Biographical Non-Fiction posted April 16, 2022

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Stories within stories - listening to others.

Understanding Connections

by LisaMay

In the development of my three-year friendship with Andrew (who is now 14 years old), I have also come to know his father and grandmother quite well. They think I am a valuable influence in Andrew’s life, as a friend who spends time with him and injects some fun into his activities, and as a responsible adult outside the family who has his best interests at heart.

Disappointingly, Andrew’s relationships with his family members are flawed. He is at the point where he mostly communicates with his father by text message, he speaks negatively at times about his grandmother, and he resents that his recently-widowed aunt and younger girl cousin are also now living at his father’s house (where Andrew resides three days a week, then at his mother’s for the other four days). He hates crowded spaces and exhibits stress at times about having no privacy.

From my observation, they are a family in a dysfunctional spiral and I feel that my presence has become a comfort to each of them on my regular Saturday visits. It is mainly due to outside influences that tensions at home are simmering — divorce, ill health and old age, bereavement, over-crowding, current global events, pressure of work (Andrew’s dad is a psychiatric nurse), and anxiety are all contributing.

I am not supplanting Andrew’s own grandmother (I’m 55 years older than Andrew); I am trying to get him to understand her better, to cut her a bit of slack for often being irritable and pressuring him to be more academically ambitious. She is elderly, unwell and in pain. Much of her pain is emotional at the moment, tied up with the Ukraine situation. Bitterness towards Russians and Communism has had a major impact on her, bringing back horrible memories of living in exile, having to flee Czechoslovakia after the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact troops invaded her country in 1968 to suppress reforms of the ‘Prague Spring’, when she and her husband had been intellectuals and activists at prestigious Charles University (Einstein had earlier been a professor there). They fled from Prague to England with their then-6-year-old son, who would later become Andrew’s father. They eventually emigrated to New Zealand. She lost her husband to suicide in 1994. Her daughter’s husband died recently; now her daughter has depression and her son is being a father-figure to her granddaughter. It’s complicated; they are a family trying to cling together but Andrew is falling through the cracks of these intertwined, prickly issues.
I have come to regard Saturdays as ‘therapy days’, both for Andrew and his family members and for myself. I live alone, so I look forward to Saturdays where I get to spend time out of my own solo bubble. During the week, I have a busy life mostly attending to art-related tasks with a large organisation, but Saturday is my ‘get real’ day, where I am directly exposed to the immediate problems of a family… and also hugged into that family.

Andrew spends a lot of time in his gloomy darkened bedroom, playing Xbox computer games. He needs cheerful sunshine and human reality. Sometimes we have ‘green therapy’ by going to local parks. We enjoy feeding the ducks. Yesterday a goose befriended us and Andrew hand-fed it a muesli bar, piece-by-piece, that I’d found in my purse. Walking among trees and beside streams is a soothing activity; I am encouraging Andrew to enjoy a connection with nature himself. He never seems to go anywhere with his family. His dad told me Andrew never wants to go anywhere with him.

My home-grown version of ‘therapy’ is good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, non-judgmental honesty, and a bit of fun. The purpose of therapy is to heal or alleviate symptoms of a concerning issue or condition. I think friendship is the best therapy. I’ve tried to encourage Andrew into having better connections, particularly with his dad and grandmother, and not isolating himself and being selfish. I am not trained in anything and haven’t been to university myself, but I’ve realised I’m trying to cultivate Andrew’s ‘emotional intelligence’ of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills, which to my mind are of much more importance in navigating life than academic qualifications.

We converse about all manner of topics. I want him to know it’s okay to query others’ opinions, including those in authority. (His mother is anti-vax, his father is pro.) We play chess or draughts (checkers), maybe card games, sometimes changing the rules to trick each other. We tease each other and laugh often. But I am also serious with him. When he told me he didn’t like his father giving him ‘attitude’, I reassured him that I was in his corner but I could see it was actually Andrew himself having an ‘attitude’ towards his father. I suggested, due to his teenage years, he could only see things from one perspective, whereas we older people could see both sides, as we had been young ourselves and were now old enough to understand consequences. There’s no point preaching to a disgruntled teenager, but perhaps I sowed a seed.

Andrew clearly feels relaxed in my company and sometimes asks me things I would never expect to be answering. Yesterday over lunch he wanted to know what ‘castration’ entailed. I choked on my noodles then explained to him about testicle removal, sex urges, and testosterone. I couldn’t eat my meatballs afterwards. Sometimes I wonder if he’s testing me (no pun intended); he is perfectly capable of researching the word himself. (Maybe this is an example of his ‘intellectual laziness’ in not pursuing knowledge himself that exasperates his grandmother.) Apparently his question was prompted by a schoolyard conversation the previous day about punishment for sex offenders. He said he didn’t want to appear ignorant in front of his friends, and there was no way he’d ask his father or grandmother. I’m pleased to know I am a branch on his tree of knowledge that he can consult.

*  *  *
Andrew knew my birthday was some time in April. He texted me several days ago and asked: “Is your birthday the 11th?” Not wanting any fuss, I texted back: “No”. Then he insisted: “Tell me the date.”  I replied: “It’s the 16th”. On the 14th he texted me: “If you had a birthday coming up what might you like to get?” I could tell he wanted to get me a present; I’d recently read an intriguing book review so I told him the book title and author: The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak.

I collected Andrew as usual yesterday for our Saturday lunch date. His grandmother was sitting in her favourite chair on the front porch and then his father came out. They gave me Easter eggs and wished me happy birthday, making me promise to come back and spend some time with them after lunch for conversation and a glass of wine. Andrew was jiggling about with excitement and couldn’t wait to get in the car and leave. He was hiding something under his jacket. He was so pleased to thrust the gift-wrapped parcel into my hands and to see my ‘surprised’ expression when the book was revealed, with a nice message on the title page from him, his father, and grandmother also. The icing on the cake, so to speak, was Andrew’s message to me on the card he’d chosen: “To the best grandma in the world thanks for being there for me Jenny I love you from Andrew”. I know many of you have wonderful relationships with your flesh-and-blood grandchildren. I have now been welcomed into that special relationship myself.

The dedication line penned by the author on her book reads: “To immigrants and exiles everywhere, the uprooted, the re-rooted, the rootless…”. I feel most of us can identify with these words at times. Our lives are often transplanted and re-routed in different directions through losses and changes, immigration, divorce, or death of a partner. Our memories and motivations are rooted in our pasts, and our future emotional growth can only flourish with strong roots carrying supportive nourishment. I sympathise with Andrew’s grandmother, father, mother, aunt, and cousin as they struggle with their own upheavals, and I fear for Andrew if he severs his roots and exiles himself to an unsupported future. At least we both know I will be part of it. Trees thrive best in a forest, rather than having to stand alone in storms.


Non-Fiction Writing Contest contest entry

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