One of my main gripes with life (and they are many and varied and ever-multiplying) is the continuously shifting perspective that’s required in order to appreciate things in their truest light. Relish the detail, but don’t sweat the small stuff. Remember this too will pass, but don’t wish the years away. Life is nothing but a succession of fleeting moments, but try not to be too busy living in those moments to forget to make plans for the future. There is no foolproof vantage point for looking at your own life while you’re doing your best to actually live it. It’s like one of those trippy 17th century Dutch paintings where things are back to front and near and far and saturated in more levels of meaning than you can compute at once, and leave you in need of a quiet sit down and, ideally, a glass of Riesling and a waffle.
Parenting exemplifies this. I often find it hard to see my children in focus. There are too many filters distorting my view. Worry, tiredness, wine, frustration, a bit more worry, blind rages of anger and resentment, utter incomprehension, but mainly love. Overwhelming, empowering, debilitating, frankly terrifying love. I’m worried I’ll get old and they’ll grow up (and up and up until growing up isn’t a category that applies to them anymore) and time and distance will impose themselves between us and only then will I be able to look back and see with clarity how things were, and what I should have done instead of what I did, and I’ll have to carry around the burden of this unwelcome wisdom that’s come decades too late. (I will not do this gracefully, by the way. I do nothing gracefully and I’m confident that age alone will not bestow this quality on me.)
What I’m trying to say is, when it comes to parenting, ‘getting some perspective’ means an awful lot more than just taking a deep breath and reaching for the gin. I’ve been very preoccupied with this since my grandmother died earlier this year. She was 95, and I’m going to miss her. I don’t really miss her yet, but I know it’s coming. She occupies a different emotional plane in my life to my children. They’re right here, in my face (amongst other choice body parts), and have an immediate and constant impact on my heart and head. My Grandma is different. She maintains the civilised distance of the wartime generation. She’s a foundation stone in my Roman ruins. In the Freudian sense of course because, hey, what’s the point of ruminating on your family if you can’t come back to Freud? In one of his pithier bits of writing, Freud uses a cracking metaphor to explain why we’re all, well, a bit complicated in the head (no, honestly, this isn’t oversimplifying his life’s work in any way). He compares the human mind to the city of Rome –layer upon layer upon layer of building and history – all of which is irrevocably shaped by the layer immediately beneath it. This is the important bit. Nothing that exists in our psychological life is unaffected by what was there before, directly or indirectly, majorly or minorly. And it’s the stuff that gets laid down first that has the most pervasive and powerful influence. The stuff of childhood.
And this is what my Grandma is to me. The stuff of childhood, in the purest sense. And in being one of my Roman ruins, she inevitably appears as a cameo in the psychological archaeology of my children. My Gran, the only woman I’ve ever seen who could make a red felt cape look understated. And had a matching hat. Who fed me 40% toast to 60% butter and told me bedtime stories about Patsy, the pink crocheted doll on her toilet roll cover. Who still wore knee high leather boots into her 70s (which wouldn’t do up even around my arm, at circa age 11). Whose kitchen cabinets were lined with Noddy and Big Ears wall paper and were scented with the utterly glorious and surreal mixture of Vicks and Chanel. Who had bright orange gladioli at the bottom of the garden and pastel freshias in the passage. Who had a dim view of the Royals and Strictly Come Dancing but an unshakeable love of snooker and Fred Astaire. And toasted sandwiches. Who had an inexplicably large capacity for cream-based desserts, given her miniscule frame. Who conducted herself with effortless camaraderie with her friends and neighbours and could raise a silent arched eyebrow with comic timing to die for (often aimed at those very same friends and neighbours). Who took a hot water bottle to Ibiza and turned out to be right. Who regarded yoghurt as foreign food. Who only gave up wearing heels in her late 80s and disdainfully regarded her new flat footwear like they were Cornish pasties rather than shoes. Who seemed to me to live in a constant state of activity, but probably didn’t. And had a really good laugh. I know people say this a lot, but in this case it’s true. She had a silly laugh and a social niceties laugh and a cynical laugh but her real laugh used her whole face and her whole tiny body and was honestly, honestly, life-affirming. Like when babies laugh and it takes your breath away not just because it’s so lovely but because it’s so primal and powerful. She laughed like that. She stayed open to real laughter, even when she had very little to find funny. She stayed attuned to the absurd. The older I get, the more I realise how special and wonderful this is.
I have inherited her washing machine. You can think of her every time you put a wash on, which is a lot! said my mum. Which sounds like a joke but isn’t, because we both know I really will. I will watch my children’s clothes go round and round (and yet somehow fail to ever actually look clean) and I will remember being a little girl in her kitchen all that time ago, where the butter was almost a fluorescent yellow and was studded with little hunks of salt and corned beef was served in an impressive number of ways and the slatted windows so fascinated my brother and I that we’d climb onto the scrubbed metal draining board to open and shut and open and shut them until we were gently but firmly removed. And then I’ll look around my own busy kitchen, which is just as full of rubbish and treasure and riches of domestic detail and I’ll try to go easy on the two small children rifling through drawers and mounting kitchen counters and balancing on stools to reach the top shelves and drinking milk out of the bottle and dunking their fingers in every available jar. Because now I know that when my Gran was close to the end of her life, her head and her heart were filled with what had filled it first, the bricks upon which the rest of her long life was built– her mother and her father and her brothers and sisters and the house she grew up in. Some people think this is sad. I don’t. I think it makes perfect sense. It’s all just a question of perspective.