Sunday, 25 July 2010

A Great Man

In the midst of Book Mania, life goes on. Although in some cases, it doesn't.

My grandfather died just over a week ago. He was 95 years old. He was amazing.

He was a pioneer in many ways. He was a staunch cradle catholic, but a radical one. He was a member of a group of radical Catholics who made a point of discussing and questioning their beliefs, and not always toeing the papal line. He had six children, and was always a hands-on dad. He shared housework and childcare equally with my grandmother, and never even considered there was another way of living life. His mother was a formidable woman, immensely intelligent and a feminist before her time. My favourite story about my father's childhood was always the one about how Grandad would line all six of them up on the kitchen table and clean hands, faces and knees in a production-line row.

He had various jobs, but eventually he trained as a teacher. He worked in the primary school at which Queenie's grandfather was the headmaster. Queenie and I discovered this by accident, when her father spotted my (surprisingly unusual) surname on the spine of my first novel, which she was proudly showing him ("my friend wrote this!"). Queenie's father, when he heard the news, described my grandfather thus: "A super good top bloke, albeit a bit eccentric ... he improved lots of children's lives." Grandad broke new ground by being the first teacher in a special unit designed to cater for children whose behavioural difficulties meant they couldn't survive in mainstream schooling. At the time this was a very new concept. But he never rated himself as a teacher and was always modest.

My grandmother - his wife - died when she was 80, 17 years ago. Towards the end of her life she became increasingly infirm, but Grandad did everything he could to keep her at home, and despite several stays in hospital she died at home. He looked after her like he had always looked after people. He was devoted to her. Grandma really was a little eccentric, and could be occasionally awkward, but I never saw him be anything other than patient and affectionate with her.

It was hard to believe he had been alive so long - he always seemed so young. I have video footage of him running around and chasing after my eldest son when he was a toddler, about six years ago. And I remember another day, a year or so after that, when he spontaneously started kicking a ball around a field with my son.

Towards the end he developed Alzheimers, but it wasn't obvious. He still had a lot to say about things that interested him, and he always played with children that crossed his path.

When I was little, I remember how he had a repertoire of tricks and games designed to entertain children. He could make a funny noise by squeezing his hands together. He had some clever magic trick involving string. He could make it seem like his hands and knees were topologically impossible by crossing his hands back and forth across his knees (blimey, that's hard to describe. If you've seen it done, you'll know what I mean). And he used to recite a strange little rhyme while moving his finger around in a slow spiral which ended up with a tickle and a poke to the midriff. I never forgot the words, and I always loved it. I've written it down below, and it looks almost indecent written down. It really ought to have been scary, but it never was. It was just wonderfully weird. I think that must have been because Grandad could never have been scary.

Eerie, eyrie, iggery um
Filthsome foulthsome dicksome John
Squeemy squirmy squangulum man
Squingulum squangulum

He had a very distinctive voice. I can close my eyes and hear it now. The closest I can think of is Patrick Moore, although Grandad was never posh. His voice was warm, and twinkly, and hugsome. I might miss his voice more than anything.

I just spent a few days at my parents' house, and understandably they are in turmoil. But shining through despite everything. I was worried that me and my two sons might just create more work for them, particularly as my oldest was quite ill and my youngest is at an age (just turned two) when he doesn't know the meaning of the word "quiet" and demands high levels of attention at all times. But they both found comfort in the company of their grandsons. There's nothing quite like being commanded by a bossy toddler to squish into a small shed and stand on chairs whilst nursing a teddy that is apparently a baby... to take your mind off your woes.

My mother's father, my other grandfather, had his 100th birthday party a few months ago. He is currently very ill in hospital. But he is still very much himself and within a day had learnt all the nurses' names. I'm thinking of him. He too is amazing.

Grandad's funeral is this Wednesday. I haven't cried properly yet. Apparently the priest is famous for being welcoming to children, which is just as well: Grandad died with nine great grandchildren, four of whom were born this spring, so it's lovely that he held out this long. I envisage myself standing in floods of tears while my youngest runs riot at my feet. Which I think Grandad would thoroughly approve of.


Sue Guiney said...

What a loss for you, but what a wonderful reminiscence about someone who obviously touched many lives. Would that we all could live so long and so well. I'll be thinking of you!

Queenie said...

I only met him once as far as I can remember - at my grandma's funeral - but he was a household name throughout my life. My main impression of him is of someone who radiated kindness.

looby said...

That's a lovely reminiscence Clare.

Megan said...

That's absolutely beautiful. My own MumsDad died before his first grandchild (my sister) was born; MumsMum died when I was six as did DadsMum so the only grandparent I have consistent memories of was DadsDad (known, quite terrifyingly as Graaawwwwndfather). How very, very lucky you and your children are to have such a long legacy of family love.

I'm so sorry you have lost him - my thoughts will be with you.