Thursday, December 16, 2010


My grandma, a woman of considerable character, an impish provocateur, a lady of substance who knew her mind until her final days, slipped quietly away on November 24th. It took us all by surprise that she decided to go so quietly. And decide she surely had, for she had suffered several falls, two small strokes and mild heart failure already this year, yet she hadn't given up in hospital. She had waited until the time was right for her to go, simply and quickly, at the nursing home she had lived in since August.

My mum asked me to say a few words at her funeral, which was scheduled for December 3rd,but the snow in Chelsfield, near Orpington, that town where all trains break down (and all who enter abandon hope) was about 18 inches deep and the town was practically unreachable, so the event was postponed to the 15th.

'A Remembrance of Grandma' was to be my section, after the vicar's introduction and history of her life - which made for some truly incredible listening.

Born on a small island off the coast of Norway in 1913, and raised to go to 'housewife school', she won a prize at said school for her goat-milking skills (the fastest goat-milker in the west... of Norway). In the early 1930s she came to England to work as an au pair for a rich Norwegian shipping magnate's family. By 1939 she had met my grandfather, a bit of a wide boy from Bermondsey, at the Norwegian Sjømannskirken (Seaman's Church) who apparently was a favourite with all the Norwegian girls due to an unparallelled knowledge of London's bus routes, and by 1939 they had a wartime wedding. She was unable to go back to occupied Norway during wartime and had no idea of how her family were for the duration of the war.

Making a life in Orpington in the 1940s as a foreigner must have been hard. Raising 5 daughters on a very tight budget, she excelled in making do and mending, cooking from scratch and tending to fruit and vegetables in her cottage garden. She spent her life mobilised for peace, too, after having been separated from her family by war, and was a vociferous supporter of Amnesty International and the WILPF.

Here are some of my other enduring memories of the fantastic woman I got to know over 28 years.

Always in the garden when possible. I remember rows of hydrangeas, an archway of roses, and honeysuckle. Clothes were always drying on the line. Everyone remembers summers in her beautiful garden. It was her pride and joy.

-       A very snappy dresser! Liked to look good, have her hair done and always wore perfume. A true glamourpuss, and true to her star sign - a veritable Leo.

-       A firm but fair hand with children. She loved her grandchildren and her face lit up whenever there were children around. She was a stickler for good behaviour, though, telling us to eat up our ‘wegetables’ and had no problem with disciplining us if we were naughty.  She will always particularly be remembered for chasing a certain couple of my young cousins, Peter and Jonny, around the house with a wet flannel, a story which has become family legend.

-       This propensity for discipline was something that made her lack of success with her cat, Sandy, all the more astonishing – that cat weed everywhere! Oh, the smell! The other pet I can remember, Flossie the dog, was thoroughly pampered and had full run of the house as well. So we might say she was more of a softie when it came to animals...

-       A true trailblazer of the modern age, grandma championed fair trade products, shopping locally, recycling and the make-do-and-mend culture which is seeing a massive resurgence now. If you ever needed a bit of 15-year old tinfoil, or a tin of baking powder from 1987, her kitchen drawers were sure to hold your treasure.

-       Spirited and opinionated, even in her later years. She fought with nurses, argued about taking pills, told off carers and certainly didn’t mince her words when it came to a subject she felt passionate about. She championed the WILPF and Amnesty and we are a more politicised and outspoken family because of her - in the best way possible.

-       She LOVED her soaps. The Eastenders, Emmerdale Farm and Coronation Street theme tunes were forever burned into my brain after living with grandma for our first year in England. The TV was always on VERY LOUD, so in order to speak to grandma you would have to shout. The best outings/ entertainment for grandma were VERY LOUD things. An amusement for some of her great-grandchildren in her later days, was that at her house, one was not only allowed but encouraged to shout. Endless fun.

- And finally, she loved men! She always liked to meet new gentlemen and always, always enjoyed attention from a well-spoken young man. Rumours abounded of a gentleman friend in her last weeks at the nursing home and we were all glad to hear it.

Grandma, you will be remembered and missed by us all, for being a strong and inspirational woman who was ahead of her time in so many ways. We are all so proud and lucky to have known you for as long as we have.

Borghild Margit Cooke (née Nielsen) 17.8.1913 - 24.11.2010

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