I am the first to admit that, sadly, my relationship with my maternal grandparents is not always easy. Living far away, I never used to see them regularly and I always felt like they disapproved of me in some way, whether that was how I was being educated, or that we didn’t live closer to them and so therefore couldn’t involve them in everything we were doing.
One of the things that used to really frustrate me was that they would ask my brother and I to write down all of our achievements since we last saw them, and then give each one a monetary value. They would then ask us to take off a value for all the things that we had done wrong over the months. Then we were valued and whatever they saw us to be worth would be given to us in a cheque. I didn’t approve of this at all. It went against everything we’d been taught and I didn’t want to accept any money for simply living my life. Inevitably either my brother or I would be worth more than the other, which was not right – I felt like we should not be valued that way in our family’s eyes. We used to dread going to see them, knowing that we would have to value ourselves.
As I’ve got older, I’ve tried to make more of an effort to talk to them properly and engage. It’s hard when one denies she is almost completely deaf and so can only lip read and then joins the conversation, shouting, with a non sequitur, and the other gets frailer and eats less and less, struggling to hold a knife or fork, because his hands are shaking so much. He also denies anything is wrong. Over the years it feels like they have made a conscious decision to distance themselves from us too, and they never ask about what we’re up to or how we’re doing. But I’ve learnt that if I can listen to stories of whatever cruise ship they have last been on and make interesting umm hmm noises at their photos, that’s about as good as a relationship we’re going to get and they’ll be happy.
So on Wednesday night when my grandfather alone came to stay the night, and I was left with him by myself, I was not exactly looking forward to it. ‘It’s only 2 hours,’ said my Mum, as if she knew how I was feeling. As usual he arrived with no warning, just when we were about to have dinner, not having cooked for him. My dad gave up his dinner and ate crumble instead. Then we were left alone. But little by little, one on one, we began to chat, admittedly at first about their latest holiday and the Johann Strauss Orchestra, but then something I never envisaged happened.
It started by him giving me some books: Smith’s ‘Greek Prose Composition,’ Schmitz’s ‘Grammar of the Latin language,’ and Alphonse Daudet ‘Contes Choisis.’ I was thrilled. Believe me, anyone who gives me books like that has a special place in my heart..! And talking about my A levels, we began to talk about universities. By the beginning of the second hour, he was telling me all sorts of stories from his teenage years, about life at Durham university in the late 1950s, and much more.
I never knew, for example, that his mother had died when he was only 4. He was brought up by his grandmother. He remembered that used to send him notes when he was at university reminding him to do his washing and to cook healthy meals. He never saw his father much, only receiving cheques of various amounts, to tide him over, depending on how good he was being. Suddenly something clicked, I saw where this strange custom of valuing us had come from. This was how he had been brought up, and sadly how he saw being a good fatherly figure.
He went on to talk about how it was much better to have a room in Lumley Castle (now a hotel), out of Durham town centre, and come into town by bus (making sure you only did 2 journeys a day or else you would run out of paper chits for the bus), because living out meant the university provided afternoon tea as well as the regular 3 meals a day. He remembered fondly how everyone used to rush for the peach melbas before they were all gone. He talked about being an ‘assistante d’anglais’ in a ‘lycée de garçons’ and the chore of looking after teenage boys but how he still decided to go into teaching.
I saw how similar we both are. He studied French, Latin, Greek and German to A level, and toyed between studying Latin and Greek or French and German at university. Here I am, 60 ish years later, studying Latin, Greek, French, History and English. And what do I want to study at university? Classics, or Classics with modern languages (French).
It was the first time that I had really connected with him. I learnt things that I never even anticipated. And it made me so sad that it was only now, when he is so frail, and probably so near the end of his life, that we talked like this. I don’t know when I will next see him again, or whether we will ever have another chance to talk like we did this week. But I am so grateful we had the chance.
More than anything else, it proved to me that there is always a reason behind actions. You may not know it yet, but eventually you find it. It showed me that taking the time to spend with family, however awkward it is at first, and however much you may feel disapproved of or underappreciated, will be worth it. And I really saw how much hostile social barriers can be broken down by time, perseverance and a bit of love.