Grandfather thoughts

It’s summer, I’m sitting in the garden in an uncomfortable wooden chair and the sun is splitting the trees, as my scary grandmother who ended her days with us would say. She and I had an uneasy relationship. It was complicated because she had the gift of seeing and everyone knew it, but nobody talked about it. If you don’t know what that means, she’d once in a while have a dream or an intuition about something that was coming at us in the future. No fuzziness, no tall dark stranger vagueness, a very exact warning. At times, it was like having a stick of sweating gelignite in the house.

That didn’t stop my mother getting between her and me to prevent her filling my foolish young head with rubbish, as she put it. It always skips a generation and gran’s beady eye had already settled on me in what was a very large field of potential candidates in her army of home hatched grandchildren.

She was right of course. Just to add to the usual childhood anxieties, I was already beginning to have the silent night scream dreams I refused ever to talk about. To anyone. Most especially her because I knew she was watching me. A pure white snowy owl sitting on a naked branch in autumn moonlight looking at me but with a single spot of terrifying red blood on its wing. On some basic instinctive level, I knew letting her inside my head would cause a lot more problems than it might solve, never mind sparking off a civil war between two determined matriarchs within the clan.

Except when they weren’t circling each other like patient knife fighters looking for that single fatal lapse in concentration, those two had the type of Sicilian mother/daughter relationship you can only get when two alpha females are living under the same roof and peace is only kept because of what’s nowadays called a mutually assured destruction pact. Many years later, I noticed my father picking up on those two getting together, all conspiratorial and plotting the ultimate destruction of a common enemy. He prudently walked away because he was a shrewd enough man to know about picking your own ground to fight on and which battles you could win. I also knew he didn’t have a dog in that particular catfight.

To my left is a brick built BBQ with a half inch thick steel plate atop it. I built it around that foundling plate of steel which evenly distributes the heat from the coals beautifully. It always reminds me of Big Jim who taught me how to mix a batch of mortar just so. I was a brute of a kid carrying a hod of bricks up and down a ladder all day to someone who could lay down a serious amount of bricks in a few hours. He was the only man on the site who worked on a time and materials basis, the rest of us were clods who worked on what was called the lump in those days, which I won’t go into.

It’s presently not being used except as a stand for a glass of chilled Moselle or Mosel, its name or pronunciation depending on which way the border is currently being drawn after the latest Franco-German tiff. It’s heating up via the stem on the light battleship plate that’s being warmed by the sun. I should quaff it before it becomes too warm but resist the temptation to neck it. I have a responsibility sitting on my right leg. She’s barely five months old, watches everything like a hawk and is my granddaughter.

My family are slightly amazed at my effect on her. In a reciprocal way, I find it increasingly difficult to see any common sense in any of them. The family legend of my mesmerising her started one day when she’d been changed and fed and was still being very grouchy whatever distracting ploys the practised women were trying to use on her. I was sitting in the study trying to read as various of the women in the living room tried to distract her. I left them to it for as long as I could stanz it as Popeye would say, but finally in exasperation shouted over my shoulder to let me have a go. Since they were patently getting nowhere in a situation that was starting to escalate, she got carefully put into my arms.

I tell them to put her head on my left side. They don’t understand primal urges, but new babies still find comfort in hearing a heartbeat again even after they’ve been out of the womb for a few months. Have you got her? Yes, thank you, I’ve got her. I haven’t yet killed a baby I assure them. They all know I’m the seventh of thirteen and having lost a father early, I’ve more than enough experience of being handed a baby who’s getting redder, madder and more overheated over something nobody can work out.

You’re okay? I’m fine I tell them as I chutch her up and down and she starts gnawing on the knuckle of my thumb I’d offered as a comforter. From that slight reddish tinge to her cheeks and the miniature shark bite pressure she’s applying with her gums, she’s already working on her first fangalero. There’s two of the women standing over me ensuring I don’t drop her on her head or something. In a diplomatic way, I tell them that standing over the two of us like a pair of towering vultures isn’t helping the situation.

I get that look you see in so many bad SciFi movies. He’s humanity’s last best hope against a massive alien invasion. They’re beating the shit out of us, we’re fresh outta options, there’s nothing left but him. God help us, we’re all going to die. Anyway, they bugger off.

She does that involuntary retching hiccup intake of breath children do when they’re calming down from a crying fit. Poor little doat. There’s no word in English for that but we all know that sound of it. She’s about there I think as she’s stopped gumming my knuckle and is now listening to my heart, but I know I can only skate so far with this one before she kicks off again. A strong personality.

I click my fingers loudly in her face and her eyes flash open to look at me, momentarily nonplussed at something she’s never seen before. You have to seize the moment, because that’s why you got her attention in a way she’d never experienced. Mostly everything for the little mite is a new experience, even the sound a thumb and second finger hitting your palm can make. Up I lift her, turn her around, and she gets plonked on my good leg. My fingers are intertwined around her tummy and the thumbs meeting about her back. I know how strong she can be, so be careful and keep a good hold on her.

She’s now sitting upright, looking outward, which was what she wanted all along. No more being an adored toy to be cuddled, prodded and cooed at, she wants raw new input and the kid’s end of my study provides it. What was pissing her off was all the cloying attention. One awkward bastard recognises the same bloodline of pigheadedness he’s bequeathed. One half of the study belongs to the grandchildren when they’re here, the other end is mine and there’s an invisible line between the two. Cross it, and you get glared at by grumpy grandpa Zeus.

They always test it, and I’d be disappointed in them as my once removed issue if they didn’t. Every time, at least one of them will dare. When they were younger, it was just banging toys against the floor, but nowadays it’s more creative and exploratory stuff like building things out of Lego. At the end of their last visit, one had taken me aside before their leaving and asked me earnestly to protect his latest Lego creation, don’t let it be broken down and tidied away. I didn’t reply but he knew I’d agreed. I made sure it wasn’t by simply hiding it from the cleaner uppers until his return. It’s very delicate and I make a mental note to teach him how to do Flemish Bond with lego on his next visit. The ghost of Big Jim’s teachings lives on.

There’s lots to see for her in the study because there’s three desks in it and one of them is reserved exclusively for them to use or despoil as their chaotic playing turns out. Unless it gets destructive, I let them have at it. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war! The older lads know if they want to have a temper tantrum and bugger around with my end of the study, they’ll get the heave ho from what the women call Granda’s man cave. Boundaries were long ago established.

Their desk is populated with an interesting selection of things. Bits of Lego their parents played with as children, a badly-painted Warhammer 40K plastic tank model, a monocular, a treasure chest in the shape of coins and beads flung at me during Mardi Gras in New Orleans four decades ago, an exotic mask bought for me by someone after I’d hack translated Un Ballo in Maschero for them, a hand-painted Russian doll given to me by a colonel, a magic mirrors savings box, a two by two by one perfect piece of beautiful mahogany, a perfectly lit black and white photograph of Marlene Dietrich in a top hat smoking a cigarette, a landline telephone I’d carefully snipped the cord off so they couldn’t manage to strangle themselves with and a picture of their great grandfather as a young stylish blade in the band playing the fife while his cousins worked a violin and a mandolin sitting on a berm in a searing summer evening nearly a century ago. They were the band for the wedding. I still miss him.

I’m careful to always add a new oddity to the assortment before their next visit but can’t resist hiding it behind something they’ve already mastered. It’s there, peeping out at them, just waiting to be found, but they have to work to find it. They’ve wised up by this stage and the first thing on the agenda when they visit is finding the new item amongst all the heaped up jumble on their desk. They know I won’t give them any help or a single clue, it’s all on them to find it. There’s only so many places you can hide an object on a desk covered with bric-à-brac, so they eventually discover it and there’s an “Ah Ha!” moment of triumph when they do. Unobtrusively watching them working out for themselves what a kaleidoscope was all about and how it worked was a delight.

After five minutes of miraculous silence, my wife’s head pokes around the study door. There’s nothing to see but me holding her up while her head is moving slowly in all directions taking all the new things in. After another five, her mom’s head pokes around the door to confirm the strange event as reported is actually occurring. By this stage, I really know why the little mite was pissed off in the first place. Can’t you just friggin’ leave us be? Eventually, the head I expected to appear does. One of her older brothers across the vast light year distance of three older years.

As soon as he was told he’d a little brother or sister on the way inside mummy’s tummy, he had a mission. He might be charging all around the house inflicting casual damage en passent but when he passed the bump, he’d rub or hug it, especially when there was movement. He’s her big bro, Hector the Protector, her Sir Knight and ultimately her liegeman. That’s a relationship I feel that’ll last for both of their lives.

He knows she’s okay with me but at the same time he’s giving me the scary granny look I did when I was his age. I know what’s ahead of him and it’s like the study desk situation all over – I’ve resolved he’s going to have to wrestle with what’s coming at him granda style, that’s to say, all on his ownsome. He’s a brilliant great spunky kid, I love him with all my helpless true heart, but the odd things about him have already started to stack up. As an example, I got a call out of the blue from his mom and after a few hurried pleasantries, I got put to the question. Here comes the whole point of the call, I thought.

Have you hurt your hand Pointy?

Borrocks, as the Chinese community of Craggy Island say, here we go. I had actually hurt my hand that morning. It hurts like a bastard but it’s a day tripper injury, a go awayer I know will have disappeared by next morning. I’ve a bloody good idea of who prompted the question and pause for a moment to select a suitable evade. The moment stretches out as I think about a response. She’s his mom and deserves to know that certain aspect of one of her babies that’s going to be coming at her all his life.

Yes, I have, and before you ask, it’s my right hand.

I knew she’d have asked that verification question of the little man before she called me. Many years ago when she’d just got her license to kill I asked her if she was now thinking of specialising in the doctoring business. She was, but anything other than obstetrics and gynaecology she assured me. That’s a tough row to hoe by anyone’s measure. She’s now works in the Obs & Gyny world and I know she’s eyeing pre-natal surgery in that area, and that’s pure frontier stuff. You’re the last best gasp hope of a morsel of life already in trouble who’s still in the womb and only a few months old. I am by any academic background a pure mathematician who went well off the reservation early because of such inexplicable things.

‘He’s been trailing after us all day saying granda has hurt his hand, we must help him. I had to call just to pacify him’.

We both know what we’re talking about is pure insanity, driving a coach and six horses through our respective, neat, deterministic universes, so we ignore it and I assure her my hand is good and she tells me all the kids are great. End of conversation, click, but I know, and I think she does too, we’re going to have to have a conversation about him in the near future. She’s still a bit skittish around me. I’ll let a few more inexplicable incidents like that one pile up about him and she’ll be ready for that conversation.

Back to the present and in the garden. The little princess has been watching a bumble bee flitting from daisy to daisy on the lawn while I’ve been off wool gathering. The bee flies off and she watches it go up into the air. Her first bumble bee in the first summer of her life. Having got that notch in her belt, she suddenly decides to throw herself backwards and stares up at me. Kiddo, one day you’ll pull that one on someone who’s not as careful of you as I am, and you’ll end up with a very sore noggin.

I stare down at her. She stares back up at me. Her left eye has a perfect vertical divide. On one side is the hazel brown of her parents, the other half is the brooding blue of her long gone great great grandmother. I can hear scary granny whispering in my ear that it’s a sign but I know better. I already know on whom the hop skip and jump the happy generational hand grenade has landed on, and it’s not on this little one. Her mom has assured me that although it’s an extremely rare condition, it’s also a transitory one. I’ve met people with differently coloured eyes, but never this variation. She sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than me. I feel there might be the need for another conversation with her, but this time about the downside of marrying into the mutants on table nine.

We have a BBQ using a cast iron dish that looks like a wok about two foot across and has three stubby legs. It gets stood on top of the steel plate. It comes with a sturdy grill but also doubles as a fire pit people can sit around in the autumn. We’re joined by one of my brothers, his wife and their kid. All through the afternoon we graze, sip on chilled drinks and laugh and joke. Everybody has their chance to hold the little princess but I tell them she likes to look outward.

The long afternoon turns into early evening and we decide to test out the wok’s other function as a log burner. The megladon wok gets moved onto the lawn with a stout cardboard firewall placed under it to stop it burning a hole in the grass. We rearrange our chairs around it in a circle. One of my lads lays a circle of bricks around it which he says nobody can cross over. It’s purely for the benefit of my five year old grandson whose dad has let him stay up late. I look at my lad and see yet again that he’ll make a thoughtful husband and a brilliant dad. By this stage the ashes of the BBQ coals are long cold. One of my sons has bought some kindling but we need some scrunched up paper to put underneath it to start it up.

I volunteer to go and get some and hunt around the study for some old newspapers. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t bought a newspaper for over a decade or two. After finding nothing, I hit on the idea of using some old share certificates I dumped into one of the filing cabinets. There’s a lot of them and they’re all completely worthless. The old certs to be discarded after things like share splits, consolidations, bankruptcies or other investment disasters.

I return with an armful of them and tell them to scrunch them up and throw them in the wok as fire paper. Dad, these are share certificates. Yeah, I know, don’t worry about it. Worried looks are exchanged between my children – is dad finally losing it, are we burning our inheritance? The devil in me comes out to play. Don’t worry, this is just stuff I don’t want the taxman to get his hands on after I’m gone.

More looks are exchanged. Does that mean we’re burning what we might’ve one day banked? The devil in me does a few more ambiguous replies which don’t answer the basic question either way. In the end, the imp in me suggests a different approach to keeping this mischief up or we’re never going to get this fire started. Look at it this way lads, at the end of their life, not many people can say they’ve actually burnt money. There’s a silence and after a pause, grins are exchanged in the twilight, the certs get scrunched up, thrown at the wok and a match applied. At this stage, they’re all financially airborne anyway and there’s an impish devil in them too. Fruit, tree, not too far etc.

I watch my oldest grandson. He starts to toss tiny bits of kindling across the bricks and into the wok. He gets lots of advice from his uncles after a few over or under throws and then starts to feed the fire accurately. When it’s up and going, he’s seated, leaning forward, his face mottled in shades of red and orange by the light from the dancing flames, both elbows resting on his knees and his tiny fingers intertwined just gazing into the flames. In that moment, he’s lost in a his own thoughts. So basic and so touching. Another fire person. I couldn’t love him more.

It’s next day and preparations for a late afternoon departure for them are in full progress. Amid the big loadout of locating stray baby things about the house and packing them into a people carrier, he approaches me.

‘Granda, if we have another fire, we can watch it together’. I think, Jesus God Christ kiddo, don’t do that sort of stuff to me. It’s too direct. The watcher who’d clocked everybody around the fire and then settled into staring at the flames last night and thinking about Wagner’s Götterdämmerung had also been watched in return by a little man in his store-bought miniature foldaway camp chair complete with a holder for his “beer” can in the canvas armrest. He’d sat in a circle with all the other men around the fire. It’s one of those rites of passage all children experience growing up.

He’d got me, holed me directly below the waterline of my habitually careful heart with that innocent salvo and in response to it, I went off to find a few more certs and a handful of kindling. We had a fire, if only a minor one and for a brief moment in time a little flame of a postscript to a delightful weekend.


Related articles by Pointman:

Working men.

Birthday bash.


Click for a list of other articles.

8 Responses to “Grandfather thoughts”
  1. Bob MacLean says:

    Thanks Pointy. Loved it!


  2. David Bishop says:

    One of your most poignant. Thank you.
    Thank God for family. Long may yours thrive.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ron Sinclair says:

    Thanks Pointy. Sunday morning coming down here in Ontario Canada and I quite enjoyed this change of pace in this time when my great grandkids are starting to arrive.


  4. Doonhamer says:

    Thanks for letting us in. You lucky man.
    Thanks also for “doat”. I have not heard it for decades. In Norn Iron, Fermanagh. Heard it but never seen it written spelled out. Always thought it would be dote. Always ” Ah, the wee doat”
    Was your father a seventh son?


    • Pointman says:

      He was born just after the turn of the 20th century, the youngest of five surviving children. Given the family circumstances, the times and not being able to afford any decent medical care, the accent is definitely on the surviving adjective. The infant mortality rates at the time were awful, so your guess is as good as mine on the seventh of a seventh intuition.



  5. another ian says:

    A song to go with that

    If you haven’t found

    there is varied reading there


    • Pointman says:

      Thank you Ian.

      Somebody put a lot of memories, thought and love into the lyrics of that song. The 3yo’s latest family legend is of them visiting a museum where there was a full scale animatronic t-Rex. Lots of kids watching it in fascination weaving about but the thrill bit was when it suddenly ducked its head down at them as if to eat them and gave a thunderous roar.

      Every kid in the tour instantly jumped three feet back and some burst into tears, as did his baby sister. Without a second’s hesitation, he advanced on it and roared back at it, all two foot of him. It’d scared his sister and older brother. He wouldn’t stop roaring and had to be carried out of the place by his father, still roaring his defiance back at the dino over his father’s shoulder. He’ll be an interesting man.



  6. old45model says:

    I so enjoyed that, Pointy (I worry about being ‘familiar’, though).
    I am so pleased to see that there are others with the ‘gift’ (I thought I was unique – ha!), albeit in a slightly different vein – as only you could weave the detail into a rivetting tale.
    Per a query by another poster above, neither I nor any of the people I ‘connect’ with are a seventh son, for many are women – some of whom I’ve never met.
    I suspect I may be waning, though – or I may simply be putting up the shutters.
    All the best for your future tale telling!


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