My Nan makes seventeen baked dinners per year: one for the birthdays of each of my parents, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins, and a big one at Christmas. Each baked dinner is exactly the same and rendered utterly perfect by at least fifty years’ practice: meat, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, baked onion, sweet potato, pumpkin, peas, corn, gravy, bread and butter. And on your birthday, you get to choose dessert.
I don’t remember whose birthday it was, but I was at my grandparents’ house with my parents and my two brothers. We were lingering at the table after eating, leaning back in our chairs, probably squabbling over the word puzzles my Nan saves for us out of the newspaper. Then my Nan casually mentioned that she’d just finished reading E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. She joked about hearing a dare on the radio, where the announcer read one of the book’s dirtiest passages on air. While we laughed, half amused and half outraged, Nan retrieved her copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and read aloud, with a complete lack of embarrassment: “He leans down and kisses me, his fingers moving rhythmically inside me, his thumb circling and pressing”.
For a moment, a weird kind of hysterical terror hung in the air. Then it was just hysterical. And then, when I thought about it later, it was okay. Of course, I thought. Older people are people. My Nan is a real, adult person. Not just a nice lady who used to take me to the 9:00am sessions of movies and who still buys me pyjamas at Christmas. My Nan, although she is a grandmother to ten grandchildren, is not just a grandmother. In fact, she didn’t even become a grandmother until the age of forty-seven. Before that, she was a wife and mother to two sons and a daughter. Before that, just a young wife. And before that, a sister to eight siblings. Which of course are all totally obvious facts.
What I couldn’t realize until I became a young adult was that although they are so familiar to me, all of my grandparents have histories that will always be unknown. They each have their own interior lives; they each contain a multitude of stories I will never hear and experiences to which I will never be able to relate. Forty-seven years is a lot of life. And Nan lived all of it before I, her first grandchild, was even thought of. My own narrative doesn’t begin until 1989, which is to me, the year that feels like the beginning of the world. It is a strange thing to realize how late you are to the party of someone else’s life.
Casually reading some erotic fiction around the dinner table with your grandparents might seem like a pretty normal thing to do, but it’s a relatively new experience for humankind. Only 120 years ago, a moment in the grand scheme of things, life expectancy in Australia was 47.2 years for males and 50.8 years for females. In 1900, fewer than half of all adolescents had two or more grandparents still living. By 1976, that figure had grown to more than 90% (Uhlenberg, 1980). These statistics don’t just herald overall improvements to our standard of living caused by increased wealth, access to healthcare and advancements in science and medicine. They also signal the need for the negotiation of a new familial relationship between grandparents and adult grandchildren. For many families, this might be represented in a shift in power in terms of who takes care of whom. For me, it means finding a way to be an adult alongside my grandparents while still being their granddaughter. It means trying not to be embarrassed about lending my Nan a book that I think she’ll like, even though I know it contains a fair bit of sex (not Fifty Shades of Grey – I can’t claim responsibility for that one). It means understanding all the prisms of grief through which my family mourned the losses of my grandfathers in 2010 and 2013, not just my own.
Of course, all these statistics are only based on averages, and there are always other factors at work. Having your grandparents live longer doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll spend an extra decade in their rocking chair in the corner, telling you stories about the good old days – they’re also more likely to still be in the workforce, or off seeing the world (my grandma still works 18-hour days as a florist in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day). While young people in Australia are more likely to become young adults while our grandparents are still alive, we’re also likely to go on and have children at a later stage in life. We might be caught in a unique moment in time – our lives are growing longer, but in turn we are now likely to wait longer before starting our own families – beginning to reverse this phenomenon.
I wonder what affect this has had on me as a person; whether this has the potential to change my generation. Had I been born a hundred years ago, it’s unlikely that any of my grandparents would still be alive by the time I was twenty-four. Had I been born 120 years ago, it’s almost unlikely that my parents would still be alive. But because I was born in 1989, I have direct links to the events of much of the twentieth century: my grandparents were born during WWII. My grandmothers were both teenaged housewives in the early 1960s, who later went out to work. My parents watched the moon landing on television as children. None of this seems extraordinary, but it is. I feel enormously lucky to be connected to my family in a way that may not have been possible only a hundred years ago.
As a young writer, to me this represents a whole new level of historical access. It’s not about exploiting your older relatives for their stories. It’s about being a young woman, twenty-four years old, and hearing about another young woman, twenty-two, married with three children, maintaining a household and going out to find a job, hearing about the Cuban missile crisis and worrying about what was going to happen to the world. It’s about understanding that it’s not only the big stories of drama and triumph that need to be told, but also the small stories of everyday life – of frustration, of uncertainty, of hope – that really connect us.