As a kid, what did you look forward to most about summer vacation/break/holiday?
When we came from South Africa to live in England, I found it really difficult to adjust. I came from a big family of 4 children, and never felt as if I was heard or seen. I was just Number 1 child as the eldest, and I should accept my lot and get on with it. My parents had extremely high expectations of me and I felt as if I was always singing someone else's song and never my own.
My step grandmother and grandfather lived in Hampton Court in a lovely house, opposite Bushey Park, near the Queen's stables and the palace and backing on to the river. Mary, my grandfather's wife, wass the most unusual and exotic person I had ever met. She spoke in a deep voice, with lots of "daaaaaahling" s in her speech and she suffered with insomnia, so never slept. She spent the nights painting, drawing, writing and reading. She made milky coffee, always with a saucer, and put toast, in triangles, in a toast holder, with small bowls of marmalade and jam. She was wonderful.
I was sent, every school holidays, to stay with them. I would go, on the train to London and then get the overland train, one of the old fashioned ones with the push down windows and the leather seats (like on Harry Potter) to Hampton Court, where Mary would pick me up in an old white Morris Traveller with wooden panelling.
My bedroom in their house overlooked the park and was mine. I could leave things there and they would still be there when I went back, which is something you couldn't do in my house.
Mary came from a theatrical background and had been married before to a playwright. Her daughters were grown up dancers with the Royal Ballet. We did fantastical things like wander round art galleries, eat lunch with theatrical people in pokey back street places and went to the theatre and ballet late at night and then for supper.We walked her dog, Mooshey, in Bushey park and got really close to the deer. We had deep conversations about vegetarianism (she was one too) and politics and art and other things I couldn't talk about at home.
Mary went, twice a day, to feed colonies of stray cats who lived in wasteland. When I went with her, she would talk to these ferrals as if they were her own pets, like she loved and knew them all. There were about 100 of them!
I lived to spend the holidays with this wonderful woman. When I went to college, she would send me letters and subscriptions to amazing magazines and perfume and silk underwear.
She died when Lily was 2, in 1994. She was suffering with dementia and had moved into an old fashioned nursing home. I went with my mum and Lily to see her. In her confusion she suddenly had a moment of lucidity and looked at us and said "Hello dahlings", and a tear fell out of the corner of her eye.
She died shortly after that visit. I will never forget her for making my teenage years so much more bearable and my holidays so wonderful. She was what I looked forward to most about the holiday break.