In a tale all too frequently told — in an age of throwaway culture and dismal divorce rates — my father left the family home when I was a baby, and responsibility for my care was left to my mother.
Alone with a boisterous bundle of snot and incontinence, who had a stubborn unwillingness to communicate via any means but a high-pitched squawk, I’m sure my mother felt nothing less than absolutely terrified.
Despite my father’s departure owing itself partly to the nature of my parents’ swift and youthful decision to marry, their early betrothement (and thus impromptu parenthood) nourished my childhood with one of the most invaluable gifts I’ve ever received — the opportunity to know my grandparents.
From a very young age I was moved in and out of my Nan and Grandad’s house; they took me to school every morning, collected me at the end of the day (each car journey punctuated with my sporadic shrills of ‘Super Trouper’ from the passenger seat), I had dinner there every evening after school and my Nan would organise my breakfast twelve hours later — needless to say this arrangement continued long after I was old enough to feed and look after myself.
As a result of this unusual and slightly obsessive desperation to spend all my time at their little pink cottage, the very fabric of my being has been dyed, crumpled and woven by the warmth of their presence. I have them to thank for my stubbornly strong will (you wouldn’t want to get in an argument with my Grandmother), my post-war penchant for eating far more than I need to in any given situation, my thirst for reading and my security in the knowledge that if I’m stuck in rural Suffolk at 5am on a Sunday, there’ll be someone at the end of the phone line willing to pick me up.
There comes a time in every gormless post-teen’s life where they slowly come to realise that their parents were once people too, irrespective of their parental roles. Like adding colour to a black and white film — you realise the depth and vibrancy of the story unfolding before you, when previously you’d perceived a dated, distant and quite frankly dreary world (many will take issue with my culturally heathen attitude to black and white cinematography, for that I’m sorry).
In her recent memoir, A Half Baked Idea, Olivia Potts marvellously recounts all the things that her late mother was as a person, besides simply being a Mum. “I had been on the cusp,” she writes, “of understanding that she had selfhood beyond being my long-suffering mother.”
She later laments, however, her ability to appreciate her mother’s inimitable character.
“I was in my early twenties, and selfish, and self-obsessed. I never got to know her as a person. I’m sort of angry with her for dying before I had a chance to redeem myself.”
For many, our twenties and thirties are spent attempting to claw back these lost years. We embark on the long and exciting mission to really get to know our parents — to uncover tales of 5am drunken lawnmower mishaps or mortifyingly misjudged courting attempts — we are searching for parts of ourselves in such stories.
Although for some, the opportunity to traverse such trodden paths of our parents’ history is prematurely stolen from us, it’s far more common for this to be the case with our grandparents. By the time we reach an age of understanding, of fascination, it’s often too late to ask the pressing questions: Did you struggle as a child? Did you ever find true love? Do you have any regrets? Were you, despite your deep-set wrinkles and thinning hair, ever anything like me?
As our society begins to understand that a woman’s purpose in life is not always to pop out four perfect children (preferably boys), before the decidedly over-ripe age of 25, there is perhaps one perceivable negative outcome of such a shift — less and less of us are being offered up a period of realisation, a time to repent for years of treating our grandparents as volunteer chefs (guilty), before it’s too late.
As time progresses, we seem to develop a more fervent tendency to neglect the old. In Ancient Greece, for example, Athenian law demanded that children, grandchildren and extended families of the elderly were responsible for their daily caregiving, with loss of citizenship being the punishment. With a harrowing loneliness epidemic hitting headlines in the UK last year, it seems we have come a long way from the respect and consideration once afforded to ancient elders.
If my infatuation with a perfect grainy loaf and unhealthily one-sided relationship with wine aren’t enough to draw comparison between myself and the Ancient Greeks, then one thing you can be sure we agree on is our attitudes towards the aged.
My unusual over-exposure to my grandparents may have given me a head start in appreciating their individuality of character, but this realisation was already overdue. If you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to truly know those wrinkled souls, don’t throw it away. Replace that predictable week on the Italian coastline next summer with a jaunt to the most rural reaches of the UK, tell Grandma to put the kettle on.