Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The loveliest Rumble

One of my fondest hopes is that every girl has a Granddad like mine. While he was alive he lived in England, so my opportunity to see him was very limited. But when I was able to spend time with him, I felt like he and I grabbed as much from those days as possible, they were very, very special.

At one point, I think I was two or three, my family moved from Germany to England. My father finished his tour of duty in the army and went from being a soldier to being a Milkman (many hilarious stories here). We lived there for just a few years, but because the economy was doing poorly my parents made the tough decision for my father to re-enlist. We were sent back to Germany. My Granddad came to visit once and we returned to England for a wedding, not long before our family was moved to the U.S. in 1972.

I remember on holidays and birthdays my mother would have us write letters and draw pictures for him (my Nana died in 1968, while we lived in England). At that time phone calls were extraordinarily expensive, so when the chance came, phone calls were quick, usually with the five kids shouting “we love you” in the background. Though the memory of those calls are vague, I have a memory of a happy rumbling voice chuckling at some random thought I had chosen to share, and the assurance that he loved me too.

In 1985 my brother, the one who teased me about reading romance novels, decided to go to England to visit our relatives. I jumped on board and went with him. Thirteen years had passed since we had come face to face with most of our relatives in England. My aunt and uncle met my brother and me off the train and whisked us to a great-aunt and uncle’s house. The house was full of all sorts of relatives, but my Granddad was absent. Someone told us we were going to see him the next day. Who told us I do not know because between the sleep deprivation, the inability to understand much of what was being said, and hunger, my brother and I dissolved into laughter at regular intervals. I just remember feeling as if we were parrots, because we kept repeating the same word over and over, “Pardon?”

Finally we were allowed to get some sleep. I was to stay with my Great Aunt Beryl and Uncle Len while my brother went off to stay with our Uncle John and Auntie Barbara. In my sleepy stupor I had no idea whether we were in a city or farming community, what my room looked like, or where the “loo” was. My disorientation was complete. At some point in the morning I woke to the sound of birds I’d never heard and my only thought was, “Are we on a farm?” before drifting back to sleep.

How much longer I slept, I cannot remember. I only know that I woke to the sound of excited chatting. I leapt out of bed, found the “loo” and then went to the bathroom to complete an abbreviated version of my morning ablutions.

Following the voices to the lounge I heard my Great Aunt Beryl say, “I told you I’d call when she woke up.” To this day it brings tears to my eyes when I remember hearing that happy rumbling voice say impatiently to her, “I thought she’d be up by now.” (Now that I think of it, there was a bit of a Wallace and Gromit cadence to his speech.) This was followed by what would become a familiar sound, the sound of his tongue popping against his teeth.

I have to admit I was very nervous about seeing him. So, I pushed open the lounge door with my heart beating really fast and feeling sweaty. My Granddad spun around to look at me. He just stared at me, so I dashed a look at my aunt, who had an enormous smile on her face as she watched her brother’s face… watched as I went from being a seven year old to twenty. When I looked back at him I could see the confusion on his face, but it was quickly replaced by a huge smile as somehow the features he remembered grew from a child to an adult.

As he gave me a very tight hug, he said something, and I said, “Pardon?”

It turns out it wasn’t the accent that was the problem but the tears that were in his eyes and the choke in his throat that were causing the confusion. To give us a moment alone my aunt did what all British people do in times of emotional upheaval, she went and made tea.

My Granddad and I very quickly covered the basics; health, the flight over, the train ride, the car ride, how my parents were, how my siblings were, and when should we go see my brother. Then there was a bit of silence. We didn’t know each other, and we were both trying to figure out how to move forward. I am here to tell you that drinking tea does solve a lot of problems. In this case it gave us something to do.

I quickly gave my brother a call and told him we’d be down soon. Not twenty minutes later, my Grandfather repeated the experience by having his grandson grow from an eight year old to twenty one right before his eyes.

Honestly I cannot remember what we did for the rest of that visit; I just remember that we made plans for the next day to go to Fritton Lake ( We were happy to go, having no idea of what there was to do at Fritton Lake. It turns out to be a great place where you can row boats, play golf, hike, play on the playground, ride ponies… I will risk embarrassing my brother by sharing that the singular most laugh-out-loud-until-you-have-to-pee-but-you’re-too-busy-crying moments of my life was watching my 21 year old brother ride a pony. His feet were literally less than a foot off the ground. I have a picture to prove it and will never give it up!

I think it was seeing this that helped my Grandfather realize that we were adults and not children. It must have been a bittersweet moment.

I have the fortune to say that all my male relatives fought and returned from the battle of WWII. As a result of having several ships shot out from underneath him, my grandfather was deaf. So, at first our relationship was the result of what we could learn about each other while shouting and misunderstanding each other’s accents (at times).

Upon reflection I think that something very beautiful came from those obstacles. Did my Granddad know my deepest hopes and fears? No. Did my Granddad know of my triumphs and struggles? No. Nor did I really know much about his strengths and weaknesses, achievements or regrets. But somewhere along the way we learned to be comfortable with each other; we also learned to have a relationship that included a great deal of quiet time; thus we had quite a bit of time to observe each other.

There were many sunny afternoons spent digging in the soil in his backyard; picking peas and beans, tying up gladiolas, drinking beer he had brewed in his garage. There were cool evenings spent sitting in his lounge in front of the fire reading books he’d picked out for me at the library (he picked out mystery novels, his wife picked out romances) while sipping tea and munching on the stockpile of treats he would buy, knowing we didn’t have the same things at home.

We shared a lot of giggles over my dubious glances at the particulates floating in my beer, his stealing the much hated brussel sprouts off my dinner plate or hikes we would take across graveyards; the latter a result of my odd obsession with finding the oldest grave stone. We spent hours sitting then walking then sitting and walking some more, slowly making our way down the beach, poking at rocks and shells. On those days he would take me out for ice cream at a place called ‘Celie’s.’ (My family nickname.)

We shared many tender moments. One of my fondest recollections is of him holding my hand to make sure I crossed the road safely. I was twenty five, he was using a cane, and we were on our way out of the pub. But he was making sure I was safe.

Perhaps the most emotional conversation I’ve ever had was the last afternoon I saw him, in the summer of 1990. In the four trips I took to England between 1985 to 1990 we never talked of death. But that last afternoon he talked to me about life for him and my uncle after my Nana died; we talked about where he was to be buried; we talked about how much he had wished my family had never left England but that he could see it had been for the best. He had worried many years about my mother “with all those children.” It was a terribly serious conversation, but I listened as calmly as I could because it was clear he needed me to understand these parts of him.

In October of 1991 my Granddad died in his sleep. It took me quite some time to absorb it since we lived thousands of miles apart and there was quite a bit of time between visits. It wasn’t until I went to England in 1995 and my uncle took me past my Granddads home that I realized he didn’t live there anymore. It took me that long to find comfort in the knowledge that he’d died in his sleep, at home. We then went to the cemetery to visit the graves of my relatives. After a little sprucing up of all the headstones, my uncle showed me something truly beautiful. In my grandparent’s headstones is a place for vases of flowers. When you pull the vase out, there are pink stones naturally heart shaped that my sister had sent to be placed there. They quietly and lovingly rest on the earth close to them.

Lately there seems to be much need to figure out the timeline of life and the purpose behind those issues which we flesh and blood beings must accept. Rattling around in my head, in those quiet moments, I keep returning to the purpose of quiet; the opportunity to reflect, to absorb, to appreciate, to simply hear and experience the qualities of being alive. I love that I have so many more moments where I exist in the present.

When I think of my Granddad I believe that the biggest gift I received from this relationship was much can be learned from observing, that there is more truth to be found in observations and actions than in the words. When he died I knew that we would never be separated by the barrier of hearing loss or distance. All the things we never knew about each other were discovered, because I believe that he is with me always. It is an issue of the heart. I held him dearly to me in life and I hold him as tightly today.

For me there is not greater feeling of peace than when I am with those I love and I am digging in the soil or walking on the beach. Amdist the fundamental elements of life that will continue to be here for longer than I can imagine. This is where I go to meditate.

Thanks for reading!!