Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer reading

What have I been reading recently? Nice of you to ask - I have been reading more than I might, because it's been the kind of weather that allows you to read outside, and I'm an outdoorsy sort who can't bear to sit in if the sun's shining or even if it's not and ... and ... Enough. Right now I've started on Lucretia Grindle's The Lost Daughter  and I'm enjoying it hugely, in the way you  do when you've read several of an author's books and settle comfortably into the environment - in this case Florence - and the characters (Italian cops) you've met before. I continue to be slightly irritated by the writer's tick of consigning adjectival clauses to a separate sentence more than once (once is fine, but it's too distinctive a trait to use more often), but she writes a good tale and the setting is terrific.

I'll not go on about that, however, because I'm just settling in - though I may return for a final thought. Before embarking on the Grindle I was reading the deeply unsettling The Disappeared, by Kim Echlin. Set in Canada and Cambodia, this is a story of the Killing Fields, so I'm now considerably more clued up on Pol Pot and the horrors of that era than I was in the 70s, when I was too preoccupied with bringing up children. As I shall be visiting Cambodia and Vietnam next year, it seemed a good way for a fiction fiend to pick up some history, and a pretty ghastly history it is. Echlin writes in an elegiac way that incorporates Cambodian words into her dialogue and reflects the music that brings the lovers of her story together, but under the poetry of her language is an undercurrent of tension that meant I sometimes had to stop reading (at bedtime, usually) before I was ready to.

I read another thought-provoking book in Frankie and Stankie, by Barbara Trapido. This is a delightfully-narrated account of growing up in the South Africa that existed while I was a child, the South Africa of growing apartheid seen through the eyes of the child of white liberals who nevertheless mingled with the rest of white society - though they took a dim view of the Afrikaaners, whom they saw as boorish country clods. The child-like clarity of the prose means that events happen without necessarily being interpreted; with our hindsight we are able to see how things gathered their own ghastly momentum and changed a world even as its inhabitants watched. I'm glad to have read it.

And then there was the appropriately seasonal Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell. This is the story of a family, beautifully and lovingly told, with fascinating flashbacks gradually explaining what is happening and making it possible for the family to continue. I especially enjoyed the seemingly effortless mastery of the writer, the firm grasp of tense, the fine strokes of characterisation. Set in the heatwave of July 1976 - a heatwave in London which was not, I can tell you with all the authority of a diarist, a heatwave in Dunoon - the writer keeps the heat there, oppressively present without being over-described, so that you are constantly aware of the difficulties of coping rationally with any crisis. I saved this one up for the appropriate season, and it went down a treat.

And now, chums, I'm away back to Florence. I'm not after all going to say any more till I'm finished. The sun is shining in the garden and I want to read ...

Monday, July 14, 2014

A unique privilege

On the kind of day when I look out at the rain and mist and breathe a prayer of thankfulness that I have no visitors staying, no children hoping for a visit to the beach or an adventure in the forest, I find myself reflecting - for solace, as it were - on what it is that makes being a grandparent so special. Remember, I never thought of myself as the maternal type - until my first son was born. Then I was maternal, but actually only towards him, and towards the second son who followed four years later. I still found other people's children attractive only insofar as they met my criteria, not simply because they were children, and I taught adolescents in the assumption that they were doing what the name suggests - growing older, becoming people. And I liked people.

So when my sons were men and became husbands and announced that they were to be fathers, I was not at all sure how that would feel. Maybe mothers are always like that; it's not something I've discussed. And then the babies were born and my world was turned upside down for the second time in my life. The connection to these tiny infants was unbelievable in its impact, maternal instinct or no. What today's reflection consolidated was that for almost seven years now I've enjoyed the immense privilege of a chance to experience the uncritical acceptance and love from children who seem to know, whether we meet frequently or seldom, that there is a bond that can be trusted and a love that will never be withheld. I regard it as a unique privilege, even though it is shared by other grandparents, because it is unique in any one life - unique and undreamed-of.

When we are parents, we are so busy being parents that we tend not to notice the passage of time other than in landmarks like walking, talking and teeth. Our own lives are so full with the minutiae of care that there is little time to reflect - and then the time has passed, the children are drifting out of our orbit, sharing their lives with increasing numbers of strangers, becoming people just as we did before them. There is a sense of a faint regret, perhaps, but we are caught up in the amazement that these new people came from us, and the anxiety or exhilaration that surrounds their achievements. Finally, they leave - and I think sons do this more conclusively than daughters - and the cycle begins again.

The grandchildren, that golden second chance to be with children and love them and have them smother you in sticky kisses and tell you they are going to miss you when they say goodbye, come and bring with them that added bonus of perspective. A grandparent knows all too well how swiftly that chariot careers along on its breathless wings; this grandparent has learned that every moment - even the tired, grumpy moment - has to be cherished and savoured like a mouthful of fine wine, like the perfect cadence hanging in the silence that applause will soon break.

And that is why I will walk away from other demands if my family, my two-generational family, asks me to; that is why I defer final commitment to other tasks; that is why I add caveats to most of the arrangements I make these days. For it is a fact that to be a grandmother who can tell interesting stories and supply adventures when asked, I still need to be living my own interesting life - so there are arrangements made, commitments given, and life sometimes feels almost as hectic as it was when I was a young parent.

The difference is that I can lay a great deal of it aside. And when I have to be grandma, I do.