remembering grandad

March 28th, 2009

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Just got a phone call from my sister to say that my grandfather has passed away. Apparently Mum was pretty upset when she phoned my sister, understandably, so I’m not sure when he died, just some time earlier today. And I’m not sure of Mum’s whereabouts, but I think it safe to assume that if she’s not yet in Auckland, she will be very soon. Last Thursday he was given 48 hours to live. 48 hours turned into a week and 2 days. I’m not sure what I feel right now. Sad, obviously. A little stunned, somehow. But I’ve been expecting this news for over a week now. Relief, yes, his suffering is over, he can rest now.

Anyway, the following is a little something I wrote a few days ago:

Remembering Grandad

It’s been a long time since I last spoke to Grandad, and even longer since I last saw him. Last time I saw him he was much smaller and frailer than the Grandad of my memory, but I suppose that’s only natural. Even so, that was a good ten years ago.

The Grandad that will always be Grandad in my memory was a big, strong man, and not just strong, but wise. He seemed to know everything, even more than my Mum knew. He was certainly smarter than any of the teachers at school.

Somehow, although I have vague memories of Grandma and Grandad living elsewhere, most of my memories of Grandad seem to happen at their house in Whakatiki Street, Upper Hutt. Quite possibly these memories are all messed up and confused- human memory is a strange beast that’s just as good at distorting or inventing as it is at recording. But Whakatiki Street seems to be the location for most of what I remember of Grandad.

There was a large tree, something palm-like, but that had grown wide instead of tall, occupying a large part of the front yard. Of course, there were gardens. Flowers along the side of the driveway, and naturally a very large vege patch taking up about half the backyard. There was even a small hothouse.

Every time we visited there was something different happening in the garden. Maybe the veges were walled off behind windbreaks made of sackcloth, or maybe ripening strawberries were protected from the birds under chicken wire stretched over wood frames. I seem to remember a huge load of mouldy oranges being tipped on the garden for fertilizer, and a trip to some mysterious place halfway across the Haywards to pick up sacks of chicken manure. And somehow all this gardening seemed to be a natural part of Grandad. It was what he did. He made things grow, and in so doing, he brought veges out of this soil he cultivated, veges which Grandma would turn into delicious, hearty meals.

And then inside the house there were always toys, and sheepskins laid on the lounge room floor. Inside or out, there was never any shortage of things for us kids to play with, and we had a grand old time. If it wasn’t toys, then Grandad always seemed to have a ready supply of paper and pencils and pens to draw with.

But what I remember the most is the stories. There were many stories, but somehow most were from the War. And all his war stories were the funny things, the crazy things young men get up to when they’re far from home and have the spare time. And I remember Grandad telling me all these funny stories and laughing about all the crazy stuff he’d got up to during the War. And I’m glad he told me what he did and where, because growing up meant I could check out for myself what actually happened during the War on Guadalcanal and in Italy. And I’m glad I did that and learned something of the War, because there was so much that Grandad never told, so much that he simply summed up by turning to me with that “thousand yard stare” in his eyes and saying, “War is hell, Chris, war is hell.”

And that is it, the one thing that is irrevocably burned into my memory, Grandad with that haunted look, the look and tone of voice that hinted at stories that could never be told, and that one phrase: “War is hell, Chris, war is hell.”

16 Responses to “remembering grandad”

  1. Josh Says:

    Sorry to hear about that, Chris. My grandfather, a WWII medic, refused to tell about the war at all. I didn’t even know where he had been stationed until after he passed away.

    Nice parting words, though – beautifully written. It’s great to have pleasant memories to associate with those no longer here. Peace.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Cheers, Josh, that is very much appreciated.

  3. Brendan Says:

    I’m sorry to hear it, Chris. There’s a sense of loss even beyond the emotional, isn’t there — when my grandfathers died, I remember thinking it was like a library had burned down.

  4. Ryan Says:

    Condolences Chris. My grandmother recently died, and so I know first hand the difficulties of going through the death of a family member and being thousands of miles away while doing so.

    My thoughts to you and yours.

  5. wangbo Says:

    Brendan, Ryan, thanks very much.

  6. John Says:

    I’m also sorry to hear your granddad has died. But you’re fortunate to have known yours and to have memories of him. One of my grandfathers died before I was born and the other not long after that so that I knew neither. I’ve come to regret that.

  7. FChau Says:

    Dear Chris,
    My condolences to you and your family.
    Wish you the best

  8. Ji Village News Says:

    Sorry to hear your loss Chris.

    Similar to your experience, my grandfather died when I was in the US. My maternal grandparents died before I was born so I’ve never met them. I remember my grandfather talked about the wars also, like various warlords vying for supremacy, running away to the mountain to avoid Japanese bombing, etc. It’s ironic that I really didn’t care for it much then, but now I want to learn and listen to those histories but I could never get him back.

    Peace and best wishes to you and yours.

  9. wangbo Says:

    Thanks everybody.

  10. Matt Schiavenza Says:

    Condolences Chris. Beautiful tribute.

  11. wangbo Says:

    Cheers, Matt.

  12. John Says:

    Touching post. It makes me wonder what I would write about the one grandfather I knew… and what his one phrase would be. Something less poignant, I daresay.

  13. wangbo Says:

    Thanks John. I guess it’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t know what to write until you started writing. In any case, Grandad didn’t an awesome job of burning that “War is hell” phrase into my brain.

  14. Rob Says:

    Hey Chris,
    Liked what you wrote mate..special memories last for ever reflecting a special man.
    Thinking of you and yours at this time.

  15. Jamieson Says:

    G’day Chris,

    My maternal Grandfather passed away decades ago,and I remember going to my Grandmothers’ funeral, with Grand-dad in a wheelchair at the Church struggling to wheel himself down the aisle to touch her coffin on the trestles and crying, calling her name.

    Not a dry eye in the house. Even the Reverend conducting the service had to stop and compose himself.

    My best memories of him were teaching me how to bait a hook, collect cockles, how to fish, how to row his boat, and take it out on the lake alone (as an 11 year old boy) who had to prove he could swim – in primary school.

    Then there’s the pipe and the baccy when he was vivid, lively and instructional.

    I learned more from him about life than from my father.

    Fortunately he passed away quietly in his sleep. Bedridden, incontinent, spoon fed, mumbling after several strokes.

    The bricklayer earned a gentle passing.


  16. wangbo Says:

    Those are some beautiful memories. Thanks for sharing, Jamieson.