My maternal grandmother lost her parents to the Spanish flu, in early 1919. She was nine years old at the time. Her mother died in the morning. A servant rode to the undertaker in town and returned with men and a cart to collect the body. The undertaker’s men took one look at my grandmother’s father and went outside to sit under a tree and smoke until he was dead an hour or so later. That day, my grandmother and her sisters went to live with their grandparents.
My great-great-grandfather was a fussy and fastidious man. He interfered in everything, and no detail escaped his attention. Tasks had to be completed just so, and nothing else would do. His particular standards were such that the farm workers grew accustomed to standing around while he explained exactly how he wanted them to do something, and watching him complete the task in the process.
“Oh lordy, no,” he’d say to servants cutting meat to feed a sausage mincer. “Not like that!”
My grandmother told us that he’d then cut the meat into perfect cubes. “We do it neatly,” he’d say and feed the cubes into the mincer while the workers watched in puzzlement.
His wife, my great-great-grandmother, was not like that. She was a severe and tight-lipped woman. She didn’t care much for details, and she was not given to trifling emotions like sympathy and regret. She wanted to get things done.
“During the Boer War,” my grandmother told us, “when the English came to burn the farm, she set fire to things herself before they could.”
When she turned forty-three (see the story The half-life of simplicity), she had her coffin made, ready to be used. She had wanted a say in what it looked like, and she wanted to be familiar with it by the time they put her into it. As so often happens, difficult people live long lives, despite their belief that the Angel of Death is perched on the headboard. My great-great-grandmother did not die young and the coffin stood on the verandah for another forty years, filled from time to time with dried peaches.
While she hardly ever said anything, my great-great-grandmother is remembered to this day in a saying we have taken from her. In the nineteen-thirties, my grandmother told us, my great-great-grandfather started having headaches. He refused to travel to town to see a doctor, but he whimpered incessantly from the pain.
“Stop complaining!” my great-great-grandmother apparently snapped. “Go see the doctor.”
“The doctor can come to see me,” he replied.
Indeed, a few months later, when a gaping hole had opened above his temple, the doctor came to see him. By then my great-great-grandfather was almost delirious with pain, and it was too late. He had a meningeal tumour, and that was that. The doctor and my great-great-grandmother stood at the bedroom door and discussed the course his illness would take. My grandmother, then in her twenties, stood quietly by. From his bed, my great-great-grandfather moaned that he’d like a mirror so he could inspect the hole himself. At this point, my great-great-grandmother turned on him and uttered the words we use today in jest and sarcasm.
“Be quiet!” she snapped. “Your suffering has but begun.”