trips, make artistic jaunts to the Lake District, we climbed the Liver Building towers together, travelled the Kentish countryside and rode high on the Falkirk Wheel, she would often tell me what was wrong with these adventures but then I would hear her wax lyrical about them to others later. I like to believe we always enjoyed our shared adventures but by the same token we were both incredibly grateful for their conclusion. I suppose, the truth is, when I look back, my memories of her are, like everyones, mixed.
When she asked why I would move to Scotland, I told her that I wanted to live the life fantastic, to live without regret and to live for now, not tomorrow. I told her, that very day, that we should all strive to live that fantastic life – that it’s never too late, that no matter where you are in your life you can have joy and meaning, but that you must strive for it.
I’m confident that she was desperate for that better, more complete life – even in her later years – but she could never see how to step out of her own shadow and so today I am saddened.
I am saddened not by her death – that is nature – I am saddened that she lived life with regret and couldn’t find a way to change the fate she brought upon herself.
She was the original enigma, wrapped in a puzzle and now she is gone, none of us will be able to solve the riddle she left us, ‘who was Margaret Coates?’
But puzzle solving is not the thing I would ask you all to do today I would instead ask you to find one good memory of her, as J M Barrie would have written, a happy thought and remember her in that moment and take that with you today.
Before I go I will share my happy memory with you. Yesterday I went up to Rivington Pike to run the Pike and Back half marathon, my running was something she did not approve of, however, I went up to this particular race because it was in close proximity to a restaurant called Smithills, a Dickensian themed restaurant that my grandparents would take us to on our birthdays. I loved the chicken soup there, it was thick and it had a swirl of cream in it – something that growing up seemed so exotic given we were really rather poor and treats of this nature really where just that – a treat. It was my birthday, I’d have been 8 or 9 and I said, ‘do you think I could have the chicken soup for starter and main?’ When the waitress came over granny explained what I wanted and I soon had my two delicious bowls of soup with its crusty bread and salty butter. I remember being very happy as I slurped away at the soup and my granny had made that happen for her eldest grandson. I look on it now, the act was so small but the effect was so memorable and that was very much the challenge of my granny she could be difficult but importantly she could be incredibly kind – I hope we all are remembering the kind.
It was funny that I found a highly symbolic half marathon (read about it here)to run the day before she died and it served as a very appropriate thing to do given it had links to my ‘positive thought’ about my granny and it really helped me focus on the funeral and how I wanted to go about it.
I added in some music but didn’t want to pick any old funeral music – I wanted to pick things that were relevant or appropriate. She was a fan of Tina Turner and given she thought very highly of herself I had considered, ‘The Best‘ but the GingaNinja vetoed this saying that some people might be offended.
So I settled on a bit of ‘Nimrod’, because she liked it, some Simon & Garfunkel with ‘The Sound of Silence’ because the GingaNinja wouldn’t let me have ‘I am a Rock’ (she said the lyrics were a little close to the knuckle) and I sent her out to a more modern track from Jason Mraz, ‘Living in the moment’ that was intended to lift the mood and reinforce my message about living your life to its fullest. I wasn’t left with instructions on what to do about her funeral if I decided to ignore her wishes and so I simply had to work out what it was I wanted to say about a woman that was not easy to define.
The problem was I also had the best part of 25 minutes to fill, even with the celebrant doing a decent job there wasn’t going to be enough material to stretch over the time and so I needed a poem. I read lots of poems from Wordsworth, Byron, Ted Hughes and many more. I listened endlessly to routines from Dave Allen and Billy Connolly that she loved but all of them were either not quite right or incredibly rude and not quite right.
So I started looking in places that you might not traditionally find funeral poems and I remembered my love of Dr Suess.
My grandmother was not a fan and upon hearing me perform ‘Green Eggs & Ham’ to my daughter a couple of times, she described the writing of Dr. Suess as gobbledegook. However, the following piece really did reinforce the theme of living the best life you can and so with all the linguistic skill I had I delivered to a room of four family, a celebrant and the funeral director the following wonderful tongue twister.
Today is your day.You’re off to Great Places!You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.You have feet in your shoes.You can steer yourself any direction you choose.You’re on your own. And you know what you know.And YOU are the gal who’ll decide where to go.
You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care.About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.
And you may not find anyyou’ll want to go down.In that case, of course,you’ll head straight out of town.
It’s opener therein the wide open air.
Out there things can happenand frequently doto people as brainyand footsy as you.
And then things start to happen,don’t worry. Don’t stew.Just go right along.You’ll start happening too.
OH! THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!
You’ll be on your way up!You’ll be seeing great sights!You’ll join the high flierswho soar to high heights.
You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the leadWherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t.Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say sobut, sadly, it’s truethat Bang-upsand Hang-upscan happen to you.
You can get all hung upin a prickle-ly perch.And your gang will fly on.You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurchwith an unpleasant bump.And the chances are, then,that you’ll be in a Slump.
And when you’re in a Slump,you’re not in for much fun.Un-slumping yourselfis not easily done.
You’ll get mixed up, of course,as you already know.You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tactand remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.Just never foget to be dexterous and deft.And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed?Yes! You will, indeed!(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
So…be your name Margaret or Bixby or Brayor Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,You’re off the Great Places!Today is your day!Your mountain is waiting.So…get on your way!
And so this was the end of my granny.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to John, Ann and Jane for their enormous support during a really weird time. And I’d like for it to be known that I understand the reasons why other people did not come, the obvious reason was COVID-19 but other people choose to stay away because of the feelings they had towards her or other very sensible reasons – like giving birth.
I wonder what she would think if she knew that I had gone against her wishes and that there were less than a handful of people to see her off. I’ll never know and maybe it is best that way. I suppose some might ask why I would put this on my blog – the answer to that is simple, I find the writing about it quite a cathartic experience and I can draw a line under it, move on and allow myself to learn the lessons of her life.
Right now though I’m simply glad this part of it is over. Adios Granny.