Old ladies aren’t what they used to be – they aren’t as old, for starters – but Jason Goodwin is full of praise for them and says they deserve their own day.
Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation, was the traditional turn of the year. Life began afresh: resolutions, new contracts, field distributions.
When we adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, we lost 11 days and, although Lady Day remained March 25 for church purposes, the Exchequer stuck to the old Lady Day, which fell on April 6. I think we ought to start observing Old Lady Day. There are many old ladies who deserve commemoration and celebration.
Old is a relative term, of course. When my sister and I were small, we went to live with our grandmother, who seemed like an old person. I daresay she was in her mid-60s. She wore cardigans and drove a Morris Traveller. She had studied at the Slade and, most years, one of her watercolours was chosen for the RA Summer Exhibition.
She had spent much of her life in India and her cottage in the New Forest was full of bronze Shivas, sandalwood boxes and rugs and she had a small brown nut, with an ivory stopper, out of which, by a miracle, you could shake what seemed like hundreds of tiny ivory elephants.
Life seemed perfect because it was governed by routine. Every morning, larcenous tits drank the cream off the milk on the doorstep. On Thursdays, we drove to Mrs Robinson’s to do our shopping and were allowed a paper bag of peppermint creams. From time to time, a man came out from Lyndhurst to wind the clock.
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For drama, we had the adventures of our neighbour, Miss Pincher, and her boxer dog. Our snobbery was directed at the people in the manor, who had a daughter called Tracy Jane.
Our outings were confined to visits to our aunts, Granny’s sisters. Each had something to recommend them: Aunt Pooh had spent her life in Borneo, possibly as a spy, and spoke fluent Pidgin; Aunt Joan had married a naval hero. She kept his dress uniform and sword in the drawing room and allowed us to play with a mirror laid flat and a blob of mercury from a broken barometer. They were entertaining old ladies and I will celebrate them on Old Lady Day.
You might say that old ladies aren’t what they used to be and, in some respects, that’s true. They aren’t so old, for one thing. Margie Owen is a human-rights lawyer who, in her 80s, still travels to the UN and to Turkey seeking justice for the Kurds.
We met at a funeral for Bronnie Cunningham, one of my oldest friends. Bronnie wrote the Puffin Joke Book and, for several years, supported her family with her winnings from competitions off the back of cereal packets.
Her father had run the Bank of India but, when she declared her intention of marrying the man she loved, who suffered from mortal emphysema, he disinherited her. She married anyway. We buried her in the garden she had tended for almost 60 years.
Once you get started, there are no end of old ladies to celebrate, working hard for the common weal, like The Queen. Old ladies run the country: they look after old men, as well as children and grandchildren, run crèches, volunteer at hospices, teach children to read and join hedge-laying parties.
Thousands of beautiful hassocks adorn the pews of parish churches, thoughtfully embroidered by women in retirement. The churches themselves are swept, decorated, embowered and protected by older ladies of the village. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine villages without them. They run fêtes with an iron fist, not always bothering with the velvet glove. A toast to them all on Old Lady Day.
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