One night, as the sun went down and the lights went up in the pub gardens, my grandfather sat me on his lap. I was 12 years old, all growing pre-teen limbs and far too big to sit on his lap. I sat there, feeling about 5 years old again, with that feeling that you get from being held by someone you know loves you deeply. I had missed him so much, and I know he had missed us. He held me and started talking to me, telling me how proud he was of us, how proud he was of all of his grandchildren and his children. He hadn’t had the easiest of lives. He was the eldest child, born to a loving mother and an abusive father. His sister died when she was 6 months old. At 14 he was made to leave school in order to get a job chopping wood to earn money for his family. My grandmother, in contrast, was born into a prosperous family. Even though she was one of 12, all 12 children were sent to good schools. She was able to finish her education at 18 and get a good job. There wasn’t enough money to send all the children to university, and so the two sons were sent. My great grandfather apparently told my grandmother that he regretted that, as he should have sent her, and it was something that has always disappointed her. She was ambitious and wanted as much of an education as she could get.
Her and my grandfather met when they were very young, I think around 12 or 13. Again, they met at church. They were childhood sweethearts. My great grandparents disapproved of Granddad, worried that a man from a home such as his would make a bad husband. Until they day she died my Nanny didn’t approve of him, which is an absolute shame as he was a wonderful husband. He and my grandmother married soon after she left school. Throughout their marriage he treated her with the utmost respect and love. She was better educated than him, he never stopped her from having as much of a career as she could have. She ended up working for a publishing company. He on the other hand, was unable to have much of a career. They were determined to send all 6 of their children to the best schools, and in South Africa that meant that they had to find money to send them to private schools. He often worked 2 or 3 jobs at a time to do so. They never had much money, all of their children had to share a room and they never had the nicest cars or the latest fashions. Their children were taught from a young age to help out in the house and look after one another. My father told me the one thing that he will always be ashamed of is the way he treated my grandfather once. He went to a very good private boy’s school, obviously with boys a lot better off than he was. My grandparents had a Kombi, the only thing that would fit all of their children in. It was old and rusty and nothing like the cars my father’s friends drove to school in. He’d always make my grandfather park it around the corner from school, on the pretence that it was easier and quicker for Granddad. The truth was that it was because he was embarrassed of his father and what his parents could afford. My grandfather knew this and complied. It broke my father’s heart when he grew up and realised that he was ashamed of a hardworking man who was providing for his family.
Granddad was a wonderful person. Due to his upbringing he found it difficult to communicate his love and pride to his children, but he was so very proud of them. He was an incredibly giving man, doing what he could for those in need, even though he didn’t have much himself. My uncle Angus became friends with a boy at school who was in foster care. Aaron was going to be moved to a new foster home in a completely different part of the country, meaning that he and Angus probably would never have seen each other again. My grandparents adopted Aaron instead. He was a troubled teenager, and once he could he left home and hardly came to visit the family. I don’t remember him much as a child, but I know that he has come back in the past 10 years to reconnect with the family. It must have been incredibly difficult for him to adapt to, which is why I don’t think he ever really managed it. But at the same time my grandparents couldn’t watch him be taken away from his friends and family and all he knew. It’s that same generosity that led to them taking my mother in and allowing her to have a safe place to stay and grow up in. I honestly think my mother would be a completely different person today if she hadn’t had that other, more normal, loving family environment to grow up in.
As I sat on his lap, 12 years old and wishing we had never left, he kept talking as I rested my head on his shoulder. He told me that he is amazed at how clever his children and grandchildren are and put it all down to Mum’s intelligence. He always thought of himself as uneducated, and therefore not clever, even though the opposite was true. He was the wisest and kindest person I know because of the life he had lead and in spite of the childhood he had. He was called William, but went by his middle name of Stanley because he did not want to be associated with his father. For someone who had gotten married and started having a family in the 60’s, he was incredibly forward thinking in that he never expected my grandmother to stop work. She is a strong woman, and wouldn’t have wanted to have been a housewife. He brought up his son’s to respect women and his daughters to be strong and independent. He taught them the value of hard work and that generosity and kindness goes a long way, and that all people, no matter what the colour of their skin, should be treated with respect as equals. At no point did he ever prove my great grandparents right, although they never accepted him fully into the family. He wasn’t the middle class genteel man they had in mind for her.
The rest of the holiday passed by so quickly. We spent Christmas eve with my mother’s family, Christmas day with my fathers, my birthday with my father’s family again. Before we knew it we had to say goodbye again and head home. It was always very, very difficult and there would be yet another transition period where we’d have to get over the homesickness and missing everyone. These periods would become shorter and shorter, but they never became any easier.
The worst thing about being in a different country from your family is the distance. I know that sounds like an obvious thing to say, but everything else can be overcome or adapted to. I’m very chameleon like in the way I can adapt and adjust to differences and new surroundings because I had to do it so much as a child. But that distance is never, ever something that you get used to. Especially when big life events happen and you can’t be with the people going through them, whether those events are good or bad.
My grandparents visited us twice in England. The first time was very soon after we emigrated, when it was still winter time, and we took them around Scotland. I can barely remember their trip, although I really wish I could. I have such an excellent memory and remember so many things very vividly, but those few weeks I just can’t remember, much to my frustration. I do remember their second visit, when they came over just before Christmas, to spend a few weeks with us. By this time my aunt and uncle were living in London, so my grandparents split their time between time with us and them. They came to Jamie’s nativity play that he put on with his nursery group and they were going to be there to watch me perform a play at school. It was a scene from a play based in Victorian England. A group of young children were working in a factory, one of them gets caught in a machine and gets severely injured. I can’t remember what it was from, but I know my grandparents had never seen me acting before. Alistair had his football, and they’d been to many games, but I loved being on stage. I was looking forward to it so much, and then one of the girls who was to perform in it got ill that afternoon and we couldn’t perform our bit. I was so incredibly disappointed, as well as a little angry at the girl, because she’d been feeling a little ill in the afternoon and I begged her to go home early and rest. I told her how important it was that I perform in front of my grandparents, and she refused. I know it was a little bit selfish of me, but she was coming down with nothing more serious than a cold, and I knew that an afternoon of resting would mean that she’d be ok for the evening. Instead I got dressed up in my character’s clothes, joined the other performers to watch the performances before us only to be told at the last minute she wasn’t going to come. It think that perhaps I haven’t completely gotten over that disappointment.
We went over to South Africa for Christmas when I was just about to turn 16. In many ways it felt like we had never left. Things had changed, for instance a lot of people had bought holiday homes near where the family used to camp for Christmas, so we didn’t have a load of tents and caravans to sort out on Christmas day. However, many things were still the same. It felt wonderful to be amongst my family again, celebrating Christmas and New Year. For my birthday my parents hired out a boat and kayaks so that we could all muck about on a nearby lagoon all day. It was the first time since we emigrated that it felt like it was actually my birthday. We travelled up the Garden route, went up Table Mountain and acted like tourists for a little bit. We’d gone up in the old cable car years ago, but I couldn’t remember much of the trip, other than the ground was very, very far below. The new cable car does a 360 degree turn as it goes up the mountainside, allowing you to look all over the city as you travel up. It was spectacular and really nice to be the tourist in a city that we knew so well. It seems to be the case that when you live somewhere you don’t see it from the tourist side. It’s nice to explore somewhere familiar with that viewpoint.
The evening that was most special to me, though, was New Years Eve. My great grandmother had terminal cancer. She was a sprightly woman, very independent and capable of looking after herself until she got ill. By the time we came over she was in a wheelchair due to breaking a hip and was looking very frail. She was staying with my grandparents for the holiday period and they had a bed made up for her in their front room. That evening celebrations had to be a little quieter than normal to enable her to sleep. We sat around the fire, watching the flames dance. My grandfather took out his guitar and everyone started singing various different songs as he played them. Some I could join in with, others I couldn’t understand as they were sung in Afrikaans, a language I had never really learnt. Then he started playing Danny Boy and my grandmother sang it to a captive audience. The two of them sat, either side of the fire, on the raised patio area of their garden, with the rest of us in a semi-circle below them. I can still remember that moment as clear as anything. He strummed at the guitar, she swayed from side to side as she sang. Although they were sitting apart you could feel the love between them as she sang and he played a song that they had sung and played together for years. I remember watching them and longing to have that sort of relationship one day.