Last weekend, as I was cleaning out my room to move, I found the notes my grandad wrote for me when he was first teaching me to drive.
It took almost ten years, two other people and a river of tears before I actually got my licence, but I still remember that first lesson. It was in Grandad’s old Hillman, a lovingly maintained, boat-like monster with bench seats and no safety belts. In the 80s, when it was okay to do so, my grandparents would pack all us kids onto the sticky, overstuffed vinyl sofa of a back seat, and we’d trundle off to the Milk Bar for ice cream, or down to the river to catch whitebait. I loved that car, but trying to drive it was horrifying. It was massive and loud and unresponsive, and had the turning circle of a jumbo jet.
Grandad packed me in there anyway and white-knuckled the dashboard as we jerked and shuddered our way down to the beach and back. I remember grinding the gears around their lawn before dramatically giving up and refusing to get back in the car. I probably cried, because I don’t think I ever had a driving lesson where I didn’t (one time, my Dad and I almost drove off a cliff, and he sort of cried too), and Grandad patted me on the shoulder and shuffled off to his shed. Some time later he reappeared with the side of a box he’d torn up, on which he’d drawn me a series of diagrams about how gears worked, with numbered instructions of what to do and when.
I found that piece of box this weekend and packed it carefully to move — along with my tragically dramatic high school journals and pretty much every card anyone ever sent me — and I thought about how I wanted to write a blog about my grandparents while they were still alive to read it, because it seems insane to me that we wait until people die before trying to articulate what they mean to us.
The last few days, I’d been playing around with that idea. I have a half-written blog about moving, a finished but too depressing one about childhood dreams, several stunted moaning sessions about writing. Every time I opened this document to start writing, I’d end up messing around with something else instead. I had the blank file open in front of me on Wednesday afternoon when Dad called to tell me that Grandad had died.
My grandparents are my favourite people. They have an acre of lawn and fruit trees cut out of the side of a farm in North Canterbury, and every summer my parents would ship my brother and me down there for six or seven uninterrupted weeks of parent-free swimming and climbing and making dams. When my mum and her brothers were young, the property was a strawberry farm. By the time we were born, the strawberry fields were lawn, but Grandad’s garden still covered a solid quarter of their land. I used to follow him around as he worked, and he’d talk me through splicing fruit trees or composting raspberries or training runner beans. We’d eat plums and apricots off the trees, and dig potatoes and carrots for Nana to clean for tea.
Grandad was a man of his generation — he went to war and he worked hard. He wasn’t overly affectionate or expressive with his emotions, but he had big, warm hands I liked to watch work, and he always talked to me like I understood what he was saying. He’d wind my nana up at dinner, and then tip me a big, grave wink over the gravy. He built us a rocking horse and an oven and a cot for my dolls, made and decorated my dollhouse — complete with little polka-dot curtains and tiny furniture — and, when we were older, helped my brother make the basketball hoop that’s still above their garage.
Summers were different in the 80s. A kid with one eye and a big dog lived next door, and my cousins would come out to play Spotlight and Go Home Stay Home. Every so often Grandad would burn off the rubbish, since they lived too far out for it to be collected, and my brother and I would spend the afternoon drifting back and forth to poke at the fire, watching the smoke curl off into the sky. The lawn would turn brown and die in the sun, and we’d get sunburnt and scratched and callused and freckled, only coming inside to eat and sleep. I spent entire afternoons floating in the pool, pretending to be a mermaid. Sometimes, after everyone was asleep, I’d sneak outside and spin circles around the lawn in the dark, listening to the breeze whistle through the pine trees and the sheep shuffling sleepily behind the fence.
The property is getting run down now. The garden has been shrinking for years. The raspberry canes and strawberry patches are gone, and most of the fruit is eaten by the birds. The row of sheds and old chicken coops down the back are starting to fall apart, and the collection of bikes and cars and bottles and tyres that fill them are all dust-choked and rusted. The fireplace got replaced by electric heaters years ago, taking with it the huge stacked woodpile I spent days of my childhood climbing. The cover has fallen off the well in the field next door, and there are no kids around to collect up the sun-bleached sheep bones scattered under the trees.
There’s a proper road to their gate now, instead of the little one-lane wooden bridge over the creek. We spent hours down there trying to dam the stream, or to catch its little flicky fish with our hands or butterfly nets. My grandparents’ mailbox has a number now and the street is full of other houses, but up until recently, Nana still made jam, and Grandad still shuffled around the garden with his walking stick.
In the last couple of years, though, he’d started to forget things — at first to get the mail or shut the door, but then how to work the toaster, how to tie his shoes. My nana looked after him as long as she could — people came to help him shower and dress, and to manage the gardens — and then he started spending a couple of days a week in the rest home, to give her a break. A couple of weeks ago their doctor intervened, and he was put into the home permanently. On Wednesday, while Nana was out with my uncle picking up some shopping before she went to visit him, he had a massive heart attack. He died quickly, before they could even get Nana on the phone. He was 94. A good innings, he might have said.
I still don’t know how to feel. I’m sad that the last time I was in Christchurch I was sick, so I didn’t go and see him. I’m sad we didn’t have a conversation about how much he meant to me, and how much he and Nana defined my childhood. I’m sad that by the time I was old enough to want to hear his stories, he was too old to tell them. I’m sad that my nana will celebrate her 70th wedding anniversary alone in February.
But I’m glad he had a long life and a good life. I’m glad for all the summers we spent together, and all the afternoons I followed him around his garden, sitting by his heels as he talked me through weed spraying regimens or listed the various varieties of potato. He’d tramp around his sheds in ancient pants and a cardigan with holes in it, but he was always clean shaven, his white hair always slicked neatly back with Brylcreem. He told me about fixing planes, and boxing techniques, and cultivating strawberries. He tried to teach me to drive. He was a superb grandfather, and I’m lucky to have had him.