Emotional holding without touching, like we used to do.
Mymaternal grandparents were not touchy-feely people, no hugs, no handshakes even. As we piled into their fisherman’s cottage, hot and sweaty from running down the hill from the car park high on the cliff, Randolph would grumble loudly.
“That’s it, hang your coats up on the floor as usual. “
No physical holding or being held went on for the whole of the summer holidays that I regularly spent there with one of my brothers. Social distancing would not have been such an issue back in those times.
And yet I felt held. I feel held by my grandfather’s memory decades after he has died. If I am anxious, I remember him mending his fishing nets. Absolute calm concentration for hours on end as he slowly encourages the net to unravel. He is holding me now across time.
If asked to imagine a safe place, I picture myself sitting in bed with my Gran and Grandad early in the morning. They have a kettle and tea making equipment by the bed because it is too cold to traipse down to the kitchen first thing. Under the bed is a chamber pot to save any other night time trips in a house where the only heating is the open fire in the front room.
We would nibble on marmalade sandwiches made the night before and kept in Tupperware. The marmalade had soaked into the bread a little. I have never been able to reproduce the exquisite details of this pre-breakfast treat but identified with Paddington Bear’s love of the things.
I felt safe, and I felt held.
My grandfather said few words to us. He was off early for a morning shift driving the local ferry back and forth after a lifetime as a seaman and pilot. We had free rein of the beaches and cliffs. Later we would all pile into one of the boats for a trip upriver or out to the beaches.
I was able to take off rowing boats or the sailing dinghy on my own and valued the trust they had in me.
One weekend around the age of 15, I arrived in an agitated state. Maybe I had been dumped by a girlfriend or stuck in some row between my parents or brothers. I do not remember those details. What I do remember is the story that follows, anchored in my mind, connecting me back through generations. A time when I felt held. No words, no physical touch, just intention keeping me safe.
“I’m going sailing.”
“Stay in the harbour. It’s starting to blow up.”
At this point, I might have argued there was no wind at all or given some grumbly 15 yr old boy response.
My Granddad would not have said anything more. Once he had given his point of view, he never saw any need to elaborate, and I never witnessed him arguing with anyone.
I fetched the sail, rudder and life jacket from the boatshed and rowed myself out to the dinghy. All fitted up, I set sail and began crisscrossing the harbour. I was angry. The sea did not look too rough. I didn’t care that Grandpa had told me to stay in the harbour. The small swell looked like fun. So I started to tack my way out.
I learnt that afternoon that a swell that looks small from a distance becomes an entirely different animal when you are in it. Going forward into it was terrifying as each wave was a little bigger than the one before, and I started taking on water from the bow with each dip.
You would have thought I would simply turn around and get out of the situation as fast as I could.
Two things conflicted. First, it was the most exhilarating experience I had ever had. Secondly, the idea of turning around was even more terrifying. There would be a moment when I would be sideways to the waves, and the sail would be empty of wind. I imagined myself being tipped over and swimming fully clothed towards rocks that were being hammered by these massive waves.
Eventually, the fear of going forward overwhelmed the fear of turning back. I smashed the tiller across, ducked under the boom and prayed for the wind to kick into the canvas sail. It felt like an age, and it could have been less than a second. The next wave bore down on me just as the wind thundered into the sail and snapped the tiny craft around to face the harbour. I then surfed that wave; white hands gripped on tiller and sheet as I was delivered back to the safety of the harbour.
I navigated in and moored up in a state of shock. I bundled things into the tender and rowed back to the landing stage. I carted everything up into the boatshed and spread out the sail to dry. No one came to help me.
Back at the cottage, I left my deck shoes outside and walked into supper preparations. Nobody said a word. I put my wet clothes out the back under the tin roof next to the mangle. I went up to our bunk room and threw on something dry.
We ate simple, delicious food around the table and then played draughts and cards until we all went up to our beds. No one mentioned my sailing trip.
As I lay in the lower bunk, my older brother whispered to me from above.
“Grandad was watching you the whole time. As soon as you started going out of the harbour, he was on his way to the phonebox to call the coastguard. He took me with him. We then ran up to watch you from the cliff through binoculars. He told me he had scrambled the lifeboat crew, and they would be sitting there with the engine running. If he said the word, I had to run as fast as I could to the phonebox and dial 999, and they would be out to pick you out of the water. Two minutes to the call box and three minutes for the crew to drop the moorings and get to you. He thought you could last five minutes.”
At a time when physical holding is not possible towards anyone other than immediate family, I wonder if we will develop the skills of emotional holding that my grandparents had in spadefuls.