Grandma Finds Herself in a Double Bind

Blog Post 10

In ‘Through the Looking Glass’ the gnat tells Alice about the bread-and-butterfly. With wings made from thin slices of bread and butter, its body is a crust and its head is made of a lump of sugar. It lives on weak tea with cream in it.

The Bread-and-Butterfly by John Tenniel. An illustration for ‘Through the Looking Glass’ by Lewis Carroll. He used themes of fantasy word-play and logic in his writings.

Alice is perplexed at the difficulty. It loves tea, but it is always going to perish in it. If it avoids the tea the only thing it can eat, it will starve. This is known in logic as the double bind.

We can all think of double binds within the experience of being a woman and grandmother. As example of a double bind in a women’s life is this:  If a woman behaves in a feminine way, she may be liked but not respected. If she behaves in a masculine way, she may be judged and disliked. Geoffrey Bateson, used the bread-and-butterfly as an example of a double bind (he was the first husband of the anthropologist Maragaret Mead). He looked at communication in natural systems and between people and machines in cybernetics. He said everything has to keep changing, to stay the same.

I have wondered if the passing on of family history can be a double bind for a grandmother. The logical way out is called a creative imperative. That is to rise above the problem and think outside the box. It is hard with family history, because everything is connected: the now, the then, the future family. Until the Grandmother becomes history there may be little interest. When it’s too late to answer those questions, the questions are formed. We have to be creative and think of ways to engage members of the family in the now, so we create flexible bridges to their future.

As a grandmother we usually love to have contact with the family, and some of us with faraway families may stretch ourselves to host them or stay with them.  I don’t need to describe how many impossible near double binds there can be in the week or fortnight of delightful contact.

Another example is communication with grandchildren. You might agree to an exchange of letters/emails/WhatsApp texts., and say to the grandchildren: ‘Do write/communicate to me, and I will write back.’ You wait, you start, they don’t write back. If you don’t write, you maybe won’t hear at all, (which is what you most desire.) If you keep the writing going, you are going against the contract you made with them.

Of course there are some of us who have perfect families, and we congratulate them.

Money can be a bind, let alone a double bind. If you have loaned/given family money in the past it may not have gone well. Maybe it hasn’t solved the problem, or it hasn’t been paid back. If you lend them more money, you are in danger of not being repaid, and if you don’t lend them the money (you have read the advice after all), you suffer their suffering, and your own guilt. It’s all about ‘Damned if you do, doomed if you don’t’.

Let me know if you think of more double binds you have experienced in your grandmother situation.


Bateson Nora, The Ecology of the Mind: A daughter’s Portrait of her Father Geoffrey Bateson. Written and directed by Nora Bateson (Vimeo 2011).

Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking Glass (UK MacMillan Press 1871).

Costigan, Amelia, The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership, Catalyst, (August 2, 2018).

Comics for 1960s Girls

Blog Post 9.

Comics as they appeared in the 20th century newspapers, were cartoony and funny, hence the term Comic. (Comix are the underground version). They progressed into cartoon stories such as Tin-Tin, and Asterix. After the war there was a proliferation of weekly magazines in cartoon format. With the help of Google I can tell you it was 1958 when girl’s comics were first published. I would have been six. They would have been available in my Cornish Newsagent sometime soon afterwards. In 1960, I was in hospital for a fortnight for observation for a Scarlet Fever possibility. It was over my eighth birthday in February. Mum came to see me every afternoon driving over from Cornwall across the car ferry Plymouth. It was a long round trip and I remember thinking, I didn’t realise I was that important. Kids eh? 

I suppose there wasn’t a lot of demonstrative outpourings at home to have alerted me to the fact I was precious. Anyway during those long two weeks in an isolation room were my first experience of lockdown, I had plenty of time for reading. One day, Mum brought a box of back issues of girl’s comics from kind school friends. I so enjoyed reading them, I was allowed to have one delivered every week when i got home. It was ‘Bunty’ published by D.C. Thomson. Other girls had ‘Judy’. It was delivered rolled up into a drainpipe concreted into the milk churn dock for newspapers at the bottom of the farm drive. Dad had the ‘Farmer and Stockbreeder’ delivered and Mum ‘The Guider’. Later my brothers had ‘The Eagle’. There was a weekly newspaper the ‘East Cornwall Times’ for local news. No national papers. I would read the comic strip stories in a state of bliss. I even remember some of the characters now: There was ‘Lorna Kent’ and her life at a strict ballet school, and the Four Mary’s boarding school adventures. Toots was a naughty character and there were dolls dresses to cut out on the back cover. No romance, no boys. That was left for the magazines for teens like Jackie with all the future delights of pop stars posters and boyfriends. I was reluctant at thirteen to give up Bunty and I had to be brave when she stopped arriving at the churn dock.

Jump forward 60 years to now, and those comics are still in my head, but I am reading about them, rather than the comics themselves. ) About how comics affected our notions of how we were to be as women. ( Walkerdine:1990)

Valerie Walkerdine suggests persuasively that our desires at that age are powerful, and that is certainly my memory. She says stories that in those strip cartoon way fed us potent themes of family loss, heroines who suffer silently before, and above all girls as victims of school bullying, cruelty, and abandonment. These storylines are exaggerated themes of reality, more similar to fairy story than real life, but the girl reader identifies strongly with these relationship themes. They dream of happy families… while they suffer; the archetypal happy family with a mother and a father and one or two siblings. We as girls accompanied the comic book characters and together fought our way towards solutions, using good manners and private endurance…No Claire, don’t tell the headmistress that Felicity cut my tie, I can mend it myself. Through the stories we engaged with difficult emotions and we were encouraged to work towards personal resolutions.  Boys stories at that time, (Walkerdine: 1990) tells us, dealt with public bravery and injustice and the boy story heroes are rewarded publicly too.

See the difference? Girls in the stories are constantly misunderstood and judged unfairly often within the family and are expected to suffer in silence. The girls who win through, are quiet, helpful and courageous, serving others before themselves.

I am reminded at this point, that book reviews say that we women read more of the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child than men. Jack the hero fights his way through injustices, slays the bad rescue the good, and like the Lone Ranger or the heroines of the girl’s comic stories, doesn’t expect to be praised or rewarded.

So what’s the point? Well, we were enjoying themes that informed us that girls are victims of cruelty and they rise above their circumstances by being unselfish. Temper doesn’t get you anywhere, because if you are quiet and good, and keep your head down, you will be rewarded in the end. This, she goes on to say, could connect into our future sexual selves, where we might think we should wait for, and perform politely/submit/service our prince/rescuer/husband/boss, (Coward:1982). I could go on, but I think I will leave it there.

Tell me what you think.

p.s. D.C. Thomson ceased publication of Bunty in 2001.


Walkerdine, Valerie. Schoolgirl Fictions (Verso 1990).

Coward Rosalind, Sexual Violence and Sexuality (Feminist Review, Vol. 11 p9-22 1982).

A Grandmother Riddle

Blog Post 4th July  

This is a detailed pencil sketch of a gateway on my parents farm in Cornwall. A Tin mine stack is on the top right. The gateway has the hand made wooden gate I watched being made in the 60s by a man who came to the farm with his tools, then a newer metal one to offer support to the old wooden one when is wasn’t strong enough to keep out the cattle on its own. (If I had been clever enough to draw this I might not have placed one of the cows touching the gate making it look tiny).

Q: When is a woman like a butterfly? 
A: When she is a Gatekeeper? 

How do butterflies and gates come into the grandmother story?

Let me explain. 

To protect his sheep the shepherd lies across the entrance of the fold, the gateway, where he will be woken by anything that threatens his animals. 
Gatekeeper was the term for the man at the gate of a medieval town making sure undesirables were kept out and tolls were paid. A common brown butterfly seen fluttering around English hedgerows and gateways was given the name of ‘The Gatekeeper’.

 In a society or within a culture, the term ‘Gatekeeper’ refers to a person who takes it upon themselves to supervise access, to a community, or a culture. They have the contacts, the information and it gives them control. (Schoppe-Sullivan, Sarah, et al.) In families it is often that women, and in particular mothers who are ‘kin keepers’. They keep in touch, they organise, remember, celebrate, wrap, protect, send.  (Rosenthal 1985) It is a valuable role, and families benefit from it. By being protected and supported by layers of family, children are able to establish a sense of who they are. The behaviour is called family gatekeeping. Partly it benefits the children, but to some extent the whole family. 

I suggest that when we are mothers, we don’t realise we are gatekeeping when we make choices. It’s our ‘modus operandi’ to encourage/expect/discourage our partners to help with around the house ( Chan and Elder: 2000 ) encourage/discourage/take for granted, gender stereotypical activities.  We as mothers make decisions about where the family is to spend Christmas, where we will live, what hobbies the children are encouraged to do? Whose family stories are told?  Where to go on holiday, and what cousins to keep in touch with. I mean someone has to decide, right?  

With hindsight, I can see that these decisions not only affected our children but also the grandparents in different ways. Sometimes what we think is fair, the best for the family, is best for our maternal side. Those activities and behaviours can turn out to be less convenient or considerate to the paternal family. 
I remember enjoying Christmas with my family more, the greetings, the way Father Christmas was explained, the rituals, the food, even the way the table was laid. it all seemed somehow more ‘right’ than the in-law’s way. Consequently our children learned more of the ways of my childhood than his. I didn’t dislike my in-laws, and the children knew them well, but I can see that when ‘push came to shove’, my choices favoured my side of the family.
Now my own children have partnered, and I am a grandmother and a mother in law, I see the new generation of women lying across the gateway of their families, and quite right too. My gatekeeping days are in the past. Decisions sometimes go against me. I am no longer the one who gets to decide. Those little gatekeeper butterflies are coming home to roost. 


Schoppe-Sullivan, Sarah, Who are the Gatekeepers? Predictors of Maternal Gatekeepers. Department of Human Sciences, The Ohio State University.

Chan, Christopher, G, Elder, Glen H, Matrilinear Advantage in Grandchild – Grandparent Relations (The Gerontologist vol. 40, no. 2, 179-190 (2000).

Rosenthal, Carolyn, J, Kinkeeping in the Familial Division of Labor, Journal of Marriage and Family, (National Council on Family Relations, 1985).

New Pathways:

Blog Post Seven.

The 21st Century grandmother pathway takes us through airports.

The beginning of the Research.

At the Ethnology and Folklore Department (Elphinstone Institute) of Aberdeen University, I have been looking at the experience of grandmothers today, especially those who live far away from their grandchildren. The methodology I am using is empirical, through interviews, and their subsequent analysis. My subject group are grandmothers from the so called ‘Baby Boomer’ generation. In part the research will be auto-ethnological, as I am one of the group, brought up after the war, educated, white living in one of the ‘anglo’ countries that share a historic and cultural past. This geographic choice was made because I travel to America, England and New Zealand to see my own family, and in those places I meet other grandmothers who are treading the same well worn paths. They can be seen in queues at international airports with bags full of Christmas presents for grandchildren faraway. I shall be looking at the role, or agency of grandmothers, with respect to how family ethnology: the family history, and culture is being passed on. The choice of studying grandmothers was made because being at the fulcrum of a family, grandmothers are holders and transmitters of family knowledge. Psychologists have identified that creating a good sense of identity in young people through knowledge of their family, contributes positively to mental health. (Reese 2013)

In past times if our children emigrated, there was little chance of active communication with them. Now as our ability to travel has increased, (pre covid) we are creating well trodden paths, from the UK to the countries of the Anglosphere, and I find myself part of this group. Generally, our health and reasonable pensions, mean we can be more active. We have smaller families on the whole, so we cherish the grandchildren, and are keen to have contact with them even if they live far away. If we are unable to travel, information technology is ‘zooming’ upwards, and we know ‘whatsapp’ with our families as soon as it happens.

To illuminate the phenomenon of the 21st Century grandmother, (Timonen 2019) and in part to make sense of the experience for myself, I am looking at who she is, where she comes from, and what she is doing now, with regards to the passing on of her family culture. I invite all interested parties, especially the grandmas I am meeting along the way to join me.

Cited: Timonen, Virpi, Ed.  Grandparenting Practices Around the World: Reshaping Family, (England, Bristol University Press; Policy Press, 2019).

The 1970’s Alphabet of Ambition

Blog Post 6

Me with Tim and Lucy visiting home at Claremont Farm around 1979. Kit Hill Stack in the background

I present to you the notion that each generation has a collective ambition. For ours, born after the war, it was the brave new world of empowerment for. A child in one hand, a career in the other. We had it all. Or maybe we had quite a lot.

 It was the time of getting married, and loving stripped pine and earthenware pottery. We aspired to antiques/junk, growing wild bluebells, ( that was maybe just me) and Country Living magazine. We only kept in touch with our friends who lived away at Christmas time or with the occasional letter.  If we lived in the town, we had images around us that reminded us of the country. Jugs of wild-flowers and homemade wine kits. Images that built on the idea of a life connected to nature and farming, but not actually dirtied by it.

 (Feel free to add your own 1970s ambitions.)

A is for Avocadoes, (a new thing)  the ambition to have an Aga,  and if we could, antiques, au pairs (we often were one, not so often had one.) Alarm clocks woke us up for work or getting up to get the children to school.

is for book groups, ‘The joy of Sex’ by Alex Comfort (not discussed at the book group) and bread (homemade). Ban the Bomb, Beatles (disbanded) Black Forest gateau. Biros, replacing fountain pens. Breastfeeding, Blackberry picking.

is for cultural ambition and coffee mornings and crafts. Conservation when it seemed not too desperate. 

   Careers took a back seat when the children were little. Cycling with a wicker basket on the front. Colour tv arrives for some. Cravat were still being worn under an open necked shirt if you wanted to look posh.

was for dinner parties and dogs and discussion groups, do it yourself, Danger-mouse, depression was recognised. Dads encouraged to see their babies born and come to the prenatal sessions. Duvets replaced sheets and blankets. Dinner services of nice china was expected as wedding presents.

E  Evening classes. Earth-mother. Entrepreneurial enterprises – to earn a bit of money on the side.

F Furniture (second hand), feminism, freezing too many homegrown green vegetables, first fast food. First folding               Pushchairs. Flower-power songs. Fear Of Flying by Erica Jong.

 Grandparent holidays, beginning of glam rock, college girlfriends and gay rights. Greenham common. Gardening.

Holidays at home. Hitchhiking, Harold Wilson, hot pants, hedgerows

 Irish troubles, interest rates sky high, but houses cost 10 thousand pounds.

is for jam making, Junk to collect. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull to read.

Kids before twenty-five, Knitting, Kinky Boots.

long haired men. Less abortions. (not connected) Long hair worn down (Mary Hopkin style) for evenings up in a bun for work.

M is for making and mending clothes. Microwaves. Men’s fashion started to be colourful. Mortgages just becoming available for single women.

N No computers. No mobile phones, not many home helps. Some nannies. Nylon sheets. Natural Child birth, National Housewive’s Register.

O Orange juice at breakfast time. Only one coat.  

P Pill, pressing wildflowers, plastic bags rare enough to keep them for reuse. Patchwork classes.

Queens silver jubilee street parties and Queen. Quirky furniture.

R Ratatouille, 

S is for Stripped Pine, second hand shops, safety belts were the new law, spaghetti bolognaise, sharing childcare.  Supermarkets Or stay at home mum Shoe-cleaning, we still cleaned leather shoes with wax polish and polishing brushes. Trainers were sports shoes we used for sports. 

T Tie-dying, tomorrows world, twin tubs, typing with carbon paper. Three T.V. channels. Trousers not yet O.K. for work. Toy Libraries invented.

U Ugly colour combinations for wallpaper, Upwardly mobile attempts, upcycling.

V is for voluntary work, Vietnam, Valium

willow baskets, wild flowers, spinning wool, 

groups book clubs. Sharing childcare self education girlfriends doing everything ourselves. No help in the house 

W washing machines that were automatic. Wimpy bars. 

X men actors born. 

Y yoga yukky student accommodation 

Zerox ( Xerox ) machines, and zingy patterns on wallpaper and bedspreads… a lot of purple and of course orange and brown) 

Surprising as a Slinky

Blog post 5:  Surprising as a Slinky

When I was looking for a subject for a research project aged sixty six, I knew I needed it to keep me amused for a long time and had to be based on my areas of interest and expertise. It needed to be as complicated as hopscotch, but simple as a skipping rope. It needed it to be as exciting as the rope swing over the river, but snuggly as a bedtime story. Stretchy as potty putty, surprising as a slinky, bouncy as a ball.  

I homed in on the subject of women, women of my age and women whose families had travelled way from home. I could interview the women I meet when we go to New Zealand and America on our prolonged visits to our children. I pondered that our generation of women has a new story to tell. The particular beliefs, family history and separation are unique. If it is true that there is no one better to tell the story of a group than someone from within it, then I could be that woman.  At the University I was steered towards the department of Ethnology and Folklore and The Elphinstone Institute. I wrote a proposal, sent it, and with guidance from Dr Tom Mackean wrote it again, and again over that summer.

And so it was that in 2019, I began a six-year part-time PhD in Ethnology at Aberdeen University a half an hour drive away. It hadn’t got a title as yet but it was to be on the experience of being a contemporary grandmother and how the subject of family history is being addressed.

‘You are not born a woman, you become one’.

(Simone de Beauvoir)

So there I was in 1973 aged twenty-one, ready to steer my way through my womanly journey of life, tiller in hand.

I was practical, Chris was kind and funny. I could make jam or a dress and with Chris helping, I even made children. He worked onshore in Cornwall as a Naval helicopter instructor for the three years I worked though my motherhood apprenticeship and had two babies. He was a good sport in taking his share of family life and most importantly didn’t ever comment that the house was untidy. In those days we were grateful for ‘help’ from husbands. I was free to be able to combine minding children with homemaking, wood-work and talking to other women in the same position as me especially at monthly meetings of the National Housewives Register. It wasn’t all plain sailing but together we managed.

 Life continued through the decades and was puzzling at times, but then so had been my childhood. I remember thinking there might be better pathways, but the simplest thing was to follow the one that unrolled in front of me. I was just pleased to be moving along. I have always been impatient, perhaps too keen to look over my shoulder, or around the corner when all I had to do was to be patient. From time to time I reflected on the experience of being a woman as I moved through the family roles of daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, and eventually grandmother. I wrote home regularly with paper, pen envelopes and stamps. We visited Cornwall for holidays so the children saw the little Cornish farm on the edge of Bodmin Moor. My mother was a good correspondent and even sent me a birthday card in the year she died, when otherwise she had faded to a wisp of herself. Whilst we didn’t exchange great truths or reveal secrets, the letters contained a comfortable exchange of family news, and they continuing grounding experience. Around my sixtieth birthday when our children and grandchildren lived faraway, my outer life slowed down. Maybe it left more room for an inner life, because around then an imaginative writing muscle decided to make itself felt. I joined a writing group and short stories and poetic lines came to me when i had the weekly deadline. One week, the group homework was to supply a recipe for the group cook-book. I dreamed up an alternative way to celebrate the beginning of my seventh decade, tea in a bluebell wood. I imagined it into a perfection, unlikely in real life.

A Perfect Family Tea

It is universally acknowledged that a woman nearing her 60th birthday is in need of a jolly good family tea party.


Around thirty-five years before your 60th birthday begin growing your family.

About two months before the birthday, take five long (three meters should do) planks into your studio or workshop, smooth them down gently and then paint in your favourite colours. Assemble them over two trestles you will have made earlier. Have carved into the planks your favourite quotations of family life such as:

Rejoice with your family in the beautiful land of life. …. Albert Einstein

Decide on your venue. Now is the time to be as self-indulgent as you wish.

Even though my birthday is in February my choice is a bluebell wood in May. Blackbirds will be singing overhead, and the woodland will be unusually warm and fragrant for Scotland, with just a breath of wind. Just enough to make the new green beech leaves above sound as if they are offering flutter of applause. On the table you may lay for as many of your family as you would like to be there. I am inviting twenty-five of my close kindred, dead and alive.


The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind into happy repose.  George Gissing.

For the Tea

Collect pretty china cups saucers and little milk jugs from charity shops. Tea tastes all the better from thin china with flower patterns. 

Make good strong tea in well used family teapots. Using loose leaf Assam with tea strainers will make the children stare.

Elderflower champagne:

 Our son Nick and his new wife Emily have travelled from New Zealand and brought their special home-made Elderflower champagne which they pour out for everyone. Large hand thrown earthenware jugs with rounded waists and curling lips will hold the drinks to be poured into glasses. The pale liquid will sparkle and shimmer.

To make it yourself collect a basket of Elder flower mop-heads and follow an online recipe. The Elder flowers contain a natural yeast. Use plastic screw top bottles to avoid explosions.

Wooden chairs made from coppiced hazel surround the table.  

Your beloved family will arrive from wherever they live around the world without trouble or fuss, (I know, remember this is a dream scenario) and will seat themselves without trampling the bluebells.  I am so delighted to see my little grandsons who live in America. They are introduced to their cousin for the first time. My own children haven’t seen one another for several years and they all hug and kiss. They are so pleased to see one another, I am overcome with joy and have to sit down to watch. 

Call it a clan call it a network call it a tribe call it a family whatever you call it whoever you are …. You need one.  Jane Howard.

The best reasons for having dreams is that in dreams no reasons are necessary. Ashleigh Brilliant.

Cucumber sandwiches:

Use fresh crusty bread. Unsalted butter with sea salt black pepper and fresh wild garlic leaves from the woodland.

Egg and tomato rolls:

  Mix the chopped boiled egg with some dressing to allow it to hold together.  Chopped skinned tomatoes mixed in make a squishy but delicious filling.  Be generous because you don’t mind the children’s eggy faces. 

‘Hot Soldiers asleep’… lightly boiled Asparagus spears wrapped in bread that has been spread with Horseradish sauce. 

There is an empty seat and as the meal ends my long dead London grandfather appears through the trees wearing a 1930s suit. He comes and sits near the little boys, brings travelling chess set out of his pocket and settles down to teach them the moves. They, knowing no better, are happy to see him.  I look in the other direction lest I break the spell. There, just within sight I see my grandmother talking to my country grandfather while she sits plucking a goose.  I remember seeing her doing that in my childhood, when she wasn’t knitting or stirring a saucepan. She saves the down and feathers in a pillow-case for who knows what. My brother’s girls are moving over to see what she is doing. A young version of my father comes to the table and he picks a piece of Hogweed as he comes. I know he is going to show the younger members of the family how to make a water pistol from the stem and a wisp of sheep’s wool as he was shown by his father more than eighty years ago.  My mother’s great aunt comes with one of her famous hats carrying her jaunty bag for keeping money for ‘jaunts’ is over her arm. She will be entertained by the fashions worn by the modern girls. 

We all grow up with the weight of history upon us.  Our ancestors’ dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiralling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell.  

Shirley Abbot

You don’t choose your family they are God’s gift to you. Desmond Tutu.

Fluffy plain Scones with jam and clotted cream: 

Bake in a hot oven and serve a half an hour later.  Jam spread first then the cream balanced on top.


Victoria Sponge: made with your own free range hen’s eggs, and a filling made from crème fraiche and black current jam.

Strawberry Tarts:  Shortcrust, melt in the mouth pastry. A whole strawberry covered in strawberry sauce and surrounded by a halo of heavenly whipped cream.

A happy family is but an earlier heaven… George Bernard Shaw.

Birthday cake:  A Rich Fruitcake, marzipan, Pure white Royal icing smoothed over the whole surface. A satin bow tied around it, the exact shade of bluebell blue. 60 candles are arranged on the top and everyone helps me to blow them out.

The interactions between the generations of this blood family thrill me. The contrast between my father’s experience of learning to write in a tray of sand is such a contrast to life today. I feel as if I can see far into the past and into the future, that’s sixty for you.  

The food finished, my family of nowadays begin a game of hide and seek, in the woods, leaving me to raise a hand to my shadow relations.  ‘Thank you’, I say ‘for having me’.  

If you don’t believe in ghosts don’t go to a family reunion.  Ashleigh Brilliant

1967 The Summer of Love: How was it for you?

I was brought up in a small farming village of East Cornwall, two younger brothers, a farmer Dad and farmer/Girl Guide captain Mum. We had a telephone, because all farms needed them, and my Mum could drive a tractor and a car having been to University after the war to study Agriculture having enjoyed being a Land Girl for the war years. We got a T.V. after an electricity generator was installed to make milking the cows easier. School was perfectly adequate. I wasn’t marvellous at anything, tried quite hard, and secured enough ‘O’ Levels to get me into Occupational Therapy College in Exeter. Had kissed two boys but hadn’t had any dates … as I write this, I am thinking that I would have said, ‘been kissed by’.… because it wasn’t something that girls actively did… we were passive and waited to be kissed. Has that changed? Discuss.

We had little holidays not far from home. It might be a week at the beach in a caravan park, time at our grandparent’s homes, or day trips with thermos and sandwiches. Trips abroad were unusual although there was a girl in our class who went touring Europe in the summer holidays which we thought exotic. And of course there was Girl Guide camp.

The parents of my school friends were mostly local and mostly from a farming background. I remember a nurse who had come into the village, and married a farmer. We took the same exams as the boys, although not many girls took the science and Maths ‘A’ levels. There was further education, but hardly any of us went to university. Girls had the options of secretarial work or teaching, and the caring jobs of nursing, O.T. Speech Therapy or Physiotherapy. Then there was working in the banks or shops. The thought of a girl engineer, architect or science teacher seemed odd then. There were a few woman vets and doctors. Teacher training was acceptable for both girls and boys although primary schools had more women teachers than men. Most of these courses were still taught in colleges and we achieved a diploma not a degree. It wasn’t until the 80s or 90s that the colleges achieved university status. 

Those of us who went off to further education often left the area and never went back.

This photo is a jewel in our family treasure chest. It is the sixties, so colour photos were unusual and all five of us are in it. I have always been startled seeing mum in a summer skirt and white legs because she was always in her farm or guide clothes. One of Mum’s friends from her younger days London in must have been taking it. A friend said we looked close, because we’re all connecting, from Peters stick, along to Dad’s camera. She said we looked like a good family. And I suppose we were. At the time I thought that’s what all families were, and I imagined that some were much more friendly than we were. We had enough money to live a rich enough life, a family project in the form of the farm. There wasn’t much money, but Mum was a really efficient manager, and Dad put up with being managed (mostly). There was just enough love, skills, hobbies, education, culture, and connections to prepare us for the world. 

I left home in 1969 the year Colour T.V. started arriving in a few salubrious places. The effect of Woodstock and the summer of love was making itself felt. We emerging young women had been given a bridge to cross over a Rubicon without knowing it. When I got to college in 1970, curfews were no more. Reliable contraception in the form of the pill was being widely used, and although there was talk of people ‘living in sin’ and although sex before marriage, was still talked about as if it were ‘a big thing’, we were free to have boyfriends to stay over, at college (but not usually at home).

What were our ambitions?  We had the idea that happiness could be achieved if we were good. We ought to have a qualification to fall back on, find our Mr Right and buy a sensible house, have a nice little family, and go back to work if we wanted to. That’s what school, parents, T.V. and magazines steered us towards.

I met Chris at Eighteen and we married when I was twenty and he was twenty four. That was early, but fairly normal for the time. I wanted to finish training, and Chris was perfectly happy for me to do so. He was in The Royal Navy and was often away flying helicopters from an aircraft carrier for those years anyway. I stayed living in student accommodation. I qualified in 1973 and Chris aimed to have a shore job at the naval air station at Culdrose so we went to live in Cornwall, a couple of hours from my old home.

At that time women couldn’t get a mortgage in their own right. That wasn’t possible for another decade or so. We usually partnered, through marriage with a man and his salary, and then bought a house that had both our names on the deeds. The question of careers opposed to having children, was still answered in favour of giving up work while the children were small. There wasn’t a lot of childcare, and there was no great financial need. Mortgages were arranged up to three times the man’s salary which was doable on the one main salary. If he were lucky, the husband would be earning between two and four thousand pounds a year. I think a year’s salary at that time for an O.T. was around £1,500. Our first house in 1974 was around £10,000.

In my Cornish family, my brothers and I moved away from Cornwall, but we stayed in the UK. The children of the next generation have moved further. Our three children have ended up with Tim going on a student exchange in Chicago and staying over there, Lucy settling in the Leeds area, and Nick going on a trip to explore the world and ended up in New Zealand.  

In our generation, there was no more Sunday lunch with grandma and grandad, and no more driving 100 miles for a summer week at the beach with the kids and dog on the train.

Whilst this scenario doesn’t describe everyone, and apologies to those who this doesn’t resonate with, I think I have described a pretty normal childhood for you grandmas in my cohort, my research group who were brought up in the fifties and sixties. If you had kissed more boys than me by the age of seventeen and had more than three mini-skirts, well lucky you.  

Mapping the Grandma Territory

We may not have realised it, but those of us born after the second world war, the baby boomer generation, had many advantages never known before. We had parents who survived the war. The newly formed N.H.S. meant health care was free, and antibiotics kept us healthy. We were inoculated against polio and TB.  We may have begun our lives with rationing, but by the time we had pocket money we could buy sherbet dips and Mars bars. As we grew and went off to our Victorian built schools and ate our school dinners, we were read to, and then we smashed through all the Enid Blyton books on our own. At least some of our family lived near us and we had the average education that would make us into useful citizens.  There was more gender equality than before, helped by women’s wartime work on the land and in factories. We played different school games to the boys in the playground. We played hopscotch, skipping, and bouncy ball. They played football.  We sat on different sides of the classroom, but we could wear jeans and were free to roam.  It wasn’t all equal though, girls were expected to do housework but not boys. We farm girls could ride our ponies astride which only three generations before would have been frightfully bad mannered. We had access to Brownies and Guides as our brothers had Cubs and Scouts. We could all go camping although strictly separately. We wore school blazers or gabardine macs and our best woollen coat for church.

My first guide camp

I remember my first zip-up wind-cheater which seemed so soft and free. Church attendance and Sunday school was still quite normal. We didn’t consider beliefs much, it was just something we did. Discos were a new thing and the concept of a beef burger in a bun with chips was exotic. Mini-skirts and pop music arrived in the shops in Plymouth when I was a teenager. Blue Peter, Twiggy, Dixon of Dock Green, Mary Quant, Crossroads, Jack-a-nory, Up the Junction. We had a few shillings of pocket money, and we could spend it on sweets, books, and a comic, then the first teen magazines. 

Girls had the same education as the boys apart from the woodwork and cookery classes which we were separated for. One girl in my class got special dispensation to do woodwork instead of home economics with was breath-taking.

Nylon stockings and suspenders were just going out, as we grew old enough to give up socks. Tights the colour of ‘American Tan’, which warmed up the colour of our pale legs, were coming in. They didn’t ladder as much as the old nylons, but they were still a responsibility and certainly curtailed tomboyish activities. We had a varied diet which included Angel Delight, dried mashed potato and tinned pineapple and soup. Our mothers cooked all our meals. We ate out very occasionally, perhaps on a shopping expedition. I remember we were taken to the Berni Inn at Plymouth once. It was for a steak lunch to educate us children on how to order a meal in a restaurant worked.  Dad astonished us by ordering a gin and tonic. I remember staring from Dad, to the waiter, the tray, the bubbles, the slice of lemon, and back to Dad sipping away, as if he did it all the time. 

Shining a Light on Grandma

Looking at the historic, social, and family issues of the contemporary grandmother experience.

‘Grandmothers are not just for Christmas.’

Here I am, wearing my grandmother’s Cornish Serpentine beads 2019
They were bought in the 1900s when the London side of Mum’s family were on holiday at The Lizard. 

When my parents were in their eighties, my husband Chris and I, took them on holidays, to places we knew would intrigue them. They were farmers and had always been interested in local heritage, family histories and the industrial archaeology of Cornwall where they lived.  I remember excursions from my childhood, that would typically involve a holy well, a moorland stone circle or the source of a river. In the seventies, Mum and Dad helped to create the their local history centre and took their turn to be on duty there. It wasn’t unusual for Dad to point visitors from Canada or Australia looking for relatives, to their cousins. He knew who had married whom, back in the thirties and forties.

Mum and Dad in their farm clothes, (1970s)  as I mostly saw them.

In their old age they were delighted to be taken away from Cornwall, to visit Ely Cathedral, Lindisfarne, Iona, Orkney, and the Hebrides. Their enthusiasm was catching, and those subjects previously associated with my childhood sulks, came alive for me.

 In a way, it feels as if they are accompanying me now, while I research the subject of folklore and in particular the experience of being a grandmother. During this reading and writing journey I am finding them more co-operative now, than they were in real life.

 If you would like to join the three of us on this ethnological journey you would be very welcome. There will be all kinds of history, ideas and folklore associated with the experience of women to uncover, as I explore and interview over the next few years. 

Along the way we will be looking at the experience of being a contemporary grandmother and asking the questions: 

Who are we, and where do we come from?

How does society view us? 

What is it like being a grandmother for our generation, born after the war with all the advantages that were offered at that time?

What family history are we able to share with the younger generation? 

Do they want it/need it? 

Are we finding new ways of connecting with our faraway families?

 Lastly, do we have a community responsibility to link our family future generations into their family past.

All these questions are relevant if you think, like me, a grandma is not just for Christmas.