I yearned all my life to be a granny, but the reality is so bittersweet says Esther Rantzen
21:54 GMT, 5 September 2012
07:34 GMT, 6 September 2012
With his pudgy arms and legs, rounded cheeks and soft dark hair, my first grandson looked perfect — what my mother used to call a ‘knitting-pattern baby’.
Holding Benji literally one minute after his birth just six weeks ago, I reflected that there is nothing quite as sweet as the birth of your first grandchild.
I was privileged to be present as a ‘birth partner’ in the labour ward of University College Hospital in London as my daughter Rebecca gave birth to Benjamin Desmond on July 25.
New generation: Esther Rantzen with daughter Rebecca and grandson Benji
It was an incredible moment, and as I ran outside to tell Rebecca’s sister and brother that the 9lb 8oz baby Benji had arrived safe and well, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t speak. But the smile on my face told them the wonderful news.
My joy is marred only by one sadness: that my late husband Desmond Wilcox is not by my side as I take my first steps into this new world of grandparenthood.
Desi and I spent more than 30 years together, before his death from heart disease snatched him from us far too soon, in 2000, at the age of 69.
If only Desi were sitting next to me now, I think, as I gaze in fascination at this new baby. I find myself searching for Desi in Benji’s face. I know he must be there, but I can’t yet find him.
Desi would have loved nothing more than to welcome Benji into our family— the next generation of our little unit — alongside Rebecca, her husband James and our two other children, Joshua and Emily.
My pang of renewed grief wasn’t entirely unexpected. There were times during Rebecca’s pregnancy when I know we both missed her father grievously, longing for him to share our excitement.
All the same, the bittersweet nature of becoming a single grandparent has taken me by surprise. I am acutely aware of how much I miss Desi’s strength and practical good sense as I learn to navigate my new role.
Desi would, like me, revel in Benji’s first smiles (and would never tell me they are just wind).Whenever we ran out of energy, he would make jokes to keep us all laughing.
The loneliness of the single grandmother is rarely, if ever, discussed. And yet I am far from alone because, statistically, women tend to outlive men.
My own grandmothers were widows too. One of my grand-fathers died long before I was born, and the other passed away when I was five. I have blurred memories of him as an elderly gentleman walking in the garden with his cane and a natty hat.
But that was nearly 70 years ago, when grandfathers were slightly aloof and certainly played no part in nappy-changing or rocking a grumbly new baby to sleep.
Granny syndrome: Esther with grandson Benji. She says her late husband would forgive her granny syndrome as he'd have grandpa syndrome
I know that Desi — one of the first New Men of the Seventies and Eighties —would have been very hands-on with little Benji. Even as a father, he was far better than me at the practical side of baby care.
When he changed a nappy, it stayed on, while mine tended to droop or fall off. When I’m bringing up Benji’s wind, or soothing him to sleep, I know he would be demonstrating the same brilliant skills now if only he were with us.
Rebecca hero-worshipped her father, and he was passionately proud of her. When she was sleepless, he could virtually hypnotise her with fantasy stories about a ‘flying school’, and would applaud her wildly when she played a sheep in the school nativity play.
When, as a toddler, she would lie down kicking her heels in the middle of a shop floor, he could pick her up and cuddle her out of her tantrum.
It’s sad that he can’t see her now, a beautiful 32-year-old, and observe proudly that our mercurial teenager has turned into a mature, natural mother.
HE would have been a fabulous grandfather to Benji, too. He was to his first five grandchildren — the children of my stepdaughters. They are all teenagers and young adults now, but they always called him ‘Poppa’ and loved him dearly.
Rebecca was determined that Desmond would be Benji’s middle name. ‘Not his first name,’ she explained to me.‘That would be too tough for him to live up to.’ So Benjamin Desmond will always know that his grandfather was with him in spirit. And I am already showing Benji a book of photographs I have made for him, which has a big picture of Desi holding Rebecca as a baby on the back cover, so that he will get to know his grandfather’s face.
Benji is lucky in that at least he has two grandparents on his father Jim’s side, both of whom are already lavishing love upon him.
Yet I can’t help but think of all the
unique things that Desi would have passed on to Benji. His legendary
story-telling, for one — a skill which characterised his work as a
journalist and documentary maker.
the best grandfathers tell extraordinary stories about the world when
they were young, of the battles they fought and won — and Desmond would
have excelled at that.
can imagine Benji’s eyes growing round with wonder as Desi told him
about the way he ran away to sea at 15, lying about his age to sign on
as a deck-hand on a little Merchant Navy tramp steamer headed for
Africa, where he was then taken on as assistant to a big game hunter.
how he was then sent home when his age was discovered, only to get
gangrene on the way back and be operated on without anaesthetic by the
He used to show my children the scars on his knuckles where he bit down on them to endure the pain.
Bittersweet: Esther is reminded of the absence of her late husband Desmond, pictured, as she takes on the new role of being a single grandparent
And if Benji disbelieved a word of it (as my children occasionally did), Desi would chuckle and show him the episode of This Is Your Life that he appeared in to prove the story true.
He would forgive the fact that I’ve succumbed so totally to Granny Syndrome, because he would be suffering Grandpa Syndrome too.
He would also forgive the fact that our grandson was born the day before the Olympics began, and so has completely blotted out that glorious international event.
Like me, he wouldn’t have a clue about the brilliance of the opening ceremony or of the starring role played in it by Her Majesty herself.
Instead, his heart and mind would have been overwhelmed with relief that Benji had been delivered safe and sound.
Nor does Becca mind that, since his birth, she barely has time to brush her teeth, shower or comb her hair, as long as Benji is healthy and happy.
I’m trying my best to help out as much as possible, and have turned myself into a mobile casserole and fish-pie service, delivering to their door.
I’ve rushed out and bought countless books to read Benji, from The Hungry Caterpillar to nursery rhymes and an Enid Blyton. And in case that’s all a bit girlie, I’ve also found Desmond’s favourite Biggles book.
As a lone grandmother, I am also acutely aware of the tight-rope I must walk.
Though I may want to spend as much time with him as possible, I must calculate when to step in and when to draw back. I’m trying to temper my overwhelming urge to pick up Benji and cuddle him, remembering how resentful I was as a new mum when someone grabbed my precious new baby.
Meanwhile, becoming a grandmother means I can look ahead with new delight — not to the inevitable frailty of my old age but to the fun I’ll have with Benji. I’m making plans for us already.
In our cottage garden in the New Forest, there’s a plot of rough grass where I could put a swing and a slide. And I’m sure the New Forest ponies that drift by our gate will enchant Benji, just as they charmed Rebecca.
I’ll walk around the garden with Benji and tell him how to read the sun-dial — the way his grandad would have done. I’ll cheer him up when he loses a wellie boot in the mud, and wrap him in a towel when he gets cold and wet, just as Desi used to do with Becca, Joshua and Em.
With luck and hard work, I hope I’ll succeed in this crucial new job of being a single grandmother — and I hope that Desi would have been proud of me.