Our wedding photos have all four of my grandparents in them – a pretty rare phenomenon at the age of 29. I grew up with the lucky experience of knowing them, celebrating family occasions with them, Christmases, birthdays, many, many barbeques; staying weekends with them for no reason at all, learning how to sew, grow peas, toast the heel of a nutty krust on an open fire. Those memories are peppered with moments of total contentment and joy, against a backdrop of summer, Christmas tree lights or chickenpox. I lost my paternal grandmother a week after number one son was born, my maternal grandfather’s funeral was the day son number two arrived. I joke how I probably won’t have any more kids because every time I do I kill a grandparent. It’s a running joke but with more than a tinge of regret that those grandparents never met the boys or saw me as a mother to both of them.
Memories of my grandparents pop into my day via smells, tastes and sounds. From my grandfather it’s the salty stale air of the shores of Belfast Lough, which we called the beach, toasted soda with lots of butter, done only on one side, strange little Belfast sayings that I overhear or the lollipop man at my son’s school, who shares his walk and a beige jacket that looks almost like it’s been ironed. My grandmother was an elegant lady; a trait which I not only did not inherit, but may be the least-used adjective to describe me. What reminds me of her? Our relationship was always a bit more formal than with my maternal grandparents; not because of a lack of connection but because that was her character. Yes she was chic, but she was sharp and tough…more attributes I wouldn’t mind for myself. She was especially adept at pointing out if you had a nice big spot or coldsore, but would turn up with a fondue set, electric knife or some other kitsch kitchen item she knew I’d love before I knew. I used to be offended that she talked about how awesome all her other grandchildren were (are) but only figured out later that she similarly extolled my achievements to them.
Sometimes I think I was so wrapped up in my own life when they died that I’ve not really realised they’re no longer here. Others I think of the pain and indignity of illness and old age and am glad they didn’t have to endure any more. Thoughts of them are with me always, but – strangely – most often when I’m feeling like a crap parent. When I’m right on the edge of my temper, when I can’t seem to get through to number one son in particular, when I’m running out of reason and empty threats of potential punishments if…if…. For a split second when I’m regretting that a minor disobedience has escalated into a full-scale meltdown on either or both sides, they appear. What would they think of me? What would they say? How did they discipline my parents? In the same second I know I’m not doing as good a job as I could. And so the thought of them brings me back. It takes my volume down, makes me try to look in at what’s happening when I’m stuck in my own perspective. I know that they see the boys, I can picture them with them as though it’s a memory that actually happened. You’d think it’d be birthdays, anniversaries or special occasions that they’d choose to swing by, sometime when it’s a bit more festive and joyous. Instead it’s the times when I’m sad or overwhelmed, finding something tough or am just a bit lost that they visit. And just so you know, I know you’re here.