Mary Cane

a.k.a. Grandma Faraway

You are very welcome here… please make yourself comfy at this virtual scrubbed pine table. Make yourself at home and imagine you are back at your grandmother’s home, (if you were lucky enough to have had one or two) reach backward in your memory for one of those freshly baked jam tarts she used to make and consider your family with me.

I have no pretensions about being an expert on family life, but I have been part of a family and watched others since the 1950s. I am interested in how, we, the post war generation of women are navigating the grandmother experience. I propose that we the girls born after the war, share a common cultural heritage. We all live in one of the anglophone countries, probably learned to read with the Janet and John books, went to Brownies, read Winnie the Pooh and had the benefits of the post war health, education and security.  We have been navigating our way through the various life challenges since then, trying to achieve a work life balance, deal with teenage children, our parents in old age, and now we are grandmothers. With all my family away I have the time to pursue a research project on the subject of ‘us’, and share the results with you here, over virtual coffee and cake.

This research journey won’t be a straight path, it will wind through the forest of fairy story, through fields of post war education, over the hill of feminism and across the lake of ‘having it all’. But come with me, it will be interesting. We may find out who lives in the gingerbread house, the terraced house in Salford, the bungalow in Australia and who is spinning silvery threads to keep their grandchildren safe.

To continue with a fairy tale metaphor I shall be following the breadcrumb trail of a PhD in Ethnology and Folklore at Aberdeen University. My method is to quiz grandmothers through interview, (thank you to those who have already taken part), and read, write, around the subject, considering the grandmother character. She appears in literature and folklore, fairy story and mother in law jokes as well as in real life. My ambition is to shine more light onto us, that moving cultural target, of the contemporary grandmother with grandchildren living far away, as well as how we are finding ways to pass on family history.

Why might it be useful to pass on family ‘stuff’ in the form of story, images, recipes, habits, forms of speech? Psychologists tell us that a working knowledge of our own humble, oscillating, unglamorous family (I’m speaking about myself here) contributes to a young person’s sense of ‘self’ and ‘belonging’.  Of course passing on our family histories has become more complicated for some of us. My grandsons living in Michigan find it hard to engage with tales of making castles out of haybales or trailing around looking for cows in a Cornish mist on a soggy pony.  Some of our grandchildren know more about the families of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins, than their own. Whilst It is hard to compete with the glamour of those fictional characters, building up a personal ‘cultural identity’, helps young people enter the adult world with confidence and a sense of worth. In turn they say, this can strengthen mental health and aid the building of future relationships.

The stereotypical cheery grandmother who lived nearby, baked us snacks when we dropped by, and solved problems that our parents didn’t take seriously, is becoming a thing of the past if indeed, she ever existed. Now she is more likely to be at work, at the gym or only seen on the computer screen.

 As a faraway grandmother myself, with family in England, America and New Zealand continents I am setting off with my lightsabre carrying a gold ring.  I shall learn some Harry Potter spells to help along the way. Alohomera! to unlock doors, Accio! to bring the subject closer, Lumos! to illuminate it …and obliviate! to make them forget… no, no, now I’m going too far.

There’s a journey we must go on and no delay.

Kasuo ishiguro
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