Far from being an archetypal apple-cheeked sedate granny, SALLEY VICKERS, novelist and grandmother of three, defines her role as one of support, insurrection and continuous learning
I have a running joke with granddaughter Rowan that when I finally close my laptop and retire, I will dye my hair green, wear leather trousers and take up smoking. As she is now, in the school holidays, colouring her own hair – green isn’t the half of it – the first of these threats has lost its sting, but the last two still provoke the response: “And if you do I shall disown you, Sal”. I am “Sal” to all my three grandchildren and always have been “Sal” or better still, as a special mark of favour, “Sal Pal”.
The grandmother figure is archetypal. The wise old woman who, in fairy tales, folk myth and legends comes to the aid of the struggling heroine or hero. And to be sure, I, like any of my peers, have many times fulfilled the role of confidante or advisor in some private misfortune. But the archetype will change its shape over time and neither “Sal Pal”, or her peers, is the apple-cheeked sedate granny of former days. There has been a good deal of talk lately of an older generation who have shamelessly stashed up posh homes and pensions and who stand as enemies of today’s younger generations. But grandparents, and grandmothers especially, more than ever in current straitened times act as vital lynchpins in many families – offering childcare while parents work, taking and fetching to and from school, dipping into funds to eke out over-stretched finances or simply being the one who reads the bedtime story or can offer a safe haven, a second home. Yet for all that, older women as a group are woefully undervalued, unlauded.
Over the past 20 years I have written many novels about people on the edges of society. But the choice of grandmothers as the subject of my latest novel was not because they are insignificant and without their own special power. The modern grandmother is her own woman. She will very likely be fit – possibly fitter than when she was a mother – attending yoga and Pilates and watching her diet. She may not be the height of modern fashion but she will have an eye for what she wears, a care for her hair and make-up. She will often be well travelled and, of course, will most likely have held down more than one job. Most importantly, she will have her own decided views and she won’t be afraid to voice them.
“She will have her own decided VIEWS and won’t be afraid to voice them“
I was a single mother and brought my two sons up more or less alone. The sons arrived one on the heels of the other – as their father liked to say, we were “practising birth control” but hadn’t “quite got the hang of it”. When he and I parted, though a fond mother, I inevitably became a stressed and often inadequate one. I had neither enough money nor enough time to give my children all I should have liked to give. Nor did I have the faith in my own standards and values that I have acquired, sometimes painfully, over the years. I fretted about all kinds of nonsense – academic ability, future success, health, food, sleep (naturally): you name it I would worry about it. The greatest gift of becoming a grandmother is the chance if not to undo what I once made a hash of at least plough those immature decisions into benefits for my grandchildren.
When my granddaughter takes days off school to take part in climate change protest and is told by her teacher that “absences” on her report will damage her future chances of getting to university or employment prospects, my breezy response is “Darling that is utter bollocks. Nobody gives a stuff about a few days’ absence when you’re aged 14. Any university worth its salt will be delighted you care about our environment”. When my grandson wanted to stop piano lessons because his teacher spoke in “an angry voice” when he got things wrong – instead of urging him to continue – as once I might have done – I said “I understand” because what I now know better is that fear will only instil dislike of a subject and, furthermore, it is never too late to learn. When another granddaughter eats only pasta and cheese, I am able to say, “believe me, her father was the same and look at him now. She will get over it and sooner rather than later if you can manage not to fuss.”
It never being too late to learn is another feature of grandmotherhood. I used to have this snappy saying: All my real-life lessons came from bringing up my children. But what I now feel is that if my children have earned me a degree then with grandchildren, I am acquiring a PhD. There is all the modern technology you have to pick up for starters. There are the authors I would never have read: JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, Piers Torday, David Almond as well the books I have been able to reread and enjoy all over again; the television programmes I would never otherwise watch and have come to love, Call the Midwife, Top Gear, Anne of Green Gables (though to be honest, I always loved the books). Not to mention the games. I’ve always insisted I loathe card games but love of my ten-year-old grandson has taught me to play a cool hand of Blackjack, not to mention a late prowess in football, badminton and snooker. But best of all there is the chance to be naughty, to break the rules.
Today’s society is in many ways fairer and more inclusive than the society I or my sons grew up in. But, for reasons I haven’t quite fathomed, it is far more strait-laced and rule-bound. On all sides, rules are paramount, whether over health and safety, diet, grammar, appropriate language or the question of sexual conduct. I am not alone in feeling concern that our children have little opportunity to take physical risks (unless they are among those vulnerable unfortunate whose lives are endangered by an over-exposure to risk) and explore. A spirit of competitiveness is instilled as they are filled with anxiety about more and more tests and exams in schools. All of which, as a former psychotherapist, strikes me as a bad foundation for future stability and the genuine “success” of a happy balanced adulthood. So I let my grandchildren break the rules – I allow cornflakes for supper and bed at midnight. As maths is one granddaughter’s bugbear, I have instituted a prize for doing badly (no prizes for success as that is its own reward). To another grandchild I have explained that I am dyslexic and cannot spell for toffee, that spelling tests are pointless as in grown-up life there is always a spellchecker and, hey, I am a not unsuccessful writer and poor spelling hasn’t done me any harm.
Last but not least, there is the pleasure of introducing grandchildren to good old-fashioned fun, the kind that has nothing to do with iPads or computer games. When I was a girl, we still had real candles on our Christmas tree. And while my parents were committed atheists, nonetheless we went out carol singing and raised money for charity. My kids sent notes to Santa up the chimney and Christmas stockings were an eagerly awaited thrill. My grandchildren get a special stocking but, in my household, it is not from Santa but the Lilac Fairy. The Lilac Fairy is the fairy who amends the wicked fairy’s curse in the story of the Sleeping Beauty, the first ballet to which I took my elder granddaughter. Going to the ballet became our special indulgence but without the ballet the Lilac Fairy has stayed with us as the fairy to appeal to when help is required. For many years, she and I communicated on the invisible Lilac Line, which operated via the imagination when we were physically apart and she had some special need of me. So, it is the Lilac Fairy who reigns at “Sal’s Christmas”. And I like to believe that when I am not around, she will continue to exert her benign influence over my grandchildren’s own grandchildren.
Salley Vickers’ new novel, Grandmothers, published by Viking, €15.50, is out now.