The gran scheme of things: these are the most important members of a family
They might be ultimately unknowable to us, but our grandparents have a special place in our hearts
Families can be a complicated business, and all too frequently combustible. We might go years without speaking to siblings; avoid calls from parents during particularly stressful times – midway through EastEnders, for example. But we seem to reserve a special place in our hearts for our grandparents, those who occupy the other end of the life spectrum and with whom, frankly, we often have precious little in common.
I don’t think I have ever felt quite so connected to people who have remained so ultimately unknowable to me.
Fifty years have separated me from mine. They lived through war, hardship and tragedy; I came of age in the era of adidas, computer games and the arrival of a fourth channel on terrestrial TV. To them, my life has been filled with trivialities: too much time spent on MTV as a child; my nose too often in a book as an adult. But unlike friends, and even certain family members (especially certain family members), my grandparents have been a constant presence – on the periphery, perhaps, but always there, always full of love.
It was only as each of us got older, I think, that I began to fully appreciate the strength of that bond, and just how deep it went. Ours was a relationship that couldn’t be damaged by external disruption. They never got on with my mother, for example, and when she became ill with cancer at 56, I had hoped that they might belatedly build bridges in the way that warring family factions tend to do in films. But this didn’t happen, and my mother took her grievances to the grave. Dying on her mother’s 81st birthday seemed like a final insult from which my grandmother would never fully recover.
But their acrimony didn’t infect me, and my closeness with them remained unchallenged. When I speak to the clinical psychologist Linda Blair, she tells me that my experiences are pretty typical. The battles that can exist between parents and children rarely extend to grandparents and grandchildren, and for good reason.
“The grandparenting role is a completely different one,” Blair says. “People see grandparenting as a chance to do better many of the things they did when they were parents. They wish they had done things differently with their own kids, and one of the things we learn over time is just how many of our rules were actually ridiculous. Grandparents realise this, and so they get more and more lenient.”
Perhaps this is what we mean when we say that with age comes wisdom: mine were certainly always trying to impart some unto me, passing on lessons they thought needed to be learnt. They wanted me equipped for life. For my grandfather, it was imperative that I was exposed to male influence. Acutely aware that I was growing up without a father, he would frequently engage me in DIY because this, he believed, was how men bonded: in nuts and bolts and oil and smears.
He also fretted over my wardrobe. One summer I arrived wearing a pair of ripped Levi 501s that were tighter than my usual jeans. He cast his eye over them before announcing that I was plainly dressing to the right when a gentleman should in fact dress to the left.
All my grandmother could see was the rips in the knees, which mortified her. She insisted on mending them (she was never far from a needle and thread) and when I refused, she suggested I toss them out altogether in favour of a pair of my grandfather’s old bell-bottomed corduroys. “Always fashionable,” she said.
Her teachings, by and large, were more practical. Until I arrived with girlfriends in tow, she taught me how to cook the perfect pasta, to set a table, the proper way to make a bed. Chiefly, she wanted me to learn the importance of food by eating it: I was too skinny, she remonstrated, all angles. I needed fattening up. When I first introduced her to my wife, she informed her that my socks had holes in the heels, then showed her how to mend them. Diplomatic as my wife is, she paid close attention while shooting me a covert look that made it clear if I ever wanted anything darned, I’d have to darn it myself.
If such fussy, and outmoded, ministrations irritated me in youth, in adulthood I came to cherish them. Throughout my 20s, 30s and into my 40s, they became exponentially more important to me.
“What defines any good family relationship,” Blair adds, “is just how much time you invest in it.” By this stage, we’d put in decades. For a long while, I thought they might just live forever (the wonders of a Mediterranean diet, perhaps), but my grandfather died 10 years ago at the age of 94. My grandmother lives in a care home; aged 99, she is all but lost to dementia. I visit as often as I can, and she smiles as she sees me, her eyes undimmed, a translucent blue.
Whenever I am with her, I want nothing more than to roll back time, for her to notice my shirt’s fraying sleeve, a loose button, to reach for her needle and thread, and do what she always did so well: take care of me.
• Nick Duerden is the author of The Smallest Things: On the Enduring Power of Family – A Memoir of Tiny Dramas.
– © The Sunday Telegraph