Tuesday, January 7, 2014


How important are grandfathers in children’s lives, really? How necessary are they? From my limited personal experience, the answer is “Not very”.

After all, vices and virtues are passed on - or not - via DNA, and don’t need personal interaction beyond the one-time transmissions. Nature can be inherited, but nurture can’t. And, since grandfathers are only minimally involved in their grandchildren’s nurture, their influence must be limited.

There’s always been a shortage of grandfathers in our family. I knew both of mine, though only for the first ten years or less of my life, but my parents never knew theirs. Linda knew neither of hers, and our son neither of his. That’s the downside of late matings, I guess.

My Hancock grandfather was a very gentle man, and I worshipped him. In his twenties, in the early 1900s, his job in the family’s timber-supply company west of Brisbane obliged him to negotiate tree-felling and on-site sawmilling privileges with the aborigines who lived in the area. That was his only exposure to a foreign culture, apart from short visits to China and Japan in later life, and not counting pen-friends in India and Central America.

He it was who instilled in me a strong determination to “see the world”. Without the influence of his physical presence, I might never have left Australia. So that’s one for the grandfathers.

My Barlow grandfather was an aloof English sea-captain who (according to my mother) treated his family as though they were crew. Forced to quit after his ship passed a buoy on the wrong side (!) while entering Wellington Harbour in New Zealand, he retired to his wife’s house in Toowoomba and lived off her dividend income.

Her father’s money bought my Dad’s sheep-farm out on the Downs, but he had little direct influence on Dad except to bequeath a bit of his posh English accent and his casual contempt for religion. He had no influence at all on me.

Neither of my parents knew any of their grandfathers. The sea-captain’s father lived and died in England; the other three were all English-born immigrants who died relatively young. One helped his father found the timber-supply company in Ipswich; one used his agricultural-labourers’ skills to establish a flourishing construction company, and a large hotel, in Toowoomba, the informal capital of the Darling Downs and points west.

The third one searched for gold in the southern State of Victoria, before migrating to Queensland and settling on a 160-acre “selection” in a sugar-farming district.

The Toowoomba contractor left all his children well-off, and that money helped one of the daughters to attract the sea-captain. Her Irish relatives’ rabid Catholicism brought some serious stress to our family whenever pressure was applied by some of them to convert us children to the One True Faith. Her husband kept well out of it all. (She honoured his request to bury him in the C of E section of the town cemetery, and even insisted that she be buried beside him. That insistence may or may not have sent her straight to Hell.)

 Looking back, it’s apparent that in my family, at least, grandfathers’ influence didn’t amount to a hill of beans. Is this typical in families, or have others’ experiences been quite different? Grandmothers, now: that’s a whole nother thing. The hands that rock the cradle, rule the world – and as often as not those hands are grandmothers’ hands.