Saturday, June 28, 2014

Farewell to my beloved grandma

Grandma's surprise visit to us when we were on holiday in Wales

In a way, I'm a very lucky man to be here in my forties and only just now having to deal with the death of my beloved grandmother in the last month.  But to be honest, I was a fortunate person indeed to have her in my life, regardless of the duration.

She was such an important person in my life, that much has never been in doubt.  However, the flood of memories that her passing brings gives time to reflect on my time with her, and the influence she leaves still to this day.

As a kid, going to spend the weekend with my grandparents was always an exciting adventure.  It was only an hour in the car, but it seemed an epic journey.  She would always be there to great us on our arrival, always smiling and ready with a gigantic hug and kiss for each and everyone of us.

She's always have something for me.  This was where the excitement began.  There would be a couple of cardboard boxes, some scissors, some pens and all the tape I could ever need waiting for me in the kitchen/dining room.  Each time the boxes would be different ... I looked through them, and when I had some ideas, would get to work.

That pile of cardboard and tape could be fashioned into anything my imagination desired.  Sometime it was a helmet, sometimes a garage for my toy cars, or secret space base for my Star Wars figures.  The possibilities were endless.  It was exhausting work, and thankfully there would be a glass of milk and some Animal Crackers for me when I needed a break.

Grandma loved to watch me at work, and for me to show her all around my inventions.  As I was at work, so was she cooking usually the some stew for our tea in her pressure cooker.  Grandad usually worked Saturdays, and when he came in from the pit, I'd start to tidy up, as we got ready for dinner, taking out the folding table putting the cloth over and setting places.

Grandad liked to joke that Grandma wasn't a great cook, and I'm ashamed to say he was right.  The stew would often be overcooked and over-peppered.  It was years before I realised that brussel sprouts weren't supposed to be yellow!  There was all of us, and often my Uncle Melvin, occasionally with his "girlfriend" Sarah (now his wife).

After dinner, Grandad would put on a record, and get to work on the dishes.  Then we'd drive the car to a nearby garage, walking back to the house with him.  Then on to the evenings entertainment - usually first would be a slide show with Grandad manning the projector, and maybe even with a reel of film.  Without doubt my favourite would be one where we'd gone to see a Wombles carnivale (and the story would always go that I had tried to run away with Madame Cholet).

After that, Grandad would power up the electronic organ - usually we'd be allowed to take one of the books of music and have a go on it.  Afterwards, he'd play and sing for us.

More than anything, my grandparents house was one filled with music.  Neither of them did anything without it being worthy of a song.  Grandma sang when she was a cook (thankfully we was a better singer than a cook), Grandad sang as he did the dishes (and he has one of the most impressive tenor voices I've ever heard), there were records like The Great Carouso being played or the organ recital.

In many ways being at my grandparents felt like living inside a musical.  You know when people say "the problem with musicals is that no-one would just break into song like that" ... well they did at my grandparents house.

All too soon, it would be time for bed, and me and my brother would willingly go up, squeezing into a single bed.  We'd go willingly, as Grandma always came with us, and we weren't really going to bed.  It was story time.  We'd squeeze into bed with Grandma, and she'd read us a book (often one of the Caspar books).  Then it was our turn.  Me, my brother and grandma would take turns telling each other stories - she'd keep asking "and what happened next".

Sunday mornings would start with me and my brother joining Grandma and Grandad in bed for hugs.  I remember always being fascinated by Grandma's dresser which included a recess surrounded by mirrors.  If you looking inside, there was a corridor stretching out to infinity in each direction.

A little like this

[It moved me that when my son was three, he was as fascinated as me by this dresser, but insisted that the mirror boys on the left "were naughty"]

We'd go down to start on getting breakfast ready.  Grandad would shave in the kitchen, singing as always, and filling the house with the smell of Old Spice, before ringing work, to get the status of the pit.  We'd then sit down to tea and oatcakes with cheese.

I'd sometimes cry, because I never wanted to leave.  I just wanted them to live next door to us, and see them every day.  They never spoiled us, except with attention.  Sometimes the people you love the most are those that just give you the tools, the space and the support to be creative.

That's just a slice of who my Grandmother was to us, but an important one.  She was the one who always encouraged us, always loved us, always was wowed by every invention and story.  And that love was unconditional - my mother said of us that we could be found by the police with a bloody knife standing over someone, and she'd go "they've got the wrong person".  Her love and faith especially in me was absolute - and I hate to say it, but as a teen or a young adult, I was unworthy of it.  But here's the thing about a love like that, if it's rare and unusual, you know how precious a thing it is.  And though you are unworthy of it, when you realise just how rare it is, you spend the rest of your life trying to make yourself worthy of it, even beyond death.

The week before I married in 1997, she was diagnosed with the early stage of Alzheimer's.  My funny, always slightly ditsy Grandmother became a little bit more eccentric each year.  But I learned how fragile her life was, and how important in the scheme of things a simple "I love you" could be.  I treasured every moment, such as walking arm in arm with her after my wedding, or the time we took my son to first visit her.  She fought hard, but in 2003, she needed to go into a care home.

Piece by piece, the Alzheimer's took her away.  From 2005 it was impossible to hold a conversation, then she could only recognise Cameron (thinking he was me).  It was heart-wrenching to loose her slowly.  Even when I last saw her, she was unable to do much but hold my hand.  But as she did so she sang, it was the smallest sign that despite everything that Alzheimer's had taken, the smallest piece of her remained.

And through it all the time was Grandad, he visited her every day.  People will tell you the greatest love story you'll ever know was Romeo and Juliet or even Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.  But to me it's my Grandad and Grandma.  Whatever Alzheimer's took, he never forgot who she was, visiting her every day and always felt blessed that she was his, on their 60th Wedding Anniversary describing himself as "the luckiest man in the world".  On their 50th Wedding Anniversary he made this clear to all, singing to her The Anniversary Song in a crowded restaurant, forcing all into stunned silence by the power of his voice, and reducing many, including myself to tears (I told you he was good).

It is only appropriate that as she breathed her last, he was at her side.  Holding her hand.

For a couple for whom music was such an important piece of their life, the music chosen for her funeral was faultless ..

Nat King Cole - Unforgettable

The happy couple - at the beginning

My grandparents with my son

At their 50th wedding anniversary

Their 60th wedding anniversary

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