Monday, 14 May 2018

Grandparenting

There are people around who never knew any grandparents, who never brought children into the world and raised them lovingly, and who therefore do not have grandchildren. Although now at an age when they could have been a grandparent themselves, they do not have that role, and never now can. I am such a person.

On Dad's side, the persons who should have been my grandparents lived in rural Devon. My Dad's mother (Eva Annie Broom, who became a Turner and then a Dommett) died in 1922, when he was only two. This is the only picture I have of her, taken around 1920:


His father (William John Dommett) never wanted to look after his son, and farmed poor Dad out - first to aunts and uncles, and then latterly to a rough farming family (the Trumps), who took money for Dad's keep. Dad grew up without knowing any parental love. Here is Dad's father doing manual work in a garden around 1930 (the child on the hobbyhorse isn't Dad):


Again, that's the only picture I have of him. He was born around 1880, so would have been about fifty then, and had clearly not made much of his life. He would have been a man of old country ways, full of narrow-mindedness and daft prejudices.

By the late 1950s, he was approaching eighty and getting infirm. To his credit, Dad had his father stay with us for a while, giving him a room to himself in our house in Barry. I have an idea that Mum wasn't at all happy with this, regarding Dad's father as undeserving of any special kindness and consideration after his shameful behaviour towards Dad as a boy. But Dad must have insisted. He was no fool, and firm with people; but on the other hand kind, and never one to bear grudges.

My little brother and I had to call William Dommett 'Grandpa'. I remember finding that hard to say. I hardly knew him, and found him gruff, and not very likeable. I was rather wary of him. I was a fastidious child, and quite possibly recoiled from his minimum personal hygiene, and whiskers, and tobacco-stained fingers. We did not bond.

His own attitude to me may have been quite different. Perhaps, late in life, he had seen what a poor figure he had cut, and wanted to make amends. I think he might well have made efforts to be pleasant, or at least give no trouble, and try to be a proper grandparent to Wayne and I. But I did not get to know him well at all. To me he remained the old man in the dimly-lit middle room downstairs.

He did give me a thrilling present one day. It was an ancient and battered pair of binoculars, all brass and glass. They didn't magnify much, and the lenses had rainbow aberrations, but I was entranced. Such a well-judged present might have led to something, but soon afterwards 'Grandpa' fell ill, and was taken to Aberdare sanatorium. I never knew why, although in those days people went to sanatoriums most often because of tuberculosis or other chest complaints (Aberdare was in the heart of the South Wales coal-mining area). I remember just one visit to see him, although I have forgotten the details. Soon after, I understood he had died. This was 1960, and I was eight years old. I did not grieve. I had never really known him as a person.

So that was Dad's side of the family.

On Mum's side, I fared no better. Her mother (Eva Johanna Carlson) had married a chap called William Edward Thomas in 1916. It sounded like a wartime wedding, and was probably ill-judged. It did not last. I have no picture of Mum's father, only this information on Mum's 1921 birth certificate:


This says he was a Civil Servant, an Employment Officer in the Ministry of Labour. I expect he dealt with people on the dole and looking for work. There were tensions at home, and Eva left him when Mum and her elder brother Desmond were still quite small. An uneasy truce was set up, William and Eva each having one child. Thomas looked after Mum, and Eva looked after Des. Rather an odd way of sharing the children really. I wonder whose notion it was? According to Mum, her mother had a special affection for her son, less for her. But Eva couldn't bear to be without both of her children for long, and one day, choosing her moment carefully, knocked on William's door, asked to see Mum, then just a little girl of course. When Wiiliam produced her, Eva immediately snatched her and ran for a bus that had been due, leaving an astonished William gaping on his doorstep. Of course there was a stink. It was in the local paper. But things quietened down, and parental access was put on a formal basis that lasted for some years. Naturally the children's own wishes carried no weight. I recall Mum telling me how, in her teens, she was forever wanting to make excuses not to visit her father.

It's difficult to gauge what sort of man William was. Eva clearly disliked him, and Mum said she would never discuss him in later years. Although permanently separated, I don't think they ever divorced.

Eventually he moved to London, still employed in the Ministry of Labour - presumably after promotion. I have thought of trying to trace him, but the chances of tracking down a 'William Thomas' of unknown London address are too small to warrant the attempt. I dare say he may have fathered another family, who would of course be relatives of mine. Well, if they read this, I hope they get in touch and tell me about William Thomas. I don't suppose he ever heard of my arrival in 1952, when he was probably not much more than sixty, and could have been a grandfather to me. But instead he was yet another potential grandparent who was not around when I was young.

That still leaves Eva, Mum's mother. But sadly she died of diabetes in 1948, four years before my birth. Diabetes was a killer back then. My younger brother Wayne had diabetes too, but he had access to insulin, and could live with it. So far it hasn't afflicted me, and I hope never will, as I carefully watch my sugar intake, especially now that I'm older. Fingers crossed, though!

The only series of pictures I have that show Eva were taken immediately after Mum and Dad's wedding in 1947. This one, for instance:


Eva is in the chair. Next to her is Des, who died in 2007, and was the uncle who provided the money for me to buy Fiona in 2010.  On the far left is Peg, the auntie who has just died this year, and whose funeral I will shortly attend. She was, like Mum, only twenty-six then, but had already known Mum some ten years. 

So there it is. For one reason or another, I never had the opportunity to develop a relationship with a grandparent. I don't know what is so special about it, from the child's point of view. It's a defect in my life-experience that can never be remedied. I have come to know a variety of old persons through the years - the parents of friends, for instance - but none of them have ever been my very own grandmother or grandfather, and it's very hard to imagine what it would be like to have such a person in my life. Not knowing, I feel socially handicapped.

Nor does it help never having had children of my own. That was always my own choice; but looking back on it, I do now have mixed feelings. I've missed out on a major human experience; and I will never know what that special bond between parent and child is really like. Again, I feel socially deficient because of it.

Without any children of my own, I cannot be a grandparent myself and enjoy whatever it is that grandparents seem to get out of their role. I haven't the slightest doubt that grandparents genuinely dote on their grandchildren, even if, from my outsider's viewpoint, it seems like hard work and not much else. And yet I've seen grandfathers getting literally misty-eyed over their little charges. And what grandmother hasn't - for years on end - acted as a super-reliable and endlessly patient childminder? No doubt some grandparents are shamelessly taken advantage of, their unrewarded assistance taken for granted. But all grandparents possess magical powers: where exasperated maternal pleading and cajoling has not availed, the sudden appearance of a loved grandparent will cure tears and tantrums instantly. 

A child treats a grandparent with a respect and veneration denied to mere parents. I dare say that fact is occasionally resented by parents who find it hard to cope, but if so the resentment is suppressed and kept secret. A willing grandparent is an asset to be treasured, not put off. And I imagine that savvy grandparents sometimes capitalise on their strong bargaining position -  although (I hope) merely to see more of the children they love. 

I wish I knew what actually goes on, but I can't relate to any of it, have no insight, and can only make guesses. To be honest, my gut feeling is that grandparenting should be left to those who know what it's all about, and have the experience to do it well. And that I shouldn't be wistful on one hand, nor too smug on the other, for not being in line for any grandparental duties.

2 comments:

  1. I do some Great Aunting and it can be fun. Parents are grateful of the rest and children get the attention that parents cannot always give. Bonus, you can hand them back!

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  2. Just a few weeks ago I surprised my 16 year old granddaughter by appearing in a car park at the end of her Duke of Edinburgh practice walk. Spotting me, she abandoned her friends, ran as fast as she could towards me and flung her arms around me. As you might imagine, that was a very precious moment that I shall always remember.

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