Sunday, May 27, 2012

Today I am .. Queen Granny

That Queen's getting a lot of attention at the moment isn't she? Not that I resent it (two days off? Thanks very much!). But this Jubilee, let's also celebrate the real 'diamond' old ladies in our own lives, who are all too often invisible in our youth-obsessed society.

If you could peek inside the minds of our elders, their living memories would, to us, resemble a nostalgic period drama - youthful versions of themselves inhabiting a world peppered with vintage cars, 1940s tea dresses, black and white movies and dance halls. If you are looking for escapism, just ask someone over 80 years old to describe their first date or what their favourite tipple was. The answers will take you back to another era.

So while we all rightly mark the 60 year reign of Elizabeth II, I will also be raising a glass to my very own Queen and grandmother, who is still amusing, offending and delighting people at 94.

Anne Rosselli was born in 1918. (1918!!). The last year of the First World War, six years after Titanic sank. She, and her brothers and sisters, couldn't have even imagined what the century ahead would hold; the jazz age, another war, the loose morals of the swinging sixties. No-one had heard of Elvis, Marilyn and The Beatles. All of this and more was yet to come.

Granny's own childhood memories of 1920s Ireland are prime material for a romantic novel, telling the story of four young siblings living in a crumbling ancestral home during the Irish Civil War. She still talks about having to row across the lake with her sisters to the next village, and hiding the silver under her bed when the house was raided. It must have been a colourful household, with three strong-willed teenage girls and their brother running riot in the little sailing village.

On my 21st birthday, I always remember what she wrote in my card: "How wonderful to be 21 - I wish I was again."

I love the thought of Anne Waller, 20-something, my own age. By all accounts, she was far more glamourous and beautiful. She certainly seemed popular with the local men in her hometown in Tipperary, who describe her as 'prettier than Grace Kelly' and still all claim to have been her boyfriend. There are ongoing rumours that Granny ran away on a motorbike with member of the Russian aristocracy; when pressed, all she will say is, "We didn't get very far."

Nowadays, Granny seems shocked by her age, as though she doesn't recognise herself anymore; on her last birthday she exclaimed incredulously, "I'm ridiculously old!" She is almost 100% deaf and we rely on a notepad and lipreading to converse, but talking to her about her youth doesn't just immerse my mother, sister and I in another world - it also helps Granny to reaffirm her identity. In these stories she is young, feisty Anne, as she remembers and knows herself, not just an elderly woman.

And there are plenty of tales to tell. After attending Trinity University in Dublin, she became a Fanny (don't laugh) during the War, driving ambulances despite having no license. During the 1940s and '50s, she was married to a tea planter in Ceylon and Malaya, where she painted stunning watercolours of the surrounding jungle and dabbled in racing cars ("I was the fastest woman in Malaya", she claims). She tells a terrifying story about time she discovered a poisonous snake in my uncle's cot.

After that marriage ended and she returned home, she caused quite the scandal with her choice of second husband - my grandpa; a cheeky Anglo-Italian who was 11 years her junior, an incurable practical joker and eligible man about town. They moved to a farm in the Fens and made quite the pair for the remainder of the century.

These days, she's more Prince Philip than the Queen, frequently making inappropriate comments and informing people they've got terribly fat. Watching an old lady nobly hobble from one end of the silent hospital ward to another, Granny loudly declared from her bed, "I can walk better than her!"

And like the second and third generations of Rosselli ladies, my granny still has a weakness for a broad-shouldered rugby player. Last Easter, we had an exceptionally tall, well-built young American friend joining us for lunch; Granny stared wide-eyed at him over the roast lamb, leaned towards my sister and I and conspirationally asked, "Who's that?", before taking another look and announcing "VERY nice!"

She's also nothing if not generous, constantly giving away her Christmas gifts, and insisting her visitors take a shot of whisky (which she naughtily hides in her wardrobe from the staff in her care home, like Marilyn's character 'Sugar' in Some Like it Hot). Last month, she enquired as to when I was bringing my boyfriend over to visit, and I wrote on her notepad that I don't have a boyfriend - she paused for a moment and then said brightly, "Well you can have one of mine!" Now there's an offer I can't refuse.

So this Diamond Jubilee weekend, while we're all enjoying delightfully retro street parties, afternoon teas and '50s themed club nights, remember that the real vintage queens are still all around us. A conversation with the older ladies in your life might just enrich both your lives and transport you to another world entirely.


  1. What a wonderful tribute to Granny - you must be so proud to be her granddaughter, as I am to be her daughter. She certainly is a hard act to follow!! Lots of love, Mum xxxxxx

  2. How loely, Emily! I'm so glad your mother pointed me to it.

  3. Oh Emily! What a beautiful piece! I miss all of you rosselli ladies!
    Granny is such a wonderful lady-I just read some of it out to Jonny and was telling him all about her :)
    Lots of love, Hels xx

  4. Really glad you enjoyed it, there's so much more I could have written (but will save that for the inevitable movie of her life...). Hels would be so lovely to see you soon! xxxxx

  5. I printed this for Granny! She was delighted! Love Hen xxxx

  6. Thank you Emily for a perfect reminder of my beloved 2nd cousin Ann. We shared a love of our gardens and many other....

    Teddy Waller

  7. Loved your story about your Gran! I am a vintage lady who's own mum
    is 90 yrs old, wish these two could have a good chat about the times they've seen.
    I hope to keep a "good eye" for a long long time and be like your Gran--always checking out the guys !
    Sierra Sue
    Twain Harte, Ca. USA

    1. Thanks Twain, your granny sounds like a kindred spirit! :)

  8. Emily, I was enchanted to read about your granny and do remember meeting her many years ago. If you dare mention the surname, then remember me to her and wish her happy birthday.I think, given different circumstances, you wouLd have been entertained by a few stories your paternal grandmother could have told yoU.Guy