Wednesday 18 September 2019

'I don't think I'm a good grandfather- I'd like to be one, but it scares me'

Without role models, a fear of ageing and unsure of his capacity to bond, the idea of being a grandfather scared Campbell Spray. He wants to get better at it and not be seen as a grumpspa

Campbell Spray carries his granddaughter Amy Jole in Phoenix Park during her first visit to Dublin.
Campbell Spray carries his granddaughter Amy Jole in Phoenix Park during her first visit to Dublin.

I don't think I'm a good grandfather. I'd like to be one, but it scares me. I have three beautiful grandchildren but there's an image out there that's very hard to live up to. If you really want to hurt your self-esteem, try Googling "grandfather quotes" and the schmaltz pours out of the computer, almost clogging the keys: "A grandfather is someone with silver in his hair and gold in his heart" . . . "My Grandfather was the most selfless person I know" and Victor Hugo's, "There are fathers who do not love their children; there is no grandfather who does not adore his grandson."

Perhaps it's not surprising that my grandfatherly skills are few. The very notion of being one ages me and instinctively I flee such things. But then I didn't have any role models.

My paternal grandmother died when even my father was very young. And my two grandfathers died before I was born; both, strangely, during World War II from war injuries - one gassing, the other shrapnel - they had received respectively at the Western Front and Gallipoli nearly 30 years before. My Australian grandmother died when I was 15 but I could hardly remember her. There was an uncle I would have loved to have met, but he had died a war hero, had books dedicated to him and I was named after him.

So all in all it was without total joy that I heard nearly a decade ago that my eldest daughter Laura, daughter of my first wife Helen, and her husband Sam were expecting a baby. I was delighted for them but unsure about my role in the whole life that was evolving.

Even when Amy was born, to be followed by Ben a few years later and Thomas last month, I have been restrained in my celebrations. Not that Sam and Laura haven't done everything to involve me. It's just that I'm a bit distant in all this, literally and metaphorically. I am the fourth grandfather in a strange grouping. We each have different prefixes, I'm Grandpa Campbell. There's Laura's step-father who she calls Dad and was more of a father to her than I. He and Laura's mother live about five minutes away in Stockport, Greater Manchester. And there's Sam's step-dad who lives with his mother, an hour's journey from them just across the Pennines. There's also Sam's father, who has less contact with him and lives in London.

Obviously with the Irish Sea between us, there is less space in my mind or the children's for our relationship. I'm not good at instinctively bonding and having the patience and time to develop mutual respect. Maybe I'm scared of rejection and being seen as an outsider. When Amy and Ben have come over or I visit them I love carrying them on my back, walking with the dog or just reading them bed-time stories. Yet, after a little while I feel it is someone else's family, I get antsy. How grandparents descend on their children for weeks or months at a time in Australia or America is beyond me. The rule for family and friends is the same; they are like fish going off after a few days.

Perhaps I will grow up and at last face my demons. I do love the way my Dublin children, who I had with my second wife Kate, Marcus, 26, an economist in London, who sees most of the grandchildren, and Rachael, 23, get on so well with them. Seeing them play with Amy and Ben makes them seem like brothers and sisters rather than uncles and aunts.

The children I most would have loved to see were those of my son Daniel who died last year. Would they have given him bottom and would they have been as bright but without the demons. And if they now existed would they have stirred my grandfatherly instincts so I could protect them from the fallout from Daniel's death?

Laura has an inner strength and so much more emotional and physical support around her.

Yet there is hope for me. My very military father, who was brought up by maiden aunts and only saw his mother as she pressed her face against the school railings, became a better grandfather in some ways than a Dad, when ambition and demons of war and drink had largely left him. He used to say that he was uninterested in children when they were babies. He wanted to teach, for them to learn and, perhaps, to be remembered. In the years between being 70 and 92, he seemed to soften. My younger sister and I used to call him, in loving jest, Grumpspa. But he loved making things and telling tales for his grandchildren. My mother should have had years as a wonderful grandmother; the 10 or so years she gave Daniel and Laura, although living 500 miles away, were so filled with warmth. Damn those alcohol demons and their partner in crime, cancer.

I wasn't good at marriage, twice proved. But I'm better at living with someone now. Hopefully the same improvement will be seen with my grandfatherly skills. When we all met up in Scotland last October to scatter Daniel's ashes, while walking the cliffs of our ancestral home, there was great togetherness with the then two grandchildren bringing joy and laughter. I so envied their happiness. I must get on that plane and be confident of a good relationship with Amy and Ben - who are bright, have great personalities and will only get better - and Thomas Daniel, who has many years to make his mark.

Is there a future for this generation's grumpspa? Perhaps so. When I met my partner 15 years ago I said I was beyond redemption. She said no-one was and eventually agreed to have a date. Perhaps with the grandchildren it will be the same. That my partner is 20 years younger than me and has no children gives me a different perspective.

Yet I must embrace the gift of my grandchildren. There is a lot of family history, odd little skills, bits of cunning and knowledge, together with some folk memories, that I might be able to pass on. Get beyond some hurt and distance and there is an awful lot of love and affection too. I deserve it and the present grandchildren and those still to come have a right to it. The past and the future must make a present of their two spheres.

Or maybe at the end I won't be good at it and I'll just remain a distant grumpspa. It's definitely worth a punt for, at least, as my father wisely said, the great thing about grandchildren is that you can give them back to their parents.

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