Fintan O’Toole: My first Christmas as a grandfather and my first as nobody’s child
There are times when the wonder of death and birth seems overwhelming
Fintan O’Toole with his sons, Fionn (left) and Sam, at a book launch in 1999. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Christmases are like the marks we make on the kitchen wall to show how tall a child is growing. Except that they are marks on the memory, annual calibrations of our notions of family. And unlike the real marks, they don’t go in one direction only. They rise and fall as our families change. In childhood they seem to grow as new members join the circle. Then they diminish rapidly as you and your partner cross that watershed of independence and decide, at last, to stop going to your respective families and be your own little family. They grow again as that new family becomes its own thing and swell even further when you reach that other watershed and your parents start coming to you. They lessen again as death takes its toll.
And of course, Christmases can expand and contract at the same time. This Christmas will be first one in my 60 years in which I will not be somebody’s child. My mother, Mary, has been dead a few years and my father, Sammy, joined her in February. I had become used to them at the Christmas dinner table, my mother pretending to be guilty that she was being waited on but secretly loving it, my father’s utter relish of food, the primal pleasure he took in its abundance making him the perfect guest. His savouring gusto always seemed to carry a living reminder of the time when this feast was not just a continuation of endless overconsumption but a rare and therefore truly marvellous departure from the norm of dearth.
When you are little you always think about “when I grow up”, but if you’re lucky it doesn’t actually happen for a very long time. Because the rituals of Christmas are repetitions of childhood. It is the time when, if are fortunate enough to still have your parents, you are most conscious of not yet being quite the grown-up, of still being their child. On this day, in particular, you are living in two states, fussing around in the busy, convivial now while steeping in the warm bath of memory. You are half responsible adult and half delighted child.
I am the roof
For my own sons there were always grandparents – my mother and father and my wife’s mother, Eileen – at the table. And all three of them are gone now. In no time at all, it seems, the table has grown shorter and there are fewer places to set. There is no need to bring those extra chairs down from the attic. There are vivid spaces, radiant absences. No more grandparents.
Except that there are: and we are them. My wife and I are the grandparents now. In October, our grandson, Bjørn Oisín, was born in Zurich. Since last Christmas I have not just lost the generational roof over my head – I have become part of the roof over a new generation’s head. Silly as it seems, I have gone from being a child last Christmas to being a grandfather this Christmas, with, as it feels, nothing in between. Those spaces above us are not empty – we are filling them ourselves. One mark on the wall is erased and ours is the mark that replaces it.
While we were waiting anxiously for Bjørn’s birth, knowing that his mother had gone into labour, my wife and I went for a walk in the Botanic Gardens and, needing to keep circling, cut off into Glasnevin Cemetery. Purely by chance, we came across the grave of John Stanislaus Joyce, who died in December 1931. His son James thought of him a few months later, in February 1932, when he got the news that his own grandson Stephen had been born. The simple lines that he wrote down came into my head that morning:
A child is sleeping;
An old man gone.
Nobody can, or should, replace anyone else. But there are times when the simple wonder of death and birth seems overwhelming and for me this Christmas is one of them – the great darkness of a whole life passing in a last breath; the great blaze of a whole life announcing itself in a cry. This was, of course, the point of the winter solstice that our ancestors marked by imagining the death of one year and the birth of another. And it was the point of those early Christians who transferred this feeling from the birth of the year to the birth of a child. This year I will be especially glad of this ritual moment when the family contracts and expands – like the pulse of a human heart. A child is sleeping, an old man gone, my own childhood laid to rest in the cradle of a new one. The baby in the manger is the living miracle of life’s renewal. As Joyce wrote on that day:
Young life is breathed
Upon the glass,
The world that was not
Comes to pass.