I never knew my maternal grandmother, Elisabeth, although her story has been passed down to me in fragments. Born in 1915, the daughter of a diplomat, her transitory childhood was spent in Belgium, France, Persia and China, and she later chose to replicate this nomadic existence by marrying a dashing young diplomat named Gerry in 1939, just as the world teetered on the edge of war.
When my mother gave me some of Elisabeth’s possessions – her diaries, her books of lists, her Dior dress – I set out to find out more about her. I discovered that Elisabeth had a life characterised by impermanence and intrigue, and she experienced great adversity, despite the superficial glamour of the world of diplomacy. Hers was a life of extremes, one that initially seemed worlds apart from mine.
And yet I have learnt many important lessons from Elisabeth and her story. Things I will carry with me as I raise my own children and that reflect the strength of character and force of will that kept her going through depressions, wars, typhoid outbreaks, rootlessness and her ultimate, untimely illness. In difficult times, I have felt Elisabeth at my shoulder. I hunted for a house she had lived in and felt her walking beside me. I caught glimpses of myself in photographs of her. I found ordinary-seeming links to her (our love of almond chocolate, our urge to write) and I found profound ones (my last conversation with my mother, the feeling that Elisabeth lives on as much in my daughter as in me).
What she left behind was not just diaries, photographs and letters but a resilient spirit that would permeate my mother’s – and my own – life. And recently, as my mother slipped away, finally overcome by cancer, I would draw on this resilience and Elisabeth’s presence more than I could have imagined.
Things My Grandmother Taught Me About Resilience
1 That committing things to paper can help the grieving process
Elisabeth’s older brother committed suicide when he was 27. Left to sort out his belongings, she turned to list-making for structure and solace when all was hopeless. Writing a list of his possessions was a way to draw in her breath and expel the sorrow. In the last days of my mother’s life, we made lists of our own. As well as practical lists of things she wanted in the hospice (“nightdress, Little Dorrit, raspberries from the garden”), she asked us to note down all our family holidays. This sparked memories about things long since forgotten and gave them permanence. It also brought home the unfathomable finality of what was happening: there would be no more family holidays. Yet, despite their useful distraction, these deathbed lists also showed me that no matter how efficiently you prepare and organise, some things are beyond our control. Death cannot be filed away or contained. Something will seep out.
2 To find creativity in mundane places
Whether doing chores, recording household accounts or writing her diaries, Elisabeth tried to find a sense of purpose and creativity in the everyday. She used her lists and notebooks to spin stories and to play with seemingly ordinary events, turning household tasks into a meaningful act. Inspired by Elisabeth, I made my own lists of household chores. I pinned the lists to the fridge, and they seemed so impossibly unachievable that I asked for help. My children and husband pitched in and we shared the load. I hadn’t known I was overwhelmed until I saw it all laid out in black and white. Tedious domestic tasks became a team effort. And I learnt that I couldn’t do it all.
3 How to thrive in a man's world
The work of the Foreign Office wives’ in Elisabeth’s time was unpaid and not formally recognised. Despite her status as a kind of BOGOF, Elisabeth was indispensable. She learned how to send ciphers, to sparkle at cocktail parties and smile politely at even the most ludicrous VIP. Writing about one of her father’s colleagues, Elisabeth remarked that “Mr Blackburn can do no work at all unless Mrs B. is around. Ha! The influence of women, tra-la, tra-la!” Elisabeth’s refusal to be overlooked, and her determination to find a place for herself, has helped me to develop a quiet confidence and to value what I do. As a writer, I seek out other women, peers who know how to field the inevitable questions about juggling, who have been mansplained to and who use humour and intelligence while a louder, brasher male dominates the room.
When I feel winded with grief at the loss of my mother, when sadness physically stops me in my tracks, I think of Elisabeth battling on. I draw strength from her, knowing that the despair will pass, that my thoughts will stop tumbling
4 That you can survive despair
Elisabeth had to endure separations from her children, as well as difficult journeys overseas with small children in tow. She describes watching them leave Rio by ship, she and Gerry left behind to await orders: “We got a large white tablecloth and waved it wildly, till they disappeared towards the open ocean.” Motherhood didn’t come easily to Elisabeth at first and she suffered savage bouts of postnatal depression. Shortly after the birth of her second son, she wrote: “To my horror... I felt those terrible symptoms I’d had after S and that had caused so such months of misery… I keep on crying, feel utterly exhausted, but above all it’s the turmoil in my head that is impossible to bear.” At the time, this was dismissed as “baby blues” or “gland trouble” and there was little for Elisabeth to do but wait for the darkness to dissipate. I have enormous sympathy for her and admiration for the way she survived these periods of despair. When I feel winded with grief at the loss of my mother, when sadness physically stops me in my tracks, I think of Elisabeth battling on. I draw strength from her, knowing that the despair will pass, that my thoughts will stop tumbling.
5 That there are threads that bind us, even beyond death
There were moments when, as I wove together the various fragments of Elisabeth’s life, I lost track of real time and where I was. The edges of my life and hers seemed to be blurring. Once, when I was close to giving up writing – despondent, broke and stuck – a book arrived in the post. It was a novel Elisabeth had started to write, just two weeks before she died. She only managed a few pages of her book. I knew then that I had no excuse not to finish mine. My own book became a love letter to a woman I never met but who changed my life, and taught me so much.