Life is grand as a granny
The unexpected pleasures of ageing are the theme of Virginia Ironside's new book. And the greatest of all those joys, she says, is having grandchildren
When I was young and gloomy, everyone would say, "Don't worry – soon Mr Right will come along on a white charger and carry you off and everything will be all right!" They didn't say, as they should have done: "Don't worry! If you play your cards right, your heart will one day be captured by a small red sausage with a wrinkly face, wearing nappies, a tiny chap who will, one day, call you 'Granny'." The Welsh say that the "perfect love does not come along until the first grandchild", and they're right.
My grandchildless friends think my devotion to being a granny is idiotic. They tell me to "get a life" – as if I haven't already got one. They tell me I'm mad every time I put off going to see some ghastly play at the National in order to babysit my grandsons. But I would rather sit downstairs in a quiet house listening to my grandsons' regular baby breathing on the monitor for hours on end than see some self-serving actor enunciating his socks off as Hamlet.
They do say that grandchildren are the reward you get for not killing your children. And Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, memorably observed that the reason grandparents and grandchildren get on so well is because they "share a common enemy".
But if a grandparent plays her cards right, she can become a support rather than a threat. Sixty-five per cent of grannies take an active part in caring for grandchildren. And the joy of actually being needed by anyone, when one is old, is a real treat. To be needed because one can look after the delightful creatures who are your grandchildren is a double treat.
The other plus to being a grannie is that research has shown that families with strong grandparental connections are likely to have more stable children. Grandparents are close to the child, but also sufficiently old to be wise, and sufficiently removed from a family to be able to offer advice on how to deal with problems they may have with their parents. I often think of grandparents rather like the European Court. The Italians have a saying that goes: "If nothing is going well, call your grandmother."
Strangely, when I was a young mum more than 30 years ago, I wasn't nearly so taken with life with a toddler. I remember sitting in gloomy playgrounds staring at my watch and thinking that I would rather be dead than spend another minute there. I remember the sheer grinding misery of getting up morning after morning, at the crack of dawn, not to mention the endless, deadly days of shopping, freezing parks, broken sleeps and minced-up meals, the feelings of hopelessness that dogged me every day. And when my own son cried, I'd be tortured by feelings of being a bad mother who never should have brought him into this cruel world.
What is so immensely rewarding and fulfilling about being with my grandsons is that my love for them is pure and clear, unclouded by all the guilt, panic and anxiety I felt with my own son when he was tiny. Now I find myself, with my grandchildren, with all the time in the world. I'm happy to walk at the pace of a snail, if that's what's required.
A grandmother used to be a woman with no teeth, a bun on her head, someone surrounded by a perpetual smell of a mixture of peppermints and cabbage. And, perhaps, rather stale pee. Grandfathers were bent figures with whiskery beards and pipes, always eager to teach anyone passing the rules of chess. But we baby-boomer grannies are a different lot. We think we have as much energy as we used to have when we were young (but golly, how wrong we find we are, after a day with a couple of exuberant kids) and we want to be "hands-on".
Of course, there are problems. For instance, what are we called, in this day and age? I have friends who, fearful of the label "granny" giving away their age, shout, "Don't call me granny!" and insist on being called by their Christian names. Another demands to be called "Glammy" – but not for me such euphemisms. I'm a granny, and I want to shout it from the rooftops. I'll even put up with the unsettlingly prophetic "Gaga", the name my first grandson called me for a while.
Another problem comes for our own children. My son was amazed to find that not only had he become a father, but that his mother, in the space of about five minutes, had turned into a granny. When I turned up at the house, crying, "And how are you my lambiest lamb?", he'd be about to reply, telling me how exhausted he felt from being up all night winding my grandson, when he discovered that I had zoomed past him to speak to the baby.
"A mother becomes a true grandmother," said some wit, "the day she stops noticing the terrible things her children do because she is so enchanted with the wonderful things her grandchildren do."
The other problem is that we may think we're up-to-date, but we're not. We have to keep up with the latest fads of whether a child should be put to sleep on its tummy, its side or its back. We have to be very careful not to air our subversive liberal views on thumbsucking, dummies or "naughty steps".
Of course, we had to put up with our own mothers and mothers-in-law insisting on ideas promoted by some tyrant called Dr Truby King. And our children, poor things, have to put up with us 1960s grannies who believe that anything goes. We feel that we turn, once we become a granny, from being a mother to some wise and pre-historic person, but it's an illusion. To our children we're just, frankly, out-of-date.
Grannydom flung me into the world of knitting. It threw me back into toyshops where I could browse for hours and find, to my astonishment, that books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Cat in the Hat and The Tiger Who Came to Tea were still going strong, which was rather a relief. I now search out information on the net about how to rear tadpoles. I collect bits of sweet wrappers, feathers and coloured straws so that we have enough material for collage and painting sessions when my grandsons come to visit.
I feel an unaccustomed joy with my grandchildren, a joy which I've not had in any other relationship – and I'm not the only one. No cowboy was ever faster on the draw than a grandparent pulling a baby picture out of a wallet. And fellow grannies agree that the experience is astonishing, as marvellous as finding, in winter, a solitary rose blooming on a withered branch. I read recently a quote from GK Chesterton, who wrote, 100 years ago, that family is "this frail cord, flung from the forgotten hills of yesterday to the invisible mountains of tomorrow" – and when you're a grandparent it all becomes clear. The realisation that life is just a string of people, generation after generation, going on forever, suddenly comes home to you in a way it never could without a grandchild.
Small wonder that these days I start calling my grandson by my son's name, my son by his father's name, and his father by my grandson's name. We all seem to be floundering around in one big familial soup.
Sometimes I wonder if the seeds of my fulfilment in the role of granny hadn't been sown years and years before, with my own grandmother. She was my life-saver. She lived below us in our house in London, and when things got too tense within my parents' loveless marriage, I would go downstairs and find her in her cosy sitting room, eyes twinkling, full of jokes and affection. She had a magical cupboard stuffed with toys and board games. During hot summers we'd sometimes take a picnic out to the park and eat sugar sandwiches as a treat.
When I painted a picture my parents would say: "Oh, fine. Now have you done your prep?" But if I showed it to my granny she'd open her eyes wide with astonishment. "Did you really do this? No, you're joking! It's just not possible. Let me look at it in the light! But darling, it's quite astonishingly good! It's quite wonderful! Would you mind if I got it framed and hung it up in my sitting room so everyone can see it!"
My grandson once crept into my bed at five in the morning, claiming that he had woken early because he had had a "deem about piders".
"Granny? Granny?" he'd said, when he'd finally managed to wake me up. "I got good idea. You go down the end of the garden and be monster, and I get my sword and I be knight and come and kill you!"
And as, a little while later, I stood, waiting behind a tree shivering in my glamorous dressing gown, in the cool dawn light at the start of a long, long day, while my grandson charged towards me with his plastic sword, I realised I was happy.
No! I Don't Need Reading Glasses! by Virginia Ironside (Quercus, £14.99). To order this book for the special price of £12.99, including P&P, go to independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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