It’s been a year since I said a fond farewell to my grandfather. Gramps. Dead at the age of 91, 5 months and sixteen days – a perfectly adequate age to have reached.
He was a great man, my Gramps. Mr Ronald Ernest Drew. Ron to most. Initials R.E.D. There’s a story about those initials, somewhere in the deepest parts of my memory…a car, a registration plate ending RED, bought specifically for those three letters…or was it just a long-harboured hope to one day have that registration plate? I don’t fully recall, but I know somewhere there is a story about a car and the letters R.E.D.
It’s a sad thought, in my mind, that these stories fade. Replaced in our memories by newer things, more urgent thoughts or less important items – my own head is disconcertingly full of song lyrics, lines from plays, and factoids that will only ever be useful at an obscure pub quiz (did you know, for example, that the ploughman’s lunch served in pubs across England has nothing to do with ploughmen, but was invented by the Cheese Bureau in the 1950s as a marketing ploy? Well, now you do…).
I wish I could remember the full tale of the car and the letters R.E.D. Because it’s an important story: not important in the grand scheme of the universe, but for my little part of the world – the little part in which Gramps resides – it’s hugely important.
Because ultimately, and shamefully, we only exist in this world as long as the tales about us are remembered. And I guess we can’t all be a Shakespeare or an Elvis or a Darwin…
Gramps’ physical footprint on Earth is now confined to his name in the book at Salisbury Crematorium, a reasonably thin collection of photographs in my parents’ attic, and the memories of him that reside in the heads of those who knew him. My generation of the family – me, my brother, my two cousins – will be the last generation to carry those memories. And yes, potentially we each have some sixty-odd years left on the planet, but when we’re all gone Gramps will all but disappear.
You, ‘the reader’, won’t have known Gramps (with the exception of those family members and old friends who happen to read this!) so let me tell you a little about him.
He was, in many ways, an ordinary man. He lived an ordinary life, at least he did in the years that I knew him. Before I knew him, he had a more eventful existence – off to the navy aged 19, then after the war a ‘beat cop’ (at which point he met my Nan – a wonderful lady, I’ll write about her someday) then the manager of a tobacconist shop. Quite a varied career. But during the years in which his life and mine coincided, he was very much like any other retiree of his generation. He followed The Archers, liked going on a drive through the countryside, enjoyed a roast dinner on a Sunday, did a spot of gardening, always had a pack of choc ices in the freezer, listened to the Queen’s speech every Christmas and (in his older years) grumbled at the state of the youth that traipsed through his neighbourhood. The very picture of an ‘old man’.
Of course, to me, he was so much more. And while all the things listed above are true, they are by no means the first things that spring to mind when I think of Gramps. Instead I remember a day at the beach as a child, paddling at the edge of the water as he ran past and dove headfirst into the sea, popping up some 20 seconds later beyond the waves and grinning like a schoolboy. I remember an imaginary dog called Fido that sat by Gramps’ chair and barked for our entertainment in a ventriloquist dummy’s ‘woof’. Gramps liked to paint (even taking up an art course in his eighties to renew his skills) and would coach me in my own attempts, telling me I must develop a ‘signature’ in my pictures, his own signature being three silhouetted birds in flight that appeared without fail in every painting he ever did. He loved gadgets: he had an iPad and a smartphone before I did and, incredibly, signed up for WhatsApp aged 90! He was a wildlife nut with a special fondness for birds, his garden filled with bird feeders and baths and scatterings of nuts and seeds. And I will never forget the day – horrifying at the time, and hilarious in hindsight – that I queued, aged eighteen, in my local chemist clutching a pack of XL Tena Man pants, having politely asked my grandparents if they needed anything from the shops.
These are the kinds of things that make up a person, these little moments, and they are the memories of Gramps that I carry; they keep him ‘alive’, and they are stories that I cherish.
If you’ve read this far, I thank you. You’ve allowed me to share a few brief memories of a man I loved. Real memories, not stories made up for your enjoyment, but genuine pieces of a human existence.
I believe we are very good, these days, at forgetting to remember. We absorb so many things: from the news, from our phones, from magazines, from television. We have instant and somewhat unfettered access to what’s going on in the world, what the ‘celebrities’ are up to, and the never-ending content of Netflix and YouTube. Sometimes I think we are so drowned in content from outside that we run out of time to focus on the content we store inside. Before the era of television and smartphones and Playstations, people would talk to each other and tell stories and pass on wisdom. It’s something I am determined to do more of: the modern world is fantastic, but I plan to strike a balance between ‘new world’ content and ‘old world’ content. I’m setting myself a challenge: for each new piece of knowledge I gain – from the news, or from social media, or a book or a conference or the big wide world of Google…I’m going to write down a memory, or a piece of knowledge from the past – passed down by a grandparent, or learned at school, or remembered from my childhood.
Hopefully, that way, the ‘old world’ in me won’t be nudged out by the ‘new world’ I live in. And, perhaps, people like Gramps may stay alive a little longer in the stories I tell.