What transcribing my late grandparents meant to me.
“John, I love you, and every evening spent away from you now feels like wasted time. My ideal now is a time when we can be together and know that there is tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow instead of Monday and catching the last train”. This isn’t an excerpt from the latest hit romance novel, but from a letter written by my grandmother to my grandfather in the run up to their marriage. When we look back on the coronavirus pandemic in the years to come, many shared memories will endure: the inability of Zoom quizzes to recreate the atmosphere of a good pub, monotonous clapping for the NHS, and the cloying embrace of face masks during that long, stifling summer. My memories of the pandemic, however, will be dominated by the musty smell of old paper and the weightless feeling of living through another’s eyes that I got from transcribing my grandparent’s letters.
My grandfather dying shouldn’t have been a surprise. He was a 92-year-old care home resident with dementia – an obviously vulnerable position in the middle of a pandemic. Still, it was a shock nonetheless. We had spoken to him via video less than a week before, and while confused about our not visiting, he said he loved us and asked us to visit as soon as possible. My grandmother Sonia’s dementia had lasted years and been much more advanced than John’s was when she died, so we weren’t braced for an imminent end. The Covid-19 outbreak, while scary, still felt like a nebulous thing happening to other people, unlikely to affect us in our sleepy suburbia.
He died quickly, but knowing that he died alone, scared and confused, tormented us and combined with the inability to gather as a family for a proper funeral, made the grieving process incredibly hard. This knowledge is a particularly difficult pill to swallow when it comes to John, because there could be few men more deeply loving of their family than him. John cared for everybody in his life so deeply (not least Sonia through the peak of her dementia) and so many cared for him in return. From the family who ran the Turkish restaurant next door, to every next door neighbour they ever had; walking down the street with him was an education in the life stories of everyone we passed.
The painful circumstances of his death affected me deeply, and I sought solace (as I always have) through words. Except these words weren’t from the pages of a favourite novel; they were a collection of letters - some dating back as far as 70 years - that we found when emptying out his old flat. My grandparents had written autobiographies of their pre-marital life to preserve a record for their children and grandchildren. They had always intended to have a follow-up – a memoir of their married life. If anything, this would have been the more substantial of the memoirs, as their married life spanned 63 years to their unmarried 26. Unfortunately, my grandmother’s dementia diagnosis soon followed and, swept up into the relentless cycle of patient and carer, they never managed to complete their story. When we found the letters and the snippets of the unfinished memoir, completing it seemed the obvious lockdown project. But more than that, it was a way to feel closer to the grandparents I had lost, and to assuage the guilt and grief I felt for not being able to say goodbye properly.
Going into the project I didn’t expect much more than a sense of satisfaction, and maybe if I was lucky a few titbits of family gossip. However, it turned out to be much more impactful than I could have imagined; I knew John and Sonia as grandparents, already grey-haired and seemingly ancient when we were introduced 21 years ago (although I suppose to a newborn even a toddler looks wisened). Imagine my surprise to open the letters and find exuberant youth beaming out at me. Knowing rationally that your grandparents were young once and seeing a few black and white photos is nothing to the vividness of reading about their experience with 1950s fad diets, or adventurous travels in the Middle East. Their letters span the whole range of human experience, from the excitement of newlyweds, to the (surely universal) frustration of trying to prevent your teenage son from becoming a nihilist and going off to Papua New Guinea.
However, at the same time, they were undeniably by the same people I had known. Some letters were so distinctly them, their turns of phrase, their unique idiosyncrasies and foibles staring back at me, that I could almost see them in the room saying the words. Above all though, the letters are dominated by their obvious deep, enduring love for each other.
Seeing reminders of this love was moving, but it also helped put into perspective my own experiences. My own long-distance relationship faltered during the pandemic and reading their passionate pleas for one another brought home to me that my relationship lacked that passion. While that may seem like a depressing outcome, I am grateful to be reminded that a relationship that deeply affecting is possible, and I believe everyone deserves to hold out for one.
As much as it was lovely and meaningful to see the strengths in my grandparents' relationship, it isn’t good to put people on pedestals and idealise their lives. However, transcribing the letters also helped with this too. I saw all the facets of their lives, not just the rose-tinted version preserved in photo albums and family stories. Money worries, banal exchanges about chores, moaning, and most importantly the complexities of their family relationships. Until reading the letters, I had never seen first-hand the worry and frustration that goes into parenting: the constant caring required of you even when you’re sick, or tired, or the child is angry at you. While it was at times uncomfortable to read my grandmother venting her frustrations about my mum and her siblings, it gave me a new understanding of everything my mum sacrificed raising me. It’s also strangely reassuring to know that even people who seem so confident and competent on the outside have off-days, or worry they’ve made the wrong decision, and that adults of all ages write home to their mums for advice.
We were separated by generations, but I like to think that if I could reply to the letters my grandparents sent back then that we’d get along pretty well - writing was a hobby shared by all of us. And if I could, I’d tell them to worry less, but to write home just as much. It all turns out okay with the kids in the end - your son never did move to Papua New Guinea - but we could all use a little advice from our mums regardless, and your letters will in turn provide a source of comfort to your family. Stories are powerful, they connect us to our past, give us perspective on our present - and, as in this case, can be a particularly powerful source of comfort when facing an uncertain future.
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