You know, Grandad, there are some memories that stick in your head. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad, and sometimes for no real reason at all. I remember that time I cut my foot walking barefoot in your garden. I must have been about 5 or 6, and I wanted to go and ride on my bike. Instead I stepped on some glass. You and Aubrey held me over the bath, putting pressure on my foot, whispering to one another about whether I'd need stitches. A few weeks before, Davie had needed stitches and talked about how much they hurt. It was as if my body decided there and then that stitches were not an option, and it stopped bleeding. You bandaged me up, and sent me on my way.
Every Friday Dad would go down to the football club bar, and you and Mum would be there. Most Friday's I'd some how manage to come home with you, and sleep over, being taken to church on Saturday, when Mom and Dad would take me back home again. I remember helping you in the garden, growing to love how the soil feels under my fingers, how wonderful it is to watch something you and I tended grow. For 9 years of my life, you and Mum were there, centre stage, right next to Mom and Dad. The difference is, you let me get away with more then they did. I basked in your attention, with the smug knowledge of a child that I was very much loved.
A couple of months before we emigrated, you asked me what I would like as a present. In all the innocence of a child who doesn't understand, really, what money is, who had the thought that adults could buy anything they wanted, I said a porcelain doll. I know now that you and Mum never really had much money. But you went out and bought me a musical doll. Not quite a porcelain. She sits on a box, head and arms showing, and goes around in a circle to Silent Night. She misses the line "Holy infant so tender and mild". She's a bit bedraggled, and worn with age. She is one of the most precious things I own. You handed her to me as I came back from going to the bathroom, as they called our flight number, as we were about to leave for lands so far away. Mum told me she always bought presents for grandchildren, and that doll was the first and only present you'd gone out and bought. I never told anyone that as the plane took off I stared at the cars below, focusing on one I was convinced was you and Mum driving away. It probably wasn't, but it comforted me.
What followed was 8 years where we spoke on the phone once a month, and saw each other once in a while, when finances allowed. I never told you how much I missed you. When I got to see you on those few visits, I loved to just be with you, sitting next to you, listening to you. We all managed to get over for Christmas 2001. It was a wonderful holiday. We came camping again over Christmas, like we used to before we left. On New Years Eve you took out your accordion and Mum sang songs late into the night. A little quieter than usual, because Nanny was sick with cancer, and sleeping in yours and Mums place.
There is one memory that hasn't faded in the past 10 years. A year to the day after we'd last flown to South Africa, on Christmas Eve 2002, Dad called Alistair and myself into the living room. I can't remember where I was before then. I can't remember the phone ringing. I can remember looking at Dad's face, soft and kind, in a way I'd never seen before or really seen since. You had died, he said. I remember forcing back the laughter, the response that he shouldn't joke like that, because those jokes aren't funny. You'd been very ill in November. But you'd gotten better. You'd gone home from the hospital. You can't have died. Especially not on Christmas eve.
But you had. And Christmas has never really been the same since.
You and Mum were young enough to be my parents when I was born. Older parents, certainly, but still young enough. I thought you would be there at my graduation. I thought you would be there when I got married and had my first child. I thought I had time to tell you how much I love you, how important you were to me, how amazing a person you were. I thought I had time to just sit next to you and listen to you talk, to learn from you and ask you questions.
Everyone who knew you, whether for years or 5 minutes, talks of you with fondness. You were one of those people known to so many people, who made lives easier. You would give the shirt off your back if someone needed it. One person told my father how you drove out at 2 am because his car broke down and you came out to jump start it for him. Other people talk of your kindness, how you welcomed everyone. My mother grew up in a family that didn't love her, with an emotionally abusive mother and alcoholic father. You grew up with a father who thought it was acceptable to hit women. But the way you treated Mum, the way you brought up your children, and welcomed my mother into your family when she was young, showed my mother what family really was. Mum was your queen, and you would never, ever lift a hand to her. She adored you, and you adored her. You had to leave school at a young age in order to work for the family. I remember you telling me once how proud of your children's success you are, how proud of your grandchildren you are, how much more clever they were of you.
You were the most intelligent person I knew. You worked two or three jobs at a time to send your 6 children to good schools. You adopted a 7th child because he was a foster child and being moved away from his friends, one of whom was your son. You couldn't have him taken away from all he knew and all who loved him, so you brought him in as one of your own. Your wife went out to work, you never expected her to stay at home and have dinner on the table as wives were meant to in those days. You brought up strong daughters, and sons that knew to respect women. You may not have had a PhD, but your wisdom and knowledge came with something far more valuable: experience. I just wish I'd been able to tell you that.
You taught me to be kind and generous, to be happy to give all you have and more. You taught me that education is so important. You taught me that time is cruel and often more short than we think it is.
So today, as it has been every Christmas eve for 10 years, the family tradition is to think of you, to miss you and remember. We will go to mass tonight, whether it's in the evening, or at midnight. A candle will be lit, a prayer will be said. A tear or two may be shed.
While Christmas is about the joy of the birth of Christ and the hope that it brings, it will also be forever tangled in the sorrow of your parting.
With so much love,