Those few simple words from our grandson, Michael, created a ‘tag’ for Robbie that became a badge of honour, affection and warning to the uninitiated or foolhardy!
It was a family gathering – birthday, Christmas, Easter, wedding – not sure which! Our blended family (which closely resembles a bowl of spaghetti in terms of sorting out relationships) was gathered together to celebrate whatever it was. In fact, it might just have been, “let’s do lunch”. It was a hot day. With his emphysema Robbie found the heat much more trying than the cold – thus generating Michael’s questioning observation.
Michael was about six, I think. There were at least six or seven younger ankle-biters as well as Michael – running inside and out – screaming, splashing with the hose, demanding drinks and chips, taking a endless supply of clean towels from the linen cupboard. Young brothers and sisters, cousins and friends – coming and going and leaving a trail of half-empty chip bags and chicken wings threaded across the veranda. Parents, friends and grandparents were enjoying themselves as we socialised on a hot Sunday.
Sometime in the early afternoon, Granddad finally found the squealing, the yelling was too much, and his bellow brought a sudden silence. Into the void stepped Michael, bearing the innocence of all children that saves them time and time again from any fearsome dragon they confront.
“Why are you always so growly, Granddad?” he asked, his earnest little face quizzical. We waited. Robbie looked at his grandson – his first – and perhaps saw himself, at six. He started to laugh and reached out to grab Michael and hug him. “Because that’s who I am,” he said. “I am Growly Granddad. So, watch out for me, young Michael!”
The other children came quickly to the fray and start dancing about and name-calling – “Growly Granddad, Growly Granddad” – and there was much laughter amongst us all. It was also a wonderful opportunity for some venturesome boys to be able to poke fun at their prickly granddad without getting into trouble. So, Robbie quickly becomes “GG” or Growly or Growly Granddad and I am “Nana Lesley”. For my granddaughter Jade and her brother Robert, I am Nana Stone. – from Stoneville. To children under the age of, say, five or six, all we oldies need to be identified in our own special way.
At a later time, we were at the airport waiting to meet Robbie when he flew in from Bangkok on a weekend’s leave. After the hugs and kisses, Annette’s son, Robert firmly positioned himself in front of Robbie with his hands on his hips and his expression earnest. “Excuse me, Growly Granddad. Was it my turn for you to forget my birthday?” A hug, a handshake and the laughing reply that “someone has to take a turn each year to have their birthday missed” saw Robert respond to his grandfather with great affection. It was a rite of passage between the man and the boy.
Many times in the years to come, we would gather ourselves around the long table that Robbie later made as a gift for his daughter, Christine. Unlike the table of the Neil Diamond song “The words he carved became his epitaph…For my children”, this table was greatly loved and highly prized. We could easily seat twenty people at this table, which took him many months to craft for her, just a little at a time. Emphysema does not allow you to do anything, quickly or easily.
I remember most of the day of his funeral, but in sort of flashes, pictures, rather than as a sequence of real events. I placed a photo from our wedding under his jacket pocket as he lay in his casket – his familiar “Imperial Leather” after shave scenting the room. I placed it face down, towards his heart, and whispered “I will go sati with you, Darling”.
I walked alongside the hearse holding a grandson’s hand and then gave out red roses as the mourners followed us into the Chapel. I sat close to Christine, watching sons, brothers and husbands carry in his coffin. Nearly fainting, as I stood by the coffin alone. We were numb with grief because her sister Karen, Michael’s mother, and my own daughter Annette had already died before him. It is a great pain to have to bury your own children.
We held his wake at Christine and Terry’s house. Most of all, I remember standing alongside that great table and hearing the words of Neil Diamond’s song playing in the background:
Morning light, morning bright.
I spent the night with dreams that make you weep.
Wash away the sadness from these eyes of mine,
For I recall the words an old man signed:
“For my children”
How glad we would be, this Christmas, to hear him growl once more
Epitaph For A Growly Granddad
Soldier, taxi driver,
Builder of bricks and of souls.
Companion of Pepper and Tung.
All the days of my life
I will love you.
Robin Purves Dewar
9/12/1936 – 8/6/2002
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