My grandfather was a man of sawdust and sweets, skinny legs and cardigans.
Grandpa could fix just about anything. He worked for the railways as a communications technician and throughout his life developed skills in carpentry, woodturning, electronics, building and lock-smithing, just because he could. He had a workshop in his garage, where tools hung in the right place on a painted backboard and where blood blisters were inflicted on unsuspecting fingers by old-fashioned vices. Coffee tables, side tables, bookshelves and chests were cut, sawn, created, assembled and finished off in that workshop, and my siblings and I would play with the sweet smelling curls of the wood-shavings until we shredded them into dust. Later, those shelves and tables furnished our shared flats as young adults, fresh out of home. I can still breathe in that smell and recall that garage. Everything in there, including grandpa’s dark blue overalls, was spattered with varnish, paint and woodworking glue, adding an astringent tang to the deeply dusty, woody scent.
Behind the door of the garage hung an old canvas bag with a cord threaded through its top as a drawstring. The bag was filled with tennis balls, the grey bald kind, and a few fluffy yellow ones, and it was where we checked for the suitable tool for whatever game we might need to play in Grandpa’s backyard – tennis, cricket (both kinds – French and Australian), Brandy, ‘keepings off’ – as long as we met his terms of avoiding hitting the apple tree, plum tree, crabapple tree or vegie garden, the last of which was seasonally replete with my favourite red and yellow tomatoes, which could be filched at any time with his blessing.
Grandpa had his teeth removed when he was young – possibly as young as 14 – and oh, how he loved to take out his dentures and flap his bare gums at us to provoke shrieks of terror and mirth combined. ‘Give us a kiss!’ he’d mug, and us, just little kids in awe of our incredibly old grandfather, screamed and ran as he grinned maniacally. He’s chase us down the hallway like the most hilarious and benevolent Igor.
I’m not sure why he had his teeth removed: if I had to guess, I’d say Grandpa’s assessment of the cost/benefit analysis came down on the side of practicality. He’d have seen being toothless as preferable to a lifetime of paying for fillings and visiting dentists. Mind you, he told us it was so that he could eat all the lollies he wanted, which he did. He would do a special trip to a wholesale outlet once a week and would come home to fill up his lolly jars. There was never a time when a sweet treat was unavailable. He always, ALWAYS had a roll of peppermints in his pocket or about his person, and when other adults weren’t looking he’d whisper conspiratorially, ‘Want a pep’mint?’ When my mother, grandmother and aunt went through his clothes after his passing, they found peppermints in every pocket of his trousers, cardigans and jackets. It prompted both tears and laughter, but it was also completely unsurprising.
Grandpa was down-to-earth, had a strong work ethic, and a deep-seated sense of justice. He didn’t like anyone to fuss over him but he was happy to heap praise on us grandkids. He rewarded me with gold coins for every A grade I achieved at school, and joked that I would send him to the poorhouse. He had principles and wouldn’t stand for nonsense. He was a teetotaller and at mum’s 21st birthday party he accidentally got everyone drunk because he didn’t trust anyone to run the bar but himself. My father, just starting to court my mother, did the right thing and alerted grandpa to the over-generous measures of alcohol he was dispensing and averted potential disaster.
Grandpa was a passionate Hawthorn supporter. He spent many years with my grandma sitting at Glenferrie Oval watching the Hawks play, and in later years watched them on the telly. Grandpa’s hearing wasn’t great, so he always had the volume up REALLY loud. Unfortunately, for years he had heart problems, including angina, and sometimes the footy would become so exciting he was worried about having a heart attack before he would find out the result. Grandpa set up a system in which Grandma would listen to the footy on the wireless inside while he worked away in the garage. He would check in with her at the end of each quarter, ‘What’s the score, Ed?’ If all went well with the Hawks, he could go ahead and watch the 6.30 replay without incident.
It was his heart that gave way in the end. We didn’t realise that for many years he was taking care of my Grandma, Edna, and had kept her dependence on him quite the secret. He’d done the shopping, the cooking and attending to all the business of the house without anyone cottoning on. He loved her dearly, and on their 50th wedding anniversary he made the only speech I ever heard from him. A man of so few words publicly, he presented her with a medal, made in his own workshop, an award for putting up with him for fifty years.
On the morning he died, Grandma Edna was feeling cold, she just couldn’t get warm. He brought her a cup of tea in bed, and when he felt that her hands were still so cold, he said, ‘Move over Ed, I’ll get in and warm you up.’ And then his gruff old heart stopped.
There’s a lot that’s inexpressible about my love for my grandpa, just as it is difficult to describe a piece of music like Fauré’s Requiem. A requiem can be maudlin and depressing, but this one is neither. When the melody of Part VII: In Paradisum played at the funeral, and Grandpa’s casket glided back behind the curtain, there was such a finality about it that broke my heart; I gave way to grief. But when the music plays now, in it are carried these precious memories of him.
I don’t know if my childhood memories are as true for others as they are for me, but they are part of my narrative, and the indefinable sense I have to this day, of my dear gruff Grandpa. Fauré’s requiem once made me let him go, but now it brings him back.
This post was originally published by the author in 2014 at https://alphabetinmyipod.wordpress.com/