Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Guardian/Tamsin Grey: I had only six weeks to get to know my grandfather

The Guardian

I had only six weeks to get to know my grandfather

My mother told me that he had abandoned her and her sisters but meeting him properly and finding out why made me forgive him

Tamsin Grey

Sat 19 May 2018 06.00 BST

Tamsin Grey, at home in London.
Tamsin Grey, at home in London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Guardian

Growing up, I barely knew my grandfather. I knew all sorts about him, from my mother: that he could knit, for example, and that he adored cricket; that he was a social worker and had become the UK’s first director of social services; that he was a Quaker, and had been a conscientious objector in the second world war. She also told me that, after the early death of their mother, he had completely failed her and her younger sisters by marrying again very quickly, and more or less abandoning them.

It was hard to square her charming portrait of Denis with his failure as a father – and grandfather. For many years, I was haunted by the unbearable sadness of the story, and a desire to better understand what had happened.

As it turned out, I was to get my chance: a six-week window at the end of his life to get to know him and solve the puzzle.

My mother is the eldest of four. The girls grew up with “all the luxuries and none of the necessities”: a piano, for example, but no curtains. Their mother, Rita, was a great collector of waifs and strays, and their shabby homes (they moved a lot) were always bursting with guests. One of those guests was Marjorie, a young colleague of Denis’s – deaf and very much alone in life. Then Rita died, and Marjorie became Denis’s wife – and the archetypal wicked stepmother.

She got rid of all of Rita’s things, including the family dog and, the minute they were old enough, the daughters. Once they had left home, they weren’t welcome back and she didn’t like Denis visiting them. The story made me angry, but with Denis rather than Marjorie. How could he have put Marjorie’s needs over those of his bereaved girls?

For my mother, Marjorie was the villain. Like the fathers in the fairytales, Denis was simply mysterious. And yearned for. She put a lot of effort into keeping in contact, sending him letters and birthday cards, and encouraging his rare visits. When he was 70, Denis briefly asserted himself over Marjorie, and invited his daughters and their families to Devon to celebrate his birthday. For me it was an impossibly poignant event. The weather was beautiful, and we picnicked on the beach. My mother and aunts were childlike in their eagerness to connect with their father; to please him. Denis, a handsome man with more than a touch of David Attenborough about him, paddled in the sea and got us playing cricket. Marjorie also attended. Shy rather than villainous, her deafness very apparent, she didn’t like the sun and sat away from us in the shade of the cliffs. In contrast, I felt Rita to be everywhere – although her name was never spoken.

After the birthday, things returned to as they had been and I didn’t see Denis for seven years. Then in November 1996, when I was 31, my mother phoned to tell me that he was in hospital, dying. He wanted to write a memoir and had requested my assistance, having heard that I had provided such a service to a terminally ill woman a few years before. I said yes straight away. This was my chance to get to know him; and maybe get some answers.

Denis and Marjorie lived in Exeter. Marjorie, as it happened, was in another hospital having an operation but she didn’t want me staying in their empty house. Quaker friends of Denis’s offered to put me up. I found Denis in a dingy ward, curtained off from the other men. Frail in his hospital gown, he gazed warily at me over his oxygen mask, and I thought for a moment that he didn’t recognise me. But then he removed the mask and reached for my hand. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he said, settling me into the bedside chair. “Have you brought your notebook?”
Denis celebrates his 70th birthday with (from left) his four daughters, Judith (Grey’s mother), Kate, Flick and Penny.
Denis celebrates his 70th birthday with (from left) his four daughters, Judith (Grey’s mother), Kate, Flick and Penny. Photograph: Courtesy Tamsin Grey

Aware of his impending death, Denis was on a mission. For the next six weeks, he talked slowly, resorting to his mask in between sentences, so it was easy to scribble it all down. Every few days I would type up my scrawls and bring back the printed sheets for his plentiful corrections. As I got to know him, I found myself yearning for a deeper connection – to be more than a scribe. In a bid for intimacy, I told him about the pain of being in love with a man who didn’t love me. He nodded, but said nothing. And then sighed and said, “Shall we get on, then?”

It was his memories of childhood that he wanted to capture for posterity. I felt frustrated, wanting to fast forward to events that involved my mother, but I gradually became absorbed in the story he wanted to tell.

He had been one of five brothers. His parents had an unhappy marriage. His father, Jack, may have had schizophrenia, or what was then called shellshock, but Denis’s memories were of a kind and caring man. When Denis was four, Jack ran away with him. They went to Suffolk on a motorbike, Denis in the sidecar, thrilled to have been chosen as his father’s partner in adventure. His memory was one of profound happiness, listening to the pop-pop of the engine under the deep green of Suffolk foliage. Then the police found them, Denis was returned to his mother, and Jack was forbidden to darken their door. His mother remarried and went abroad with her new husband, and Denis and his brothers were given charity places at a boarding school.
'I feared I'd be left with prejudiced children​ ​who didn't love me': life as a stepmother
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Denis enjoyed school. He played cricket and climbed trees, and fell through the ice of a frozen pond. Sightings of his father were poignant but, as Denis admitted, not necessarily real. Once, when he was playing cricket, Jack materialised on the side of the pitch. Overjoyed, Denis did his best to play well, feeling his father’s eyes on him. When the match was over, he turned towards him – but Jack was gone.

I was charmed by this schoolboy, whose vitality triumphed over his sadness and also struck by the theme of abandonment. I felt I was getting an answer to the questions I didn’t dare to ask, an answer that finally took shape during an anecdote about a rare holiday with his mother and brothers in a seaside hotel. One morning, she mentioned almost in passing, that their father had died some time ago. The news stunned him and he went upstairs to weep. It later emerged that Jack had died in France, alone, in poverty.

After the recounting of this episode, we spent some time in silence, Denis’s eyes bright blue disks, much fierier than the mottled red of his cheeks. “Death was much harder to talk about, back then,” he said. “They had an awful lot to learn about children’s emotional needs.”

“But what about your daughters’ emotional needs?” The question burst out of me, my heart thumping hard. He nodded and tried to speak, but wept instead, full of remorse, and in that moment I forgave him. I hugged him, crying too. I had my explanation. Having been failed as a child, Denis then failed his own children. Emotionally damaged, he inflicted that same damage on the next generation. Looking back, I see the theme of abandonment had played out in my own life. Most obviously, it had led me to working on an oral history project with children in care. Much later, I wrote a novel about a boy whose mother has disappeared.

He lived for another year. He made a kind of miracle recovery and Marjorie took him home, and cared for him there. I got his memoir printed and sent a copy to him in the post. I heard that on the morning of his death, he watched England win the Ashes and, ecstatic, leapt out of his wheelchair. “I’m getting better and better, and younger and younger!” he cried. “I can walk! I can skip!”

He died mid-skip. When I think of that moment, I see the vital schoolboy I finally got to know so well during those six weeks.

    She’s Not There by Tamsin Grey is published by Borough Press at £14.99. To buy a copy for £12.74 go to

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comments (13)
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    32m ago
    0 1

    How lovely that he chose you to write his story and I’m sure it was cathartic for you both. A very touching story.
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    43m ago
    1 2

    Finally an article worth reading/discussing after what I feel has been a while.

        Having been failed as a child, Denis then failed his own children. Emotionally damaged, he inflicted that same damage on the next generation.

    That's some powerful topic you brought up, too much common and yet never properly examined, it made me meditate on my own situation as my dad comes from a very similar experience.
    Although he was troublesome in his young ages and a clumsy parent when we were children, I must recognise he's always tried his best and grew us in a healthy environment and never once I felt he was suffering or projecting his sense of abandonment. It is not a given to love someone else so much to spare them the suffering you have been trough, it requires effort and the willingness to be committed to a change.
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        Notyourfriend Notyourfriend
        38m ago
        0 1

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