When his mother died, my father said: ‘I never thought I’d shed a tear’. It was dawning on me that relationships between parents and children could be erratic: the love one-way, or not really there.
I was thirteen. My nan lived near our school; every day my sister and I ate our sandwiches with her. She had a magical old cabinet full of costumed dolls, still in boxes, that she said I would inherit. Eleanor of Aquitaine, with a 1940s face, was my favourite.
But don’t let anyone sell them, she said, and I promised.
That day, in my memory, there was broken tape across the door. She’d died in the night reaching for her security alarm. I asked what of: my dad said ‘old age’. She was seventy-two. I locked myself in my nan’s over-carpeted bathroom till my chest stopped hurting. Half an hour later my sister and I walked back to school.
My nan had tried so hard to have her children. She adopted first, before having my dad at thirty-eight.
But her adopted boy died a teenager, in a high-speed collision between the motorbike he was riding and a lorry. Cerebral avulsion, his death certificate says, age 17½. Her husband died less than one year later, at fifty-five.
I look at early pictures of her and I think: you have no idea of what is coming.
I suppose that’s when the bad luck got to her and she officially became a burden to my father: a skinny thirteen-year-old in short pants when his brother died; fourteen when his dad died.
I recall that he could never really talk to my nan without gritting his teeth.
All that effort she put into making a family. She strove to have her children, thinking she was creating a future for herself. What is a mother’s legacy worth in the end, if her only surviving child says ‘I never thought I’d shed a tear’?
And your granddaughter (me) sells all your beloved dolls at a car boot sale when she’s seventeen, to get drinking funds for a holiday in Spain?
I fretted for a few years about not having any legacy, about who would ever want my stuff, put me on their wall. But why did being childless matter, when I had sold out my nan for beer, and none of us even had a photo of her on our walls? Later, I didn’t even put a photo of my own mother up after she died.
What was wrong with my family?
I understand now that grief is infectious; too much bad luck can leave an imprint on every generation it touches. If a man loses his brother, his father, his mother and the love of his life before he is 40, he might then not have any resources left to love his children properly. He might say that he is jinxed afterwards, and look for a new life.
Those children might carry his pain around with them for a while, on top of their own.
Only now, when I look at younger, luckier faces in old family photos, do I see that nothing is anyone’s fault. It’s the world that does these things to people.
Work on leaving behind some kind of legacy , if that’s what gives your life meaning. Or don’t.
I’ve realized that leaving a legacy is not just the simple fact of putting children on this earth, because sometimes that doesn’t make any difference.
For your everyday person, with or without offspring, legacy is pure ego; it’s illogical, because we’ll all be blissfully unaware of any of it in the end. Worrying about how much we’ll be remembered must be one of the most unproductive activities in existence.
You just need to get through this life and try to enjoy most of it as it happens, with people who want to be with you, whoever they are.
If you can say you have done that, then you have achieved something in this fickle world.