Join me today as I share a very precious memory of my beloved Grandfather…
The old man looked out to sea with a faraway look. The eyes, which once sparkled, were empty, but he retained something of his handsome youthful looks: His white hair swept gracefully over his head and his neatly clipped, white moustache a memory of the elegance of the 1940s. The white hair was tainted with a hint of yellow nicotine stains – a hangover from a time when smoking was associated with glamour – now it showed the strain of wartime memories.
CREDIT: Vale of Glamorgan
It was a sunny day when I took my Grandfather’s hand and walked along the Victorian seaside pier in the little town of Penarth in South Wales. I recalled how frightened I used to be of falling through the cracks in the boardwalk to the rolling waves on the pebbled beach below. He was always there to take my hand in his – which then seemed a world of safety. Now I felt helpless, not from fear, but from grief. My Grandfather’s spirit had flown away on the wind with the seagulls circling above – all that was left was an empty shell.
My Grandmother walked on his other arm – she was the only person he could still recognize. If she stepped out of sight for a moment Granddad would become anxious and ask repeatedly, “Ann, where’s Ann? Where is she? Where’s my Ann?” I sat comforting him, trying to explain she’d just gone to buy ice creams. My heart cried out for strength to reassure him everything was okay. The man I once looked up to for all the answers in the world was now a frightened child.
The Alzheimer’s had started three years ago and it was now getting increasingly hard for Grandma to care for him by herself – though she would never admit it. All the family described her as a ‘brick’ for she never complained. She got on with life – her blood running as strong as a river in flood. She would talk calmly to my Grandfather without patronizing him. She would talk of all the happy days they had together as though they were yesterday. She believed the memories were there in his head – somewhere.
Meanwhile, he continued to call out in exasperation, “Ann, where’s my Ann?”
She was enjoying a quiet moment being just herself, not the carer, the faithful wife in sickness and health, not the Grandmother or mother who had to keep her spirits up for her loved ones. I could hear a child complaining to his mother, “Mum, we’ve been waiting for ages. I’m hungry. I want an ice cream NOW!” To my Grandmother waiting in line was no inconvenience but a rare opportunity to be alone with her thoughts.
When my Grandfather caught sight of her returning his face looked like that of a lost child who has just been reunited with a parent. Her face beamed back a reassuring and genuinely loving smile but a furrowed brow revealed the strain she was feeling. We sat on the bench looking out to sea whilst devouring our ice creams. I looked at my Grandfather, he was peaceful again – a rare moment. The sun brought a touch of the old twinkle to his eyes. As I enjoyed the feeling of the smooth, vanilla cream cooling my mouth I wallowed for a moment in my childhood memories of my Grandfather.
I used to spend hours with him in his beloved garden. He would always be making something in his workshop in the garage or tending to his tomatoes, grapes and strawberries. His cheeks a permanent shade of red through overindulgence in tasting his home made red wine. Whenever we went to visit he would take us for a tour of his garden. First we’d visit the rose buses he tenderly cared for. My sister and I would delight in making perfume from the fallen rose petals. Then we’d walk up the limestone steps to the upper level of the garden where his glass-house stood. Walking into that glass-house was like entering another world. Winding vines seemed to cover the sky. Not old enough to drink the fruit of the vines we instead devoured a few of the grapes placed gently in our sweet smiling mouths. Our eyes would look up adoringly at our clever Grandfather. He would smile back with a peaceful look and that famous twinkle in his eye.
After our tour we’d run ahead of our Grandfather into the kitchen where my Grandmother would be cooking up a delightful roast dinner. We’d hug her knees and look up at her with laughing eyes. Grandfather would follow shortly and we’d see that look that adults give one another, which we could never quite understand, it was as though they were exchanging love in thin air.
My Grandmother’s hand touched mine – I was back in the present. She gave me a knowing look and I followed her eyes to see Granddad leaning against the pier looking out to sea.
“Grandma,” I said, “I will always remember Granddad telling me how much he loves the sea – why is that?”
“My dear Sarah, I think it is a place of escapism for him. Though I myself find the sea unnerving at times and treat it with the utmost respect.”
“Well,” I said with sad humor, “He has certainly found his escapism now.”
“Yes, he has my dear. But we must remember the person he truly is and whom we still see occasionally. Do you remember when I was in for my eye operation a few months ago? Your mother told him to dress smartly to visit me in hospital. He turned up on her arm wearing his white tuxedo! Bless him. He always was a true gentleman and a wonderful dancer. When we used to go away on cruises all the ladies would line up hoping to have a dance with him. Some evenings I would leave him to it and go to bed exhausted!”
“Yes, Grandma,” I smiled, “I do remember.”
Most of my Grandfather’s stories, which I’d sit listening to on his knee or curled up on the floor by his feet, were wartime tales or of his childhood. Tales from the war were far from sombre (those he kept hidden in the depths of his mind), on the contrary, his tales were often of his ‘way with the ladies’! I recall one such story about how he introduced a lady he’d met in a bar to ‘the wine’ of his country. He asked the barman to pour a wine glass of port and presented it to the lady. Little did she know it was port (and not a mere wine) with 40% pure alcohol in it! What a devil he was!
Born in Glasgow in 1915 he always had the fire and spirit of a Scotsman. He told me he’d have to run 5 miles across the fields to school each morning as a boy. On Sunday’s he was often caught playing by the stream rather than being in Church – so he was given the nickname ‘Black Archy’. He was the ‘naughty’ boy that everyone couldn’t help but love.
I loved the way he could relate to the mischievous nature of my childhood with his own stories. My parents, who I loved dearly, were the ones that had to be seen to be responsible and well behaved but my Grandparents were the ones who could reveal the magic of life and a side of naughtiness that made me feel a special bond with them. Like most children I believed in fairies, wizards and Father Christmas, but I also believed my Grandparents to be magical.
I shivered, the air was beginning to cool and a fresh sea breeze was rolling in. It was time to return to the warmth of my Grandparents home. We walked slowly back leaving the sea to its eternal motion. As we walked back I wanted to tell Grandma how much I admired her for everything she was doing for Granddad but couldn’t find the right words. Instead I just held her hand and told her how much I loved her. She had always been so loving and caring.
As children my sister and I had eagerly awaited the sound of the curtains on the landing being drawn open. It was a signal that Grandma was up and ready for breakfast with her two little grandchildren. We always felt privileged to have our own private time with her before our parents arose. Grandma would take Granddad breakfast in bed on a tray and my parents would enjoy a deserved lie in. She would always give us a glass of orange juice and boiled eggs with ‘soldiers’ (toast sliced into perfect egg dunking sized strips!). Then we’d sit up at the table like proper grown-ups and tell her all our news. We’d always be fascinated by the collection of dolls from around the world that she kept locked away in a glass display case – which only added to their magic and allure. A token of Granddad’s many overseas adventures.
Granddad was a real hero to us. Little did we know that he was a genuine unsung hero of World War II. It was in August 1996 that I found out. He passed away of a heart attack in the night. It was a blessing really – an escape from the torment of Alzheimer’s for him and his loved ones. He’d lived a long life, with some hard times but many very happy years too. Now at peace I imagined his spirit would be set free and his memories restored. His family left to finally grieve properly. The man we loved had physically passed now and the sadness of seeing the walking shell of the former man was no more. Now we could just reflect on the happy, good-times, and the memories of a man who was remarkable in so many ways.
Not for him the fierce pride in his military career, nor the regular reunions with old comrades over a glass of beer. Instead, he preferred to draw a veil of his exploits. After all, he was only doing his duty. In fact, his work as a Captain in the Royal Signals during the war was enough to earn him undying respect among the men he commanded, the appreciations of his superiors and the military equivalent of the MBE. He used to keep his medal hidden in a drawer.
Now whenever I’m by the sea, or lifting a shell to my ear to hear the sound of the waves, I remember him and know he’s close by. To me he was, and always will be, a magical man with a twinkle in his eye. With warm, red, cheerful cheeks, beautiful blue eyes and an understanding of children’s mischievous natures.
In my younger years he shared with me the love of a sweet tooth and in later years introduced me to the spirit of his country – whiskey. His spirit is forever with me. Time has healed the wounds of loss and my Grandmother and I would talk openly about our memories of him – keeping him alive forever in our hearts. Sadly, she too has now passed over, but I have faith they are now at peace together.
So if ever friends catch me with a cheeky smile and a twinkle in my eye as I look out across the sea they know where I am – in a world of escapism – out to sea with my beloved Grandfather.