I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Francoise Sagan

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The importance of grandmothers….

I have often observed that women play a primary role in keeping the family together and it is the matriarchal figure of the grandmother who frequently takes the lead in this most noble of endeavours. 

These days, with increasing economic pressures adding to the strain on young families and escalating divorce rates, grandmothers often play a pivotal role in their grandchildren’s lives. As a society, we are indebted to these strong, principled women, whose deep-rooted sense of the importance of family is at the heart of their worldview. These are women who have already raised their own children and finally have the freedom, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to do as they please; but, rather than spend their remaining years pursuing hobbies or taking cruises - they find the greatest satisfaction in spending time with their grandchildren. 

My own grandmother greatly enriched my childhood and twenty-three years later, I still feel her influence.  To a child, the summer holidays can often seem interminably long and monotonous, but my grandmother’s vibrant imagination and talent for story telling would transport me to a magical world, where anything seemed possible. I like to think that my love of writing has been her legacy to me.

However, it is my own mother, who has given me the greatest example of all of the importance of grandmothers. I was just twenty years old when my first child was born and ill equipped to cope with the demands of caring for a newborn baby and completing a university degree; thanks to my mother, I was able to manage both. She was present from the moment my daughter came into the world and has been a guiding force in her life ever since; because of this, grandmother and granddaughter share an unshakeable bond.

Such is their complicity that my daughter quite often tells her grandmother about the important events in her life before she tells me. At times, this has caused me to feel sidelined and overlooked, but I recognise that there are certain things that are easier to confide to a grandmother than to a mother. Furthermore, grandmothers are usually better listeners and have the wisdom to know how to advise without appearing to interfere. They are also able to maintain a degree of emotional detachment from their grandchildren and, unlike mothers, do not hold themselves responsible for their every mistake!

I used to tell my grandmother things that I would never dream of telling my mother. It was wonderful to be able to confide in someone who loved me unconditionally but who rarely passed judgment. For example, I would frequently share my dreams of running away from home with her - this was something I had been plotting since the tender age of five! Rather than reacting with alarm or criticism, my grandmother limited herself to calmly enumerating the obvious impracticalities of my plan. She advised me that I would need considerable funds to live on my own and that I would have to save my pocket money for many months. She also gently reminded me that although my parents were undoubtedly hard to live with, they did provide basic things for me, like food and shelter (without which a young girl could not survive for very long!). At the time, I did not feel patronised or ridiculed for my childish dreams of escape – on the contrary, my grandmother always lent a sympathetic ear to my problems; however, she never failed in her duty to remind me that, despite my parents many imperfections, their love for me was unquestionable.  She also never failed to reassure me that – if things got tough – I could always seek refuge at ‘grandma’s house’.

I have often thought that my children’s lives would be very different without the presence of their grandmother. She has been their rock in an uncertain world and they rest safe in the knowledge that they can always count on her. The bond they share with her is particularly precious because neither one of them has known their paternal grandparents. The reason for this is sadly commonplace: when relationships break down, children not only lose contact with the absent parent; they also very often lose their connection with their extended family on that side.

For my daughter, the reality of this statement is sadly poignant. She has a wide network of relatives on her father’s side that she has never met – including her paternal grandparents. In fact, she was planning to travel to Colombia next year to visit them but just last weekend, her sister wrote to say that their grandmother had died. In view of the fact that she had never even spoken to her father’s mother, the depth of her grief took my daughter by surprise. However, it seems to me that the reason she feels this loss so deeply is because she knows how precious and irreplaceable a grandmother can be. She is mourning the relationship she might have had with her Colombia grandmother, if only she been given the chance to meet her.

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, my children were deeply affected. Their grandmother has been at the heart of their world for as long as they can remember and neither of them can imagine life without her. One day, shortly after she became ill, I took delivery of a beautiful bouquet of lilies. On the handwritten card accompanying them were the words: ‘To abuela’. My children have always called their grandmother abuela (the Spanish word for grandmother) but the flowers were not from them – in fact, they were sent by a close friend of my daughter’s. My mother has become a sort of ‘honorary’ grandmother to this young girl and her words were a touching testimony to that fact. This caused me to reflect that she has assumed a grandmotherly role with several of my children’s friends, whom she has gradually adopted over time.  Consequently, they do not think of her as someone else’s grandmother - to them she is just abuela - and for this reason, their attachment to her runs deep.

So, those of us who have been lucky enough to know our grandmothers should give thanks: for we have been blessed.

It is as grandmothers that our mothers come into the fullness of their grace.
-- Christopher Morley

If nothing is going well, call your grandmother.
-- Italian Proverb