What an institution grandparenthood seems! How modern society relies on grandparents, most obviously as childcarers, so that their grown-up children can go to work or have a night off. This seems to have become the expected thing. But any element of compulsion is supposed to be mitigated by the grandparents deriving great pleasure from the children placed in their hands. And for many grandparents, that must be true. I well remember a conversation many years back with an elderly North Downs farmer, who got positively misty-eyed as he described his favourite grandson. That child touched his old heart, and made him tender. Many elderly people perk up and get fresh life in the company of young children - indeed, I think it has become a recognised therapy in some residential homes.
That said, I also know that some grandparents are not so keen on the duties expected of them, and may go to some lengths to avoid getting lumbered. I'd say they are in the minority, but they certainly exist. I would think they are broadly of my own generation: the ones who retired early, and were able to savour the delights of ample leisure while they were still reasonably young and active. They might well resent having their freedom encroached upon by the requests - demands - of working sons and daughters. Are the sons and daughters being unreasonable, or the grandparents selfish? Is this tension between the generations a necessary consequence of modern living? Or is there - and always has been - something 'natural' about the older generations stepping in, and nobody of that older generation should ever seek to dodge out of it?
It's hard for me to say. I can easily see why some grandparents would find it frustrating to look after a fractious child for hours on end (and no doubt the family pet also) when they'd rather be on holiday, or seeing their friends, or following their interests, or learning new skills - generally enjoying a rewarding social life, with no commitments except those they choose themselves. I'm all for a rewarding life - I'll be voting for the Holiday Playtime Party in the upcoming General Election - and so I'm not unsympathetic towards grandparents who nimbly sidestep childcare duties.
Well, I have no children, and therefore no grandchildren: I can be a detached observer. Nor am I ever inclined to do the conventional thing, or adopt the conventional attitude. So for me there's no 'of course' when the question of 'grandparental duty' is raised. Indeed, I feel that after many years of hard slog at some humdrum job, all grandparents deserve a life, and are not to be regarded as an automatic source of free childcare, nor convenient dog walkers.
Even so, as I am not myself a grandparent, I recognise that I must be completely blind to the role's satisfactions, and ignorant about the difference a grandparent can make. In short, I don't get it.
I certainly don't know what it's like to be a grandchild. It may well be that if, as a child, I'd had two sets of lovely grandparents, and a wonderful relationship with each, then I might now see much more clearly what is inspiring about grandparents.
Unfortunately both Mum's parents were off the scene before I was born. Her father walked out, moved away, and was never seen again. Rumour hath it that eventually he had another family in London. Mum's mother was a strong-willed woman, and coped with desertion, but died of diabetes. So poor Mum had no parental help and advice when she had me, the first-born.
Dad hardly fared better. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was only two.
His father didn't want to look after him, and paid strangers to do so, visiting his little son for a short while only now and then. The man was never quite off the scene, but he and Dad never become close. Dad's father lived into old age, dying around 1960 when he must have been eighty. Dad stood by his father when he got very old and ill, and insisted that he come to live with us for a short while. According to my late Auntie Peg, Mum acquiesced but was resentful on Dad's behalf, because of all the childhood neglect and indifference Dad had suffered. But apart from a half-sister, Dad's only other family was his father; so perhaps it's natural and understandable that he did his best for him. And so Dad's father became the only grandparent I ever met.
Our acquaintance was brief, a matter of months I think. I never got to know him at all well. I never called him 'Grandad' or thought of him like that. He wasn't sweet, warm and cuddly. He was an old countryman, wizened, with rough habits and shabby clothing - and a bit gruff too. I was a little afraid of him. But he seemed to like me, and he gave me a present - a pair of battered old brass binoculars, which I immediately treasured. Even though they were optically poor, I used them to look at the red lightship out in the Bristol Channel, from the front bedroom window. Those binoculars were my first proper, 'grown-up' possession. My first gadget, you could say.
Dad's father had a chest complaint, and all too soon had to be admitted to Aberdare Sanatorium, up in the Valleys. I can just about remember a visit to Aberdare, by train from Barry, probably in 1959, when I would have been seven. I can't recall anything definite about that visit. I've an idea that Mum and I waited around while Dad went in to speak to his father. I never got to see him myself, so I have no deathbed memory of him. No day-to-day memory at all, really, apart from constant apprehension about encountering him in the gloom of our Barry house. (Afterwards Dad embarked on a programme of redecoration and reconstruction, knocking through the wall that had separated the middle and front downstairs rooms, which made the house much brighter) And that magic moment when, with gleaming eyes, he gave me those binoculars. He can't have been wholly bad. Perhaps, like me, he was simply very aware of his personal limitations, and couldn't cope with parenthood. But he could manage the gift of worn-out binoculars to a timid child he hardly knew.
Effectively, then, there were no grandparents in my young life.
I do, remarkably, have photos of three of them. This was Mum's mother, Eva Johanna Thomas (neé Carlson) in 1946 when fifty-two, at Mum and Dad's wedding:
She died two years later in 1948, four years before I was born.
This was Dad's mother, Eva Annie Dommett (previously Turner through her first marriage - she was a war widow - and born Broom) taken around 1920 when twenty-nine.
Funny that she was called Eva too. I think I can see something of my own face in hers. She died in 1923, when Dad was still two, and twenty-nine years before I was born.
This was Dad's father William John Dommett in a photo taken around 1930, when he would have been fifty or so. That's somebody else's child with him - Dad would have been ten at the time.
As I say, he died around 1960, when I was about eight, and we did not know each other for nearly long enough to establish a bond.
I look at these photos, the only ones I have of these people, and wonder how it would have been if the mothers had survived into my own era. Would I have have had a happy relationship with them? With what ongoing, lifelong effect? I can only speculate.
I do wonder whether it's psychologically bad for you, not to have any grandparents in your life when young. Does it make a crucial difference? Do you lose out in some vital way? I'm pretty sure you never get to understand the special role and status that grandparents have in most families. On the basis of simple observation, it seems to me that grandparents are, in general, fondly loved and appreciated. And that the grandparent/grandchild relationship is special and profoundly important.
With no personal experience of grandparents, it's just as well that I never became a grandmother. I would have made a poor job of it. Many would say it's a pity, though, missing out on one of life's Great Roles. It's too late now, of course, to worry about that.