The story of an Aspie who lives with his grandmother
By Tom Clements
Whenever I tell people I live with my grandmother, they most likely think I’m a little bit odd. And I admit, they’d be somewhat right in thinking that. At 28 years old, I most probably ought to have found a place of my own to live in by now. Some people I know who are my age are married, have kids and live in nice detached houses with gravel driveways. I on the other hand inhabit a tiny shoebox-sized room in my nan’s old Victorian cottage.
While my former classmate James chooses from a selection of tailored business suits of a morning, I throw on my goofy supermarket uniform and resentfully pin a degrading name badge to my work shirt. James drives to work in a saloon car with heated seats while I walk for 3 miles in the pitch black and freezing cold. Upon arrival, he ensonces himself in his leather office chair ready for a day spent largely in the sitting position staring at a screen. Meanwhile, I get the loading bay ready in preparation for shifting the daily 6am delivery of refrigerated goods to the cool room. Basically, James is a successful manager and I am a manual laborer. We both work for the same company, but he’s at the top of the retail food chain and I’m way down at the bottom.
For various reasons related to my autism and my generally diabolical anxiety issues, I’ve failed to find gainful long-term employment. Throughout my twenties I’ve mainly drifted between an assortment of crappy jobs, from being a teacher for a dodgy little kindergarten in rural China (a business apparently run by local Triads), cleaning up dog poo in a kennels and cattery, delivering Betterware catalogues, shelling peanuts in a factory, raking leaves and most recently, and perhaps the grimmest of the lot, working in a retail warehouse 12 hours a day for minimum wage. Due to my tight finances, I was forced to move in with my nan a couple of years back. It was either that or risk my sanity staying at the local YMCA (a place where ‘guests’ are regularly seen in the doorway injecting themselves with heroin needles). Life with my grandmother would surely be preferable to life in a doss house I thought.
Besides, Nan’s a lovely person and I actually don’t resent living with her! She may be a tough Catholic matriarch who rarely minces her words, but she’s lovely all the same. Despite being 4’10’’ she’s also a formidable presence in our family and is respected about town as well. As a youngster when I refused to go to school, she was the one who coaxed the truth out of me and got me to confess that I was being bullied. After hearing this, she promptly marched to the school, grabbed the bully by the ear, slapped him around the back of the head and told him never to touch me again. From then on, the bully was so scared he never dared give me eye-contact, let alone lay a finger on me.
My nan has a famously fierce temper which has a tendency to flare up wherever she witnesses an injustice, but, like many working-class London-Irish, she’s also got a big and generous heart. She spoiled me rotten as a kid and continues to do so even now. When she could walk better, we’d take the train “up London” as she used to say, and lose ourselves in the wonderful chaos and clamor of places like Borough Market, Covent Garden and the Southbank. Despite not having much formal education, my nan’s a voracious reader and a lover of classical literature, especially Dickens, perhaps the greatest ever chronicler of historic London life. Her love of London, the city she grew up in and has immense pride in, rubbed off on me as a child and together we’d read Dickens’ evocative descriptions of the ‘Big Smoke’ and its colorful, pungent and often bloody history.
We get along well and I find it much easier to speak to her than I do with those in my own age group. She’s experienced everything in life, from living in grinding East-End poverty to being traumatised throughout her childhood by Nazi bombs being dropped over London. While others in my family will yawn during her frequent nostalgic reminiscences about playing in the rubble of war-torn Walthamstow, I can sit and listen to her for hours. She’s like opening a window to the past and hearing of her hard life gives me some perspective on just how trivial my problems are in comparison. In return for her stories, I keep her topped up with lashings of tea and custard tarts from the local bakery. An afternoon spent sipping Darjeeling and hearing her yap in her brash Cockney accent for hours on end is a joy to me.
That said, my nan and I quite different in our habits. She’s devoutly religious, prays twice a day and attends mass every week. I’m a humanist with a penchant for Buddhism (an evil form of godless idol worship in the eyes of many old-school Catholics like nan). We’re both pretty suspicious of each others’ religious habits and generally do best to avoid any discussion concerning God or the afterlife. We wouldn’t want to fall out now, would we?
Nan also rarely strays from the traditional and dreary English staple of meat and two veg, while I cook with a plethora of spices and ingredients alien to someone who grew up in the era of rationing. When I’m out cooking perhaps with a bit of garlic or chili, she’ll complain of the “strange foreign smell” emanating from the kitchen. Once, I cooked her a korma, perhaps the mildest curry in existence and she complained of a bad stomach for a week. Even a bowl of lentils gives her the collywobbles!
Of an evening, we will sit down together and watch the news, invariably bemoaning the world and how “blimmin’ depressin’” it all is. Before bed, I feed our neighborhood fox. Nan buys him cheap cuts of bacon and value eggs. We’re both dappy on animals and cannot go a day without completing our feeding rituals. I usually make her a cocoa and then hed upstairs to bed. She often stays downstairs and reads into the early hours. Unusually for an elderly person, she’s a real night owl with an Oscar Wilde-like disdain for chirruppy morning people. I like that, but unfortunately I have to get up for my early start. Often she’ll be creeping up to bed just as I’m waking up!
While my life may seem mediocre to many, I wouldn’t change it for anything. My nan and I are both very eccentric characters with a shared love of literature which is why I guess we get on so well together. Most importantly, living with nan means I can be me, my authentic autistic self. She has absolutely no qualms about my special interests, rituals and routines. Nan may be 83, but she’s way cooler than anyone else I know and living with her is an absolute pleasure.
Tom is a 28-year-old writer from the UK. He grew up on the outskirts of London and was diagnosed in his early twenties with Asperger Syndrome. His younger brother Jack has severe autism and has limited language. After two years teaching English in China, Tom now plans to work in education in his native Britain.
Other blogs by Tom Clements:
An Autistic Love Story
The Aspergian Sense of Style
The Autistic Buddha – my unconventional path to enlightenment