FRANCES HARDY describes the recent funeral of her Granny Madeline

The saddest farewell: No friends allowed. No hymns. And just six mourners not even able to hug each other. In a bittersweet account of love and loss, FRANCES HARDY describes the recent funeral of her family’s adored Granny Madeline

  • Frances Hardy reflected on saying her last goodbyes to Granny Madeline
  • The 98-year-old who died in March was buried at Bournemouth cemetery
  • Due to coronavirus there was no formal service, no hymns, prayers or eulogy
  • Frances revealed plans to have a memorial service when restrictions are lifted  
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Just six of us gathered in a sun-dappled cemetery to say our last goodbyes to Granny Madeline. Six mourners: a scant few for a life so long and one so richly loved.

The coffin was lowered into its plot and we queued separately to stoop, one by one, and place our single roses on top of it. As I watched my daughter Amy’s face crumple into tears, I had to quell my impulse to reach out and hug her.

We remained detached, the appropriate two metres apart. These are the rules of social distancing, not even to be breached at times of sorrow. Because Amy, 28, and I live apart — she in Buckinghamshire, I in West Sussex — we cried singly and silently, separated by necessity; bound by a communion of grief.

We counted ourselves fortunate to be there at all, gathered round the family plot in Bournemouth cemetery where Granny now rests, next to her husband Ken and not far from her daughter Jackie whom she outlived by more than 20 years.

Frances Hardy reflected on the life of her family’s adored Granny Madeline, who was laid to rest at Bournemouth cemetery. Pictured left to right: Madeline, Amy and Frances

Granny lived to a great age. She was 98 when she died in March, quietly and comfortably in hospital where she spent her last days just before coronavirus made visiting a hazard, her frail body finally succumbing to the depredations of age. She leaves a son, Rick (my former partner and Amy’s father), six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

There was no formal service; no hymns, prayers or eulogy — too hazardous to gather in a church for a funeral. Instead we will celebrate Granny’s life in a memorial service once the restrictions have been lifted, raise our glasses, sing songs and remember the joy she brought us.

At her funeral one Wednesday last month the words, although heartfelt, were minimal. The old and frail did not attend and those who came did so because they had no young children and could safely travel to the graveside and back in a day.

So there was granddaughter Laura, 52, her husband Marcus, grandson David, 51 — who made a 600-mile round trip on his motorbike from his home in North Wales in one day to say his goodbye — Amy, Rick and me.

We waited in the sunshine for the hearse bearing Granny’s coffin and followed it on foot through the gravestones to her plot. There, six pallbearers, some wearing masks, lowered her into the ground.

Rick spoke, reminding us that Granny — as we all called her — believed in an afterlife and had called on her Heavenly Father to deliver her to it in her final days.

She was ready to go; to see Ken and Jackie again. Granny, he said, had never made a single enemy throughout her long life; she would be welcomed into the Elysian Fields.

Frances said Amy being born brought hope to Madeline as she grieved Ken. Pictured: Madeline gives Amy a hug

The silence that ensued hung heavily. It is hard to talk naturally when you have to project your voice. Rick instinctively proffered his hand for the funeral director to shake and had to be reminded that such contact was not permitted.

Even common courtesies cannot be observed. There were, of course, no refreshments, no wake or shared reminiscences. We waved our goodbyes and travelled home alone with our memories.

And there are many of them, because I had known Granny Madeline for more than 30 years.

In life’s serendipitous way, Amy was born just before her granddad, Ken, died. This new little life brought hope to Madeline as she grieved: she offered to look after her when I went back to work.

And so a bond was forged between Amy and ‘Gran-Gran’. She’d push her buggy to the park, feed the ducks with her, picnic in the New Forest and cook her favourite fish fingers and chips for tea. Amy adored her and the sentiment was reciprocated.

When Rick and I split up in 1995, my friendship with Madeline endured: she loved Rick and me, she said, and the small fact of our separation would never change that.

And there you have the measure of her: she was, through all the vicissitudes of my relationship with her son, a constant, kind and non-partisan presence. Every year — while she remained fit and able — she (and Rick) joined us for family Christmases and we in turn, celebrated birthdays, high-days and holidays with her.

Frances admits she felt privileged to have been one of the few invited to Granny Madeline’s graveside. Pictured: Madeline with Ken on their wedding day in 1942

Unusual, you may think, but neither Granny nor I believed rancour or recrimination were helpful. So we carried on being friends. Not a cross word was uttered.

Granny was sad, of course, but she did not apportion blame. And I was keen, too, that Amy should remain close to her. So we carried on visiting. There was not even the briefest of interregnums.

And it was, in part, because she was never interfering — unlike the mothers-in-law of comedy and folklore — that we got on so well.

Ever-increasing numbers of grandparents are resorting to court to gain access to their grandchildren after divorces and separations tear them apart.

Recent figures from the Ministry of Justice show that paternal grandparents are most likely to miss out. So I’m aware that my friendship with Madeline was rare. It is why I felt privileged to have been one of the very few invited to her graveside.

Gentle and long-suffering, Granny lived by the axiom: ‘Don’t moan or no one will want to come and see you.’ She had a wonderfully infectious giggle and great sense of humour.

Lots of gentlemen friends courted her — in a very decorous way — after she was widowed, and when neighbour Stanley (whose garden backed on to her own) built a stile so she could hop over and visit without walking the long way round, we wondered if romance would bloom.

Ken who lived in a large Victorian house on East Park Parade, declared to himself that he would marry Madeline, when he first spotted her. Pictured: The pair on their wedding day 

But Granny was ever loyal to Ken, even after his death. It was the way things were in her day.

She was born in 1921. It was an era of high unemployment, privation and political tumult. The average house cost £320.

Madeline’s father, George, had served in the cavalry in the Great War then worked as a gardener and chauffeur at a succession of grand houses.

She remembered the scrimping and saving of her childhood. ‘My mother Kate was a wonderful homemaker and however small and cramped our little tied cottage, she would keep it as neat as a new pin,’ she told me.

There was jubilation when she won a scholarship, first to Daventry Grammar School then Northampton School for Girls. It was when she was walking to school — across parkland known as ‘the racecourse’ in Northampton — that she first saw Ken.

He lived in a large Victorian house on East Park Parade (all tessellated tile floors and grand staircases), and when he spotted Madeline — petite, raven-haired and brown-eyed — he declared to himself: ‘She’s the girl I’m going to marry.’

Ken, the son of a dentist, had a head of tousled blond hair and striking steel-blue eyes. He intercepted Madeline on her daily walk and they started courting.

Ken (pictured) and Madeline were separated by war, but they managed to get married during one home leave in 1942

Then another war separated them. Ken became a sergeant in the RAF, working in radar and travelling to Germany on covert operations. But during one home leave he and Madeline were married, on Valentine’s Day 1942: she in a gown made of parachute silk with a circlet of white flowers in her dark-as-midnight hair; he in his RAF uniform. Little over a year later their daughter Jackie was born. Ken came home on leave to see her. ‘You have a baby girl,’ said the midwife at the maternity home, before he’d even introduced himself. ‘I can tell she’s yours. She looks exactly like you!’

Madeline belonged to a stoic, uncomplaining generation: it was not easy raising her baby alone while Ken was at war. She worked, too — as an accomplished shorthand typist in solicitors’ firms.

Then, in the 1960s, she became personal assistant to Sir Gyles Isham, the 12th Baronet of Lamport. She remained a devoted employee and he was ever-grateful for her constancy and patience.

When he died in 1976, he bequeathed her a parcel of land in rural Northamptonshire on which she and Ken built a house.

They lived there until their move to Bournemouth in the mid-1980s. They wanted to be near Rick and me, and Jackie, who lived close by with children Rachel, Laura and David.

Granny Madeline (pictured) grew frail and unable to look after herself in the final months of her life, and had to have carers to help with washing and dressing 

And so we come full circle. In the closing years of her life, Madeline moved in with Rick, who made a flat for her in his house.

In her bright sitting room overlooking the garden hung a gallery of photos that charted her eventful life. Ken, the children, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren: each had their allotted space and she loved them all. ‘And I love you , too,’ she told me more often than I can remember.

She was wise, kind and tender-hearted. Towards the end —although she never suffered from dementia — she’d repeat stories, especially the one about the Shire horse under whose hooves she inadvertently rolled as a toddler.

‘And the horse knew instinctively he had to protect me, which he did until my father rescued me,’ she’d recall.

Another refrain was: ‘I’m very impatient with things, but extremely patient with people.’ And she was. She wouldn’t read an instruction manual or try to fix a broken household appliance. But I never heard her raise her voice to anyone in anger. It was, as Shakespeare wrote of Cordelia’s, ‘ever soft, gentle and low’.

Granny grew frail and unable to look after herself in the final months of her life. Many sons living alone would have consigned her to a home. Rick did not.

Carers were enlisted to help with washing and dressing. As Granny’s mobility declined they came in three times daily, a bustling army of helpers whose ministrations she gratefully accepted.

Frances said she and Amy were blessed to have slipped in to see Granny Madeline before all wards were closed. Pictured: Granny Madeline’s graveside

And Rick would feed her, patiently, as you would a tiny orphaned bird; little morsels of her favourite food, until her appetite deserted her, her weary legs could no longer bear her weight and even speaking became a monumental effort.

In March, just before Covid-19 forced our hospitals to become fortresses, Granny Madeline’s health declined sharply. She was admitted to the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospital where the staff cared for her with the kindness she deserved.

The last time I saw her, her eyes were closed against the world. She was ready to go. I stroked her head and told her I loved her. She seemed to stir but did not reply.

Then Amy visited — we were blessed to have slipped in before all wards were closed — and said her last goodbye. She held Granny’s hand. She, too, told her how much she was loved. And this time a small miracle occurred. Granny — who had not spoken for weeks — seemed to rally. She said just one word: ‘Amy.’

It means ‘beloved’, and to Granny she always was.

And since then — as she stood crying silently at her Granny’s grave — although hugs were not permitted, that little word has lifted and sustained her.

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