July 4th was my nan’s birthday. She’s dead now but I have been thinking about her today.
In my novel Alarm Girl, the eleven year old narrator Indy and her brother live with their maternal grandparents. This wasn’t my own situation but the intimacy of the relationship between the children and their grandparents, tempered by the distance of their remove (in the novel this is not just generational distance but also distance caused by issues relating to bereavement) reflects my interest in the ‘gradients’ of child-grandparent relationship and of course expresses my own relationship to my grandparents.
Both my grandfathers and both my grandmothers are dead now, the deaths of the grandfathers bookended by the deaths of the grandmothers, one of whom died at only 54 and one who lived until she was 92. Memories of our grandparents probably remain strong because we get to know them at a formative age – an age when we pick up on the intimacy they share with our parents and at an age when we are likely to be struck by their difference. When we visited Nan and Grandad the gravy was different to the gravy we ate at home, the soap in the bathroom smelled different. There were sugar lumps in a bowl and sweets in a tin. Us kids were alert to these differences right from the moment of arrival – we loved to ring the doorbell with its Big Ben chimes. The garden was neat. There were shag-pile carpets and chintzy curtains, antimacassars on the armchairs and place mats on the table, illustrated with country scenes, plus a host of ornamentation including carved wooden elephants, horse brasses and porcelain shepherdesses as well as (randomly) a statue of Buddha next to the log effect gas fire, not at all like the taste Mum and Dad had for minimalist modern interior design.
My own children pick up on similar contrasts. They find the smell of their grandparents’ homes comforting and they associate certain foodstuffs (Birds Eye potato waffles, roast dinners) with them. They are quick to notice details of their dress (their grandparents’ choice of shoes seems to be a source of entertainment, as does any attempt of theirs to dress formally).
When my sons were babies and I was commuting to London, they were looked after by both grandmothers. On the days my mother-in-law looked after them, she would often have their cousins too so all four boys grew up with very strong connections to one another which survive even though now they see far less of each other now they are grown. The hours they spent with ‘Granny Pat’ when they were young, watching Pixar videos and falling in her pond constitute a huge part of our family mythology. The boys discuss those times with extreme nostalgia, even though they are still only teenagers. My mother-in-law allows them the run of her attic and shed just as she allowed them the run of her house and garden when they were little, with scarves tied around their waists as ‘tails’. Now the bottles they suckled have been replaced by cans of beer and her home remains a sanctuary, allowing distance from the parental realm.
If they overhear me criticise my parents or parents-in-law, my sons are quick to defend their grandparents. There is a special intimacy between humans who perhaps live by different values and yet share familial loyalty – ‘blood is thicker than water’ perhaps. As children, we are sensitive to the intimacy of our parents’ relationship with their own parents and it is this which percolates down, I think. We can’t explain it, we sense its importance at an animal level.
I acknowledge the significance of my own grandparents in totemic ways – when it’s chilly, I wear a cardigan hand-knitted by my maternal grandmother. It has her name label sewn into it, testament to the last years of her life, when she moved to a residential home. When I go on holiday, I use her suitcase. It has her old address written on its inside, in her slanted handwriting. A rag doll made by my paternal grandmother sits on a shelf in my bedroom – once a cherished plaything, now an ancestral relic.