Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Helen the Hero: A tribute for International Women's Day

I could write screeds and screeds about the people who made me. My parents' influence on me has been great, of course - but since it's International Women's Day I thought I would write about my favourite feminist and one of the most inspirational people I know: My Gran. Helen Warren - born on the 14th April 1921, making her 96 years old. Here are just five reasons why she continues to inspire me:

1. Her bravery

She grew up in Edinburgh, the eldest of three sisters, in a tenement flat. Her father was a craftsman and very artistic - I wish I could have met the man who painted the bathroom walls with the Seven Disney Dwarves! She remembers it well and talks about how she and her sisters would watch from the window at all the people spilling and dancing out into the street after the pubs closed - the sound of music always filled the air, she said.

Music was a huge part of my Gran's life - she was crazy about jazz, and although she never learned to play any musical instruments, she loved to sing. Her father played the accordion and she remembers how they would often sing together as a family, and she would watch in admiration as he played. 

At just 18, she was living away from home and working in a munitions factory in London. Part of her job was to climb to the roof and signal the air raid alarm. When I ask her about this, and if she ever felt scared - she says no, it was just something I had to do. She has told me she never felt scared when the War was on and I can tell by her demeanor even now that this is true; she still brews with that same old fighting spirit and exclaims that "We just wanted to beat those damn Nazis!"

2.  She never settled for second best

During the air raids, the workers would shelter in the basement where my Papa, Albert, played piano and my Gran would sing. Their mutual love of music was obviously a big attraction for both of them, and it wasn't long before Albert had asked her to marry him. She agreed, but on one condition: that they move to Scotland. 

Even though my Gran was a wife and a mother, she was never submissive in that traditional sense. She made sure that her life would continue as normal. She was Helen, the creative, the career focused, the politically active. She raised my mother and uncle in the best possible way - she showed them love and support, encouraging them (and maybe on some occasions pushing them!) but she also demonstrated through her own life that you should never let one thing define you.

3. Her passion for the causes she believed in

From a young age, I remember my Gran bringing me along to endless marches and demonstrations. I was even pictured in the paper once, aged one, as we petitioned against the closure of the local maternity hospital! A Feminist, a Nationalist and a Trade Unionist - Helen has always been a big supporter of worker's rights - something else she inherited from her Dad. In her early life she was a young Communist and her first boyfriend fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. 

A representative for the Trade Union her whole working life and even after she retired, she was always heading to Glasgow for meetings. She loved to hear her favourite politicians talk - Tony Benn and Donald Dewar, among others. She could talk passionately herself for hours about the causes she felt so strongly about. In today's political landscape, things are very different but the message she instilled in me remains the same: she believed that every one of us has the power to change the world and our voices should always be heard.

4. She taught me that it's never too late to learn something new

Unfortunately, my Gran grew up in a time when there were very few opportunities for young women. The war meant that she had to quit her job in a pharmacy in Edinburgh, and move to London to help with the effort. She worked for the Civil Service before the munitions factory, and on her return to Scotland she worked at the tax center. Had she had her wish, my Gran would have gone to university. I can only imagine how different her life and career might have been if she was able to study politics, sociology, languages and the arts! She always told me never to take my education for granted.

When my Gran was in her fifties, she decided to sit her driving test for the first time. She passed, but never drove. She just wanted to prove she could do it! She attended night classes in French and an art class where she produced hundreds of paintings. They used to fill the walls of her house, and now several of them hang in my flat.

She watched documentaries and she read extensively - newspapers and books. She would keep clippings for me and save me educational supplements. Some of my first memories of writing, reading and drawing are sitting at the kitchen table with my Gran. She always made me feel like I could achieve anything with these tools at my disposal. 

5. Her achievements

When I think about my Gran's legacy, it amazes me (and makes me feel a bit lazy, frankly!) I always knew she had achieved a lot but it wasn't until she moved into the home and we sold the house that it became so apparent to me. Going through a lifetime of possessions, we were constantly reminded of all she had done, and all the lives she touched.

Even now at 96 she continues to impress me - her nurses tell us that she often sings to cheer up the other residents and she even helps them to make the tea sometimes! I don't think she will ever stop working or caring for others. She makes me understand the importance of living - truly living - that means having a purpose and a cause, something to live every day for!

Every time I see her she tells me to enjoy myself while I'm still young and do everything now while I still can. 

When I think about the struggles we face as women in today's society, I feel empowered by what my Gran has taught me. When I was a little girl and watching The Sound of Music in her kitchen, singing the lines from Sixteen Going on Seventeen, she told me - don't let ANYONE tell you what to do - and don't EVER depend on a man! I was seven, and those words stuck with me. Happy International Women's Day Helen - here's to you. As she would say, raising her glass (whisky and ginger ale is her tipple of choice): "Confusion to the enemy!"

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