My mother and grandfather got on far better than she did with my grandmother. My father also got on very well with him. My grandfather had a very extensive knowledge of wine and had a large wine collection. They would sit and sip wine after dinner as I grew gradually sleepier. Eventually we would make the trip home to get ready for the working day the next day.
They died when I was about 7. My grandfather had a history of heart problems, and had a pacemaker. He had a heart attack while cleaning the kitchen floor and died soon after. My mother has never forgiven her mother, convinced that my grandfather shouldn’t have been on his hands and knees on the floor cleaning it. She’s always felt that if my grandmother had bothered to clean the house herself my grandfather probably wouldn’t have died.
My grandmother and uncle David continued to live in the house alone. David has severe learning difficulties and required 24 hour care at that time. My grandparents did it themselves without any specialist help. After visiting them one day my parents saw just how much my grandmother was neglecting herself and David. They took them both in to look after them until a more permanent arrangement could be sorted out. It was hell for my mother. My grandmother would take things out of the rubbish and hide it under her pillow. She would berate my mother for our nightly baths, telling her that she was scrubbing our skin off. My mother couldn’t cope with it and told my father that it was either her mother leaving or she was leaving. And so my grandmother and David ended up back in that house.
However, her children obviously didn’t want that to be the end of it. None of the others were willing to take her in. Instead they went to the court to have her declare mentally unfit, which she was, in order to then be able to get her into a home where she would be properly cared for. She hadn’t washed in days. Her hair was matted and she obviously wasn’t caring for herself. My mother has described the way she was to me, as obviously I didn’t see it at the time. It all went on away from mine and my brothers eyes, so that we didn’t get upset by it. The day of the court case her sister went to visit her. My mother and her siblings had explained what they wanted to do and said that it is for the good of my grandmother. The judge should have taken one look at her and realised that she was unable to care for herself. Instead her sister washed her, brushed her hair and put her in some clean clothes. She turned up looking like a perfectly fine elderly woman, capable of living on her own. The case was thrown out of court.
A few weeks later my grandmother was in hospital. I don’t know what for. I don’t really think my mother knows what for, but it was more than likely related to the fact she was malnourished and unable to look after herself. A week later she died. I don’t think that my mother has ever forgiven her aunt. Even though she had less than fond feelings for her mother, she and her brothers and sister had tried their best to help her. Had it not for her being cleaned up and showed off to the court she probably would have been able to receive the care that she needed.
The stuff in their house was sorted out and spit between the siblings. There was a will, but it hadn’t been signed by my grandfather, and so it was invalid. The house remained with my uncle Terry. I remember seeing it for the first time after it was cleaned up and cleaned out. It was absolutely massive. Underneath all that dirt and rubbish there lay a beautiful family home. Due to my grandparents hardly spending everything the inheritance was enough for us to emigrate. It was enough to put my uncle David into a home that could care for him and give him the treatment he needed. He’s made so much progress living there, has made some wonderful friends and is able to look after himself to a certain extent. It makes me wonder how he could have been had my grandparents bothered to get him the help he needed.
Growing up we were much closer to my father’s side of the family. We would see my cousins on my mother’s side perhaps once a year or so. On my father’s side it was every other weekend. My father played football for a particular club near to our house, and every Friday evening we would head down to the clubhouse. My cousins Heather and Shannon would be there, too, and we’d run across the fields, playing various games while the adults stayed inside, chatting. As it got darker we’d move inside and run around the club house. We would inevitably be barefoot and our feet would get dirtier and dirtier. It would take the entire weekend to clean it off our feet, but it was a sign of the fun we had. My grandparents would often be at the club, too, and as the evening drew to an end I’d beg my parents and ask if I could go and spend the evening with them. They’d inevitably say yes, and off we’d go, overnight bag (which was always kept in the car as impromptu overnight visits were quite common) and off we’d go. Often my cousins would ask, too, and so we’d have a sleepover at my grandparents’ house.
Those weekend stays were wonderful. Alistair was still quite young, and so he would often go home with my parents while I’d get to be an only child again. When my cousins came too we’d share the double bed in my grandparents’ spare bedroom and giggle until we fell asleep. I loved their house. I spent so much time with them that it was like a second home to me. My grandfather would sometimes play us his accordion and guitar, as my grandmother sang Irish and Scottish folk songs. It was magical hearing him play and her sing.
My grandmother loved to sing and sang in the church choir. She practiced on a Saturday night, and as I was usually with my grandparents until mass on the Sunday, I’d go with her. I’d lie under her chair and listen to them sign Christmas Carols as I’d drift off. Sometimes I’d go and stand at the railings overlooking the church and look at the crucifix. It was life size and I was convinced that they had a man go up there and be tied up there while there were people in the church. I’d also stare at the sanctuary light, flickering in the corner. We’d been told in school that that was a symbol of God’s presence in the church. I believed that that was where God lived, and would look at it and wonder how He got so small.
A lot of my childhood was spent around my grandparents. They were like second parents to me in many ways, and probably gave my parents much needed breathing space from us. Each year they would get 2 week’s holiday from me during the Christmas period. At Christmas my entire family on my father’s side, barring a few who had moved away from the area, would get together and camp for a couple of weeks. They’d head down on Christmas day, unpack and we’d have a huge Christmas meal together. My parents would head down, stay the night and head back to Cape Town on Boxing Day, as the camp site was only about an hour and a half’s drive out of Cape Town. It was in a place called Onrus, near Hermanus. Each year the children would conspire to get out of the unpacking. Each year we’d be grabbed by a relative and made to go back to our respective campsite and help out. When the tents were up and the meal being prepared, I’d be asked by my grandfather if I’d want to stay with them for the holiday. I knew my mother didn’t want me to always do that, so I’d look all uncertain and tell him I’d have to ask my parents. I’d go to my father first. The number one rule of being a child was that Dad would more than likely say yes when Mom would say no. Inevitably he’d tell me that he had no problem with it, but I’d have to ask my mother. By the time I got to her she usually knew that she’d be getting my grandfather pressuring her to say yes, as well as me. So she’d give in, and out would come the bag that she packed, just in case.
Christmas day was always wonderful. I can’t remember the food we’d eat. I know it wasn’t your traditional Christmas food. It didn’t matter, though, because for that little bit of time all the people I loved were in one place. It’s probably why I now don’t care for Christmas traditions themselves. We could have McDonalds burgers, for all I care, and not open a single present. What makes Christmas for me is family gathering together to share a meal and have fun together. The two foods that we did always have was my great grandmothers Christmas pudding, which I hated but would eat to try and get money out of it, and my grandmothers trifle. I love that trifle, as does my uncle Allan. It’s probably the one food that makes Christmas, but that’s more for the tradition it’s become over here. Every year Allan will make the trifle, and we’ll stand over it, portioning it out to one another. I’ll say I’ll have that half, he’ll say he’ll have the other and the rest of them can have the crumbs leftover. Yet every year it will come to dessert and Allan will be too full for much trifle. It will be left at my house for us to finish over the next few days. While all other houses around the UK are having turkey with every meal, I’m eating trifle for breakfast, lunch and dinner, trying to finish it before it goes off.
For two weeks every year I was an only child. My parents would head back to Cape Town with Alistair, come up again on New Year’s and then again on my birthday, when I’d then either go home with them or go home with my grandparents a few days later. It was wonderful. I’d run around the camp site with my cousins and second cousins, playing games late into the night, always barefooted. We were allowed to roam free, with the adults knowing that there was always someone nearby who could keep an eye on us. The only place we weren’t allowed to go on our own was the beach, but since someone would take us down there once a day we didn’t really miss that. We made up games and played some old ones. I got to stay up later than I was normally allowed, eat bubble gum and live a wild, grubby existence. It was wonderful. On New Year’s Eve more family would come up for the night and camp. We’d have a potjie (a cast iron pot put over the fire that makes the most delicious stews) and Granddad would get out his guitar and everyone would sing. They would celebrate two New Year’s: the South African and the Scottish, a tradition going back longer than my grandparents. The children would often fall asleep long before then, but if we didn’t no one made us go to bed. The next day Granddad would wake up earlier than everyone else and wake them up with a cup of tea or coffee, even if they weren’t ready to wake up. Then we’d all have a champagne breakfast, with the children having champagne and orange juice mixed together.