As a child, I was lucky enough to have a great-grandmother who told me plentiful stories about her life. This piece is loosely based on some of the stories I remember, but I’ve also used dramatic license to embellish these into a complete story.
The Patient Lover
Inspired by the life and death of my great-grandmother, Ivy Conway (1893-1991).
Death courted Ivy for the whole of her life.
Born in 1893, the fourth child out of the six her parents would somehow squeeze into their tiny two-up-two-down back-to-back cottage, she nearly didn’t make it. Her mother bit down hard on a stick, thinking that her other deliveries hadn’t been so difficult. As the scrawny mass of baby, blood and vernix slithered into the world, Emily started to haemorrhage; for the next hour or two, the baby was all but forgotten as she lay, wrapped in a clean towel, in a box in the corner of the room. Luckily, Ivy’s older sisters, Mabel and Evelyn, despite being only six and four, knew instinctively that this little scrap of humanity needed taking care of. When Ivy finally let out a thin wail, Mabel picked her up out of the wooden crate and held her tight, whilst Evelyn fetched a cup of milk from the pantry downstairs. For the next twenty-four hours, they dribbled milk off a spoon into the baby’s mouth, until Emily was stable and could finally feed her newborn child. Death shook his head and retreated until another day.
Despite this shaky start in life, Ivy grew and thrived, just like her siblings. Their father was a cobbler so there was little money but a lot of love. Two years later, Renee arrived, followed (after a more respectable three years’ gap) by Charlie. By now, the little house was bursting at the seams: Ma and Pa had the small bedroom and the children shared the larger one, dividing it into two with a blanket strung over a rope that went from one side of the room to another. The girls squabbled and fought for space in the bed they all shared, but it was a companionable relationship and they loved each other fiercely.
As, one by one, the elder siblings became old enough to work in the mill, Ivy found she could earn a ha’penny a week by carrying the lunch pail to the mill and back every day at noon. This was one of the perks of being the next eldest: when she started work herself, it would be Renee’s turn.
On her eleventh birthday, Ivy was treated to a whole egg for breakfast to mark the occasion of her first day at work. She would be going to school in the mornings this week and then doing the afternoon shift at the mill; and this would alternate with a week of mill first, school second. She grew to hate the morning shifts because she always had to go home and change her cotton-impregnated dress before going to school, and this meant she was often late and would be beaten by the schoolmaster.
Death was a frequent visitor to the mill. The cotton dust in the air had a way of working itself into people’s lungs. Many of the older workers died well before their time. Occasionally, he would steal a glance at Ivy, working busily; he always had a particular fondness for those who had eluded him earlier.
He was the uninvited guest at Ivy’s wedding to Alec, some years later. Perhaps it was his macabre sense of humour, but he couldn’t resist reminding her of his presence with the funeral hearse that almost collided with her carriage as she and her husband left the churchyard. The black plumed horses made a startling contrast to the coloured ribbons Ivy’s sisters had tied to the carriage axles; but Ivy was too starry-eyed with love to notice them.
As time progressed, Death found himself busier than ever. The onset of the Great War saw people dying in their thousands. Miraculously, Ivy remained unscathed – although there was a tricky moment when Alec lashed out in a drunken temper: she hit her head when she fell and was unconscious for several minutes. Fearing for their baby’s safety as much as for her own, Ivy fled her marriage and her husband (they were by now living in Scotland) and made the perilous journey back to Hyde and the safety of her family.
Death followed her to her old spot in the mill, watching attentively as she worked a gruelling sixteen-hour day, six days a week. He left her side for long enough to visit her older brother, Harold, as he lay in a hospital bed, his arm blown away by a bomb. Northern grit ran through the entire Conway family, though, and Harold left hospital some months later, living until his sixties despite his missing limb. Death sighed and returned to Ivy. Perhaps the Second World War would push her into his arms. But no, Ivy’s resilience kept her, her new husband, his children and her daughter alive and well. Even the air raids couldn’t touch them – in fact, the only bombshell that did any damage was when her son-in-law ran off with another woman the year before the war ended, so that he never saw his second daughter; but they soldiered on.
Through decades of disease and despair, Death kept a constant vigil at Ivy’s side, more faithful than either of her husbands. The car accident that killed her stepson left her with a slight limp but otherwise unharmed; the byssinosis that choked the lungs of so many of her former co-workers in the mill somehow passed her by. Time and time again, he issued an invitation for her to join him; on every occasion, she declined.
Renee died in her eighties, a casualty of carcinomatosis. The twenty cigarettes a day she’d smoked for sixty years eventually took their toll. Mabel was only seventy-six – but then she’d had thirteen children and the rapid succession of pregnancies and births, coupled with the anxiety of rearing so many at the same time, had aged her prematurely: her hair was grey by the time she was twenty-five. Charlie, who, as a child, had flirted with Death far more frequently than his sister, nevertheless lived to the ripe old age of eighty-one. Ivy often told her great-grandchildren the thrilling tale of how Charlie had stopped the runaway grocer’s horse-and-cart when he was only a teenager; but he was more likely to have ended his days at the hands of an irate husband, since his womanising ways in later life were legendary. Evelyn died in an old people’s home, well into her nineties. Almost totally blind after a botched cataract operation at eighty-four, she claimed that every time there was a power cut in the Home, she could “hear them carrying out the dead bodies.” As a girl, she’d been unbearably bossy towards Ivy and Renee; as an adult, she was equally unpleasant to her husband and daughter, alienating Alwyn to such an extent that she only visited the Home once or twice a year. Despite this, Ivy wept uncontrollably when Evelyn died: she was now the last remaining sibling and the loneliness was unbearable. “They’ve all left me,” she sobbed as she sat by the fire with her great-granddaughter. Emily (named for Ivy’s mother) held the tiny old lady as if she were a child, her fifteen-year-old wisdom realising it was better to let her cry.
Several times, there were false alarms. A bout of severe pleurisy almost finished Ivy off in 1982. Death sat by her bedside, waiting patiently. She was sufficiently ill for her daughter to make the three hundred miles’ trip from Sheppey to Summit, to be with her mother at the end. It was a wasted journey when Ivy rallied unexpectedly, causing Death to retreat once more and bide his time.
The following year, Ivy moved to Kent herself, claiming that she “couldn’t stand another northern winter”. Sharing an isolated house with her daughter and the dog, she was happy enough, walking round the garden each afternoon and watching ‘Songs of Praise’ every Sunday evening.
By the time she was ninety-five, Ivy started planning her hundredth birthday party. She had an ever-decreasing guest list – not just because all her old friends kept dying off, but mostly because whenever she fell out with someone, she crossed them off the list in a fit of childish petulance. “Well, he’s not coming to my party now!” she was often heard to say.
She never made it to her party. Death, who had waited so patiently for almost ten decades, finally managed to entice her into his arms just a few months before her ninety-eighth birthday. Ivy died as she had lived, with a song on her lips and her heart full of love. Death had finally claimed her – and, like all the best things in life, she had been worth waiting for.