As a child, I spent a lot of time in the care of my granny, Su. No E. She likes things to be expressed in bold, simple terms, chafing at both Sue and Susan, and colour-blocking her eye-catching outfits. I once spied her walking a dog through Hackney from far away (bright orange beanie, matching coat) and assumed she was a random hipster. My mum worked full-time and often late, my dad lived and worked outside the UK, so I, an only-child, would often stay the night at hers – though she also worked full-time then. There are certain comforting aromas which take me straight back to that period, and which, despite not being as conventionally pleasant as Proust’s Madeleine maybe, I associate with her care of me. These are chiefly wet-dog-in-car and fresh garlic – the former from when she picked me up at school, the latter being a mysterious smell I couldn’t then name, but which always seemed to hang in the air as she read me bedtime stories. She must have been cooking before she came in to read to me, the pages wafting garlic as her fingers turned them – and she probably had a carefully timed, grown-up meal simmering away, which would permit one, maximum two, of the stories I’d queued up for her. Sometimes her voice would lull me to sleep and so she’d sneak away to it, a move I soon wised up to and sought to circumvent by taking her free hand and gradually drawing it under my pillow as she read, so that if she tried to leave she’d wake me. This is childlike love I am describing, but I wouldn’t say it’s childish. Certainly not compared to the maddening semiotics I spent my teens and twenties attempting to decipher. Though we can’t compel someone to stay with us, and hopefully learn the art of letting go, we also learn to conceal the boldness and simplicity of our love as adults in ways it might be better not to. Whenever I had a bad break-up, it was to granny Su’s spare room that I retreated, where no analysis was needed. She was good at taking my mind off things (my turn to chop the garlic or walk the dog now), and if we did discuss the convoluted heartbreak, its narrative arc would suddenly become simple: that person was, however painfully, not right for me.
I suppose love between grandparents and grandchildren, at any age, is often easy. Certainly compared to romantic love, but also to the more complicated kinds that can exist between siblings or parents. But as I grew up, I realised, as one child callously put it, as he grappled with my unwieldy family tree, that in his eyes at least “she wasn’t really a granny”. Su is my grandfather’s second wife, and is technically my “step” granny. After my mum’s own mother left her husband and two young daughters for a new life on the other side of the Atlantic, Su (also recently divorced with three young sons) stepped in to care for them alongside her own children. At the same time, she maintained good relations with her ex and his new family, so I remember it only occurring to me maybe mid-way through my teens, that it was perhaps unusual for us all to be celebrating Christmas or going on holiday together, with my step, and then my step-step (‘two-step’) family.
Su herself was adopted, as were the two boys who became her brothers from separate families. For her, familial bonds have never been about labels but the act of loving. Sometimes I wonder if I could rise to the occasion as she did, or if I might be more like my “real” granny who, however understandably, wanted to be unencumbered. Sometimes, if I worry that my understanding of love is becoming tied to a kind of scarcity mentality, I remind myself of Su and our relationship. At her 80th birthday, we went around the (very long) table and said a few words each. My cousin, who was also adopted, said that Su had taught her the meaning of love and family. She put it that simply, and even Su (ever practical) got misty-eyed. I definitely cried! Realising just how plainly true that was for all of us – that love is both instinctive and something we have to learn, and how lucky I am Su makes it so simple.
Olivia's new novel Asylum Road, published by Bloomsbury, is out now.