My extended family is really not all that extended. My mum is the only child of two only children. My dad is the eldest of three, but his sister does not have children, and his brother just has one child. I have one younger brother who is married but yet to have children. I married someone who has one half-brother, and he and his partner do not have children. Husband’s dad was an only child. His mum has one sister, who has three children, two of whom are now married with three children between them.That is pretty much it.
Growing up in Liverpool, a lot of my friends and classmates came of Irish Catholic heritage, and they all had loads of cousins. Seriously, loads. My oldest friend’s mum is one of nine, and her dad one of three, and most of her aunties and uncles were married with two or three kids of their own. I loved tagging along to their family parties and barbecues and marvelling at how a whole room could be full to bursting with just immediate family, and feeling rather jealous at all the cousins her own age she had to hang out with.
However, luckily for me, what I miss out on in quantity I make up for in quality. Sadly my grandparents are all dead now. I never knew my mum’s dad as he died when she was a child, but I was fortunate enough to have really strong, close relationships with my three remaining grandparents. They were all very different characters, but I loved them very, very much, and learnt a huge amount from them.
My Nanna was my mum’s mum. She lived fairly near us and, as she was a widow and my mum an only child, she spent a lot of time with us when I was growing up. Weekends, Christmas, Easter, holidays – she was always there, and a fundamental part of our family structure. She taught me to knit and sew – I do both very badly, but that certainly isn’t Nanna’s fault, as she was extremely skilled. She told great stories – fairy stories when I was little, and then about her life as a little girl and a young woman in the War when I was older. I think when someone dies there are always regrets, and one of mine is that I didn’t ask enough questions. Somehow we think the people we love will always be there, and now she is not I realise how much I would like to know but never got round to asking. She was a lovely, generous, sociable woman, and absolutely showered me and my brother with love.
Granny and Grandad, my dad’s parents, lived in Sheffield, so we didn’t get to see them as often, but when we did it was always a real treat. As I got older, Granny and I used to write to one another, and those letters continued up to her death just before Anna was born. It wasn’t a particularly profound correspondence, but we just enjoyed filling each other in on the details of our lives as it helped to bridge the physical distance. Granny was a cookery teacher and a brilliant home cook, and there is no doubt that I get my passion for food and cooking for my family and friends from her. I remember vividly as a little girl kneeling on the bench at Granny’s kitchen table, helping weigh out cake ingredients in her old fashioned scales with their brass weights. Nearly thirty years later that memory still has the power to warm me, and that is because of the warmth of the love I experienced from her then. Granny and Grandad were also keen walkers, and I used to adore going out into the Derbyshire countryside with them. They knew al about birds and trees and wild flowers, and used to help me collect leaves or petals to press and put into a scrapbook. When Anna asks me a question about trees or flowers now I still mentally refer to those scrapbooks.
Grandad was a kind, gentle, funny man. He hadn’t had the chance of much formal education, but he had an incredible feel for words. He loved listening to poetry on the radio or talking books, and he constantly made up little puns, plays on words, jokes, rhymes and riddles, all of which delighted me as a child, and now with adult hindsight I can see showed his instinct for using language creatively. Grandad once told me, when I was in my early teens, that if he lived long enough to see me graduate from university he would die happy. I am very pleased that he did, and it gave me huge pleasure to see how proud all my grandparents were of me. They all managed to be encouraging without pressurising me, and that often helped me when the academic going got tough.
Of course, they were all equally proud of my little brother, as am I. I am still in awe that someone from the same gene pool as me managed not only to get an A at Maths A-level, but then went on to qualify as an accountant. I know we definitely are related though, as I remember, aged 3, lying against my mum’s bump to feel him kick, and I remember by dad telling me in the middle of the night that I now had a baby brother. We pretty much managed to escape the worst of sibling battles and rivalry, perhaps because we are so different, and it was just brilliant having someone to share my childhood with, and now someone to share the memories with. Having that with him, as well as the unquestioning knowledge that when the chips are down he would be there for me, just as I would be for him, is one of the main reasons I was so anxious that Anna had a sibling. My brother also showed incredibly good taste in women when he married my amazing sister-in-law. In the old cliche, I didn’t lose a brother, but I very much feel that I gained a sister, and feel so lucky to have her in my life. They are a fantastic uncle and aunt to their nieces, and are absolutely adored by Anna and, I am sure, will be by Sophia once she can express herself a little more clearly.
I have also been extraordinarily lucky in my family-by-marriage. I have talked before about how warm and welcoming my parents-in-law both were to me from the very beginning, and that has never changed. Far from being the disaster area popular culture reports it to be, my MIL and I manage to sustain a loving family relationship, to work well together, as she is my literary agent, and she also enables me actually to get some time to write by helping to look after her granddaughters every Monday afternoon. I have also been welcomed into her extended family, and get-togethers with my aunt by marriage and her children and grandchildren are a huge pleasure – partly because they are all lovely people, and partly because when I see Anna playing with her cousins-several-times-removed I hope she is getting a little bit of the experience I envied my friend when I was a child. Like me, Anna and Sophia are going to have a fairly small extended family, but, also like me, I know that with the grandparents and aunt and uncle they have, they will get as much love as they would with a family three times the size.