I was in Sligo the other day so I paid a quiet visit to Mum and Dad’s grave. Everything was very nice and tidy so there wasn’t much I could do. I moved a few ornaments around and watered a plant that patently didn’t need watering and then I looked around from the vantage point of the grave.
It’s a nice cemetery, with wonderful views of the mountains which surround the town of Sligo. In the distance, I could just make out the grave of one of Dad’s friends who had died some years before him. We used to walk around here, Dad and I, and go and visit this friend’s plot and admire the little fisherman statue on there. Standing over Dad’s own place, with him now having joined his friend in repose, was perhaps the saddest aspect of the little visit.
Feeling the need to divert myself, I turned from Mum and Dad’s grave to the much older one behind me. My paternal grandfather and grandmother’s place of rest. I had been visiting that plot, perhaps annually, since I was a little guy. These were the two grandparents I never knew. They were both gone before I was born, having died young. I can’t really write about them on account of this. I know things about them, interesting, intriguing things but everything I know is hearsay and second-hand at best. I would do them no service to write of such things here.
My mind then turned to my other Granny and Granddad, my Mum’s parents, the ones I had known so well. So I took a stroll down the graveyard to visit with them too.
I have written about Mum before and how, try as I might, I can’t conjure her as anything other than 'Mum' and everything that meant to me. I can’t deal with her memory as a strong woman in her own right. She was my Mum and that was too important to allow herself to be anything else to me.
I have much the same problem with Granny and Granddad. I remember them well but my memories are of the roles they played for me rather than the lives they had for themselves. It’s a taint on any reporting I can do about them but it’s an affectionate and perhaps a forgivable one.
Granny and Granddad were my Godparents as well as everything else and they were a daily presence in my life. I got my middle name, Felix, after him although he was never known by his given name. He was always Sammy. He worked all his life, as far as I can tell, on Sligo Docks as a stevedore, unloading the coal and timber and cattle boats that came in there on a weekly basis. He was still engaged in his working life when I was young and I remember him coming up from the docks in the afternoons in his flat cap and his leather-shouldered jacket. My older brother remembered when he used to go for a drink after his work but he had stopped by the time I came along. He still smoked though, Woodbine after Woodbine, and his fingers and thumbs were stained deep brown from holding the cigarettes and smoking them until there was nothing at all left except a flesh-scarring ember.
I was a book lover, even when I was little, and I used to love to be allowed to go to the library to seek out cowboy books for Granddad. If I could find a new Louis L’amour or Zane Grey then I was the hero of the day. I was the hero of the day even if I didn’t find one, I always felt that.
My main memory of Granddad is a very subtle one, a feeling rather than an event. It is a knowledge, a certainty, really, of his great fondness of me. A man of few-enough words, he would walk me around the flagging-point, when I was a kid, and show me the big boats that had come in overnight. He would let me walk along the old stone wall and hold my hand tight. It’s as good a memory as one could possibly have.
Granny would come down to our house every day and help Mum out with things. To me, she was perfect. Never angry or upset, always willing to come up with a sweet or a biscuit or ever a coin or two if required. For a period, Granny would take me to the pictures on a Saturday afternoon. It feels like we did that a lot but I can’t be sure. We saw things like ‘Carry on Again Doctor’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ so that was 1969 when I would have been six.
One day, when I was about ten, I’m not sure exactly, I was walking home from school for my lunch when a neighbour stopped me and she said, “I’m so sorry about your Granny." Sorry? Why? Shocked that she had told me something I didn’t know, she allowed me to run home without offering any further explanation.
Our house was full.
I have to be careful here because this is not fiction and people died on that day and my memories are only the unreliable ones that a child may retain. In essence, there had been a fire in the house next door to Granny’s. Granddad was down town at the time. She had been alerted to the fire and had run into the burning building to try to get some of the people out. As I say, lives were lost that day through nobody’s fault. It was, in fact, a terrible tragedy and as I write this, my thoughts are with the people who must still suffer as a result of that day so many years ago.
Granny came out of that house alive but she had been burned, terribly burned. Granddad came to live with us and Granny spent a long time in a Dublin hospital being skin-grafted and healed. For me, these months involved many trips to Dublin and sitting on the low wall outside of the hospital while the adults visited. I was never allowed inside, her injuries having been too severe for me to see.
Eventually Granny was moved back to our local hospital and I was taken to see her. I remember the fear and trepidation emanating from Mum as she brought me in. The reduced husk in the white bed was nothing like my Granny had been. She was bald and had huge scabs all over her scalp. Her face was livid with tracts of skin which had been harvested from elsewhere on her body and her mouth was small and tight and lipless.
“He doesn’t know me,” I remember her saying.
“I do, Granny, I do.” I said and, after the initial shock, I did. After all the burning and all the surgery, it was still my same Granny who always had a sweet hidden away and who always loved to see me come in.
Granny lived for many years after that. She recovered to lead an active mobile live though her scars could never be ignored. Years later, I still think of her as the bravest person I ever knew. Not because she ran into the fire that day but because of how she bore the impossible load that was put on her the moment she came back out.
Granny and Granddad ended up back in their own house, growing old together. I remember the pride in bringing my wife-to-be to meet them in their house and how well she fitted in there in that little sitting room with the pair of them and Blessed Martin looking down from the mantle.
Let’s not dwell on their passing, Granny and Granddad’s. It was no worse and no better than many other people’s deaths but it is not the period of time to remember the best.
I can picture them so well now as I write this and I have a tear in my eye regardless of the fact that they are so long gone. I hope I am doing them some service by remembering them in words, with much love, as I do, and I hope that I may be remembered by somebody in this way fifty years from now.