Bridget James was my paternal grandmother, an elegant, opinionated, talented craftswoman who could sew a dress, needlepoint a cushion, knit doll’s clothes, bake a fine cake, throw a dinner-party for twenty or rustle up a hat for the races in an afternoon. We grandchildren knew her as “Gorgor” which was my family’s bastardization of the Zulu word Gogo, meaning old lady, her children called her “Mum” and her contemporaries and siblings called her “Bridge” or “Bridgie”.
Bridget met my South African grandfather Neville James in London a short couple of years before World War Two. She was a milliner, crafting exquisite hats for fine London ladies, including, family rumour has it, the Queen. He was a young lawyer, en route to the bar. He fell for the tall, slender, fashionable Bridgie, married her and brought her home to Pietermaritzburg, where they quickly had their first baby, my aunt and godmother Belinda. He then joined the Natal Carbineers, had six months’ training and went north to fight in the desert. It takes no feat of imagination to consider her position – stuck in a humid colonial town with a baby, far from her family and cosmopolitan London life, her brand-new husband at war with no guarantee of return. There are intimations that she suffered, but Bridget was stoical and got on with things. The war never left her though; she abhorred waste and while my grandfather gave out much-coveted twenty rand notes hidden in anonymous envelopes on our birthdays, she was well-known for being parsimonious.
In 1948, Bridget and Neville moved into The Hermitage with their four children, the second oldest of whom was my father Oliver. It was a lovely turn-of-the-century villa, built of solid red brick, with a green tin roof and deep verandahs that gave respite from the heat. She swiftly made her mark on the home, sewing curtains and decorating rooms, and it became a welcoming and gracious place to visit. Bridget and Neville were great party-goers and givers, and the house lent itself to entertaining. As a small child I remember weaving through the legs of partying adults, my grandmother the glamorous centre of it all with her cigarettes and her pink gins. She loved to dress up, to laugh and be amused, and while she became a colonial housewife and mother of four, there was a part of her that remained that London party girl.
There is a family story that epitomises her glamour and zest. She and my grandfather were leaving home for a party, dressed to the nines and ready for a good evening out. As Bridget passed the jasmine bush that tumbled over their kitchen fence, she saw a tiny jewel-like chameleon. She plucked it off the bush, placed it on her dress and wore it for the night as a living brooch. Knowing her love for animals, I like to believe that she would have replaced it at the end of the evening.
Bridgie adored her dogs and for a while the Hermitage was taken over by a family of basset hounds that she raised. They were all named after English counties and our favourite was Rutland, a handome fellow who fathered many babies. As she grew older and dementia threatened, her children joked that while she forgot their names, she never forgot those of her dogs.
She and Neville were enthusiastic travellers, and visited England every year so that Bridgie could see her beloved twin brother Billy, and her younger sister Naomi. They often went to Italy, which Neville had fallen in love with during the war. His favourite places were Florence and Bellagio and, in 1997, I went to both with my aunt Belinda. We remembered Neville and Bridget as we walked the plazas and river-fronts of Florence and sat sipping coffee under the trees at Bellagio.
When I was small, Bridget used to love brushing my hair. I’d arrive at her house and be sent immediately to fetch the brush, which she kept in her dressing-table in the top right-hand drawer. All the way to her room I’d be clutching my right hand in a fist so as not to forget. Opening the drawer was like finding a trove of jewellery, make-up and scents, and I would finger a necklace or try on a bracelet, but I knew not to linger too long amongst the tempting treasures. I’d find the brush and bring it to her on the verandah where she’d be sitting surrounded by dogs, with a tray of tea to one side and some kind of craft project – a cushion, knitting – on her lap. She’d put the knitting aside and then brush my hair, while I listened to the hadedahs shrieking and stabbing the grass.
“There, that’s better,” she’d say. “Now let’s have some tea.”
Life was built around rituals – breakfast, with the invariable half-orange, around the dining-room table, morning and afternoon tea on the verandah with Marie biscuits or her delicious home-made crunchies, drinks at 5pm. Bridget always liked the pink gins I poured her when I was a little older, probably because I was heavy on the gin. Family were required to turn up for Sunday lunch every week and my father created dense atmosphere by regularly arriving late from golf, probably as his form of rebellion. Later when my parents’ marriage fell apart, it took my mother a couple of years to get up the courage to say, “No Bridget, I am not coming to Sunday lunch. Oliver can fetch the children on his way back from golf.”
While Bridget was a wonderful Gorgor, whipping up clothes for my dollies or outfits for me, she could be scary. Woe betide any grandchild who didn’t clear her plate, eat her peas, or express grateful thanks for the roasts. She was often impatient with her domestic workers, believing that whatever task they were doing from washing the car to washing the dogs, she could do better, and she loved to remind me, in huge inverted commas, that my lifelong best friend was “Jewish”. When I became a cub reporter on the local newspaper, I was friends with an “Indian man”, which caused some disquiet.
After Neville died, Bridget declined slowly. She remained at the Hermitage, visited daily by Belinda and regularly by the rest of the family. We would find her sitting in her study, watching sport on TV, reading the paper, or writing a letter to Naomi. Once she became convinced that the family had taken her to an old-age home, where she was receiving substandard treatment. Finally, after two weeks of complaints, my father hit on a plan. He put her in his car, promising that she was now going home. They drove for fifteen minutes, and then returned to the Hermitage, where he had asked her housekeepers to give her a good welcome. They drove up to the house she had just left, she gracefully received the friendly ululations and settled into the chair she had recently vacated. “Oh, it’s so nice to be back,” she said.
The London party girl had come home.