I've been thinking a lot about my Grandad Harry recently. I'm not entirely sure why- it's not his birthday, or the anniversary of his death or anything in particular. I'm not going to bother trying to shoehorn this post into any recent news events or make any great points about skepticism or science in it. My intentions are purely to tell you about him, because he is a worthy subject.
At school we had to do an English project on someone who had inspired us. Of course, it being the early nineties, my English teacher found himself wading through twenty or so biographies of Michael Jackson. But I did mine on my good old Grandad. I wish I still had a copy of that project now.
He was brought up in a Catholic orphanage. I believe his mother died and his father couldn't take care of him and his siblings. I know he had a horrible time there, but the details are sketchy. I know the orphans there were very starved of love and attention. I remember him telling me how, one Christmas, the nuns had told them all how they were getting a very special treat. The boys were each presented with a bit of spice cake, which in their eyes might as well have been manna from heaven. It gave them all a tiny ray of hope, of excitement. When they bit into it, it was full of cobwebs. Those nuns must have been having a right old laugh at that.
Despite- or perhaps because of- all of this, he vowed that his life-and the life of his family- would be filled with nothing but love and warmth and joy. Where he could so easily have been consumed with anger, he instead became what I consider to be the very pinnacle of what everyone should strive to be. He was a true gentleman.
He met my Grandma briefly, then again through some mix-up with ration books, and so it began. (i need to check that story actually, i remember it being desperately romantic, but I can't recall the details.) Those two have taught me everything I know about love. Through some hard, poor, and difficult times they were the most loving and romantic couple I have ever encountered. You know when you're in the first flush of a relationship, and you do everything you can think of for someone before the fatigue of familiarity sets in? They seemed to be like that despite being together for many, many years. Their flat was full to the brim of knick-knacks, those little impulse purchases they had bought each other over the years just because they were thinking of each other all the time.
He was gregarious, and would welcome anyone to his home with a massive smile and a huge hug. Whenever I took boyfriends round to meet him for the first time, he'd welcome them with "hello, bonny lad!" along with a (often to their embarrassment and my amusement) big sloppy kiss. Within about 5 minutes of arriving, he'd be offering you food, tea and whisky, and you'd be totally charmed by him.
He loved whisky, so much so that on his 80th birthday he got 18 full size bottles of it as presents from his friends. I used to go round to see him for a few hours and emerge into the afternoon staggering somewhat from all of the "wee drams" we'd share. Highland Park was his favourite: for his birthday I bought him a bottle of the expensive stuff. The next time I went round he said he had drank it all already, but later on, when he was more sick and I had to retrieve some from the cupboard for him I could see the only-half-empty bottle there, the cheeky devil.
He had an amazing sense of humour. When he and my Grandma came to stay with me once to look after me when my parents were on holiday they told all their friends they were going to Kingston for the week, neglecting to mention the Park bit which would denote a sleepy suburb of Newcastle rather than Jamaica. He tried his best to be modern: he loved playing on the wii, pottering about on a computer, and listening to his iPod. He had a better mobile phone than me at one point. And he-and my grandma, still- also had modern attitudes. They knew the world was changing around them and they did their best to understand it, not be set in their ways and disapproving if us unruly youngsters. They didn't bat an eyelid when I would traipse in looking all sullen in my goth days, they just gave me a massive hug and told me I looked lovely all the same.
When he became very ill, there were about four or five occasions when we seriously thought he was going to die. Each time he fought back, but became more and more frail each time. I remember his consultant pretty much saying after the first time that he shouldn't have still been with us, and that he wish he knew his secret. My auntie probably put it best: "he'll do anything he can to stay with her (my grandma)". Perversely, I actually remember the first time this happened as one of the best times I have spent with my family. Waiting in the relatives room, us assembled cousins, aunties, uncles and parents roared with raucous laughter at everything going. We made our own hilarious entertainment using nothing but an old copy of the Evening Chronicle and some plastic packaging. Some would think that's weird, but I know Grandad would have wanted nothing less. At his wake we holed ourselves up in a room with copious amounts of port and wine, and screamed with laughter as more distant friends and relatives turned their noses in the air and probably thought we were disrespectful.
But he would want us crying tears of laughter rather than sadness.
Now, as you'll probably know by now, I don't believe in an afterlife. But I do believe in a legacy, and if I manage to have a legacy that's even a quarter as powerfully loving as Harry's, I'll know I will have led a good life.
P.S. The seven hairs thing was a long standing joke. He used to count them and declare that he had seven hairs on the top of his head. No more, no less, always seven.
P.P.S. Its been requested that I mention something else also, something that I actually can't believe I forgot about: The Toilet Of Joy. I have no idea why The Toilet Of Joy came about, but it stems from a family trip to Ilkley for one of Grandad's birthdays. We had a meal in one particular area of a pub which had been roped off for us, and for reasons best known only to the god of wine, the entire family ended up spending much of the night in a toilet cubicle, in hysterics over a hand-dryer. This became known as The Toilet Of Joy. Something very odd, very noisy, and very wonderful happens when my family get together.