In recognition of the London screening of ‘Love Somehow’, a film about the relationship between Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, I have decided to write a blog about my grandmother. It’s slightly different (hopefully not too cheesy!) as I’ve expressed my thoughts and feelings through a letter to her. I always called her Nonna (Nanny in Italian) and have referred to Dylan as Grandpa, as I think, that is what I would have called him.
I only met you a few times and if I’m honest I can only really remember one of those…though it is a very good memory. You gave me the best present ever! A Care Bear, and not just any Care Bear, it was Night-time Bear – the one I had wanted for ages. He very quickly became a treasured member of my cuddly toy gang that took up about three quarters of my bed. “Where will you sleep?” Mum enquired.
I was only about seven or eight then and I suspect it was the same year when you joined us for Christmas lunch. Apparently, you raided the fancy dress box during a game of charades and had the whole family in stitches with your ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ creation. The following day we ventured out in bitter conditions, wrapped up in woollies from head to toe, and went to the Canizaro in Wimbledon. A lovely photo was taken that day of you, Mum, me, and my baby doll in a pram – obviously a Christmas gift that couldn’t possibly be left at home.
Although I have this shadowy recollection of you, what I truly feel is an uncomfortable sense of melancholy, a deep regret (though there’s nothing I could have done) that I did not get to know you better. You were never a grandmother to me, your sister Brigit took on that role, and was mother to your children as well at times. I appreciate there were strained relations between your Italian and UK based families, so whether that was choice or circumstances I don’t know. Having said that, I imagine, even if you had been around, you would not have been the typical ‘Granny’ I was looking for!
Ok, maybe your parenting and grand parenting skills were questionable (though I still think you loved us all, even though you didn’t always express it well) but I’m really struggling to believe that the consistently negative portrayal of you is the complete picture. You were no saint, that’s for sure, though you never claimed to be one as you’ve always been remarkably honest about your life with Grandpa. And yes, your conduct was unusual for the time: you had mood swings, an exceptionally sharp tongue, very erratic behaviour and you made some extremely poor choices. All this is true, I know, but I just get so very cross at how people, that never knew you, think they can comment some freely and condemn you without having the full story. I’m terribly frustrated that you’ve been demonised as the woman that destroyed Dylan Thomas.
This is exceptionally unfair because you knew exactly what Grandpa needed to focus on his writing – a structured routine. You provided him with that. Mum described how you prepared his writing shed: a florescent orange Tizer to drink, boiled sweets to suck and a warm stove by his feet. You were the person that insisted that the shed have windows installed as you knew how important the view across the estuary was to him. I don’t blame you one bit for locking him in there either. Writers always find a distraction – a murder mystery or the cricket in Grandpa’s case.
I’ve been told how you single-handedly turned damp and dreary lodgings into a home by using your artistic powers to add a touch of colour and class. I know that you, not Grandpa, were the one that collected and carried the coal to stoke the fire, or to chase away the Boathouse rats. Grandpa was no doubt cowering in a corner somewhere. You fed the family (albeit sometimes with a rather rotting and green looking Irish stew) and ensured everyone looked presentable, which must have been tough during rationing. Yet, you were resourceful and found a way. Bright pink or orange elbow darns on a speckly, tortoiseshell ribbed sweater or green wool on grey socks. Why not? You wanted them to notice all the hard work you put in!
Do you know Nonna, the more I think about it, the more I realise how invisible you must have felt at times, because next to Grandpa, you just weren’t noticed. Though you did your best to stand out from the crowd. I can see you now in your canary-yellow skirt, that made a circle when you pirouetted, cartwheeling down the street and dancing on pub tables (if reports are true) and not caring one bit what people thought. I wish I had your confidence. I have a chance to say to you that I know that you were a talented woman but you lived in a time when the opportunities were not there for you. You were an intelligent woman too – though not necessarily educated – your father put a stop to the chance of private education by gambling away the family fortune before you were born. Though, it’s interesting, how money was found to send your brother John to boarding school.
I love the fact that you had an independent streak and were both fiery and feisty. You were rude as hell to all the ‘hangers on’ as you knew exactly what they were after and you were adamantly against Grandpa returning to the States. “They’ll eat him alive,” you pleaded. I just wish someone had listened.
I feel so desperately sad when I think about the effect of Grandpa’s sudden and tragic death on you, especially when I realise that you were about my age at the time, and that you unexpectedly became a widow with three young children, and were left virtually penniless. I get terribly upset when I picture you arriving at St Vincent’s hospital in New York – a bit worse for wear (I say that without judgement, you were about to visit your dying husband after all) being led into a soulless room overlooked by a gaggle of strangers goggling through the window. No wonder you were furious and acted out. You needed care and love at that point. You certainly didn’t need to be put in a straight jacket and be locked up in the local mental hospital. I’m appalled that they treated you with such little respect. But remember, they had things to cover up…best keep the ‘crazy’ woman quiet!
The grief you felt (and probably guilt too) must have been unbearable. I’ve seen the clip of Grandpa’s funeral and you could barely hold yourself up, let alone walk. Apparently, you attempted suicide six times in nine days. Your enduring strength was being tested. You were in no fit state to deal with Grandpa’s literary estate and I understand why a trust was set up to protect it. However, I hate the fact that in doing so, they took all control away – you were powerless – even when you were well again.
And you did get better. You attended AA in Rome and you gave up the booze. How annoying it must have been when a Western Mail journalist reported that you had been seen drinking wine in the Brown’s Hotel. It was grape juice wasn’t it? Perhaps, that’s why we didn’t see you as often as I would have liked. Did you feel claustrophobic every time you returned to the UK? I’m only too aware how aggressive and intrusive the media can be. Although, you may have wanted to remain in Italy for another reason – the warm weather. Unlike Grandpa and Mum, who preferred the wet and temperate Welsh climate, you worshipped the sun. Me too. I have Raynaud’s which is a condition that makes me react badly to the cold and my fingers turn a rather striking shade of purple. I wonder if you had it as well, as it is hereditary.
I went to your funeral in 1994 in Laugharne. I find it curious that in spite of living in Italy for nearly forty years, having a long-term partner and another son at the age of 49 (that must have been a surprise!) that you chose to return to Grandpa. Despite everything, you must have really loved him…
Even though our paths rarely crossed when you were alive, I will not forget you. Your beautiful painting of the wooden table with the vase of flowers hangs proudly on my living room wall. So while others may continue to disregard the positive impact you had on Grandpa, I want you to be reassured that I know and recognise it. I will also remember you in your own right as a talented dancer and artist, a wonderful and creative homemaker and an independent thinker and free spirit.
Hannah Ellis – 28th November 2016.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – http://www.hannahellisconsultancy.com