Illustration by Josie Moir

In absolutely classic fashion, when my Grandma Jill and I sat down to talk about her life, she had already provided me with over a thousand words worth of preliminary thoughts. Wanting her answers to be thorough and representative, she asked her best friend since childhood some questions too, just to compare notes. Just as with my Granny, I felt that I knew a fair amount about Grandma’s life already. We come from a big, loud Jewish family where telling stories is a joyful love language, where sitting around the table for Friday Night Dinners is an opportunity to share and re-share the anecdotes that make us lose ourselves in laughter every time. But again, I learnt a huge amount from this conversation, and feel that the closeness that we have always had can only be strengthened by it.

To summarise her notes, my Grandma said that “thinking back, I was a very innocent and unworldly child and teenager in 1950s and 60s Jewish Manchester, and at university [from] 1964-67, right on the cusp of huge social changes. But I don’t think I was atypical of someone of my middle-class single-sex private-school background.” Despite this innocence, her childhood had a lot of freedom – as a five-year-old, she played on the sandhills behind her house supervised only by her eight-year-old big sister and her friends, and by the age of eight, she was already walking a mile to and from school alone, crossing major roads without much concern. 

“Those freedoms are much more restricted now,” she said, talking about how to see a small, satchel-carrying child walking to school on their own nowadays would be quite a sad picture. But then, she explained, it wasn’t abnormal or dangerous, and her parents never doubted that she would get back, never ran to the door saying “oh thank goodness you’re home”. Worries about strangers never felt particularly prominent, and she did not feel unsafe growing up.

In other ways, she was very sheltered and had quite limited freedom. Her parents had certain standards, and whilst education was something that they highly valued, the expectation was that the two girls would go to university, and their younger brother would go to *Oxford*. She had a positive relationship with her parents, “but – and this isn’t a *but* I suppose – there were personal things I would never have talked about with them”. They discussed “what a girl of my upbringing mustn’t do”, and the understanding that sex before marriage would bring immense shame on the family was unspoken but unambiguous. 

Despite her father being a doctor, her sex education was minimal, coming from a book that began by outlining how banana flies procreated and worked up to human beings. This lack of openness to discussion extended through her secondary and university years, and she recalls how “one of my school-friends became pregnant a year or so after leaving school. Shock! To my knowledge, good girls didn’t sleep with their boyfriends.” Discussing personal relationships was something she only did with her very closest friends, and whilst her parents knew her boyfriend very well – she and my Grandpa met when they were 15 and have been together for over 60 years now – it wasn’t something that they ever talked about together.

Even at university in London in the mid-to-late 60s, when contraception was becoming more accessible and social standards more liberal, in my Grandma’s books it would have been “very daring to sleep with a boyfriend”. And whilst norms were shifting, institutions often took some time to recognise this and adjust accordingly, as reflected in a story Grandma tells where “one girl in my hall of residence was sent down for having a boy in her room overnight. He wasn’t sent down…”. Evidently, repression and regression remained pervasive despite the period of revolution. 

Going into education, career, and parenthood, the importance of gender and expectations was very apparent. Her parents’ prioritisation of marriage and children above where she studied was mirrored by her university – and even herself. During her modern languages degree, Grandma “had no qualms” about asking her university head of department to excuse her from her year in France “because [she was] engaged and would prefer not to be away from [her] fiancé”. And he seemingly had no qualms about granting this request. 

My grandparents got married aged 22, straight after university, and when my Grandma had my mother aged 26, she was described in her pregnancy notes as “elderly primigravida”. Choosing to wait a few years between marriage and children was somewhat controversial in her milieu, and Grandma’s decision to continue teaching – first one afternoon a week, then moving up to eight hours per week – after having children was confusing to her conventional father who many times asked her “are you sure you want to do this, Jill?” When my Grandpa pushed my mother’s buggy around on Monday afternoons, eyebrows raised: “Where’s Jill? Is she unwell?”. Whilst children were the focal point, her world continued to turn outside of the house with work and a busy social life, and this was beneficial to everyone.

Something that Grandma talks about sometimes is the way that her life differed from that of her older sister because one of them moved away from home, and the other didn’t. My Great Auntie also married young but settled in Manchester close to where she and her husband both grew up and went to university. Reflecting on this, my Grandma states that “my sister and I followed different paths, partly because I went to university away from home” and that as a result, both of this and of her sister being just a few years older, she and her sister ended up on different sides of the same generation at a time of significant social change. 

It was becoming much more acceptable for married women of my Grandma’s upbringing to have children and careers simultaneously. My Grandma retrained and became a counsellor after her children left home, while her sister chose not to have a career. This also made a difference in terms of religious upbringing for their children and grandchildren, as my Great Auntie’s family remained embedded in the Manchester Jewish community, whilst my Grandma and her family experienced being some of the small number of Jewish people in Colchester, attending the Orthodox synagogue for lack of a Reform option. Her sister and her family kept kosher whilst my Grandma moved away from that. I remember asking my Dad for a ham sandwich at my Great Auntie’s house when I was seven or eight and being rapidly, emphatically shushed.

My Grandma’s traditional, Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish parents from Eastern European families had different expectations for their children and their grandchildren, and my Grandma’s mother, my Great Grandma, didn’t mind one bit that my mother married my father, who isn’t Jewish. What she did object to, however, was the fact that my Mum didn’t change her surname. It baffled her, and she worried that parents at school pick-up would think that because she had a different name to us, it meant that our parents weren’t married, or that by not changing her name she was indicating that she wasn’t proud to be married to my Dad.

Coming from a background like this – where reputation, image, and social norms held so much gravity – and becoming such an open-minded, interested, forward-thinking person is not easy. And whilst it helped that my Grandpa’s Central European Ashkenazi Jewish parents were considerably more liberal, my grandparents had to forge something of their own path when it came to raising their children.

We are a very happy family. Even in the most difficult moments, we are so lucky to be able to rely on one another, and to all be able to lean on and support one another. As we were wrapping up our conversation, Grandma reminded me of a little moment that I think about quite often, at her mother’s funeral in 2011 when I was eight, and I held Grandma’s hand as she cried. “That’s what loving and family is all about,” she said, and I agree. She is incredibly thoughtful, insightful, articulate, and kind. When I grow up, I would like to be a lot like her.