Personal Reflections,  Women

Ordinary Gorgons

A personal reflection on two women from my past who inspire my future for IWD 2020

At Arup, one of the things we’ve been doing to mark International Women’s Day this year is to share our stories of women who have inspired us. The stories people have shared are exciting and inspiring – groundbreaking engineers, pioneering academics, incredible designers, challenging authors, brilliant teachers, high-flying sisters, wives, friends… 

I’ve spent a happy few days running a show reel in my mind of the various women, and there are many, who have inspired me and inspire me still. Good friends who do work that matters, quietly and whole-heartedly, stunning and brave artists, friends who have walked through great loss and suffering and emerged burning somehow brighter. Senior women who gave me a leg up early in my career. Women who call things out. Women who take risks. Women who make things better.

But amidst all of this, for me, at this moment in my life, two quiet voices persist. My two grandmothers, Mary and Peggy, born in 1914 and 1921 respectively, and living out to all intents and purposes very ordinary lives in working class Scotland. Both now dead and most probably largely forgotten – save to the small group of people who loved them dearly, including me.

My grans were part of a generation who lost their fathers to one war and their brothers and lovers to another. The Second World War brought them opportunities – Peggy drove trucks for the WAF, and had a lifelong dodgy hip sustained in a fall from a cab one night, and Mary was a nurse – dressing wounds in a hospital in Clydebank while bombs rained down on the docks outside.

“Were ye no scared, Granny?”

“Ach, no – a bomb either hud yer name on it or it didnae. Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye.”

So, opportunity, yes, but also hardship. And a sense of taking nothing for granted that persisted long after the war was over. And it’s this I think – this hardship and this hard-won perspective – and then how they chose to respond to it, which perhaps lie at the heart of why they are so much on my mind right now, at a time when it feels a little as though we’re all going to hell in a handcart.

By the time I first knew my grans, they seemed old already, though in truth they weren’t very much older than I am now. Part of a tribe of wee old ladies, doughty in their beige anoraks and plastic rain bonnets, barreling along the street with their shopping trolleys to get the messages, go to the launderette and hand in the pools coupons. They embodied practicality and execution – getting the job done, no time for fancy notions. 

I can never remember them not working. My earliest memories are of days spent with Mary when I was still too young to go to school – days for her that immediately followed nightshifts nursing a man with an iron lung. Peggy worked as a social worker, working with single mums in some of the most deprived parts of 1980s Edinburgh. Later, she ran her own business making dolls for souvenir shops.

They were frugal, careful with every penny, but also profoundly generous – pressing 50p’s into babies’ prams and boiled sweets into children’s palms. This is how they showed their love – I don’t remember a hug or a soppy word from either of them. These women had tongues like flint arrowheads, brows like low cloud. No compunction about saying what they really thought. Writing to the paper, tutting in disgust at the politicians on the telly. Faces hard and scarred with stories of loss and courage.

They had a keen sense of duty and yet a quiet rebellious streak. Breathing fire then breaking bread on the embers. Peggy went to church on Sundays and ‘did the flowers’ on anniversaries and birthdays. Mary didn’t go to church. She chain-smoked Benson and Hedges Superkings, drank her instant coffee strong and black and lived on apple cream turnovers. Did the pools. Both in their own way expressing their quiet fury at the Almighty and the hand he had dealt them.

Mary, with me and my sister, c. 1996

As I got older, I spotted hints of a bit of glamour – Elnette hairspray and a worn-out Avon lipstick in the bathroom, a hint of Charlie perfume and a pair of slingback sandals. At my own wedding, at twenty two years old, I was sobbing with tiredness at 4.45am. I asked my Gran if I could please please go to bed now. She looked me up and down with a look of utter disappointment on her face, sipped her whisky and dismissed me with a flick of her cigarette. 

In adulthood, I treasure the very few old photos we have of them. Peggy as a teenager – studious, imperious. Mary as a young nurse, sat on the grass with a cigarette in her hand and a wicked twinkle in her eye.

My grans are with me in the cold ash of morning when I am up and doing before dawn. They’re in the scent of a hot griddle pan when I make pancakes for the kids at the weekend. They’re in the folding of laundry, the fug of a pot of soup, the dregs of whisky in a glass after a good night. 

I never remember them once being sick, never remember them ever complaining. They gave out of what they had, but were never mugs. They were awake, smart, gobby, politically engaged. They knew how serious life could be, but also how to have fun – a quick slash of lippie and your dancing shoes, and away you go.

I know we’d judge their stories differently now, by today’s standards. We’d see repression where they saw stoicism, or just plain old getting by. We’d lament their poor diets, the potential unfulfilled, the domestic burden shouldered alone. I’m deliberately suspending judgment here. These were different times. I’m not romanticising the old days, but I am recognising that here, too, is inspiration and learning for all of us. 

I’m imagining both of them now in that ‘each for equal’ pose – faces skeptical, sleeves shoved up on muscly forearms, hands raw and red and dripping in soap suds. Ordinary gorgons, both of them. Mighty warriors. We’ll never see their like again.