Some of you may be surprised to know that today is in fact National Grandparent Day! To mark the occasion, we’re sharing Paul Phillips’ experience of becoming a grandad – and the kind of grandparent he aspires to be to his four grandchildren.
Of all the things I wanted to be – and of all the things I nearly was – there is one achievement that ranks above everything else; becoming a grandad. Of course, I couldn’t have become a grandad without being a father first and, at the time, it seemed nothing would top that. But being a grandad is magical. The wonder never pales.
I have four grandchildren – two girls and two boys. The girls, Isla and Polly, will be 6 soon. They are not twins; my daughters-in-law gave birth within 24 hours of each other. So I became a grandad twice over in the space of a day. What is it that they say about buses? My first grandson, Finlay, is 3. The second, Max, arrived a few weeks ago. I can hold him in one hand. To be fair, I do have big hands. But, as I said, the wonder never ends.
I’m sure that someone has written a helpful guide to being a grandparent but to me it’s an entirely natural and emotional concept. A bond between grandparent and grandchild cannot be manufactured. It just exists.
I only knew one of my grandads. He was my mother’s father and I must have inherited from him an intense connection with a grandchild. He seemed to me to be a big, powerful man – a source of protection, wisdom and – that word again – wonder. I listened as he convinced me that the scar on his face was caused by a Native American’s arrow (it was actually an injury from his time as a tank driver in the Second World War) and believed him when he told me he had been in the circus, not realising at the time that Piccadilly Circus wasn’t a real circus. I’d beg him to tell me again his joke about a lion tamer which had the word ‘shit’ in it. Goodness knows how many times I heard it and I never failed to gasp and giggle when the shit bit came. My grandmother would always tut loudly and shout ‘Jim!’ at my grandad. But it was our little thing and my grandad would wink at me to confirm our special connection.
My grandad died more than 50 years ago, but I often think about him. In 2019 I bumped into him again in the most bizarre circumstances.
I was in Tesco and, as usual, had forgotten my shopping bag. So I had to buy one and on a rack were special bags celebrating Tesco’s centenary. On the bag was a picture of my grandad. He’s on the top right standing next to a lorry. I knew he’d worked with Jack Cohen, who founded Tesco, but I didn’t expect to see him on a bag, in a local supermarket, decades after he told me the lion tamer joke for the umpteenth and final time. I remember saying ’that’s my grandad’ to the cashier. Her polite smile and ‘really?’ comment hinted that she might have thought I was a little bonkers.
So what sort of grandad am I? Recently my eldest son asked his daughter Isla to describe her grandad in one word. ‘Naughty,’ she replied, although I suspect this witness may have been led by the prosecution. Apparently, filling grandchildren full of sugar and over-excitement then sending them home with their mum and dad does not make for an easy parenting time. Who knew?
The American humourist Sam Levenson had this to say about being a grandparent: ‘The simplest toy, which even the youngest child can operate, is called a grandparent.’ I have wholeheartedly become that toy.
The first time I looked after Polly for the day all by myself this human toy hit the ground running. Polly arrived at 8.45am. We played a game, did some colouring, built a camp out of chairs, blankets and cushions in the living room and watched an episode of Peppa Pig. At 9.05 we did something else.
Mealtimes with grandad regularly involve an appearance by Captain Underpants. The first time I played that role I have to admit I didn’t really know who Captain Underpants was. I put on an apron backwards so that it looked like a cloak and stuck a pair of underpants on my head before adopting a Superman-type pose and bellowing ‘Captain Underpants’ to squeals of young delight. My partner gently pointed out that the underpants should be worn on the outside of one’s trousers. A spoonful of sugar may well help the medicine go down. A quick flurry of Captain Underpants has the same effect on the fish fingers, I promise you.
I have spent much of the latter part of my career trying to inspire journalists to find creative ways of engaging an audience. Two words from EM Forster’s Howards End capture the essence of my message: ‘Only connect.’
That’s exactly what I try to do with my grandchildren. Did you know that there’s treasure hidden in the molehills on the Village Green? We have had a real good go at finding it.
The three eldest all have their own ‘specialities.’ Polly loves performing and a family gathering rarely goes by without a show of some sort, or a game of shops (she’s the shopkeeper) or schools (yep, she’s the teacher.)
Isla regards most things bigger than her as a climbing challenge and treats fear as an imposter. But I’ll also happily spend a great chunk of time with her colouring stuff in. She’s really good at it – neat and very creative – and we get totally absorbed in what we’re doing. Anything with a ball – any type of ball – works well with her brother, Finlay. Hopefully he will grow into the cricket bat I bought him for his last birthday. It’s a smaller version of mine, not that I’m hoping he will take up the fine sport. Ahem. I got him a rugby ball as soon as he was born. Same applies. Ahem again. Max is obviously a little young at the moment but we will find a fun connection soon.
Let me return to the idea of ‘wonder.’ If I have anything do with it, it will never cease. But one question keeps nagging me. I wonder when I will be able to tell my grandchildren the lion tamer joke? I guess that really would make me a naughty grandad.
Are you a grandparent? If so, how would you describe your grandparenting experiences? Let us know in the comments below.
Paul Phillips has been a journalist for over 40 years, had senior editorial roles with the BBC and Sky News and worked in many parts of the world as a consultant and skills trainer. Paul is also a university lecturer specialising in broadcast journalism and TV production.