The Gallery: When grandparents live so far away, you ask the question: How many more times will we see them?

Happiness is a sunny garden and grandma and grandpa!

The theme of this week’s hugely popular Gallery on Tara Cain’s Sticky Fingers blog is GRANDPARENTS. This is a post I wrote three months ago, but I would like to present it again because the themes are just as pertinent now as then, if not more so.

The car was loaded up with two suitcases, three boxes of toys, one travel cot, one collapsible buggy, one blue teddy, three children and three packets of chocolate buttons to be opened only in case of dire emergency or tantrums. All that was missing was the kitchen sink – and my Successful Other Half.

‘D’you think I’ve got everything?’ I said to her.

‘You’re only going for a few days,’ she said. ‘It’s not the other end of the universe. Besides, I’ll be joining you in a few days.’

This was our annual Easter road-trip up north to tour the grandparents.

Separating us was five hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic, at least two stops for the toilet, three screaming meltdowns in the back of the car, 250 miles of road and an ocean of effort.

It hardly seemed worth it. My mother-in-law had said as much on the phone.

‘I won’t be upset if you don’t come,’ she’d told her daughter. ‘It’s such a long way.’

But the truth was I minded. This year I’d be going alone – for the first few days anyway – because my Successful Other Half couldn’t get the time off work. I minded the packing, the driving, the bickering and the fact that no sooner had we arrived than we were already planning the return journey. No wonder, then, that by the time I pulled up outside their house I was ready for two days in a darkened room with a duvet over my head.

But then the front door opened and all the exhaustion melted away because standing there were my children’s grandparents beaming with happiness.

‘Grandma! Grandpa!’ the children shouted and in the next moment, the two generations were wrapped around each other.

It had been months since they’d last seen each other and they weren’t planning on wasting another moment. First it was playing hide and seek with Grandpa. Next it was doing some gardening with Grandma. Then it was tucking into one of her dinners. Well, not so much tucking in as devouring it like a pack of wolves who’d spent three months on the watercress soup diet.

‘Dee-licious,’ said the six-year-old scraping a plate clean for the first time in his life. ‘Can I have some more broccoli?’
I almost choked.

‘Broccoli?’ I said. ‘Are you sure? You don’t like it at home.’

‘I know,’ he said, looking past me and smiling at his grandmother. ‘But Grandma’s broccoli is much nicer than yours.’

And it wasn’t just the food they loved. In the presence of their grandparents, my children were transformed. There was no bickering, no tears, no throwing themselves on the floor in temper over who had the biscuit with the most chocolate on it.
Instead, they were having the time of their lives.

It was strange. Even though they saw their grandparents just three or four times a year, the kids seemed to understand that this was somewhere they belonged. Not for the first time, I wished their grandparents didn’t live so far away.
‘So do I,’ my mother-in-law said to her daughter as we talked about it the evening she’d arrived by train. ‘But it was Rebecca who moved away. Not us.’

It was true. In her late teens my wife couldn’t wait to get as far away from home as soon as possible. Now, 20 years on, she wonders if she made the right choice. Trouble is, we both feel cut off from our loved ones. And, more importantly, so do our children.

The Grandparents’ Association estimates there are more than a million grannies and granddads who are denied access to their grandchildren. But that figure represents only those banned from having contact, usually because of their children’s bitter divorce. How many more grandparents and grandkids are separated simply because they live so far away from each other?

It wasn’t like that when I was a child. Both my grandmothers lived close by and we saw one or other of them almost every weekend. They babysat for us, they came on holiday with us and they were as much a part of every Christmas as Santa and his reindeer.

All too soon, the Easter break came to an end and we were packing the cases again and looking under beds for missing teddies and stray socks. And that’s when my wife noticed her nine-year-old daguther. She was standing in her grandfather’s den, staring at a photograph on the bookcase.

 

My children's great grandfather during the First World War

‘Who’s that, Mum?’ she said. ‘He looks like someone I know.’

Gazing out of the sepia tint was a young man, no more than 22 or 23. He was wearing an army uniform adorned with a medal ribbon. There was something very familiar about his face and yet the photograph was dated 1917.

‘That,’ my wife said, ‘is your great granddad, my grandfather.’

Her eyes widened.

‘I didn’t know you had a granddad,’ she said.

‘He died a long time ago,’ my wife said. ‘When Grandpa was a little boy.’

‘So you didn’t get to meet him?’ she said.

My wife shook her head. Child 1 thought for a moment. ‘I’m glad I’ve got all my grandmas and all my granddads,’ she said at last. ‘I’m lucky to have them, aren’t I?’

‘Yes love,’ my wife said. ‘You really are.’

She looked at me to check my reaction. I smiled. The issue isn’t so acute for me.I lost my mother last December. My sons barely knew her, and she certainly didn’t know them because of the way Alzheimer’s had stolen her mind. But it was OK. Life carries on. As much as I’d like my kids to spend time with my dad, my dad likes to spend his time in the pub. But that’s OK – I like to spend my time in the pub, too. I just wish I had the chance to spend more time in the pub with my father!

Anyway, it came time to say our goodbyes. I loaded up the car with the two suitcases, the three boxes of toys, the travel cot, the collapsible buggy, the blue teddy and the three children – and my Successful Other Half.

And we were ready for the five-hour journey home. As I turned the key in the ignition, my wife glanced back at the house. Standing on the doorstep were two figures, doing their best to smile. But for the first time they looked small and frail and old. And, suddenly, I saw my wife’s throat tighten and her eyes fill with tears, She rubbed them hard.

‘What’s the matter, Mum?’ Child 1 asked.

‘Nothing,’ she said.

How many more times? Doesn't bear thinking about.

But it was a lie. She was looking at her mother and father and she was wondering how many more times we would see them. How many more times would they cuddle our children on their knee and tell them stories about the faces in the photographs? How many more times would she find them – grandparent and grandchild – staring in wonder at one another? How many more irreplaceable moments like those would there be?

Twenty, perhaps? Maybe just ten? And then the precious link between old and young, past and future, would be broken forever.

I turned off the ignition and got out of the car.

‘Y’know, I don’t feel up to the drive today,’ I smiled.

‘Would it be OK if we stayed another day?’

‘Of course,’ my wife said, brightening.

‘But don’t you have things you need to do at work?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she  said. ‘Nothing important.’

What she meant was: nothing as important as this.

23 Comments

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23 Responses to The Gallery: When grandparents live so far away, you ask the question: How many more times will we see them?

  1. That is the most heart-breaking post, I’ve had tears in my eyes reading that. A very emotive tale that I can relate to. I miss my maternal grandparents terribly, and am desperate to make memories for The Boy with my own parents who live nearby. My in-laws live 130 miles away and we see them a few times a year (as much as I can handle).

    I hope that you enjoyed the extra day and were able to make more memories for your children and wife.

    • keithkendrick

      Thank you. It was made all the more poignant by the fact of taking the kids to visit their grandmother’s (my mother’s) ashes. Not sure how much of this computes with them, but at least they’re getting to understand what’s important in life

  2. well the tears came thick and fast reading your post. My son has never met my mother and step father as they live by the sea in chappel st leonards on the east coast, and we live in gloucestershire. They are both 80 now, and dont drive. I fear i have left it too late as dementia has set in with my stepdad. I dont think he would know me let alone my son.
    Make the most of the grandparents if you can.

    • keithkendrick

      Thanks Michelle. One of the most upsetting moments was when my youngest son pointed to a picture of him and his grandmother (my mother) and said: ‘Who’s that?’ I’m determined that he’ll never say that about my dad or my wife’s parents

  3. Terry

    Well done Keith, you are a proud house dad really and I commned you for keeping those ties going also your fierce determination that they will know their grandparents. I wish I could do the same with ours we have but one left my dad, just had a big stroke so my tiny two may never really get to know him and MBH parents never even got to see my son and only her mum saw my daughter for 2 very short years. Makes me sad when they look blankly at the hundreds of pictures we have around the house of them. Well done another great blog.

  4. I’m an ex-pat Yorkshireman living on the Shetland Islands. This post resonates with everything I’ve done to keep my kids in touch with their grandparents (and the grown-ups in touch with their own families). Visiting the grandparents involves a 12 hour ferry crossing before we get to the 6 hour drive (on a good day) but it is so damn important that they know these people! I have only the vaguest memories of my mother’s parents and not a great deal of knowledge about my father’s, and thanks to Alzheimer’s my kids are already missing one grandpa. They’ll probably lose a granny this year, thanks to cancer, and the youngest will never know just how amazing she is. But we’ll visit as often as we can.

    Fantastic blog. You’ve gained another follower.

    • keithkendrick

      Thanks John. It’s so hard when you move away, but the alternative is to stay living round the corner from the parental home. Unfortiunately (or fortunately) my wife and I chose careers wich are London-centric and when we were young and ambitious, it never crossed our minds that one day these issues would become important. When you’re young you think your parents are going to live forever.

  5. Lucy

    I too welled up reading this Keith, I lost my Granddad when I was 18 and although I have very happy memories of him I miss him every single day. I am sad that he won’t see me get married or know my OH who I know he would’ve loved. I hope you did enjoy the extra day with your in-laws, I am sure the children did. One more day of memories to treasure x

    • keithkendrick

      Hi Lucy, It was a very special day, thanks. Made all the more poignant by the fact that my wife is working every hour God sends at the moment, including this Friday and Monday’s Bank Holiday. I doubt we’ll have the chance to see them again this year because of work pressure, so that made it doubly powerful.

  6. Your post brought a tear to my eye. So true and yet something I wouldn’t like to dwell on, it’s too sad. I read your more recent post about tellng them about death. My 4 yr old is asking a lot about when we die and it’s difficult to answer when he’s also interested in how old his grandparents are. I’m glad my kids have a close bond with their grandparents. Even though they don’t see one set very often at all, they still love the time they spend together.

  7. It is all part of life’s rich tapestry!

  8. Sam

    Such a beautiful post and I am absolutely choked with tears in my eyes. I get so frustrated with my family sometimes and wish to live much further away, for selfish reasons, by the sea. This post has added to make my mind up that I’m staying put, just a half hour drive away. My son is only 18 months and I hope he will love going to visit them which as it stands can be at the drop of a hat. I think I will keep it that way. The seaside is overrated anyway 😉

  9. Trying to write this with tears swimming my eyes, really touching post. Nat

  10. I’m crying too! My sister lives in Australia & has just had her first baby, Riley. My Mum spent a month out there with them, my Dad going for the final fortnight. They are very aware that they won’t have much of a relationship with Riley. Of course there will be visits & Skype but they won’t have the cuddles and running around, the gardening or sitting on motorbikes, the playing and reading bedtime stories that they have with my 3 yr old son, Sam. We’re all a bit sad at the moment.
    It also reminds me why I spend every Saturday with my Grandma. She has a fabulous relationship with Sam & he adores his GG. When I’m knackered at the end of the week & need a lie in my husband asks why am I spending the day with her – why don’t I have a week off to relax? I’ll point him to your post now & I think he’ll get it.

  11. Thanks for writing this. I’d write more but can’t see through the tears.

  12. What an absolutely beautiful post, so well written. I have tears in my eyes after reading that!
    I loved “the two generations were wrapped around each other”.
    My children had all their grandparents until last year when my husbands father suddenly collapsed and died after a heart attack. It really makes you realise how precious time is and that you should appreciate every moment they can share together. x

  13. Beautiful post, I am so glad you stayed another day. You made me cry 😉

  14. There are lots of tearjerking posts this week but yours got me going the most.
    I lost my Mum nearly 2 years ago and after that you just become so aware of the brevity of life and the importance of memory-making.
    I still struggle to be honest almost daily to make sense of it all.
    Things are eased since I moved my Dad in with us 9 months ago – more time for essential memory-making.
    But with my 83 year old Dad going away on holiday for 5 weeks on Saturday, this post really brought it home.
    Very important how you compare how things used to be with how they are now too. Progress has led to many losses.

  15. Keith that is simply beautiful. I knew this week’s post would be touching, but boy oh boy did I underestimate just how much.
    I love that link between the generations. There is something really special about it and you have captured it just wonderfully here.
    They may be gone one day, but these are the sorts of memories that live on and on and on. I’m in my 40s now (*ahem*) and still recall fondly those days in my childhood spent with my grandparents
    T x

  16. That gave me a chill, what a lovely post and so so true. Life is just too short.

    Think this’ll make a few people pick up the phone or arrange a vist to the folks.

    Well done you

    xx

  17. Beautifully written and it really resonated with me as I am just back from heading across the Irish Sea to visit my Dad in Wales. He’s not so well now so every second was precious.

  18. What a wonderful post! You had me both laughing – especially reading the watercress soup and broccoli bits – and choking up. There is nothing more important than spending time with your loved ones.

    • keithkendrick

      Thank you to everyone who commented on my grandparents piece. I would reply to them all but I’ve been so bogged down with other stuff – stuff in my head, mainly, regarding the anniversary of losing my job etc – that I’ve been totally distracted. I hope you read this acknowledgment because your support means a lot.