It’s 7am on Monday morning and your mum will be dropping off soon for one of the two days that your Nana Di and I look after you. The days that you visit are the best days of my week. You live just round the corner from us in Richmond which is both wonderful and convenient.
Unfortunately, your cousin Connor lives in Port Hedland in W.A. which is about as far away from Melbourne as you can get without leaving the country. We rarely see Connor, at best about once a year, so while I have two grandchildren, it is you that I see most of and to whom these letters are addressed.
I got up this morning and opened the front gate and left the newspaper slightly unwrapped in preparation for your arrival when your mother will give it to you to carry into our living room.
We have a small ritual (one of many). As I lift you out of your pusher, you shriek with pleasure and your little arms and legs flail in all directions. Then we unwrap the paper together. You hold the cellophane wrapper and I say, “Scruncho” and you scrunch it up and we go and put it in the rubbish bin. I then begin feeding you small pieces of toast in anticipation of your breakfast.
Nana Di appears shortly after this ritual and you catapult yourself out of my arms into hers.
While I wait for all this to happen, I am writing the first of my letters to you.
It’s not a letter to the wonderful little 18 month old we see almost everyday but a letter to the older child or perhaps the man that you will grow into. It is also going to be the first of a number that I will use as a chronicle of your life and, to a lesser extent, that of our family.
My reasons for writing to you are numerous.
The first is that you will remember nothing of the early years of your life with me and Nana Di, yet much of what you have experienced will stay with you for the rest of your life. I want to record that part of your life for you.
I grew up with a complete working knowledge of pretty much all the English nursery rhymes. I have no recollection of learning them. As a small boy, I was not much inclined to nursery rhymes. Yet they are all there, word perfect some 70 years later.
I think it must have been my Nana who taught them to me and I suspect gave me my love of reading.
Nana O’Neil – your paternal great, great grandmother
How many times do you have to repeat This little piggy went to market for someone to remember it for the rest of their lives? It must’ve been a labour of love.
The second reason is that family histories are so easy to lose. Very few people keep records, written or photographic. This picture of Nana O’Neil is the best of a very small handful that I have. I took it when I was around 20, so in the early 1960s. Now that she and my mother (your great-grandmother) are dead, many of the stories of their lives have been lost. Like most of our lives, theirs were not particularly spectacular, but they constitute our unique family history and I would like to begin capturing that history as best I can, beginning with you.
So the history of Tim, Nana Di and Winton that I am going to write will also be a family history in many respects.
One day, you will be 70 and I hope that the record that I can leave for you will somehow become part of a record that you can leave your children and grandchildren.
The third reason is that I have access to the new, wonderful electric Internet.
When I was born, there was no television, computers or mobile phones. Telephones had little handles that drove a magneto that powered them and you spoke to an operator who would connect you to the person you wanted to speak to.
A telephone call from New Zealand, where I was born, to the UK cost£6/15/-, the equivalent of $750 today, which was a little bit less than half of a good weekly wage. In those days. information could be transmitted in analog form but not stored.
Now I can sit with my laptop on my knee and talk. My letter to you is stored on my computer and is archived forever. I have been using computers now for a little over 40 years yet I’m still excited by what the technology provides.
Because of the power of this technology, each week, somewhere in the world, about 1000 people read something I have written.
The fourth, but not final, reason is that I wish to reflect on what it means to be a grandparent. When you’re a parent, you don’t have time for this sort of reflection. You’re flat out being a parent doing all the things that a parent must do. But when you’re a grandparent, you have time for reflection and I have decided not to waste this.
You will be the first person that I have written for specifically. I hope you enjoy it
So, to the story.
This is a photograph taken by your mum when you were two days old and I visited you both in hospital.
As you can see, you weren’t more than a couple of handfuls but you did something that still amazes me. Your little hand reached up and grabbed the collar of my shirt.
Perhaps it’s a family thing for the Haslett grandchildren. We have a wonderful picture of Connor and Nana Di when we visited Andrew and Ness in Manila shortly after Connor was born.
At the time I wrote “The instinct to hang on to things is clearly innate (but) is exceptionally powerful in eliciting the protection of the young. What adult can resist the emotional pull of that small grip? It’s the first step in a very powerful bonding process between parents (and grandparents) and newly-born children.”
It’s difficult to explain my emotional response at the time. I was surprised at the instinctive and almost primordial response I had to this small but perfectly formed little bundle that I was holding for the first time. What surprised me most is that it was not something that I remember feeling at the time of the birth of your father and your two uncles.
Having your own children is a wonderful experience but having a grandchild is quite different. Having your own family is very much part of a continuous process: you meet someone, you fall in love, you get married, have children and raise a family. Each stage naturally leads on to the next. The arrival of second and third children constitutes a transition and acceptance of newcomer into a family group.
Having your first child is rather different. It cements your place in history. Ben Jonson wrote on the gravestone of his seven-year old son:
here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetrie
For me, what made your arrival so special was that it was so unexpected. Of course, I knew you were going to arrive but I was completely unprepared for the nature of that arrival.
These letters will be the history of that unexpected and wonderful relationship.