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Goodbye Ouma
Colin Harris

Dear Ouma
Seven days ago I was at your cremation, and I lost two things. You as a person, Father’s very favourite Mom, and you as a source for memories. Of course I won’t be posting this letter, Heaven doesn’t have a postcode, and even if it did, I wouldn’t expect a reply as, unlike Mother, I don’t believe in life after death.

When we started our regular weekly chats, two years ago, I began to worry that my memories, including the second hand ones I got from you, might be lost forever. So I’m starting to record them in a more reliable media than my own brain. For example, how much Neil and I enjoyed the, allegedly true, bedtime stories you told us when we were young. The ones we preferred were those which featured Father when he was a boy and particularly naughty. So I’m writing, it’s the nearest I can get to talking to you, really for myself rather than you, to help ensure that any children I may have, will be able to enjoy you as I did.

During your last years, our mutual obsession with the noble game of poker created an extra closeness between us. Imagine that a simple card game could have caused us to spend so many hours discussing great hands, great pots and great bluffs, as well as generating the constant tactical advice you offered. Poker was responsible for the happiness I saw on your face, when you first noticed me playing on a nearby table, at the Barracuda club – like grandmother, like grandson they said. But I’m rushing ahead, I must try to get some shape into this letter.

Freud, you always called him ‘Fraud’, wrote that we don’t remember much before the age of three and I guess he’s right, as my earliest memories of you were at our house in North Harrow, when I was about four. Father used to meet you at Harrow-on-the-Hill station when you came to visit us most weekends. One Saturday, you arrived and took a thick bundle of ten shilling and pound notes from your bag. That was when you first told me about your regular Friday night poker game. Every weekend after that I asked "Did you win a lot last night Ouma?'' I don’t remember your replies, just your smiles.

You took Neil and me down to the shops every Sunday morning you were with us, to get the papers. In truth, it was just an excuse for you to buy us sweets. Father and Mother always pretended they didn't know you were buying us half the shop, but I'm sure they did. Neil got a little upset because when you gave us pocket-money, you always gave me a little more, because I was older. Twenty-one months made quite a difference.

We loved the stories of when you were a girl living in Southern Rhodesia. In those days children were not encouraged to eat much cheese, so when you children were at the table, you were given a big piece of bread and a very small piece of cheese. You had a dog named Caesar and your mother used to say to you and your sisters, in a sing-song voice, "Sniff the cheese and eat the bread and give the cheese to Caesar". I still wonder if that dog ever existed.

Your mother must have been a wonderfully interesting woman, if the stories you told us about her were even half true. You said that when she was a girl she had lots of boyfriends, and she used to go to the travelling cinema with them, two at a time. She would sit between them and when, in the dark, they each tried to hold one of her hands, she joined the hands of the two boys together, so they were holding hands with each other. I’d love to have seen their faces when the lights came up.

You often repeated a particular story of your mother’s, relating to the farm where you all lived. There were rumours of a Black uprising, so she asked her houseboy if he would kill her if there was trouble. "No missus" he said, "I will kill missus next door, next door boy kill you". Funny now, but at the time it must have been frightening.

You were so keen on good table manners and I remember how strict you were. We never put elbows on the table, never chewed with our mouth open and only ever talked about "fruit, flowers and poetry", as you said they were the only suitable subjects for conversation, whilst eating. When we slipped from your standards, you would say in a very serious voice, "Ian, Neil, if do that, you’ll never dine with the Queen".

Because my early, and entirely wrong, impressions of you were of a rather formidable and schoolmarmish lady, I had thought that Neil's famous – we now regard it as classic - dinner-table line: ''Hasn't Ouma got big humps!'' would cause a rebuke of major proportions, but you sailed through the meal as if it had never been said.

You were often at our house to, as Father and Mother called it, ‘trouble-sit’, when they went out. Neil and I would play you up horribly, wrestling in the lounge, playing indoor football and all the other things Father wouldn’t allow. You never batted an eyelid, you just let it go for a time and then quietly said "Enough or no story".

I don’t know how well you remember Neil and I going on holiday to the Kadimah camp in South London. We went for three or four years in a row and we loved it because it was mostly sport, morning, noon and night. He was twelve and I was fourteen the year we played football against the fathers. You came down to watch with Mother and Father, he was playing, and I still have a photo of you standing on the touchline holding a folding chair over your head to protect your hair from the rain. We won the match by 4-3, Father got one of their three but I scored the winner in Maradona style – with my hand of God. Father was incandescent but you calmed him down with "It’s only a game, and you should let the boys win anyway".

What about your big radio interview when you were chosen to play poker for England in a competition in Cannes! We were all so proud listening to you and I was just so impressed that I asked you to teach me to play. You loved doing it and always lost to me, on purpose. That started my love for poker and perhaps, one day, if it ever becomes a television event, I could present it, much as I now do for football and cricket.

You always went out of your way to get things for us. At some point in the late 70s or early 80s, there was a sugar shortage in England and it was rationed in supermarkets. Ouma, you would bring boxes of sugar lumps and individual sachets of sugar which you ‘acquired’ from the WVS centre, where you worked in Islington. You were then a bingo caller and lunch money taker for, as you called them, the ‘old people’. How we laughed, Neil and I, when we visited you there, to find that the vast majority of the ‘old people’, were years younger than you. Soon after that, the Queen Mum had come to pay a Royal visit to the centre - you were running it then - and you showed us a picture of the two of you sitting together. You were almost the same age and looked so much alike. When I talk about you to my future children, I hope, I won’t have to describe you, as I have so many photos, ready and waiting to be shown

When I left home, you were living in Hammerson House, and not too happily in the early stages, if I remember correctly. It wasn’t that you minded living in a senior citizens home, it was the restriction on your freedom, particularly your habit of arriving back there at three in the morning after a poker session at the Barracuda. Eventually, tired of being woken in the middle of the night to let you in, the staff presented you with a key, a major triumph for you.

When I first bought my own flat, I picked you up from Hammerson House, you were 88 at the time, and drove you to see it because I needed your approval. You were a bit frail then Ouma, and I saw what a real effort it was for you to climb the stairs. When you saw the flat you were so enthusiastic, you made it seem like I’d bought Buckingham Palace.

Now this you won’t know, unless Mother’s right about the afterlife. Three days ago I went to see Father, and when I got to the house, he was showing an old videotape, probably from a family party, and had paused it on a close-up picture of you, laughing. He said "That was my mother and that’s how I will always see her". That goes for me too Ouma. You were a larger than life woman, always at the centre of everything and I will never forget you. I've been thinking and thinking but I cannot recall, in the twenty-four years I remember of you, a single occasion on which you raised your voice to anyone.

I will be writing about you again, and of course about my other three grandparents, just as I suppose, one day I will need to write about Mother and Father. I promise I will encourage any children I may have, please God, to do the same. We must never lose the memories of our loved ones, that would be the greatest loss.
Goodbye Ouma
Your loving grandson

© Colin Harris Jan 2007

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