Growing Up Without Grandmothers

A couple of Sundays ago my dad, my brother, his wife and five-year-old twins, me, my wife and our two boys got together to commemorate the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. It was a beautiful day full of sunshine and a nice lunch at a place my mum would have loved. I always wondered what would be the date that we’d come together to celebrate a loved one’s life and often thought that the date of the death might not be as appropriate as their birthday. Seeing that my brother’s twins were born on our mother’s birthday it’s better that we keep that day special for them now and celebrating my mother’s life in the spring when the temperature is warming up is fitting for her.

My mother died exactly two weeks before my first born son’s first birthday. She got to meet him and cuddle him and we have photos of the two of them together. But he doesn’t remember her. He knows she’s Grandma Pat when asking who she is in photos, but to him she’s just another person who came into his life and is now is just somebody that he used to know. He does remember his other grandmother though. Yes, sadly, even though he has just turned six, he no longer has either grandma.

My mother-in-law with our youngest son.

My mother-in-law died 34 days before our youngest son’s first birthday. There’s obviously no correlation between us having babies and losing a mother within the first year of that child’s life, it’s pure coincidence. But it’s exceptionally sad for both our sons as they will grow up without really knowing their grandmothers.

Sure we can tell them stories, but it’s not the same. While our eldest child met both of them and has photos to “prove it” and even though he still holds dear the memory of my wife’s mother, our youngest only met the latter and his knowledge of her is the same as his brother’s knowledge of my mother.

Both my father and my wife’s father are alive. My dad lives an hour’s drive away and my father-in-law lives three hours away. My own dad is quite close with the boys and has looked after them on his own a couple of times. There was a very funny incident the first time he looked after them with him not knowing how the tabs on the disposable nappy pulled out and fixed on the front, but his solution to the problem worked and our son was kept clean and dry all the same, even with a loose nappy. We used to see my wife’s dad for a week every month when he worked in Sydney on contract before he headed back to his home out in the country. He stayed with us in our spare room and spent some time with the boys now and then when he wasn’t sleeping the day away due to taking on night shift when working in the city.

I grew up not knowing my own grandmothers all that well. Both my dad’s mother and my mum’s parents lived in England and with us living in Australia there were no trips to Grandma’s for a Sunday roast like many of my friends used to do. My dad’s mum came out to Australia and spent about a year with us every four years starting from when I was almost one. I don’t remember her visiting when I was in the first year of my life but I have fond memories of her when I was five years old. We had a backyard pool and I can remember spending the summer in there, often with her joining me, and many times with her sitting on a chair on our back veranda just watching me. That year I also remember giving up my bedroom for her as we only had a small three bedroom house. Then next time she came when I was nine we had an extension built the year before which included a spare room for her. I remember spending the day with her down in the city going up the Sydney Tower for the first time.

She didn’t come out to Australia after that trip. She was due to come visit when I was 13 but as we were planning a trip to England for my aunt’s wedding, she stayed put knowing that she would be seeing us the following year in her own country. That year I also met my mum’s mother for the first time. My dad’s father died two years before I was born. My mum’s father died about a year before I had the chance to meet him. Our trip to England was planned while he was still alive, but for me, meeting one of my grandfathers was not part of the greater plan of whomever or whatever plans this world.

That trip to England was the last time I saw my dad’s mother. My brother being almost five years older than me couldn’t go to England with us when we went there for the wedding as he had finished school the year before and had just landed his first job when our trip was planned. A few years later he travelled back to England with my dad to catch up with all the relatives and that was the last time both of them saw my dad’s mother. She died not long after their trip.

My mum’s mother came out to Australia some time later and loved spending time with her eldest daughter, that being my mum. Although they were separated by many oceans and a 24 hour flight they talked on the phone regularly. My grandmother outlived my mum. It was heartbreaking for her to live with the knowledge that her daughter had died before her, but this was not the first time she had to deal with this having lost her second daughter, my mum’s younger sister a few years earlier. I still remember the letter that my grandmother wrote not long after my mum had passed. She was not feeling too good and decided to pen a farewell letter to us. I remember one line that I can see when I close my eyes even though I haven’t actually set eyes on that letter for years.

“Soon I will be joining my daughters. I look forward to seeing them again.”

That still makes me tear up. We all felt that she was giving up, but there seemed to be some calm in her release. I don’t believe in Heaven or any afterlife, but I do know that my mum, her sister and their mother are dancing together in the minds of those they left behind and who will never forget them.

It’s no secret that my mother sometimes regretted moving to Australia. Don’t get me wrong, she loved this country. She was a very proud Aussie and took her Australian citizenship seriously. But that distance between Australia and England was often too far for her. I know that she wished that she could jump in the car and drive to “Grandma’s house” with the family for that Sunday roast. And I know that she wished that my brother and I knew our extended family better; grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even second cousins.

I always grew up knowing that I wanted my own kids to have the relationship with their relatives that I didn’t have. After losing my job a month after our first son was born I took that huge redundancy payout that I received and invested some of it in a course in real estate up in Queensland hoping to get into Management Rights where we would be the live in care takers and on site leaser of rental properties within our complex. But when my mum told me that she wasn’t doing too good at the time I decided that staying put in Sydney and finding another job in my home city would be best as it would keep our family within a relatively short driving distance from everyone.

Even though she is no longer with us there is no way I could move away from my dad. At over 50kms from our house, that’s long enough distance for me. It’s close enough that we can be there in an hour or so but far enough away that we can live our separate lives not depending on each other every single day. But the day may come when he needs us more than we rely on him. Every other week or so he comes over and looks after our youngest on a Wednesday when my wife wants to get some work done in her home office without having a three year old destroying her work. Although he’s in his late 70s he’s still very independent and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

Often times on Facebook I see friends and family posting status updates thanking their mothers for helping out with the kids. I have friends who have been guests at destination weddings overseas and interstate and they’ve left their children at home with Grandma. Sometimes Grandma stays at their house especially if there’s a child attending school, sometimes the kids get shipped off the Grandma’s house if they are young and not attending school or during school holidays. Many grandmothers are the go to babysitter when the couple are having a night out together.

My mum with my dad, me and my first born son.
My mum with my dad, me and my first born son.

Grandfathers are sometimes present. They seem to be there when Grandma is still there in the picture but I cannot recall any of my friends or family shipping the kids off to Grandpa’s house when Grandpa is a widower or divorcee and there’s no Grandma in the picture. For us, that’s about to change in these coming summer holidays. My dad has actually suggested that our eldest goes to spend a few days and nights at his house. I think that will be good. It will be a lot easier for him to do this with our eldest being somewhat self-sufficient able to dress himself, feed himself and no more nappies or bums to be wiped. In fact, he pretty much does his own bedtime routine including running the bath, but he still needs his butt kicked into gear to get him to move on to the next step. My dad can handle that.

Early in November 2014 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) suggested that the average Australian man can now expect to live past 80 years old. Women have had a life expectancy of older than 80 for many years which is why we often see both grandmothers being the only grandparents left. As our own example shows, there will be many more grandfathers outliving their wives and partners and as a result, the grandfathers of today need to step up.

My dad does to the best of his ability, but there are times when he falls short. Often I ask my father about milestones in my own infancy and he’s unable to answer my questions. The same can be said of my father-in-law as well. This is why I am advocating for more fathers to be as active as they can in their children’s lives. The active fathers of today will be the active grandfathers of tomorrow.

the active fathers of today will be the active grandfathers of tomorrow
The active fathers of today will be the active grandfathers of tomorrow

Although there are those shortfalls in my dad’s knowledge of my childhood in intricate details, it’s quite ironic that he is more domestic and self-sufficient than my mother would be if she was still alive. If it was my dad who died those five long years ago and he was survived by my mother, she’d definitely would have taken up our offer to have her move in with us whether in the spare room of a much bigger house, or a house that had its own granny flat. And maybe, when more grandfathers outlive their wives and then move in with their kids, we’ll have to think of a new name for the granny flat. But we have many years before we have to give that any consideration.

If my mother was still alive, with or without my dad being alive, things might be a bit different. If my mother-in-law was still alive things might be different. Things might have been easier. Well maybe. Then again, maybe not. And when I think about it, the only real benefit of having that extra help is when we want or need to do things without the kids, and I don’t want to do that all that often. There’s a huge dollop of irony being spooned out in thinking that, because being an active father means that I spend as much time with the kids as I can. Sending them off to Grandma’s or Grandpa’s all the time isn’t being all that active. Having said that though, when my time comes, when my own boys have their own children and I’m retired, I hope that they can rely on me to be there for them.

I will be there to answer those questions about their own childhood. I will be there to look after their kids during the holidays. And I’ll stay the night to babysit when they want to go out for the night. Of course I expect an ice-cream and a bar of chocolate in return.

I will finish this off telling you something that I’m sure is a case of “stating the obvious,” but there is not a day that goes past when we don’t think about our missing grandmothers. It is stating the obvious isn’t it? Oh well, sometime you just have to put that out in public to keep the memory alive in everyone’s hearts.

7 thoughts on “Growing Up Without Grandmothers

  1. Thank you for your article. I was honoured to have known your wife’s Mum and shared some of her experiences with her and you are right. Fortunately and blessed, I am a Grammy and know the importance of making memories with my grandchildren and also grateful that I live with one of my sons (I have 5 children) and his wife and their two children – my granchildren and am close to my other two grandchildren. As for the grandfathers – well that is another story of absence or casual visits. I am very proud though to have three sons, two with children and they are amazing and active in their children’s lives. Great Dads and I am very proud of them (as well as my daughters).

  2. My children have just one grandparent – my mom. While we live nearly 2 hours away we see her at least once a month and then it is for extended stays. They have a great relationship. My m.i.l. died before my second son was born and when my first born was not yet two. So he does not have memories of her. I feel bad that my kids don’t have more grandparents around them. I think such a a relationship can be great.

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