Tale of a Grandfather

The Indian Express – Jan 27, 1941

Tale of a Grandfather

    I have recently arrived at the dignified status of a grandfather. It seems odd that I used to think of grandfathers and grandmothers as very old people—no longer, so to speak, on the active list and worthy of respect. Perhaps, grandparents used to be older and more respectable than they are nowadays. They certainly looked it.
    The only grandfather whom I knew was already going blind when I first met him. He was at that time a cheerful old man with side-whiskers who, when his grand-children arrived at the farm, always entertained them in the drawing-room after tea by singing a song called “Free and Easy.” As he grew older he became less sociable, and liked to sit hour after hour, silent or grumbling, in a wooden armchair by the turf fire in the kitchen, his bad-tempered terrier, Prince, lying at his feet. None of us was allowed to touch Prince; he could bear the attentions of no human being except my grandfather. To my grandfather he was as Mary’s little lamb. When the old man rose to feel his way with his oaken stick, as thick as the leg of a table, into the farmyard, Prince always saw him on his journey and saw him safely back to his chimney-corner. It was Prince, I think, and the savage black retriever living on a chain in a kennel in the yard that sowed in me early a distrust of dogs that still persists.


    My feelings towards my grandfather were, I fancy, those of respect rather than of love. My father always addressed him as “sir.”, and I sometimes followed suit. Having a very elementary sense of humour, however, I used to pronounce “No, sir” “Noser,” hoping to make my sister laugh. I never succeeded. For the rest I remember my grandfather chiefly as an old man who liked to have the London Letter of the Northern Whig read aloud to him. Others of his grandchildren have told me that they used to lie quaking in their beds at night as they listened in the darkness to the old man groaning and muttering his prayers hour after hour from his bed in the next room. He must have been about ninety years old when he died, deeply regretted by two daughters who had devoted their lives to him.
    My other grandfather died before I was born. He was a Presbyterian minister who loved fighting landlords. “The only difference between an Irish tenant farmer and a negro slave”, he once told an enthusiastic audience in Belfast, “could be wiped out with a whitewash brush.” He had a passionate hatred of slavery in all its forms and indeed on once occasion had runaway slaves staying in his manse as guests. 


    It was his widow who was the cause of my lifelong adoration of grandmothers. She was a tall, stately, and I thought and think still, an exceedingly beautiful woman. She wore gold-rimmed spectacles and part of her silver hair was curled round two little tortoiseshell combs at the sides of her head. She always wore a cap. She must have been a woman of some character for, left with an income of £70 a year from some widows and orhpans’ fund, she brought up a large family and sent her three sons to college. She believed that all she had accomplished was due to her faith in God. She lived all through the days of her poverty in the serene confidence that the Lord would provide and she held that the truth of this had been proved by her experience. It was she who urged me never to put money in a bank as to do so was to show distrust in God’s providence.


    She was infinitely pious, yet without any of that busybody piousness that irritates the young. She was pleasantly secular in her conversation and never preached unless it was preaching to reprove a grandson for saying “Faith!” as an exclamation. She held that such exclamations as “Faith!” “Faix” and “Troth!” were oaths and that to utter them was to be guilty of the sin of swearing. No one resented her pious remonstrances, however. Her piety sat on her, so naturally. As a child I particularly enjoyed listening to her reading her morning and evening chapters from the Scriptures and passages from two books by Spurgeon called Morning by Morning and Evening by Evening. I do not know whether the works of Rev. C. H. Spurgeon are still readable, but in those days they were probably read as widely as the work of any novelist. Every week a new sermon was published and eagerly read in town and country, I heard of one old farmer who used to have the sermons read aloud to him and who, in his enthusiasm over a passage that seemed to him exceptionally good would exclaim. “Good Spurgeon! Good by God!” My grandmother would not have approved of that, but her sentiments were probably much the same.


    Her religious faith did not exclude what is called superstition. She told me that she had seen her husband’s face in a dream before she met him, and that on meeting him for the first time she had recognised him at once as the man she had seen in her dream. She also told me that she had never dreamt of loosing a tooth without hearing of a friend’s death shortly afterwards. I do no not think I ever doubted her stories of her dreams any more than I doubted her quite terrifying stories of kidnappers and men who robbed graves to sell the bodies to dissecters. She could look curiously like a witch when she was telling a tale of horror, but a nice witch.
    The last years of her life were spent in a series of visits to the houses of her sons and daughters. Homeless herself, she was at home wherever she went. Never was a guest more welcome on arrival; never was a guest more reluctantly allowed to depart. To know that she was coming to stay was like looking forward to a birthday, when she went away it was as if a light had gone out. Strange to say, she is not one of the relations whom I associate with material kindness. I doubt whether she ever gave us money or other presents. I am sure I should have remembered it if she had, for I have an avaricious memory of every two-shilling-bit and half-crown that any other relation or visitor gave me in those days. She herself was her present to us. That is the only explanation I can think of for my devotion to a relative who never gave me any money.


    She was staying with us at the sea-side when she died. I can remember only two things of her last-illness. One is the pleasure she took in the last compliment that was paid to her on earth. When the doctor came to visit her one day he saw one of her feet protruding from under the bedclothes, and exclaimed with as much truth as gallantry: “What a beautiful foot you have, ma’am!” She laughed happily as she repeated that compliment after his departure. The other memory is of sitting beside her bed as she lay half-conscious and murmured to herself in a voice of grief: “He asked God to damn their souls. He asked God to damn their souls.” I could not make out what she was talking about, but I was told afterwards. She had been recently staying with one of her sons, a doctor who had ordered a special dish to be prepared and brought to her bedroom. Something went wrong with the dish in the kitchen—so wrong that, when the housemaid brought it to the bedroom, he flew into a rage and used some expression with the word “damn” in it.
    My grandmother, unfortunately, took words literally. To her Hell and damnation where the most awful realities in the universe, and to use them even in a hot-tempered oath was actually to pray that the person damned should suffer eternal torment in Hell-fire. As she was grieving over the remembered words however, she was grieving, not because she feared that her son’s prayer would be answered but because she feared that her son himself might be sent to Hell for uttering such a wish. Strange how the gentlest human beings could believe in the mercilessness of a merciful God. No doubt however, many of our own beliefs are equally irrational.


    Looking back, I am undecided whether it is better of be a grandchild or a grandparent. The correct answer is probably: ”It is better to be both.” Being a grandchild, however, was more of a day-long luxury. If I had not been a grandchild, I might have missed those annual summer months on the farm, where I knew every horse and cow by name and as a separate personality. I might not have acquired my undying attention for pigs. I might not have learned the difference between a Dorking hen and a Brahmaputra. I should not have met William Boyce, who lost an arm in the scutching-mill and had it buried in the graveyard in advance of the rest of his body. Hence I conclude that there must be something to be said for grandparents. I hope that this does not sound too vain coming from one who is now a novice in their ranks.



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