My mother was never given to open sentiment. A strong woman, raised by a mother without a ready supply of hugs or comfort, her most poignant words were spoken after Granddad died: “I never saw my father’s legs.”
His bones have rested beneath the ground some thirteen years now, but that’s not the way he would tell it.
There was usually an elephant, when Granddad spoke: two, in fact. There was the colourful, imposing beast that his words would conjure up, lowering its trunk to proffer a ride. There was also the shape beneath the blanket: my grandfather’s legs, his untold story.
Granddad was a prisoner of war for several years in WW2. Some stories he would share, along with his usual embellishments. The guard’s dog, a German Shepherd (of course), who magically vanished the day fresh rations were discovered. Other stories, darker stories, were never told. Vague hints of circumstance would arise from time to time, from the always trousered legs to the rare shadows on his face, giving a macabre child’s imagination something to play with – but that elephant never took on discernible substance.
Granddad had an eye for the light, the humorous, in any situation, and that inheritance was freely plundered during our childhood. The ageing Scottish voice, expressing any exclamation in his distinctive way, can still be summoned at will. His laugh, with a slight rasp from the incessant smoking, was always full, never feigned or moderated. I remember, distinctly, bouncing on his knee as a child, to his enthusiastic rendition of “Gee up Neddy,” which now makes me cry. Being Granddad, it was a distinctive take on the lyrics, which Google doesn’t recognise:
Gee up Neddy, to the fair,
We’ll have ham and eggs when we get there;
A penny whip and a farthing crop,
Gee up Neddy to the butcher’s shop!
As emphysema and age advanced, Granddad continued to write his story. He maintained a driver’s license by judiciously cheating on the eye test: on walking into the examination, he would memorise the lower lines of the chart, ready to recite from a distance for the overly trusting Doctor.
Dangerous, perhaps; even with Huntly traffic. He needed the license, though, to maintain his second greatest love.
Gran and Granddad’s house was strategically placed to support this passion: a hundred metres from the Huntly Fire Station, and its piercing alarm. As the klaxon shrieked, Granddad would be at the wheel, ready to shadow the appliances to their target. Fire was his fascination, from the weekly incinerator smoking away in his garden, to the drooping cigarette smouldering in his mouth. He had a boy’s unfettered love of flame, which never seemed to age. I never got to see him witness a “real” fire, on his famous rubbernecking forays, but I can hear his phe-phew whistle coming out of those smiling, cracked lips, and see his gleeful squint as the flames creep skywards.
Granddad, in all his laughter and warmth, was an unlikely candidate to introduce me to Death.
He never seemed frail. Thin, yes. Aged, yes. But he held a presence far beyond the man seated in the red recliner in the corner. When he spoke, when he wove his stories, he was far larger than life.
In Waikato hospital, he could hardly speak. I remember the grey corridors, no fire to sap the chill. I remember him lying in the bed, a mask over his face as he struggled to breathe. Family members milled around in groups, with that helplessness only hospitals can bring. Capable women and men, lifetimes of experience. But nothing to do in the face of mortality.
I don’t remember him managing a sentence in the hospital, let alone a story. In his grey eyes was something unfamiliar, a trace of fear. I remember the Priest arriving, inviting my brother and me to stay, to assist with the Anointing of the Sick. I don’t remember if it was still called The Last Rites. I remember praying along with the Priest, using the archaic form of the Hail Mary. I’ve always prayed that version since, although I only just remembered why.
I remember the last words I spoke to Granddad in the hospital, as we left for the evening. “See you later, Granddad.”
But I didn’t.
I don’t remember my shock the next day, when the news came. I do remember seeing my mother in disbelief and denial. She rocked back and forth, reaching out to us kids, to our father, “He’s dead. My Dad’s dead.”
When they brought his body home, I remember the visit. His face looked different. Still Granddad, but the wrinkles less pronounced, the animation gone. His nose, I remember most of all, thrust out more sharply than I recalled, without his face shifting with laughter and life around it.
Into his cold hands, my uncles placed his Holy Book: the latest Best Bets racing guide, with some sure winners picked out. The visiting Priest didn’t find the comparison terribly amusing, but I’m sure Granddad did.
I remember the funeral. I stood beside my Great Aunty, wearing a lapel pin crucifix I’d received for my Confirmation. A dozen priests and a couple of Bishops stood among the mourners, alongside family, friends, clients and comrades. The celebrant, a younger priest, also knew Granddad: he lost it a couple of times during the ceremony. There was a Granddad-shaped hole in the room, and everybody’s grief flowed endlessly into it.
At the graveside, buglers played The Last Post, and everyone lost it all over again. Choosing a flower to drop into the grave, I remember the sadness oscillating into numbness and back, as the reality hit home. No more jaunty whistles to express surprise. No more elaborate tales, spun on the backs of elephants. No more Gee Up Neddy. No more Granddad. No more.
I remember. Being wrong.
As I think of him now, thirteen years on, I’ve gained other perspectives on his life. Like anyone else, Granddad had other dimensions, not all so rosy. He quietly ran with and tacitly supported the prejudices of his time and place, the racism and other ugly faces of society, the need to overlook and prevent scandal and never challenge taboos.
But the Granddad I knew lives on too. Remembering his funeral, a grown man bawls his eyes out. Remembering the hospital, the house, the sobs become wrenching, physically moving. Remembering further back, to a man who gave his grandchildren the gift of magic, the gifts of imagination and speech, the tears become smiles, become laughter.
I hold the memories, and they teach me about death.
I open myself to the memories and bring my ideal Granddad, my Granddad, back to life.
Just like he taught me.
I’ll never solve the mystery of my grandfather’s legs. And that’s okay now, because the mystery is enough.