[When I travelled to China a little over two years ago to meet my grandson Dermot Gao O’Neill for the first time, I wrote him a letter before I met him in person. Now I am making a similar journey via Dubai to Sydney to meet my first grand daughter Caitlyn who was born to my daughter Claire and her husband Mike on 7th April. It feels really important to say these things to her before I am overwhelmed by the scent of her and the feel of her in my arms. So from the distorted reality that is air travel and with the benefit of Emirates On Air wi-fi, here goes. Maybe someday you will read it to her Claire and maybe some day she will read it herself.]
Dear Caitlyn Alice, daughter of my daughter, my very own Katy Bee,
The tracking map on my A380 says the time to our destination in Sydney is 7 hrs 34 minutes so in about 10 hours time I hope to meet you for the first time. Every day for the past 4 and a half weeks I have studied your photos, a new one most days, trying to guess at your emerging personality. I look at photos taken of Dermot when he was your tender age and see in him the glimpses of the fun-loving two year old he has grown into with buckets of personality and charm.
Am I right in thinking you will be a girl with attitude? A slightly quizzical way of looking at life, taking it seriously but taking it all in? Do I already detect an independence of spirit despite this being the most dependent time of your life? I hope so Caitlyn because being a girl is not easy, not even when you are born in the 21st century to a loving family with a strong Mum and Dad who will do everything they can to prepare you for your life ahead.
You come from a long line of strong women Katy, just take a look at your mother whom you’ve spent every waking moment with since you were born and whose moods and moments you must have got to know in the 9 months you spent in her womb as she grappled with tough challenges at work and strode the hills with us in Tasmania last December, walking for 6 hours with you in her belly making your presence felt. Look at your maternal great grandmother, my own Mum, who is still enjoying life to the full, relishing travel and still learning something new every day.
You are named for your great grandmother Alice, your grandad’s Mum. Now there was a strong woman if ever there was one, a woman of ferocious intelligence who reared 10 children in Ireland when times were much tougher than they are now. She would like that you are her namesake I think and have things she would have wanted to say to you given half a chance. But Alice is also the name of my Mum’s Mum, my beloved Nan who I remember for her glorious mix of fun and silliness and her relationship with her gaggle of sisters. I spent a lot of time with my Nan who was young enough to pass for my mother when she collected me from school and it only seems like yesterday that I was just old enough to run down the road from my school to her bungalow in Wexford and feast on “jelly and cornflour” before heading home to my Mam, Dad and brothers for dinner. And of course your other granny, your Nain, an accomplished woman in her own right, will be able to teach you all about your Welsh legacy.
I’ve never had a sister Katy, I’ve never had the easy bond of friendship with other girls that I see between my sisters in law, your granddad’s sisters. I only had one daughter, your Mum. Perhaps that is why I thrived in a so-called man’s world and why my relationship with my Mum and your Mum are so important to me. Perhaps that’s why I feel so in awe and almost trepidation as I count down the hours and minutes until we meet. Will we two get the chance to have a special granny granddaughter relationship? Will we manage to conquer the distance between us in space, time and life experiences to build something wonderful that will stand the test of time just like my memories of my own two grannies are strong nearly 60 years later.
Believe me there are so many things I will want to share with you as you grow, so many warnings I will want to give, so many times I will want to say “stand up, get out there and be strong”, “hold on to your sense of yourself”, “don’t loose your essential self”, “don’t let the battering ram of life’s experience divert you from the course you choose for yourself”. And I will say “just look at your own mother – her spirit and resilience, her sense of fun and adventure, her core of values and strong sense of responsibility and respect for others”. And on the days when you two clash, as you inevitably will, but only for a short while, think of the little girl I remember tentatively taking her first scared steps into the tame sea off the Irish coast when not much older than Dermot is now who I watched in awe swim for several miles in the shark-infested waters off the New South Wales Coast. For your mother wont always be right, just nearly always.
Australian, Welsh, Irish. You are of me but not of me Caitlyn Alice. You have been born into a far more equal society than I first knew. And yet I’m not convinced how deep those societal changes go. You will still face all the baggage that society imposes on girls, the expectations and risks that all young women face, the inevitable guilt you will feel as you juggle your gender and your need to nurture and care with your desire to achieve just like the boys. So here’s my first tip – practice on the cat. Because if you can tame the tiger within him and win his affection it wont be a bad start in winning friends and influencing people.
May you always be beautiful but may your beauty come from within so that you remind us to avoid the girly labels and also see whatever cheeky, cheerful or serious side of you emerges. Wear pink if you like it but also purples and reds and blues and whatever strong colours take your fancy. And grey, we already think grey suits you. Read lots and lots of books. Get to know your heritage – three nations now – through songs and stories. Read “boy” stories as well as “girl” stories and identify with the lead character in both. And make up your own stories – re-write the traditional fairly tales and nursery rhymes if the girls in them sound too pliable to you or there are too many wicked witches for your liking, Your Mum was walking miles from the age of two, the age your cousin Dermot is now. The buggy relinquished “I’ll do it myself” was her favourite phrase. Get out there and walk those beautiful beaches and mountains of New South Wales for you are privileged that your Mum has given birth to you in such a beautiful place.
Form your own belief system as you grow. It wont be identical to your Mum or Dad’s or mine, or your half-Chinese cousin now growing up in Ireland. But it will be shaped by all those influences including the powerful ethical core in your Mum and Dad. Have a mind of your own but one that listens to the wisdom of the elders and never takes for granted the strides women have made in less than 100 years towards greater freedom. And never forget the many baby girls born at the same time as you who wont be lucky enough to experience such freedom.
Make a point of loving life, the good times and the bad. Relish each new experience, Get the joy out of the small things starting now, that strange whirly thing over your cot, that furry fella that likes to snuggle near your toes and invade your space, the sound of your mother’s voice, the look of pure love on your father’s face – because that’s a whole other story. Father – daughter relationships are a special kind of magic. Embrace the enthusiasm for life and the zest that I can vouch for being handed down by the four generations of women on my side alone because I can still remember sitting on the arm of my own great grandmother’s chair brushing her hair and her excitement at her first trips in a motor car when she was already in her 80s.
Stay safe little one, for the world is a scary place especially for girls. So never let the sense of adventure I hope you will have get in the way of a grounded common sense that keeps you on guard for hidden dangers.
And finally Katy Bee, busy bee that you will inevitably be, leave just a teeny weeny bit of space in your busy life to get to know me, even if we have to do it mostly by FaceTime at first. It will mean a lot to us both some day. That’s all I can guarantee.
With all the love a heart can muster
Your Granny Julie
10 May 2015