Everyone who has spent time with me know that I adore my Granddad. Sadly, at 88 years old, his health is swiftly fading and I’m home in NZ for a while to say goodbye.
I’ve been so blessed to have known all four of my grandparents and all hold a special place in my heart. But Granddad is someone very special.
He was born in Southland (Wyndham, to be precise) in 1929, the eldest of three. His Dad was a school principal, and as he grew up, they lived all over the Otago/ Southland area. Two places he lived hold a special place in his heart, Moeraki and Stewart Island. That’s where his great love of kaimoana (seafood) came from, and probably his love of nature.
Once he had completed secondary school, he moved to Dunedin to study at University, and gained a Masters in Geography, and then a teaching degree. In the Christmas holidays one year, he took a few months off to hitch-hike around parts of Australia with his flatmate; this was the start of his overseas adventures.
It was during university that he met my Grandmother, Ella Nancy Kirk. He told me that he was at a teachers college social day, they were in rowing boats that collided, their eyes met and he decided immediately that she was something very special. Within a week, he had acted on it and had made contact. After a courtship that included long distance when Granny moved to Christchurch, they married in 1952. I asked Granddad once when did he know that Granny was the woman for him and his response – when she shucked oysters with him, then ate them raw with a dash of vinegar. (his love of oysters has been enduring but of latter years he has struggled to justify spending $25 a dozen when he used to pick them off the rocks for free).
At this point, it’s probably fair to mention that my Granny was feisty, and Granddad had to be someone of strong character and extreme patience to take her on. She was beautiful, intelligent, an amazing cook, and very headstrong. She was a home economics teacher, and was very ambitious. She was chairwoman of the NZ National Council of Women and NZ Church Council, she was an excellent pianist, an amazing cook, and she loved travel and adventure. There is a story in my family about my eldest uncle, a teenager at the time, who had displeased Granny in some way. They had just had dinner, and a stack of plates was sitting next to her. She threw the whole stack of plates at him and then tucked the fruit bowl under her arm and throw fruit at his receding back as he fled down the driveway. Not a woman to be messed with!
Anyway, Granddad. After Granny and Granddad were married, they moved around a lot. Their first child, Rod, was born in Southland. Sue (my mum) and Geoff were born in Pahiatua. Then they moved to Fiji where they taught for two years. Back to Christchurch NZ, and my Aunty Nic was born. They settled for a period where Granddad taught at Cashmere High. Once the children had left home, Granny and Granddad moved to Australia where they taught for a while.
Back to NZ, where he settled, largely teaching at Hillmorton High until he retired. It was then that he and Granny travelled overseas, with Taiwan, Europe, Canada, and so many other trips.
It was at this point that Granny’s health started to fade. Sadly, the cruelest of diseases for a woman who could annihilate you at Scrabble, Alzheimers started its relentless erosion. Stripping her first of immediate memories, then her older memories, til finally she had to be put in a home in 2004. She died in 2009. Granddad cared lovingly for her throughout and even though Granny had no clue who I was by that stage, her eyes would light up whenever Granddad walked in the room.
There are many things that I love about my Granddad. One was his great love for Granny. He still wears his wedding ring, 8 years after her death. The way he looked at her, his great patience with her (and I can imagine she was trying at times), and his total respect of her. Even all these years later I know he loved her so much and I know he wants to see her again. It was like, even if they had all the time in the world to spend together, it would have never have been long enough for them. Their love was incredible and still as fresh today as it was over 60 years ago.
Granddad has always had a great love of adventure and this is obvious in all his kids and grandchildren. His love and knowledge of tramping and the NZ wildlife are extraordinary. Even though he travelled all over the world, his favourite trip ever was one just a few years ago. He hopped on a boat and sailed to the sub-Antarctic Islands. In particular, Snare Island, a UNESCO world heritage site, has untouched flora and fauna and he gained much pleasure from exploring this part of the world.
Granddad was a keen gardener, feeding many families, friends, neighbours, his Lions club and his church. His new potatoes were a Christmas highlight, his feijoa tree is legendary, and his broad beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini, and beans were plentiful. Granny had always been the chef of the household but as her brain receded, Granddad stepped up and had to learn how to cook. He took to it with gusto, and loved experimenting. Some things were not appealing and consigned to the compost, but his skill in growing his vegetables finally was complemented by his skill in the kitchen. We also learned via Granddad that you can cook almost anything in the George Foreman Grill!
I think the things that really stand out for me about Granddad are his patience, kindness, and generosity. He would do anything for you- rides to the airport at stupid o’clock, any messages or small favours, anything for anyone. And his gentleness- he could talk to anyone and was entirely comfortable doing so. He is happy with his large family boisterous and joyful around him, sitting and let it all wash around him, and I know he is proud. He has four children that have all gone on to do wonderful things. He has 11 grandchildren, all very different, but loved in their own way. Five great-grand-daughters, and one great-grand child on the way, who he would have loved to meet.
What made this man so special is a combination of the little things. I lived with him off and on for a number of years, as have a number of my cousins and family. He was a wonderful flatmate. After the earthquakes in Christchurch, the family naturally all just turned up at Granddads. There was no discussion, we all just migrated there. His home has been the centre of the family wheel for ever. There are always people here. From foster children, to ESOL students after the children left home, to homeless granddaughters. In the last ten years, I wonder how many nights he would have had alone in this house- I don’t think many.
Granddad has met so many of my friends. He’s come to see all my shows and I’ve taken him to social events many times. I’m not sure many 20-something year old women take their 70-something year old Granddad to as many things as I did! He was comfortable being around anyone, accepted them as they are, and was always interested in their lives.
But he was the man who read me A.A. Milne poetry. The man who could recite screeds of poems from memory. The man who would take me for walks to the playground as a child, or up in the Port Hills as an adult. The man who taught me to accept and love people just as they are. The man who was just so wholly content with his life. He tried to teach me patience but not a bloody chance!
I called him before I left India, worried he might not wait for me to come back. We aren’t a family that talks about our feelings, we just know… but Granddad and I talked about what we meant to each other. It was a very difficult call but it was amazing. I did laugh when he made fun of me for the number of boyfriends I had- so many he’d ‘lost count’ apparently. Throwing shade from his deathbed- that’s my fun, loving, intelligent Grandfather.
He will leave a huge hole in my heart. I can’t imagine my life without him. When we think of people that change the world, we think of Steve Jobs, or Gandhi, or Obama… But with his great gentleness, Granddad has changed the lives of so many people. His selfless service to his community, friends, and family changed his corner of the world. His love of tramping, travel, adventure and gardening live on in his family and I hope I can make the world a better place like he did.