A month after my granddaughter Delphine’s birth, my mother died. I was torn between elation and despair, laughter and tears. The inexorable circularity of life and death, compressed into a few short, sharp weeks. My first grandchild and the great-grandmother she will never know.
I am 54. Old enough for the passing of a parent, as sad as it is, to be part of the natural order of things. But to be a grandparent... When our eldest daughter, Celeste, told us she was expecting a baby, my first feeling was one of unbridled joy. I’m going to be a grandfather!
My second feeling – following on with indecent haste – was of disconcerting alarm. A grandfather? Me? But surely I’m far too young? Well, 54 is young, isn’t it? Albeit in a middle-aged kind of way. But certainly too young to be a grandfather. Apparently not. The average age of the first-time grandparent, according to research published by Saga, is only 49. How can that be possible?
Among my contemporaries I am the first to become a grandparent. I have friends in their thirties who are only just becoming parents. Half of them aren’t even married yet. I felt less of a novelty, more of a freak. It’s part of the problem of being one of the “Groovy 50s”, “The Adults Who Never Grow Up”, or whatever demographic the newspapers have this week decided to apply to my generation.
News that you’re about to become a grandfather suddenly brings you up short. It makes you feel – and how can I put this delicately – ancient. But, of course, it’s not like that at all. The conventional wisdom is that grandparents have all of the pleasure and none of the anxiety. But it doesn’t seem to have quite worked like that.
Within days of my daughter announcing she was pregnant, Dr Hugh Jolly – our constant companion in raising our three children – was pulled from a bookshelf and dusted down, and books by the new gurus of the child-raising arts began arriving in the post from Amazon: Gina Ford, Elizabeth Pantley… “Are they for Celeste?” “No, they’re for us.” “But we’re not the ones having the baby.” “They’ll be useful.”
Bits and pieces began to appear from the loft, relics of our own parenting, “for when she comes here” (we’d found out it was a girl). “Oh, and we’ve agreed to buy the baby buggy.” “We have?” “She wants a Bug-a-boo.” “Of course. And how much is that?” “Don’t ask.”
At five months, I was awoken one night at 2am with a sharp jab in the ribs. My wife was sitting bolt upright in bed, a haunted expression on her face. “I’ve forgotten how to bath her!” “Bath who?” “The baby!” And then the telephone rang.
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In the 50s fathers were regarded as an impediment and a nuisance, comic characters reduced to pacing up and down in hospital waiting-rooms with celebratory cigars primed in their jacket pockets. However, men of my generation were expected to be there at the bedside, heroically clutching our wives by the hand, gritting our teeth and fighting the feelings of rising panic, doing our best not to faint. Do women realise, I wonder, what an ordeal childbirth is? My son-in-law certainly does, which is why he pleaded squeamishness and said, if nobody minded, he’d prefer to wait outside.
So it was that my wife was her daughter’s “birth-partner”. My younger daughter certainly wasn’t going to miss out, so she was there too. The comic characters, my son-in-law and I, paced up and down the corridor.
I’d forgotten how incredibly small babies are – so small I was terrified to hold her. It felt as if the earth had turned another, inexorable notch on its axis. Life, it often seems to me, is a series of rooms that you walk through, closing the door behind you as you go, casting a glance over your shoulder at your own past, your own youth, knowing that you can never go back. Marriage. First child. First mortgage. I felt I had walked into another room – but this time to be greeted by the most miraculous gift.
It seems to me to be evidence of some greater design of the continuum of life that such joy should arrive at precisely the moment you most need it. Middle-age arrives. Your spirits begin to flag. One’s sense of wonder becomes blunted by the routines and exigencies of life. Friends – contemporaries – succumb to life-threatening diseases. You suddenly realise that you can no longer play a competitive game of football – not even five-a-side – and that you’re the only person in the office who knows who Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders are (or should that be, were). You begin to be brought up short in the face of your mortality.
Don't call me granddad
And suddenly here is the very embodiment of wonder and innocence; the most timely reminder that life is essentially good and kind. The first problem was the name. No, not the baby’s name, that had already been decided. My name. The implications of this are enormous, of course. Grandad is unthinkable for countless reasons, all of them to do with Clive Dunn and his 1971 hit of the same name; Grandpa not much better. Some people will go to any lengths to avoid the ghettoisation (the humiliation) that the usual terms suggest, opting instead for first names (far too chummy, in my opinion) or pet-names. Rather than being grandma or nana, a friend of a friend is apparently insisting her granddaughter address her as Zog. Well, perhaps it means something to her.
Personally, I think “Pops” carries a certain roguish charm; and if it was good enough for Pops Staples, the patriarch of the famous Staples Singers gospel group, it’s certainly good enough for me. This is what a grandchild does to you. No sooner have you grown accustomed to losing your youthful identity and becoming “Dad” than you have to adjust to becoming “Pops”.
The second problem was memory. My wife’s fears were well-founded. How do you bath a baby? And feed it? And change a nappy? And stop it crying? But what is astonishing is just how much you remember even without recourse to a textbook – and how recently it seems you were doing all these things for your own children. “You suddenly realise that life moves at an incredible speed,” one friend says. “When I take my granddaughter to Hampstead Heath, I go to the same places I used to take her father. It just seems that life has telescoped.” I recognise this feeling.
If we are looking after Delphine for the weekend, I walk her round our local park, where I once pushed her mother on the swings. Parents of my children’s school friends – people I recognise from sports days and barbecues – do a double-take. You can see them computing the passing years; a flicker of companionable recognition if they are grandparents themselves; a flicker of alarm if they’re not – because we’re of an age, after all, and if I’m old enough to be a grandparent then they are too.
I want to tell them, “Don’t worry! It’s great!” Being a grandparent doesn’t make you feel old after all; it makes you feel glad to be the age you are. It makes you feel you’ve actually achieved something. “I look at this tiny thing,” says another friend who is a grandmother thrice over, “and I think, whatever one has been or not been, one has at least produced a daughter who has produced a beautiful baby.” This sense of a job well done can present itself in the most surprising ways.
Past and future
Another friend whose son has recently presented her with her first grandchild was overwhelmed when she observed his parenting skills – his facility with nappies and ointment. “He’s a soldier and has a very rough and tough exterior, but suddenly here was this softer side which I hadn’t seen in him since childhood. It made me incredibly proud to know that I’d instilled those qualities in him.”
And so we volunteer to babysit at every opportunity. (That old cliché, about the real benefit being that you can enjoy them and then give them back? It’s untrue; we don’t want to give her back. Although we do, of course.) We scan our e-mail inbox for new pictures. We telephone regularly, “just to make sure everything’s OK” (as my wife thumbs backwards and forwards through Gina Ford).
When my younger friends began to have babies, I was delighted for them, of course – smiling indulgently as they rehearsed the agony and ecstasy of new parenthood, while at the same time quietly thinking, “Really, it’s as if nobody ever had a child before.”
The truth is, of course, that nobody has ever had a grandchild before. Certainly not one as beautiful and as clever as mine. She swivels her head from side to side now and grabs for everything. Isn’t that astonishing! When she gurgles, I’m sure she’s actually trying to say the word “Pops”. And she smiles at me like she smiles at nobody else! We stare into each other’s eyes: me in rapt adoration and wonder, hardly believing that I could have played a part – no matter how small – in bringing something so wondrous into the world.
I search her face for evidence of my daughter, myself, my mother – the great-grandmother she will know only through stories and photographs. The generations stretching into the past and into the future, of which she is now a new and magical link. Her eyes flicker between amusement, fathomless mystery and naked curiosity – who’s the old guy, and why does he keep looking at me like that? I can only guess at how she feels. But I feel as happy as I’ve ever felt in my life. Even if there is a nappy to change.
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