They are intertwined with my earliest childhood memories. My grandparents, great aunt and uncle were always there. Smiling at me, dangling a teddy bear, gazing adoringly at the very first child of the family’s next generation.
Perhaps they aren’t memories, but rather photos that I have seen in my mother’s albums? In any case, my older relatives were so much part of my life from the very beginning that as I grew older, they were simply integral to my existence; wrapped up in the balance that keeps my universe afloat. Years of photographs capturing special outings, birthday events and family holidays, evoking memories of thoughtful presents, often-repeated stories and in-jokes.
As an adult, I treasured their company even more. After my grandmother died when I was just a teenager, I wanted to snap-freeze in time all the moments I shared with the rest of them, making the most of their company, soaking up their precious stories before it was too late.
Trips to stay with my widowed grandfather always put my busy life and work politics in perspective. To stop for a moment, to shoot the breeze with someone from a different time, a different set of values, to see the world from a different perspective.
Slowly, sadly, I watched the health of each deteriorate, wishing desperately for their recovery and exultant when they again returned home from hospital, nursed back to health.
By the time I married in my mid-30s, there were just two old fellas left. And when I fell pregnant, I made the trip to tell my beloved grandfather the exciting news. The next generation was about to be born – finally a first great-grandchild for them all to love, just like they had always loved me. I couldn’t wait to introduce my grandfather to my new baby and to see his face – and to see my baby taking him in, smiling up at him; knowing that he or she was with family.
Just a month before my baby was born, my grandfather died. He was so modest, so self-effacing, I’m sure that he half-felt that his deteriorating health would be a burden on the family and that he needed to make way for next generation. At his funeral, I stood up, with my large belly, to pay tribute to him. It was the least I could do – struggling through the difficulty of speaking, to honour him.
And now, just one month after the birth of my second child, my great uncle, my only remaining elderly relative has died. Up until late in my pregnancy, I would visit him with my toddler. Even amid his ever increasing aches and pains, he maintained his sense of humour and loved to do his best to amuse her.
On our last Father’s Day picnic by the lake, he sat with a rug on his knees in a wheelchair, a shrunken version of the vibrant photos of my childhood. Time telescoped and I imagined him as a baby, ninety years in the past, being rocked in his own mother’s arms. No one who shaped his early life is around now. One day, I won’t be there for my children.
My mother asked him if he wanted to be taken home yet. “I just want to watch the children for a while longer,” he murmured.
I hugged him goodbye, clumsily in my late pregnancy, and he said tiredly, “I look forward to hearing your news.” He didn’t say, “I look forward to meeting the new baby.” He never did.
I intended to introduce him to my newborn – but with the difficulties in the weeks after the birth and a reluctance to take my new baby into a nursing home, during a bad flu season, I hadn’t yet made the visit. I thought there would always be a bit more time. So my second child didn’t get to meet his great uncle. And he didn’t get to experience the joy of seeing my son. In any case, it felt like he was just too tired for it to matter anymore.
With his death, the last relative of his age, it felt like the generations shuddered and shifted, my family emerging, reluctantly, at the next stage. With the births of each of my children, part of another generation had passed on. Was I responsible for this seismic change in the universe?
My parents, uncles and aunts are the oldest now. And I am suspended in the middle. The memories we are creating for my children now are the snapshots of the next generation.
My grandfather’s photo sits on my bedside table. I have kept it close to me ever since my grandmother died twenty-three years ago. I still feel as if I could just give him a call and pop over to see him. I wonder what he would have thought of my children.
When my daughter asks who he is, I say, “He’s my grandfather” and she gets confused and says “No, he’s my grandfather” and she takes the photo and puts it on her bedside table. She didn’t know him but she feels a connection.
They left me with the imprint of their personalities, their stories, their intrinsic code for life. They shaped me and their genetic legacy is held by my children. In their absence, I have to capture their essence and pass it on.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem