Today would have been my Gran Nicol’s 97th Birthday. She died in 2011, (see this post), but her influence and that of her long term friend and rival, Gran Howcroft, is with me forever.
I was truly blessed with 2 strong, loving, intelligent and occasionally eccentric grandmothers, and 3 wonderful grandfathers. While we were children, Gran Nicol was definitely front-runner in the Best Gran Stakes. She lived in a seaside town, with a sandy beach, ice cream stands, plastic buckets and spades and wonderful promenade lights in the summer. The houses were large and comfortable, and near to the rest of the family – a strange collection of elderly spinster aunts ruled over by our great grandmother and great grandfather, who loved to buy us bubble mixture and challenge us to catch the bubbles, blow bigger ones, land them on our noses – wonderful, loving and fun people. Gran once explained her expanding waistline by saying that a real grandmother should be cuddly, “not like that bony old thing over in Surrey.”
That bony old thing was Gran Howcroft – tall, strong, loud and opinionated (think Julia Child and Barbara Woodhouse combined). She was a professional artist, avid gardener, tennis and badminton player. Into her 80s she was a volunteer with Meals On Wheels, delivering meals to people younger than herself, despite being a terror behind the wheel of her car. Visits to her house were fraught with danger. She kept dogs and vicious, anti-social cats, and the house was coated in pet hair. Food was frequently out of date, so poisoning was a constant risk. She made no concessions to small children, so there were no toys or games but we were permitted to play gently and quietly with a dolls house, and she made sure there was a new piece whenever we visited. There were also a number of beautiful puzzle boxes – souvenirs from her travels with The Penguin (Grandad Howcroft).
As I approached teenage, Gran Nicol moved from the seaside town to our neighbourhood. Although I missed the holidays, she was available as I transitioned to high school and became a difficult teen. She patiently listened to my angry rants, fed me coffee cake, drove me home when I had missed the bus. She introduced me to the therapeutic benefits of gardening, she told me I was beautiful when I was at my most awkward and she pushed me to push myself academically. At the same time, Gran Howcroft came into her own as a guide and mentor. She could discuss current affairs and art, challenge me to think critically and she demanded that I exceed my own expectations.
A few days ago, I was chatting to a friend who is a Grandmother. Her grandchildren live in Munich and she was describing how she sends them letters and parcels at least once a week, misses them desperately, but visits at least once a year. One of the most common worries we hear from new expats, and one of the reasons an emigration may not “stick” is the draw that family has; you truly may not miss them until they are out of reach. North America is a good place to find people in a similar situation, however. Families are often separated by thousands of miles, seeing each other once or twice a year for busy family holidays. The Great Canadian Roadtrip is often a result of children moving away, across the whole continent, and discovering that the cheapest way of visiting Grandma and Grandad for Thanksgiving is to drive there. I remembered that, when I moved from home to college and then onward, my Grandmothers were great letter writers. They wrote about real issues; faith, careers, education, relationships and family. Gran Nicol, in particular, took upon herself the responsibility of ensuring that all her grandchildren were always up to date on the news from other branches of the family; she held us together and kept the family close, even when we were scattered around the country and, eventually, the globe. We spent much of our married life away from our close families, and our children had little opportunity to get to know their grandparents well, but they always knew who they were, even as babies. It seems that distance does not need to affect family. You can still be the Best Gran (or Grandad), you can still spoil your grandchildren, you can still tell them you love them through email, Skype, You Tube, Twitter, letter… Take the time to keep in touch, take an interest in their interests, and never assume that your views and opinions are not relevant. Even the smallest contact is important when distance is involved.
“To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.” Phyllis Theroux