Becoming a grandfather is fairly easy, one just needs to have a child and for that child to also have a child. Lots of men become grandfathers, but becoming one is not the achievement that a man should be recognised for. No, being a good grandfather, is what a man should be commended on.
What qualifies a man as a good grandfather? Sure, being able to turn a blind eye when your grandchild has pilfered yet another Fox’s Glacier Mint from your tin that you kept hidden away, is definitely an essential quality, but making your grandchild feel your unconditional love is, as the kids say these days, “the one.”
So let me tell you about my maternal grandfather. He was the only grandfather that I ever knew and luckily for me, he did an astounding job at it.
My grandad (as I called him) was born and brought up in Berkshire (a British county just west of London). One of five brothers, he left school and became a milkman in Reading.
He always looked back on his time as a milkman with great fondness as he stopped and chatted with each family on his round as he delivered their milk. Grandad would also stop and have a quick game of football with the kids out on the street and would be offered numerous cups of tea on his way round all the houses. It was a sociable job for my grandad and he was a very sociable person.
Eventually though, he changed career and became a farmer. He was given a lovely house to live in with a huge garden as part of his wage and this became the family home that my mother was brought up in and I spent so much time growing up in.
The Tractor Driver
Now, I have numerous favourite memories of my grandad, but his job as a farmer leads me to my first one. Do you have any idea how cool it was as a kid to have a grandad that drove a tractor? Unless, he was a spaceman it basically could not have been cooler. When my brother and I stayed with my grandparents over the summer holidays, every day at the same time my grandad purposely drove past the front of the house. My brother and I would excitedly run down the garden path waving and shouting at him as he casually chugged past in his huge tractor, waving and grinning back at us. It was truly the highlight of the day. My grandad, the tractor driver.
An Ox with a Missing Digit
My next favourite memory of my grandad was his missing finger. You see my grandad was a tough man. A gentle softie one minute, making children giggle and joyfully playing with kittens, and a hardy man who wouldn’t be defeated easily the next. He lost his finger in a chainsaw accident and he was left with a kind of useless lump where his finger should’ve been. As a child, I was fascinated by it. It never freaked me out or disturbed me. After all, it was just my grandad’s missing finger. He didn’t let a little thing like a missing finger get in his way. He carried on farming, doing DIY, gardening and driving like a missing finger was as inconvenient as a mere paper cut.
My grandad also survived a broken hip, a heart attack, a triple bypass, bronchitis, a car accident and lived into his nineties. When he had a health check in the last year of his life, the doctor said that, amazingly, his internal organs were in perfect working order. He could see him living on for years to come.
Once, when my family all ate the same meal together and every single member of the family, bar one, came down with bad food poisoning the next day, can you guess which sole member wasn’t affected? As if eating undercooked chicken would derail a sturdy man like my grandad. The man was built like an ox.
Don’t Mouse Around
My next memory explores somewhat, how my grandad was not a man to be messed with. One day, my brother and I were playing in my grandparents’ garden. Their garden was surrounded by the fields that my grandad farmed on, so as you can imagine their garden would sometimes have some unwanted visitors. On this occasion, a cute little field mouse appeared. His little beady eyes looked at my brother and I as he scuttered around the garden, his little tail waving about behind him. My brother and I were quite excited by this discovery of a field mouse. We ran inside shouting at the tops of our voices, “GRANNY, GRANDAD, THERE’S A LITTLE MOUSE IN THE GARDEN.”
Unfortunately, for this cute little mouse, it was the part of the garden near the kitchen. “Right,” my grandad said, “he won’t be there for much longer.” And with that my grandad reached for his shotgun and went marching outside like a man on a mission. I don’t remember hearing the shot, but I know it happened. I think I somehow blocked that bit out. But, I learnt not to mention to my grandad if we ever saw any other unwanted guests in the garden again.
A Gentle Man
That said, he was a gentle man. He loved children. I think he preferred the company of children to adults sometimes. At my paternal grandmother’s funeral, he spent the whole of the wake keeping all the children entertained and making them laugh so all the adults could relax. I remember being in awe of him. At this point in my life, he was my only grandparent. I was so proud that this man who had a natural gift with children was my grandfather. I realised at this moment that seemingly one of my grandad’s favourite things to do was to make children laugh, which he did with such ease.
Despite the incident with the field mouse, he loved animals, too. Animals seemed to gravitate towards him. Our unsociable cat would curl up next to my grandad as soon as he arrived at our house and sat down. He then wouldn’t move until my grandad left. Most dogs would instantly become his best friends too. And he also knew how to talk to horses. He was at one with animals and always seemed to take great joy in their company. This is something I am so grateful to have inherited from him.
Can I also just mention the time we were playing boules in my parents’ garden? After the game, I caught my grandad (who I have already mentioned liked playing football in his youth), flawlessly chipping one of the heavy boules over his shoulder. I should also probably mention that he was well into his eighties at that point.
For the last ten years or so of his life he suffered from Alzheimer’s (the cruelest possible disease that can seriously go fuck itself). What was even crueller was my grandad’s tenacious longevity. By the time he died, he didn’t know who anyone was. I imagine he probably didn’t even know who he was.
Before he went into a care home, I visited him in the family home one last time with my mother. He was quite ill at this point, but he still vaguely knew who I was. As my mother went into the kitchen to make some tea, he had a moment of clarity.
“In life, Hayley, you have to remember two things,” he started. “Always do the right thing and don’t pay any mind to what people think of you. If you always do those two things, you’ll do all right in life.” He then went back to being silent and just staring. I was astounded, but it was and probably will always be the best piece of advice I have ever been given.
As we left my grandad’s house that night it was dark, but my mum pointed across the fields. She was showing me the line of planes all queuing up to land at Heathrow. The whole time I had been regularly visiting this house over all those years, I had never noticed the constant queue of planes waiting to land.
It would be a small moment to many, but to me it was significant. My grandad, ill and now so small, was coming towards the end of his life. I stood at my grandad’s home, somewhere I’d spent so much of childhood, and, close by, something so much bigger was happening every day, all day. The juxtaposition was discernible. The eeriness was that they weren’t so close that you could hear them. No, it was the silence of this magnificent operation occurring in suspension that for some reason made me even sadder to leave my grandad there that night. My grandad’s life was winding down whilst the world still turned. I think I knew somehow it was the last time I’d be in that family home.
Which leads me onto the last time I saw him. I was visiting him in the residential care home that he now lived in. Before we got there my mum warned me that he was quite poorly now, that he just wasn’t himself and that I shouldn’t be alarmed by how he was. Apparently, nobody could ever get much of a response from him. As I walked into his room, I had prepared myself for the worst. However, upon entering he looked up at me and smiled. He had no idea who I was, but seemed to be pleased to see me nonetheless.
We took him out for a walk in his wheelchair. After spending a bit of time with him we dropped him off in the music room where a music class was about to start. “Oh,” he said to me. “Are you going? Give us a hug then.” We hugged for a long time.
As I started to walk off, I looked back at him and saw that he was waving and grinning at me, just like how he did when he used to drive past the family home in his tractor when I was a child. For a very brief moment, I saw my old grandad again. He was still waving and grinning at me. As we walked to the car, my mum said she couldn’t believe how bright he’d seemed and how she hadn’t seen him like that for a long time. I knew then I wouldn’t see him again. I almost didn’t want to see him again as I wanted that to be my lasting memory of him. And it was.
A Grandad’s Grandest Legacy
At my brother’s wedding, some ten years before my grandad died and before the Alzheimer’s had really kicked in, I was saying goodbye to my grandad at the end of the evening. He gave me such a long squeeze. As we broke away he had the biggest grin on his face and his eyes were almost full of tears. They weren’t sad tears. I knew they were happy tears of pride. Without saying a single word, I knew how much my grandad loved me. Words are meaningless most of the time. It’s the actions of a person and the way a person looks at you that gives meaning. I always felt nothing but love and warmth from my grandad.
In short, my grandad was everything a grandad should be: loving, warm, and so much fun.
He left behind three children, five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He may have felt like the lucky one, but in fact it was us that were the lucky ones.
The photo at the top of the page is of my Grandad in 2010 with my daughter. She is the youngest of his great-grandchildren and as he died in 2013, this meant he got to meet all of his great-grandchildren. You can also see the lump that was once a finger in the photo too.
This post was originally posted on the You Are Awesome website on 28th September 2017.