On Grandparents: I'm Still Being Taught Life Lessons From Beyond The Grave

Sometimes it's very easy to just forget the past. We really, really shouldn't.

Jan 14, 2014 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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My Grandad on my Dad's side was a strong, stocky Irishman with faded green tattoos all over his arms that seemed to ooze and blur into each other. His skin was dry and often looked painful, and his nails were gnarly and thick -- a long-lasting result of a virus he picked up in Cyprus when he was posted there in the early '60s.

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You can see those tattoos poking out from his sleeves, there.

Growing up, I remember him pottering about happily in his garden -- a massive plot of land with three sections to it. The first third held an aviary full of his beloved birds -- including his favourite, a cockatiel called Charlie. Charlie would fly over and sit on the thick, white, Brylcreem-ed hair on Grandad's head and chirp away. Next to the aviary was a large grassy patch with a Swingball for us kids to play with, another section with trees and then an overgrown end section that we grandkids used to pretend was inhabited by fairies and gnomes. 

He was a content, mild mannered man with an incredibly thick Irish accent, despite having lived in Sussex full-time since he left the army in the sixties, when my Dad was born. My sister and I could always understand him, though, although it was fun watching friends try and make sense of what was coming out of his mouth when they came over to play in the garden with us. They'd just smile and nod. It was like a different language.

After my Nan died when I was 13, my Grandad visibly shrank. He became a tiny, fragile man who looked as though he might break in the wind. He couldn't cope with the house on his own, didn't know how to cook properly, was lonely. We used to take him out at the weekend, but I was a teenage girl -- I wanted to be out with my friends, not walking around with an old dude!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

We once took him to Newhaven Fort on the anniversary of D-Day. I'd never spoken to him about the war. I knew he fought in it, and had some stuff around the house that was from his time in service, but I wasn't really interested then. I was 14, I was more bothered about whether anyone at school would EVER fancy me (they never did). We took him to the Fort, and I remember we linked arms and he watched as the RAF flew bombers above us. He cried, silently. 

He passed away not too long after, after succumbing to a stroke. The sturdy Irishman with his immaculately combed thick, white head of hair was gone, and he took his stories with him. 

In the time between my Nan passing and my Grandad joining her, my Dad spent time gently coaxing some of those closely guarded stories out of him, determined to make sure that history lived on. What he found out, and what he told me last night, blew me away. 

I've never had such a fierce kick up my backside, such a brutal reminder to realise how lucky I have it. I'd been moaning about the weather earlier, and how annoying it was to have to traipse to work in the rain again. Holy entitlement! 

My Dad showed me Grandad's service papers from the army, some of the few items he has left to remember his father by. Reading the papers told a story. Patrick Francis Meehan was from Southern Ireland, and on the outbreak of the war, was desperate to join the army. He was turned down on account of being too young, so he left his family, hopped the border into Northern Ireland and joined the Royal Ulster Rifles. He was a slight, "malnourished" lad of only 5"6 in height, with tattoos covering his forearms and a willingness to fight. 

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Though he was only 5"6, he was strong! Here he is with some friends in Italy in the late '40s. He's the one with the lad on his shoulders.

This young lad, in joining the British Army, had ostracised himself from his family -- he would never return to Ireland after the war/  He worked his way through the ranks to become Sgt. P Meehan. He led a platoon of soldiers onto Sword Beach on the D-Day Landings. Only three of his men survived. He was 22 years old.

My Dad told me how he watched 'Saving Private Ryan' with his Dad. You know the opening scenes, on Omaha Beach? He said that was exactly as it was. Those scenes of carnage were things my own Grandad saw. And the likelihood is, maybe yours did too.

He and his soldiers fought their way through the war and were eventually part of the troops that liberated Belsen in 1945. 

My Dad has grainy, black-and-white photographs that my Grandad took of the scenes that greeted them when they arrived. I've yet to see them, and I'm not sure I'll be able to really process it when I do.

He was a very private man, my Grandad, and when the war ended and he left service after the 20-odd years he seemed to put all those experiences away into a little box in his mind, perfectly happy never mentioning any of them again. He had his civilian job, his children, his garden, his grandchildren. He was asked to join the British Legion, the Chelsea Pensioners, but he turned them down. He didn't want to be out in army regalia, wearing his medals again. His medals were put away. The war was put away.

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Listening to these stories last night, and touching the medals and reading the words that were written about Grandad in his service book after he left the army -- "Sgt. Meehan is a loyal, hardworking and competent NCO. He is good at handling men and is an intelligent and methodical administrator...popular with all ranks and will never have any difficulty fitting in...can be recommended to any civilian employer." -- made me both incredibly, incredibly proud -- in awe, in fact -- and terribly sad. Terribly sad that I never knew these stories when he was here, so I could show him just how proud I am. 

It also made me really take stock of how privileged I am. At  four years younger than I am now, my Grandad was leading men into certain death. Gunfire, grave injuries, best friends dying in each other's arms. The only thing I have to worry about today is buying a potato to go with my dinner. 

If you are lucky enough to still have grandparents around, please do try and learn as much from them as you can. The lessons woven into those stories are greater and far more valuable than any amount of Google searching. And before long, they're gone, as we all go. Turned to dust and distant memories of aviaries and the smell of Brylcreem and the pronunciation of certain words. 

Natalie's on Twitter: @Natalie_KateM