The Guardian Family section, which comes out on Saturdays, has a section called ‘A Letter To…’ which is also (obviously) on their website here. Not all the pieces from this section have made it up onto the net, but some of them have, and I just read the whole lot, from the most recently posted, to the first that ever was.
They’re beautiful. They’re letters to family members, dead and alive, friends, houses, comfort blankets, step-mothers, step-fathers, imagined relatives who never quite happened or never quite played the part they could have played in a person’s life, written by ordinary members of the public and sent in, with and without names and addresses. They talk about the ordinary details of ordinary lives and reveal them to be utterly extraordinary, the love and sadness and joy of anyone’s life and anyone’s relationship with the family that surround them. They talk about extraordinary lives and extraordinary circumstances, and they range from the utterly heartbreaking to the hysterically funny to the letters which bring a tear to your eye just because they are so full of warmth or longing.
They make me realise that it’s extraordinary enough just to be alive, that I don’t have to walk to the North Pole or cure cancer, that I don’t have to do anything, I am alive, and that, in itself, is everything. They make me realise, too, that so far I am just too damn lucky. And right now, all I can be is daffily grateful for that – that all I’ve ever lost in my family is a grandmother, who had time enough to say goodbye.
My one regret, though, on the subject of her death, was how easy it was to see her as a caricature – and I don’t mean that in a nasty way. She was a wonderful woman and I loved her, and she was the perfect storybook grandma, living for the rest of us, giving her time and enthusiasm and so proud of us all in so many ways, unfailingly wonderful throughout the lives of all her grandchildren. But I don’t know what made her tick for herself (or if I do know, I’ve got these things from other people, and I’d like to have been able to get them from her) – what made her laugh, what her favourite films or books were, what she did if she had half an hour to spare, what she was like when she was younger, whether she had any boyfriends before my Granda, what were her own opinions on politics or global warming or the work my father does or her relationship with each of her children.
Partly because that side of the family is very reserved on some things – family secrets and stories are meted out on a very need-to-know basis – and blimey, we’ve had some problems in our time, but I would feel terrible recounting any of them here – so I never would hear from her her thoughts on her relationships within the family and only ever got those things from my parents, who obviously have a biased view on things like that, being daughter-in-law and lapsed-Catholic son respectively, which made it too easy to make her almost into, well, not a joke exactly, but something to sigh lovingly and frustratedly about rather than someone with genuine moral issues with the things her family had done, who must have struggled to come to terms with the modern way of doing things and her family’s gradual loss in the faith that had supported her all her life.
Well, at least in front of the kids. The habit of hiding things from the children is one which will stay with my father, as far as I can tell, forever, and that’s fine, it makes some things easier to deal with, because you only have to deal with the practicalities of a given situation, and for the emotional side there’s hugs a-plenty should you need them and that’s quite enough, thank you!
But these are all thoughts I’ve had only since her death, and since coming out of my own cloud and finally being able to grow up, and I feel that if I’d realised things like this sooner, then maybe we could have been closer yet. Not that we weren’t, but I was in many ways still a little girl to her, because she was still my Granny, and she probably wouldn’t have had it any way, but it might have been possible. But I didn’t, and it’s made me realise more and more that I have a responsibility not to come close to making that mistake with anyone else in my life.
So, apparently, this is a letter to my Grandma, who so unflinchingly loved us all, and in the end, remembered where she’d buried her hatchets… and put them back. You are still missed. And I feel even worse for my younger cousins, who never even had a chance to see past your perfect Granny self.
Worth noting, too, how impossible it is to make a fair pen-portrait of anyone without feeling that what you’ve ended up saying wasn’t at all what you meant to say, so please make allowances for the fact that pens run away with themselves, or keyboards do, at any rate, and I can’t trammel my thoughts effectively without drafting and re-drafting for hours, and these are hours I haven’t got. I say this all with ridiculous quantities of love for my whole family even though most of them will never read it, and heartwrenching amounts of pride in them all and above all, hope.