The wood
comments 26

In which Nature takes on Nurture

This Easter weeked I went to my parents’ house and forgot to pack my laptop charger. This was perplexing, since it left me without anything to do.

First of all, I tried to carry on with some writing, by squinting at the Dropbox on my phone and using an actual pen and piece of paper.   I am not used to this and found it challenging.  More to the point, I felt crowded in by other people and was reminded by how supremely impressed I have always been by Jane Austen’s ability to work while surrounded by the lives and whims of others.

In the end, I gave up and played 2048 on my phone all evening, and then because I couldn’t sleep, on until 1am, which is when I finally managed to complete it.

The next day, exhausted through lack of sleep and space, I had a brainwave and decided that at least I could read a book. I’ve had Sweet Tooth waiting in my car for a while, but have been a bit wary because Solar, my last Ian McEwan, while very good was a slow starter.  But Sweet Tooth is anything but slow! It’s a spy story and is really vivid. Review to follow.

In the evening, my grandparents arrived. My grandad went into the kitchen to read a Chinese newspaper and grunt. This has been his default setting as long as I remember.

My nan came to talk to me and my mum. Now many of you will know that my mum is quite uptight and a very kind, well meaning person, but not given to showing that she is at all happy to see you, or at all happy at anything you have done. Both my parents, but especially my mum, automatically start moaning on and finding problems and drawbacks if you give them any piece of news. Taking this on board as normal behaviour led to me having a lot of problems interacting socially while I was growing up.

However, my nan is very different. Looking at my mum and me, you’d wonder where the hell I got my personality from, but when I see my nan, I kinda think that I must have got something from her as I think I have ended up more like her. I just have no idea why my mum ended up so different from my nan!

My nan has a good sense of fun. With me there she was able to give vent to all the observations she’s made about my mum:

“One day her pupil says ‘Mrs Kong, your garden looks so nice. Who does your garden?’ And your mum says, ‘None of your business! Concentrate on your work! This pupil is so kind, so nice! And she just says ‘Concentrate on your work!’ Always so tense and worried about work.”

And, about the ten day stay she had at my parents’ house while she and my grandad were moving house:

“Always says ‘Don’t put that there! Put that here! Be careful with your chair!’ In the end, I just sit still! Do nothing! Don’t move! It’s easier.’

It’s actually amazing that my nan has kept her sense of fun, as she’s still having a lot of trouble with my grandad, who is becoming more and more paranoid and delusional (eg he builds a barricade in the bedroom each night before going to sleep so that no-one can open the door). Both she and my mum had a strong sense of duty and forgiveness, which I guess is cultural, to the extent that she said:

“Even if he hits, he doesn’t know what he is doing now. Have to forgive.”

Not so good, Nan 😦 but being inside a marriage and doing your duty to look after your husband, however bad it is, is everything to a certain generation and culture… My nan is amazing to have done all the things that she’s done in her life, with pretty much no support (my grandad has always been a bit odd.) Sometimes I think, “You could put him in a nursing home and I’d move to a bigger house in the town, and you could come and live with me! I wouldn’t tell you to be careful with your chair!” But I think she’d be a bit lost without that sense of having a duty to fulfil every day.

I will leave you with some pictures I took before we went away. LD#2 and I went for a walk in the woods with friends

The wood
The wood

and found a woodland house that someone had built:

little house
Little house of sticks

And at the end we stopped off at the tea room and as we were queueing, LD started laughing.

‘Look!’ She pointed at the display shelves behind the counter.


“It looks like your dinosaur.”


Remember him?



  1. Denise, it sounds like you did have an okay time because of your wonderful grandmother! She sounds delightful. And you even see parts of yourself coming from her, which is great. I like the line about your grandfather always “defaulting” to grunting noises.

    You capture the boredom too. The feeling is boredom. Even pointing out the dinosaur. Which does not look like one. Time seems to stand still.

    • The boredom reminded me of being a teenager :-/ That feeling of not being in control of my life and constant ennui that I didn’t *want* to do anything. I think maybe that is one of the things people misunderstand about teenagers. It’s very awkward not being in control of your own life, but still almost having the the mental capacity to run your own life.

      • I know. I remember those field trips in school. It was winter. The light very pale. And the amount of clothing we had to wear just to keep warm. My memory of boredom is that!

  2. I had a similar relationship with my mother and Grandmother in that I’ve always found it easier to get on with my Grandmother. Unfortunately my Grandmother is dead now but I have lots of good memories of her.

    One question though. I’m not sure that I understand you but are you saying your Grandfather hits your Grandmother?

  3. Yes, unfortunately it seems that he hits her. Not sure how hard, as he is in his eighties but the worst thing is there is lots of verbal abuse too. I phoned a charity to get some advice when I found out about it but they said it had to be my grandma who went to them, which she would never do in a million years. It doesn’t seem fair really.

  4. Gwen Stephens

    I think this is the reason Hollywood makes movies about family dynamics. So much material to work with!

    • It’s good stuff, isn’t it? I like that sort of drama. I like a good action movie too, but no need always to focus on the external action.

  5. This is good stuff to write about. My mom, my sister and I always said she was mean. For no apparent reason that we could see. I always find it interesting when cultures outside my own have those similar relationships ’cause it kinda goes with Maya Angelou’s quote “We are more alike than unalike.” But then you also get to learn those differences with glimpses inside other cultures too.

    • Different cultures are fascinating. Sometimes I wonder if that thing we have in common is because when people live outside their cultures and feel threatened, they are more under stress, and also feel they have to defend the old way of life more. Did you and your sister ever come to terms with your mom’s behaviour. It’s good that you have a sister to share the experience with.

  6. I moved away from my family when I was still a teenager (long story) but now I always feel very alienated when I go back ‘home’. It’s not as though I don’t get on with my family, because I do but there is always this barrier of awkardness. I also find that I get on with my grandparents, especially my Nan the older I get. The same with you, I now pick out traits that I think skipped a generation and went straight from my Nan to me and bypassed my Mum completely.

    • I had to be a bit older to get on with my Nan. When I was younger I always felt guilty that I couldn’t speak Chinese and that intimidated me. But now I realise that she is happy just to have that connection with her younger family.

  7. Family dynamics are so difficult, because humans are so complicated. We love each other and need each other, and still hurt each other. It’s just a lot to deal with.

    My biology teacher told me that parents exist to pass on the grandparent’s genes to the next generation. (meaning so much of genetic inheritance skips a generation). My grandmother and I always had a close understanding. My poor mother, in the middle, had to make her own way because I didn’t have a daughter for her to identify with. And neither my grandmother nor I really understood her.

  8. I enjoyed your post, Denise, and can relate in many ways to that weird sort of adjustment when vacationing or staying with parents. My parents don’t have wifi so I have that same dull “what do I do now” feeling whenever I’m at their house…I usually veg out in front of the tv with a vacant look in my eyes or rummage around in the attic to look for my old journals and books 😉

    I can relate to what you said about your grandma and the hitting, and that blind loyalty to husbands. I think it is definitely the culture and generation. But your grandmother does sound lovely! I smiled at the way you described your parents. If I remember correctly you also seem to do well around them?

    I did not know that Sweet Tooth is so suspenseful (I didn’t know what it was about). I’ll look forward to your review of it!

    • Yes we had the no wi-fi thing for a long time. I was like rain after drought when they finally got it.

      The blind loyalty is sad – but it is too late to do anything about it. It often is, not only in that culture – because if people looked to see the life they had missed out on and the experiences they had lost, it would be too much to take on board. So it’s better to cling onto what they have.

  9. I can’t wait to hear what you thought of Sweet Tooth!
    Like you, I need quiet and a keyboard to write, pen and paper have become an alien concept sadly.
    The descriptions of your family dynamic are heart rending, the tension is palpable. I’m wondering if your grandfather is showing signs if dementia? Barricading himself in and being aggressive to his wife sound familiar to me as this is what happened to my father who had always been so gentle until this devastating illness struck. Has your Nan approached the health service about his behaviour? Sge really shouldn’t have to deal witth this by herself.

    • My nan’s world is pretty much about working out the best way to put up with things and always has been.  I think my granddad does have signs of dementia.  However in his mind, he really is a persecuted ex-spy.  It would be a big thing for my nan to challenge this view of him and for the family to confront him as a person with failing health in need of help, which is what would be necessary to call in health professionals.  Asian families can unfortunately get quite used to pandering to the point of view of person who thinks they are in charge.

      I’m sorry to hear about your father 😦 I don’t think my granddad has always been quite this bad.  In a way, he is quite lucid to talk to and he’s not forgetting things in what you would think were the traditional signs, just the things he says are strange, and his behaviour.  It’s interesting to see the similarities with your father and makes me think that he really does have dementia, despite appearing outwardly not much more strange than he has in the past.


  10. I’m excited to see what you make of Sweet Tooth – certainly quite different to anything else that he’s written.

    I must also apologise for getting you addicted to 2048. The good news on that (I think) is that once you’ve completed it, you feel no need to play it again. Good to be able to get it out of your system.

    • I stayed up to finish it last night!  It was really good!

      I certainly got a sense of closure when I finished 2048.  Funny thing is I was interested to see whether having found a strategy, it would work every time.  I am not sure if it is user error, but I don’t think it does work every time because it can get a very tight fit towards the end of the game.  If so this mix of randomness and skill is very clever.


  11. Your nan sounds lovely Denise, and how fab that she still has a sense of fun about her! Your granddad reminds me of my friends father, honestly the strangest man I have ever encountered. She has had a very rough time processing her childhood – perhaps your mother is the same? It’s amazing how many of that generation haven’t dealt with their demons, and have ended up letting them rule their lives…

    • I think that is a very perceptive comment.  My mum *did* suffer from the stresses in her family when she was younger.  She resented her mother for not being there to care for her – my nan was out earning money as a teacher, because my granddad could only hold down jobs sporadically.  Funnily enough, my aunt, her sister, continued the pattern of becoming the breadwinner and attaching herself to a man who saw himself as the head of the family while at the same time not being able to hold down a job and to some extent escaping into a fantasy life.  You are right that if we don’t deal with our demons they rule our lives.  Having said all that, my nan had a much worse time than either me or my mum!  Her mum died when she was 13, under mysterious circumstances 😦 The question of why some of us deal with our demons more head on than others is a whole different question.  


      • Sounds like your nan is a wonderful lady. I had a fantastic grandma too, but unfortunately she passed away when I was eleven.

        Why people do/don’t deal with their demons forms the basis of my book, if I ever manage to get it finished!

  12. Firstly, I do remember your dinosaur and I can see why LD had to laugh in the tea room!
    Secondly, reading about your mum and grandmother reminds me so much of the female dynamics in my own family. My mum was always very uptight when I was growing up with me and her mother. I was very close to my grandmother and we had very similar conversations that you have with yours. My dear Granny lived to 94 and died in 2002, the year before I moved back here from the States. By that time my mum had softened somewhat, but like your mum, she is very kind, caring and just wants to do what’s right for everyone but she could also be very sharp and so stressed all the time. It’s so complicated isn’t it!!
    So sorry about your grandfather too, your grandmother has a lot to deal with. My grandfather left my granny and he died 2 years later but she always said he was the only man she ever loved. I adored him. She went on to care for own mother and auntie until their dying day, in her home, and they lived to 86 an 92 respectively! She is my inspiration, she never complained and just got on with life. She was a lot of fun and had a twinkle in her eye despite all she endured. I’m so glad that you have such a lovely relationship with your grandmother 🙂

    • What a great woman. Life is full of people like that, being heroic in their own way. I always say, it makes me think of Middlemarch.

      I always used to feel guilty and disloyal that I had so many problems with my mum. It’s nice to be able to discuss it rationally with people who understand and have been in the same situation – to realise that it’s not disloyalty and doesn’t mean you don’t love them. You can love people and appreciate their good points but also appreciate the stresses they have had in their lives that mean you haven’t always been able to get along…

      • Denise, I used to struggle in just the same way with feeling that I was being disloyal if I opened up about my feelings in this way about my mum. I hated myself for it once upon a time but then I realised as you do that it didn’t mean I didn’t love her any less and that I was actually coming to a better understanding of her and myself. So yes, I do understand completely…

  13. I always thought that it was the norm to look at your own family and think “that’s normality” then look at others and think ‘they’re weird’ ! Then I realised that normal is just whatever you’re accustomed to. I think my mother in law is much more like your mum than my own – although not exactly. She is kind and caring and wants to do right by everyone but she is extremely uptight – won’t let anyone help her with anything but still feels put upon because she doesn’t get any help! Its an enigma… I do look at the hubby sometimes and wonder what his upbringing must have looked like – he is very tied to the apron strings even in his late thirties. Interesting ponder on nature vs nurture though as I guess coming from an ‘outside’ culture for your parents’ generation means that you have an extra element of difference to take into account…

    • We never knew many families when I was growing up but I have to say after I met some of my husband’s extended family, I totally appreciated all the plus points about mine – ie they are kind and well meaning, even if it comes out in strange ways. I am not tied to the apron strings (quite the opposite) but have always been too dependent on others’ approval. I feel sad about the years of my life I lost to this. But it’s something that happens to us I think if we are not given encouragement to be independent by our families. We look to a hierarchy (whether that is family or other structures) rather than try to find solutions within ourselves.

      Thanks for your angle on things, always interesting to see what other people make of their families.

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