Newborn Rebecca being held by her mother (left) with Patricia Beynon (aka Nanny) and two other grandchildren, Katie and Billy 

LIFE HONESTLY

On losing grandparents and recognising their legacy after they’ve gone 

Involved grandparents help children develop in a unique way. Rebecca Schiller, whose beloved grandmother died earlier this month, reflects on their relationship

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By Rebecca Schiller on

My grandmother’s rice pudding tasted like comfort. A skin on top that took some pressure from the tip of the spoon to break. Always better than I expected and exactly as I remembered.

Sunday lunch was usually at Nanny’s house. Her hostess trolley had bounty enough to cater for the neighbourhood – a collection of blood family and a community that encircled her, thanks to her particular no-nonsense brand of love and telling it like it is.

I don’t remember her last lunch. The determined, argumentative, razor-sharp, loving matriarch we all knew had been slowly retreating, thanks to Alzheimer’s, over the last few years. Little bits of her – pieces that I hadn’t even bothered to notice properly – were suddenly underlined by their absence. She didn’t know how to cook any more.

Nanny died on 5 December. I took a call from my mother as I dashed out of the house. We are always dashing, my mum, my nanny and I, so I didn’t have time to cry.

It’s easy to overlook the role our grandparents have in our genes, our parents’ approaches to life and directly in our upbringing. But, as each generation lives longer than the last, our parents’ parents are with us for longer, often playing a vital part. According to an Ipsos Mori poll, over two million grandparents have reduced their workloads to care for their grandchildren, spending, on average, 10 hours a week caring for the next generation. My grandparents were no exception.

As someone newly bereft of them, I find myself realising too late the inevitable impact that the time I spent with them has had on the person I have become. Research from the British Psychological Society points layers of positive and negative influence from our elders – directly through the way they have shaped our parents, through financial support and childcare, and indirectly through the values and behaviours they reinforce.

As someone newly bereft of my grandmothers, I find myself realising too late the inevitable impact that the time I spent with them has had on the person I have become

My nanny was a very young mother who became a friend to all those who needed her, despite things not being always easy. She worked tirelessly in Birmingham with families struggling with extreme disadvantage. Never shy of saying what she thought, but always kind underneath, she rose to become a much-respected magistrate – all the while looking after the elderly, the frail and those in need in her community. She was still visiting her "old dears" well into her eighties.

Until she died, I hadn’t realised how much of what I’ve been arrogant enough to consider my own identity is, actually, gifted from those who’ve gone before. We didn’t have deep conversations, but Nanny’s influence on my personality and choice of work is strong. I now know where my some of my bloody-mindedness, my desire to see a better lot for the vulnerable, my “do it now and think about it later” attitude and my tendency to lose my temper has come from.

An Oxford University study found that children with a high level of grandparental involvement had fewer emotional and behavioural problems. Despite relationships not always being straightforward, my grandparents gave me a much-needed chance to explore different versions of myself. Granny (my paternal grandmother) was the person who indulged my dramatic side, and aided and abetted my imagination, letting me traipse down to the local park dressed up in her too-large dresses, beads and hats.

She also helped solidify my love of reading and writing, taking me on a pilgrimage to Stroud, aged 11, after I fell deeply in love with Laurie Lee’s autobiography, Cider With Rosie. We bumped into the author himself in the famous Woolpack Inn. It was a few years before he died and he excitedly rang his wife to come and listen to this strange child reciting passages from his book from memory. It remains one of the best days of my life.

When Granny died, a set of children’s books – carefully selected favourites like Peter Pan and Milly-Molly-Mandy – were found in the office of “The Spinney”, the house she had lived in all my life. It turns out she was planning her great-grandchildren’s literary education, too. Today, those books have creased spines and sit exactly where they were intended to – on my children’s bookshelves. They still feel the tendrils of influence from my grandmothers stroking their faces, even though the women themselves are no longer here to press soft little cheeks against their worn ones.

A word-loving, gin-loving woman with a taste for the theatrical. A person trying shout down injustice and help those in need. Temperamental and opinionated, with a penchant for hats and sunglasses, an annoyingly restless energy and inability to sit still. That’s me and I now realise it’s also a blend of the female heads of my family. Their departure boosts my mother, me and my own daughter up one step towards the top of the female line. There’s a new grandmother, a new mother and a new girl in town. But we’ve taken lessons (the good and the bad) from those who came before us. I’m sure we’ll do just fine.

@HackneyDoula

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Newborn Rebecca being held by her mother (left) with Patricia Beynon (aka Nanny) and two other grandchildren, Katie and Billy 
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