In honour of all grandparents, especially those who – like granny Esther – become better not bitter from life’s hardships.
Grandparents, grandkids and bridges between the two, let me inspire you with a story that is at once heart-warming and heart-breaking.
I’ve always admired grandparents’ love for us grandkids.
The stats bear out that most of them are very focused on their second tier of offspring:
- 7 in 10 grandparents think being one is the single most important and satisfying thing in their life.
- 6 in 10 feel they can do a better job caring for grandkids than they did with their own.
- 7 in 10 enjoy the fact that grandkids means they have more time with their adult children.
- 9 in 10 love to talk about their grandkids to just about everyone.
It’s not just their affection that impresses me, it’s their actions:
- 8 in 10 have their grandkids for part or all of their year-end holidays.
- 5 in 10 even play video games with their grandkids.
- 7 in 10 care for them on a regular basis, 9 in 10 have changed their grandchild’s nappies.
- 6 in 10 accompany their adult kids or grandkids to the doctor.
- 9 in 10 bake cookies for their family.
A second line of defense
The instincts of grandparents are different than those of parents.
Parents tend to overreact and overprotect. Commonly stressed out, they’re ready to rumble with teachers, bullies, and coaches who in any way make a child’s life difficult. Their fight and flight mechanism is fully revved up.
Grandparents, on the other hand, are relaxed. They have time to enjoy, to tend and to befriend younger generations. As Donna Schaper says, ‘They might not be the front line of biological and social defense, but they are the essential second line. More than any other, they help children to feel safe and warm and loved.’
Whether its something as simple as card-playing, telling stories of yesteryear, or treating little lives to something tasty, usually they have plenty of what parents don’t have – time, calm and perspective.
As a tween and teen, I needed this more than most.
My third parent
As awesome as grandparents are generally, there is one that I admire most of all.
As I write, I lost her a year ago today.
My granny Esther, and last living grandparent, breathed her last at age 84.
There’s been a hole in our lives since, and plenty of time to reflect on her impact on my life.
I think of her as a third parent. My brother, Ryan and I lived with her for a year or two no less than 3 different times in the developmentally critical second decade of my life…
- When I was 10, my divorced parents sent us to live with her in a new city, while they reorganized their separate lives to relocate a year or so later to that same city.
- At age 15, when my 36-year old father was dying of HIV Aids he paid my financially ruined gran to spend her entire day hanging out in our house. Her job? To disempower the gloominess in the air by just being ‘granny’ and so doing, infecting us with positivity and love.
- Then, from 18-21, after my father died and we lost all our wealth, Ryan and I moved in with her. She helped me cope with a break-up with words that seemed so much credible coming from her than my peers: ‘You will see, Terran, one day you will meet the right person. Get on with your life, you have important things to do before then.’
She generally insulated us from the sharp edge of life with small talk, pleasantries and yummy food. Thanks to her, by the time I was 20, I was part human, part vetkoek – she whipped up about 10000 of them over the years! And along with food, in that decade, I was nourished at a deeper level by the 100s of pep talks she gave me.
But it’s not just what she gave us that impacted me.
It’s who she was.
Some people are great for what they have achieved. Fewer are great because of what they have overcome. Esther was great on both accounts.
She overcame – again, and again, and again. Few have endured the number and severity of betrayals and adversities she did.
Her chief wound? Without going into the reasons why, her second husband, my grandad, ran away, taking all her seven children too!
Granny told me one day she came home and found a desolate house. Everyone gone. To who knows where.
A living nightmare.
That lasted for years.
In modern times, it boggles the mind how this was possible. But 40 years ago, it was.
Returning from Zambia to South Africa, she spent afternoons phoning liquor stores all across Sub-Saharan Africa describing a man who would come, every Friday afternoon without fail, and order two dozen beers.
Two years later, over 700 days, she finally made the call that established a identity match – in a city 3500kms from where she last saw her family.
After a very poor intervention on her part (she should have got police and social workers involved, but for whatever reason didn’t), she managed to recover only two of her kids – thankfully, my mom was one of them.
With a wound that deep affecting that many, the rest of her life has primarily been about dealing with the domino-effect, aftermath of the multigenerational damage to so many lives and relationships.
Yet, despite the repeated heart-wrenching pain, she managed time and again to wrestle through to freedom from bitterness, to stay bubbly, to make everyone everywhere feel special, to cheerlead us in our own hardships, and to become more and more courageous and kind as the decades ensued.
Like the Jacaranda tree that imbues the axe with its scent, she loved and loved us even in her difficulties, even when we made her life more difficult.
Her life’s message is easy to discern: love conquers all; and the fact that life is not mainly what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you.
Beautiful as she was in her youth (see my mom’s portrait of her), her inner beauty eclipsed her outer beauty over time.
A matriarch of kindness
As for achievement, hers is notable. Not the accumulation of wealth and trophies, but becoming a matriarch of a serious line. She passed away with no less than 53 biological descendants – 8 kids, 22 grandkids and 23 great-grandkids – all of whom just called her ‘granny’.
Some matriarchs hold together their family with an iron fist. She did her best – unsuccessful much of the time – to hold together our ruptured family with her kindness.
I am so grateful that somehow, despite all the people she was tasked with carrying in her heart, for years at a time, she gave me what the best parents give their kids – she made me feel I was enough and believe it would all be okay, especially in those times when life was mercilessly tearing away at Ryan and I.
My final encounter with her
Tortured as she was by the cancer that was in its final throes – and despite all her other now-reconciled offspring queuing to see her – somehow she reserved her final energies for my little family. She made a direct request that I come and see her in the hospice – along with Julie and all 5 kids.
She greeted all by name. She asked special permission to roll her tube-chained bed closer to the garden-side doors, which were opened so she could watch my kids play in the garden. ‘I just want to see your children run free,’ she explained.
One by one, my kids of their own initiative picked a flower and hand-delivered it to her. Sam (2) even placed a pink one behind her ear – as you can see in the picture.
It was a joyful moment, even a spiritual one. She asked me to play her Elvis Presley’s last ever song – How Great Thou Art. It was the song that had reawakened her childhood faith some years ago. She closed her eyes, relishing every bit of spiritual comfort to help her endure this last run of suffering.
For a minute, we were all in a holy hush. Then, oblivious to the one-of-a-kind significance of the moment, some of my younger kids started to lose the plot, so we had to leave rapidly – but only after she kissed them all, and told them she loved them and they her.
Her awkward last words to us: ‘I don’t know when I am going, but maybe I will see you again.’
‘Not maybe, definitely. If not here, then There,’ I thought to myself.
She pretty much slept from that moment until she passed away two days later.
When we told our kids that granny was gone, Fynn (6) declared: ‘Wow! Now the long-lasting-est granny in our whole familyhood is in heaven!’
‘Granny, I love and thank you with all my heart. Far from wasted, your life lives on in all the kids and grand kids and so many others you have sacrificially cared for and served.
I forget most of what you said in those pep-talks, but I will never forget how you made me feel – loved, guided and believed in.
Not only would I (and my kids!) not be here without you, I would not be me without you. Thank you. Thank you.’
I share this story not only to honour my gran, but to inspire three kinds of people:
- Grandkids. If your grandparents are still alive, do you adequately honour and spend time with them? Unless they’re bitter from life (decades of life’s hardships will either make them better or bitter), this is not just a gift to them. It’s a gift to yourself. With so few years left, they are a finite resource in your life. Time won’t wait for you to make the move.
- Bridges between grandkids and grandparents. Parents with living parents, do you regularly organize time for your kids to spend time with them? In hard times, do you lean on your parents enough? (I am grateful my parents connected my life so vitally to Esther. Perhaps Life’s genius in delivering so many trials to them was to cause them to lean so heavily on her – which in turn benefited Ryan and I so much.)
- Grandparents. You might feel overlooked and forgotten at times. For that I am sorry, but don’t for a second believe that your life no longer counts. Your most significant work may still lie before you. It starts with your choice to let life make you better rather than bitter. And then it involves you giving your grandkids what they can find almost no where else – time, a truly safe place, perspective and something old-school-delicious to eat.
And take a leaf from Esther: your usual point of fixation – the things you do and say or achieve and acquire – are not as impactful or memorable as who you become, and how you make people feel, especially little ones.
Also published on Medium.