The Greatest Lesson My Grandmother Taught Me: Stop Saving Things For 'Best'

Photographed by Anna Jay.
I wasn’t there when my grandfather died but I had been there plenty of times when he didn’t. I’d sat in the ICU at Croydon University Hospital in 2007 and listened as doctors told us he wasn’t going to make it. I’d visited when he was hospitalized again in 2011 and again in early 2018. Each time he reprimanded me for not coming often enough.
In the summer of 2018, I sat with my sister as we held a vigil by his hospital bed in the living room. This was definitely it, the doctors said. He didn’t die.
Then he was moved to a care home in Croydon. He hated it. Ubers always took me to the back of the building instead of the front. I tried to scale the fence, fell over the top and found myself locked in its small garden, banging on elderly residents’ windows until someone let me in.
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Still, I sat with him and every time I thought it would be the last. I cried, I grieved and I steeled myself against it so many times that, when it finally happened, I didn’t really know what to do with myself.
For almost a decade, I had listened to my nan guiltily wonder about what her life would be like without her husband, as his condition – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, caused by years of smoking – got worse and worse. She became his carer which, I suppose, is what 'til death do us part' really means and she was stoic about it, although she almost dared not do anything else.
"I’d like to do a cruise," she said once.
"There are these little apartments up the road that my WI [Women's Institute] friends are all moving into," she whispered on another.
After the funeral, I went over to the semi-detached home she had shared with my grandad in Zone 6 for more than 50 years. We drank tea. I don’t really like tea, but that’s what British people do when someone has died. We clutch the comforting warm china in our hands and sit around filling the silence.
After tea, we went around the house deciding what she would take to that little apartment up the road, which she had now bought.
In the living room, there was a huge G Plan drinks cabinet. I watched as my nan opened up one side of it – it was full of crystal glasses. I’d never seen them before.
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"We never used any of this you know. We bought it, all those years ago, for parties and special occasions but I was always saving them for best. Do you want them?"
I had come down to help my nan but also to grieve – to make sure I had some mementos to remember my grandad by. When someone dies, you have memories of course but it’s the physical reminders of who they were that help you stay anchored to those thoughts. But what I ended up doing was spending time with my nan as she realized that she had been waiting her entire life to do things that, soon, she might no longer be able to do. She seemed acutely aware that it would only take her health to deteriorate and, suddenly, the things she had long dreamed of doing would become impossible.
My mum is the same. In her house there are expensive candles which have never been burned. I had to break it to her that if you leave them too long, they’ll just lose their scent.
For a woman who grew up with very little, saving things for best was second nature. But as she got older and more financially comfortable, that instinct didn’t go anywhere. The special occasions just became more elaborate and unattainable.
What, I wonder, have they been waiting for? An unknown and imaginary event that somehow felt befitting enough for their very best stuff. A visit from the pope? The prime minister?
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I find that people are, broadly, divided into two camps: those who save for a rainy day, who keep their very best things for some far off and undefined event, and those who figure that you might as well spend the money, use the glassware and live in the moment because, when all is said and done, you can’t take any of it with you.
Human beings have been grappling with these questions for thousands of years. The ancient Roman philosopher Horace coined the phrase carpe diem, imploring people to make the most of what they had.
"Even while we talk," Horace wrote, "a span of envious time has flown by; best to be savvy, strain the wine and don't trust too much to the future."
More recently, Drake sang "you only live once" in "The Motto", reminding us all that YOLO has its time and place in a world where the future feels increasingly uncertain and uncontrollable.
Both YOLO and carpe diem are clarion calls to live life to its fullest extent, sometimes embracing behaviour which feels as though it might carry an inherent risk.
You don’t want to use the posh china in case somebody breaks it? What if you get the good glasses out and one smashes? You might take a risk and plunge into a relationship only to find your heart gets broken. You could book a cruise and find yourself needing to pay an unexpected bill.
In the dining room, my nan opened another cabinet. "I think I’m going to take this with me, though." She held up a gleaming, pristine white china plate which, as I peered inside the cabinet, I realized was part of an entire set.
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"It’s Japanese, Noritake. We never used them," Nan said again. "They were for best but, do you know what, now I’m going to use them every day. Why not!"
When my grandfather died, I was on holiday on a remote Greek island. You can’t reach Folegandros – a thin strip in the Aegean – by air so you have to get there by sea, either from Athens or Santorini. Either way, you’re looking at several hours on a boat.
I thought about cancelling the trip because I knew how unwell he was but I also remembered how many times I had already said goodbye. I might have stayed and he might have lived longer, that was as much of a danger as leaving and having him die while I was gone.
I don’t know if you should spend all your money, leaving yourself with no safety net – you have to plan for the future and make sure you have enough money and time to enjoy it. But what if there’s another, greater risk that we run when we hesitate and worry about whether it’s the right time to do something – that one day, we might look back and realize we’ve been waiting so long we’re almost out of time?

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