Themes

Family relationships

The bond between grandmother and granddaughter is vividly portrayed. The poem begins with a child’s wonder at the grandmother’s hoarding and develops to explore visits to church and to accompany her grandmother to work.

There is obvious affection between the two. The girl seems to experience her grandmother’s world with real intensity:

  • ‘unwrapping and wrapping’ the collected parcels
  • watching her grandmother making soup
  • going with her to church
  • taking in the strange environment of the ‘cleaning house’

These are poignant moments from childhood. They act as reminders of the bond between generations and the differences between the young and the old.

There is a suggestion that the girl and her grandmother have a closer relationship than the mother and grandmother. The mother seems exasperated with the grandmother's refusal to use any of the presents she has been given. In contrast the child accepts that these parcels are part of the grandmother's personality.

Old age

The grandmother’s strength and energy are obvious in this poem. But there is still a degree of vulnerability about her. We are told about the grandmother's false teeth, that the girl and grandmother are almost the same height and later she is like the hunchback of Notre Dame. Although the grandmother stays as busy as ever, her body is aging.

There are images of death throughout the poem:

  • the cemetery
  • the sideboard solid as a coffin
  • ghosts sit at the altar
  • ambulances, screaming

The grandmother seems unworried about reminders of death in the place she calls home. Perhaps she accepts death as part of her existence.

Kay makes it clear there are other factors bound up with this concept of home: the daily routine, the familiar newsagent next door. All contribute to the woman’s security. As with many older people, she is comforted by her routine and what she knows. So it is no wonder that she is ‘hopping mad’ when she, aged 70, is forced to move.

The line ‘But she still doesn’t settle down’ suggest that she never really fits in to her new ‘high rise’ despite the hot running water and mod cons. She is resilient and continues to work, but we feel sympathy for her as she tries to preserve standards and traditions which have no meaning for the next generation.

Childhood

Many children spend time with grandparents and will share similar experiences to those in the poem. Kay portrays a mix of the alien and the mundane, of wonder and boredom that suggests a loving relationship but recognises the differences between different generations.

The tenement filled with ‘tablecloths, napkins, perfumes, bath salts’ intrigues the child, and she recalls climbing over the parcels to get into bed as if she is in a fairy tale.

There are moments of play in the poem (going up in the lift to floor 24) and moments where the grandmother’s world is a mystery – a ‘strange place where the air is trapped’. The young child also gets bored at having to accompany her grandmother to church and wait for her as she cleans the house. She recalls instructions from her grandmother ‘I told you don’t touch anything’ and ‘Sit up straight’ and an image of her stooped over ‘like the hunchback of Notre Dame’, which again brings in an element of fantasy, so familiar in childhood.