On August 16th, it will be twenty years since the death of my paternal Grandad. Now in my early 30s, I am three times the age I was then; but like these things tend to be, as a life event it is fairly etched in my mind.
I remember what felt like days as scores of people came through the house to pay their respects. I remember begrudgingly playing exam pieces on the piano in the background. I remember my aunt getting disproportionately worked up when we ran out of doilies. I remember getting disproportionately worked up myself as we sang Thine Be The Glory at the funeral service. I remember my dad sagging and breaking down as he tried to thank everyone for coming in the hall afterwards. I remember clocking my cousin Johnny twice as we played cricket up the garden afterwards.
He probably had it coming.
But mostly, I remember the immensely sad sensation that this alternately quiet, stern, generous, mischievous, no-nonsense, rumpled man was now hidden forever beneath some freshly-dug Tyrone earth.
These days, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see the effect he had generally in shaping my own character. We recently got to know an older couple who knew my grandparents very well, and they have frequently enjoyed reminding me of my resemblance to him, in both positive and not-so-positive ways!
As the eldest grandchild, I feel guilty that I perhaps knew this man more fully than my sister or cousins, although I know for certain that he would not and did not play favourites. For most of them, he may be a more distant figure, and I find that a sad thought too because I have so many meaningful memories.
I remember the smell of his shirts and his square spectacles. We were compadres in short sightedness; dad was similarly shortsighted, but insisted on contact lenses so to my mind had cheated the system.
I remember cruising around in his Rover, running whatever errands were before us. His flat cap habitually lay across the back seat, and I hold it somewhat responsible for the line of caps I would have welded to my own heat until well into my teens.
I remember kicking the football around in the top garden. Dad was too hard to play against; as I do now with my own boys, you want to remind them that you’re still better than them, and vainly convince yourself that this will always be the way of things! Grandad had no such hang ups. We would frequently stay at the house until Match of the Day came on at the weekends, despite the late hour; three generations of Man United fans trying to follow everything over the hubbub.
I remember learning – and then being frequently thrashed – at draughts. Real men play draughts.
I remember as he jokingly tried to teach the spelling of the Ulster-Scots word ‘pechin’. “P-e-double-ech-i-n…”
That very specific sense of humour has lasted at least three generations as well.
I remember his demonstration of the best place to pee around the back of the garage so as to avoid Granny’s stern glances out of the kitchen window.
I remember the wonder of turning a fruit crate into a little treehouse.
I remember thinking the large box that appeared in the living room was going to be a computer. I remember the disappointment when it turned out to be a globe.
I love that globe.
I remember the scrutiny of school reports, and the questions around what we had learnt today. That’s an interesting one, because at the time I felt he was the stern grandparent; in hindsight, I’ve realised that our granny was the true driving force behind our hereditary family quests for over-achievement; I think Grandad cared, but it was more about the character rather than the outcome.
He detested laziness. He detested timewasting. He detested ’90s childrens’ cartoons and naff pop music.
I remember tripping down to the front gate to nosy into the bread van. I remember the agony over which sweets to pick. I remember the joy as he later revealed the extra Fruit Pastilles stashed in the house anyway, and the orange hard candies to suck for an age.
I remember seeing him the last time. I don’t remember the decline as the cancer aggressively took hold; I don’t remember much at all. But, through tears, I remember the sight of this now-small man, full of wires and tubes, reaching out and taking hold.
I remember the impact as our parents sat around us in our kitchen, early in the morning, to tell us he was gone.
I find it strange that even now I am so moved by the memory of someone that, in some senses, I barely knew. There are large swathes of his life I know nothing of. I devour the stories others are able to tell me, because like most of us, so much of what we know of our parents and grandparents is in the relationship and shared experiences, and that which predates those is largely lost upon us.
Yet I know that so much of his legacy is in how he shaped his household, his children, his grandchildren. He is in my frame and my posture; my hands and my eyesight; my temper and my hunger for knowledge. I believe he’s in my faith and my principles as well. He’s in my father’s tone and my sister’s facial expressions, and so much of his memory is quietly preserved in the house which my granny still occupies, and the fierce love she has for all who regularly pass through it.
I have not always followed his path, but I hope he would be satisfied with that which I have taken; the goal and the endpoint will ultimately be the same, and I look forward to joining him there. In the meantime, I know that if I can foster a relationship and character within my own children and grandchildren which emulates that which I gained from him, I will have made a good thing.
I remember he made good things.