My Grandpa, Roger Francis Slade, passed away this year, and this was written a few years ago. Today would be his 82nd birthday, so I wanted to remember him with a post in his honour, and although it’s hugely sentimental, I only hope it’s practise to become half the writer I found out – all too late – that he was.
My Grandpa, like most Grandpas, is old. He has always seemed old, but now, in my twenties, I see for the first time through eyes that have their own experience of ageing – if only because my glasses’ prescription has gotten worse with every visit to the opticians – that he really is old.
I think of the man on the beach building sixty-five sandcastles on his sixty-fifth birthday, skin bronzing in the bright sunlight; his skin is still brown, but tainted with bruises that don’t heal and blemishes that a tan can’t conceal. I think of the man walking barefoot in his garden in his seventies, tending to his award-winning roses ready for the summer show. He still entered the show last summer, but when they announced he’d won he couldn’t get to the stage without a walking stick and the hushed gasps of his grandchildren as one pigeon-toed foot clumsily scuffed the heel of the one in front. I think of the man only two Christmases ago, before his cancer was diagnosed, with his festive tiepin and party hat and potbelly full to the brim beneath a button-up shirt. He still had a party hat and tiepin last year, but his shirt seemed to billow over a frame that was barely there.
These memories may be rose-tinted – perhaps those glasses have been changing colour with every prescription, too – but they represent a time I very much want to revisit. On a recent visit to my grandparents’ house, from his seat on the couch in his corduroy slacks belted tight to keep them from falling down, my Grandpa tells me he has something to show me. My Mum and her mother, my Grandma, retreat to make tea, all raised eyebrows and rolled eyes, not ready for another look at the family tree or to relive what they’ve already seen. My Dad disappears behind a newspaper.
“Wait here,” he says, rising slowly from the sofa and shuffling towards the stairs. As has become instinct, I hover in the hallway and watch him ascend, only realising I’ve been holding my breath once I hear his heavy footfalls moving across the upstairs landing. He’s heading for the Stamp Room – or, the spare room – a cornucopia of collectables catalogued into leather-bound books the length of a bedroom that all three of his daughters once slept in and called ‘home’, but now it houses only his desk, the shelves and the stamps.
“More stamps?” my Mum calls from the kitchen. My Grandmother, still somewhat of a spring chicken, full of life and love even in old age, clucks around with teacups and the kettle in the background. But, now, I notice, she moves a little more clumsily, as though one thin, chicken-like leg has been ringed with a heavy reminder that its knee needs replacing.
I murmur something nondescript in response: there is an assumption that most things my Grandpa wants to show us are stamp-related. My Mum smiles dismissively, and I feel that hollow guilt that most grandchildren must feel when they feign interest in being shown the stamp collection or told another story they’ve heard time and time again. But, rather selfishly, while I might not find stamps or stories of Men in Sheds – the aptly-named weekly woodworking meet my Grandpa goes to – as interesting as he does, I still want to him to be there, always, to show me the stamps and tell me the stories that would otherwise be forgotten. Stories only survive if they’re told.
Once he has shuffled safely back to his seat with a small notebook in hand, I sit down and wait, as children do for a bedtime story, for him to begin. He adjusts his glasses and then slides his finger over the bald spot in his grey hair before saying, with a smile that deepens the sloping lines around his mouth,
“I’m writing a book.”
My Grandpa is a lot of things by profession – RAF airman, policeman, electrician – but ‘writer’ is not among them. Studious and driven, he changed his career continually throughout his life and worked at all levels, from lowly apprentice to self-employed entrepreneur with his own embossed stationary. Yet, he never forgot his roots: the writing on his headed-paper was always green in homage to his hometown football team, Plymouth Argyle. Still, professional papers, personal letters and signing on the dotted line were the closest I ever thought he came to writing.
‘What are you writing about?’
‘It’s my life story.’
‘I’ve been writing for a few weeks.’
He shows me the notepad, which I now notice is stuffed with loose leafs of paper and bound with a piece of elastic, and I see the tell-tale sign of papers written on – a gentle wave of the pages’ edges – extends far beyond the centre bind of the book; he must be as efficient a writer as he was career-changer.
“I’m up to when I started high school.”
I take it from him, tentatively, and it seems intrusive even to hold it. It’s one thing to be told a story but quite another to read it from its teller’s manuscript. I lightly lift the elastic, but it still springs and slaps against the back of the book, and open the cover to see a line-less first page filled with the inky loops and flourishes of my Grandpa’s handwriting.
I read eagerly, poring over the pages at close range – as, of course, I’ve forgotten my glasses – and find it full of wonderfully written memories almost four times as old as me. He writes of his youth in Plymouth, living on the middle floor of a shared three-story house with three other families, of his friends at school, and his fears as the Second World War raged on around them. Even the communal cat, Timmo Shanko, gets a mention. He remembers so richly things from his life seventy years ago that I struggle to remember from mine a mere seven years ago.
He catalogues his companions like a biologist records his observations, although his classifications go far-beyond the binominal naming of most taxonomists. From John Matthews and Bob McArthur he moves on to ‘Joseph Arthur Frederick George Giratani Spiradana Palmers’. ‘Whew!’ he writes after the feat, and adds helpfully, with that gentle tickle of the funny bone missing from most biology textbooks, ‘we called him Joe’.
I learn that Colin Pennington’s father was a petty officer in the Royal Navy. Joe Palmer’s mother was from Malta, which accounts for the Mediterranean persuasion in some of his middle names. Alan Tapper’s mother was into music; she played the violin while he had to learn the piano. I feel as if I know these boys, although I’ve never seen a picture of them and they only exist to me in the pages of my Grandpa’s writing. It’s the same way I ‘know’ – or rather, remember – Peter Pan or Harry Potter: as boys from some of my favourite books.
Yet, I also feel that there are some characters he has forgotten. Unlike his younger sister Gloria, his elder brother Peter is strangely absent from the story. I can’t remember much about Peter, other than as a slightly elongated version of my Grandpa who used to send us packages full of knickknacks and bric-a-brac in the post every year before he passed away. I’ve heard stories about him, how my Grandparents would take him and his American wife Valerie on dangerous drives around Devonshire lanes until, as my Grandpa always laughs, their ‘knuckles were white!’ But in the avenues of this story, so far, he scarcely features.
“Where’s Uncle Peter?”
My Grandpa fidgets in his chair, covering his mouth with his fingers then curling them down to hold his chin, before replying, almost regretfully,
“I can’t recall him much at all. He was nine years older than me, so he would have been nineteen then,” and he points to the page the book is open on, knowing every word as well as the knarred knuckles and sun-spotted skin on the back of his hand.
“I know he was there. In those days, on bath night, we’d heat the bath in front of the fire and it’d be Gloria who got in first, then me, then Peter, followed by Mum, and Dad last. So I know he was there.”
I think for a moment and wonder if he has the times and dates tangled, and that’s the reason why he can’t remember Peter much.
“How old was he when he went to America?”
It’s clear that time isn’t what’s causing the lapse in his memory.
“He could join the army or go to America, so off he went.”
As we talk, it appears other people have departed our memory for distant shores too. Early last year, he started researching his family tree, and found in public records that his parents had registered four children, not three. There had been another brother between my Grandpa and Peter, and it was something else he had no recollection of. It seems from census counts that he must have died in infancy, but how sad it is to see that he didn’t survive in memories either – no photographs, no family stories, and never mentioned by his mother, even as her other children grew with age and understanding and started families of their own.
This is something that strikes me about memory: how at once fragile and robust it is, capable of remembering the curve of someone’s smile while forgetting another’s entire existence.
Forgetfulness is simultaneously one of my most shallow flaws and deepest fears. On the surface, I worry that waves will wash away little details, like an old friend’s favourite football team or the names of my form tutors at school, but, deeper down, I dread the dead weight of old friends, partners and relatives that will sink in the sea of memory like lost relics. I’m very fortunate to be in my twenties and only in the last year experience what it is like to lose a grandparent – my Grandpa had lost his father at my age – and so perhaps I am lucky in that I have less to forget, but the thought of someone, anyone, fading from my memory is as frightening as it is morbid. And the fear grows as I try to forget the cruel culprit of my Nanny’s passing. It was dementia, and it devoured her.
Unlike my Grandma on my mother’s side, my Nanny was no spring chicken. Mother to one girl and four boys – of which my Dad is the baby – she worked tirelessly and fought bravely to bring them up alone without support from their father, until, late in their childhood, she found a second husband who could be her second-in-command. A patient and practical teacher, she taught schoolchildren how to swim, helped her second husband to read and write, and showed me how to tie my shoelaces: all lessons you learn as a child, and, ironically, remember your whole life long.
But from the very first bite, dementia is always hungry. A ravenous disease with no taste, it gulps down names and faces and conversations and places in a gluttonous desire to be full; gorging itself on every ingredient, it keeps consuming until its accommodating host has been eaten out of house and home, with every cupboard left bare. My Nanny aged, not only like my Grandpa with his greying hair and shrinking physique, but with aggression as she accused her husband of having an affair, with despair as her wit dried up, and with exhaustion as it ate up all her energy. But, also, I think she aged with great bravery, as she gradually forgot who she was.
As she deteriorated, my Grandpa urged me to spend time speaking to my Dad about her, to excavate his memory and discover the woman she was without dementia, ‘before he forgets’. And, whether it was out of pain or pity, I never did. When dementia finally let her die – in peace, and once all her children and grandchildren had made it to say goodbye – it fell to me to write something for the funeral. Though I had many fond memories and treasured times, being away at university and cut off from the story-sharing in those muted moments between the last breath and being laid to rest, I struggled to recall a time before dementia had assumed it’s firm grip on her fragile thread of life.
In the end, like my Grandpa and his careful cataloguing of his companions, I turned to her names for inspiration; those initially uninhabited words that come to house a person within them, a synecdochical symbol of the whole. My Grandpa has always answered the telephone with a no-nonsense announcement of his own name: ‘hello, Roger Slade!’, as though it functions like a nominal mnemonic: in remembering the name, the face, features and facets of an individual should find their way back to whoever is on the other end of the line.
I made some jokes about her maiden name, Power, derived from Old French and meaning ‘poor’, not matching her rich tastes for life, love and chocolate liqueurs. I mused about her first married name, Tozer, the one inherited by her heirs, being the Old English occupational name for wool carders – workers who used to separate strands into threads – but how, upon her, it wove us close, and joined, not parted, our hands. And finally, I reflected on her final name, Reed, meaning ‘red-haired’, which is fitting, for her honey-coloured curls have become hereditary, and it binding her to another of her loves: books. Yet, as I closed by saying, I found that a name, no matter how well it fits its wearer or how warm they feel within its walls, simply couldn’t say it all, and certainly couldn’t bring any measure of her back.
A person is so much more than a few words strung together, and rather than sitting proudly like pearls around a neck, it seemed a string that hung limply, heavily, and dragged them down into the dangerous depths that I dreaded. As my Grandpa had said after my Nanny’s funeral, ‘I think you really dug deep for that.’ I’ve learned that if you don’t want things to sink below the surface, if you want them to stay afloat, you have to throw them a lifeline. And, although words strung together are all writing really is, I think writing about someone every once in a while is one way to do it. It forces us to know more than their name; it makes us remember the life within it.
And then I think of it again, that robust fragility of not only memory, but also maturity. We grow older and wiser, but we forget how effortless it once was to remember. Maybe my Grandpa, writing as he was, was wiser than I thought.
As I hand him back the book having reached the halfway point, content with knowing there are still pages and pages to read next time I come to visit, he says,
“I don’t know if there’s enough in there for a story.”
I do. I want to shake him and shout and make him see how wonderful what he’s doing is, but instead all I say is,
“Of course there is. It’s your story.”
“I don’t know who will read it. I just wanted to write it all down. Remember it.”
When he put it like that, and I’ve learned my Grandpa has quite a way with words, I realise something: it doesn’t matter who reads it. What matters is that he can remember it at all. Memory is like a muscle, and it needs exercising like all the others, but we’re often too lazy – like we are when it comes to our other muscles – and then before you know it, it’s too late, and you forget. Maybe if we all started writing our stories down, telling tales (true ones, that is), and airing our anecdotes every once in a while, we’d remember them a little bit better.
I’ve read before that every memory is a reconstruction. We piece them back together from fragments until they fit the picture frame we think they belong in, so what’s really happening is that they’re becoming more and more unreliable. But, as I sit and talk with my Grandpa, I watch his hands rolling over one another in anticipation of the next question, hear the low rumble of his laughter, see the smile spread across his face like strawberry jam and sweeten the wrinkles with the taste of his youth, and I find that their reliability bothers me less and less. Because it’s the life in those memories that I love so much.
After leaving my grandparents’ house, my parents and I go to a pub in the country, the type full of cosy armchairs and crackling fires to keep your feet warm, perfect for a pint and a good gossip. My Mum sighs and sips her wine as my Dad whinges about his receding hairline, worried that he is going grey and getting old. But he isn’t. He can still build sandcastles on the beach. He still has a stomach slightly too big for his trousers. He can still walk without a walking stick. He can even still see without glasses. But most importantly, he can still remember so many stories his mum used to tell him.
I might start writing them down.