I long for the sweetness of a grandchild’s hug

An older woman hugs her grandchildThe Silver Line founder, Dame Esther Rantzen, discusses the bonds between grandparent and grandchild – and how the coronavirus pandemic is putting them to the ultimate test.

Yesterday I was playing Drawing Consequences with my five year old grandson, Teddy. As he left, having shown me how to wash my hands properly (the way we all must these days) he said to me, “You can look at my pictures, Etta, so you don’t forget me.”   

Is it because we have had to stop cuddling each other and he has been instructed to keep his distance from me, that he thinks I might forget him? I told Teddy the truth, that of course I won’t forget him because he fills my heart. Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the man with the most difficult job in government, has said without a tested and approved Covid vaccination we grandparents may have to spend a cuddle-free Christmas. Does he realise what he is asking?

I understand his reasoning. At my age of 80 the statistics are tough, and implacable. The older you are, the more ill you get. The last thing I want for myself or my family’s sake is to be carted off to ICU, to die alone, struggling for breath. That’s not how I want them to remember me. So I am self-isolating, keeping my distance from my children, waving to my friends via the internet, all my provisions being delivered to my door. But Mr Hancock, must I really protect myself from my own five grandchildren?

Someone once explained this unique bond, “We love our children, but we are in love with our grandchildren”. Our grandchildren are so precious to us. It’s difficult to understand the power of this new emotion, which arrives so late in our lives you might expect us to be level-headed and sensible. Until it happens. I watched friends becoming grandparents and marvelled at the way they succumbed like teenagers with an overwhelming infatuation, and I swore that would never happen to me. But of course it did. There’s a spring in my step when I know we are meeting, my heart lifts when they climb onto my lap and demand a story, or whisper a secret to me. Being separated is unbearable. And I know I am not alone.

Many grandparents have been the scaffolding of their family, keeping it stable and strong. But as a patron of the Bristol Grandparents’ Support Group I have met and listened to many who have been refused access to their grandchildren, because of a divorce, or a family feud, or a row that split the family. Grandparents have described their pain of separation as a living bereavement. Now one of the cruellest effects of the pandemic has been the way millions more grandparents have experienced the same agony, the generations torn apart by the vicious Covid virus that targets older people and forces us to isolate ourselves. The only reason Teddy and I could play together yesterday was that we spent most of the day outdoors in the garden, or sitting on opposite sides of a table in a very draughty barn. And having been isolating since March for the last six months I have not felt the warmth, the sweetness of a cuddle with my grandchildren.

Grandchildren are specially good at cuddles, sometimes sticky, sometimes muddy, sometimes inadvertently donating nits, but who cares, it’s worth it. It’s the way they naturally run towards you arms outstretched, calling your name. And their parents restrain them, explaining “It’s the naughty virus, you have to stay away from Etta.”  But I defy you, when a two year old granddaughter takes you firmly by the hand and orders you to come with her, to refuse. You can’t.

In any case the research is confused, and confusing. Under the age of twelve, do the youngest children actually pass the virus on? There seems to be very little evidence anywhere in the world of a major uptick when nursery and primary schools open, any cases of Covid seem to have been passed between adults. So, perhaps because I want to, I side with those who say that there is little or no danger from contact with little children, as long as the adults take care.

By coincidence, yesterday also marked the twentieth anniversary of my husband Desmond Wilcox’s death, and family and friends had joined me, mainly virtually via Zoom, to mark the day and remember him with love. Many grandparents have lost their partner, the friend and lover who for years had slept alongside them, and in times of grief or joy, put their arms around them and held them close. Bette Davis pointed out that old age is not for cissies, and one of the sad truths of growing older is that we give and receive fewer cuddles. Which makes the ones from our grandchildren all the more precious.  

My own view is that as long as we oldies behave responsibly, do our duty and shield ourselves, even though cases rise we will keep the hospital admissions low, the death count down, and enable young people to get back to work and play. In return, Mr Hancock, can you conduct some properly based research to prove what I believe, which is that we grandparents can have a safe cuddle with our grandchildren this Christmas. There could be no better present.