Nanny Hitchens was a farmer’s wife with four children. I knew her as the kind old lady who had three wardrobes of fantastic jumble-sale clothes, painted for pleasure, joined in my make-believe games and made spider-shaped pancakes. She used to tell me how she saw faces in everything – the bark on a log on the fireplace, the texture of bricks. She wrote diaries when I was little, about me, about making honey, and all the comings and goings of the farm. She walked her collie dog Nell until she was nearly 80, only stopping when Nell pulled her over and she broke her arm. She and her almost blind gentleman friend would drive all the way to Wales for the day in a rattling old banger, just because they could. Because they liked to get out and see the world. She’d tell me to notice how every tree was different, and had its own character. She taught me to notice, full stop.
She let me make messes with paint and oil pastels in her front room, never complaining, even when I often made a poor job of tidying up. She warned me that you reach a certain age when you stop having time to slop paint around. You’ll get your canvas marked out, start your first couple of washes, and then have to stop to cook dinner. You’ll get distracted, trying to do a load of laundry at the same time as watching your potatoes simmer. Then you eat, you wash up, and it’ll be three hours before you remember you squeezed half the aquamarine out of its tube, and now it’s dried up.
She sounded regretful when she said it. I’m sure she didn’t regret being a mother and a wife, but I often wonder what she could have become if she’d been born in a different time and place. Born in 1916, she came from a humble background, working as a maid before she was married. My grandfather’s family, having a little more money and status as a farming family, disapproved of Grandad marrying a maid. There are only two guests in the photo of their wedding, and while Nanny Hitchens looks so young beautiful in a silk, Deco-style gown, the image makes me feel sad. It’s a shock, really, to think that anyone could disapprove of anyone so kind and lovely as my Nanny.
She left school at 13 or 14, so it’s a surprise that she could write so well, and read so much. Nanny would read anything, but I particularly remember her collection of books about the royal family. I’d sit next to her under the ‘rug’ (her word for the thick brown blanket she kept on the sofa) and she’d talk me through photographs of the Queen Mother and Princess Diana like they were our relatives. She gave me a blow-by-blow account of Edward VIII’s abdication and the scandal of Mrs Simpson. Even though she was in her eighties, she recalled it all with such clarity, spinning a great yarn with gasps of surprise in all the right places – not a bad way to first encounter this event in history. Of course, it wasn’t history to her – it was something reported in the newspapers and the radio when she was twenty years old.
In the mornings, sometimes I would slip into Nanny’s bedroom and join her under the many blankets of her double bed. Getting ready for the day ahead was a leisurely affair – Nanny did her make-up and hair in bed with a mirror balanced on her lap, with GMTV gently chit-chatting to her in the corner. We’d have a good discussion – I loved talking with Nanny, because she never talked down to me. She could see that I was smart for my age. It was while we were wrapped up in bed that she told me about her brother that died as a POW in Italy in the Second World War. She always started these stories by saying, ‘I have to tell you these things, because I won’t always be here.’ Of course I hated hearing her say it, but she was right.