It’s a gift of great parents, making you feel as if you have all their attention even if others are there. That’s how Grandfather always made me feel. I’m sure my brother Dean was there, but I simply know this rather than having much memory of it. More than anything, this fact, surrounding my last coherent memory of him, sums up the celestial magnitude with which I remember Grandfather – in my mind, it was just me and him.
Granny and Grandfather’s bland brick home squatted on an un-landscaped block in Yerrinbool, NSW. To me, it looked as if the builder had sat on a great mound of mud and moulded the blonde bricks from the very earth the walls rose from. We stepped from the house onto the elephant-skinned concrete landing. I was happy to be escaping. Granny’s latte-tinted pallor and bassoon-drawl kind of always terrified me. “Niiiigh-juull?” she would call from the bedroom when sick (Grandfather’s name was Nigel). It always to seemed to emanate from the walls. Of course, the fact my older brothers let me watch The Amityville Horror when I was around eight probably didn’t help this. Lucky for me, this mild horror was offset by Granny’s behaviour when she was well. Like when she would shake the dice while playing boardgames and say, “Get hot!”, or when, during those same boardgames, she would lean to one side of her recliner and peal out an enormous fart without the slightest break in her gameface. It’s difficult to talk about Grandfather without talking about Granny. Almost all my memories of him surround his caring for her, something he seemed to do without complaint. But that is not the purpose of today’s tale, so where were we? Ah yes, leaving the house.
Grandfather’s bent beak mimicked his wavy silver mop, competing for facial focal point prominence. But not even his battered narcissistic nose could compete with his bright, compassionate eyes. Add a wiry six-foot frame and a bassy British eloquence and his neutral slacks and woollen jumper took on the gleam of a knight’s armour, that wavy mop the plume, the stick he always picked up on our walks his sword. I was always an anxious child, but not with Sir Nigel. We set out along the baron ground towards the bush trails, my brother somewhere nearby, and I gathered up the first me-sized stick I could find while trying to keep pace with Grandfather’s sweepy gait.
Soon enough, but not before complaints from me about how long it would be before we “get there”, we arrived at a clearing, in the middle of which sat several semi-rusted car carcasses. The sunlight beaming off chrome and the patchy burnt toast panels seemed to intensify the sun’s spiky grasp on the back of my neck. I remember one of the cars looking like Godzilla had stepped on it. I sprinted past that one and jumped into the driver’s seat of the next. Like any kid in the driver’s seat of a car, I wrenched at the gear stick between exaggerated corrections on the steering wheel, bouncing up and down on the sofa-like bench seat, the resulting musty dust assaulting my nostrils, but not my initial joy. When the assault became too much, I clambered onto the bonnet via the dashboard and non-existent windscreen. Jump jump, bang bang, squeak sqeak, the sounds and sheer naughtiness are just irresistable to a kid!
“Damien, let me show you something,” said Grandfather. My standard round-off dismount from the bonnet ensued (it was all about gymnastics in those days), and I sprinted to him. Grandfather’s arm swept up and back, it was then I noticed the cricket ball-sized rock in his hand. The next part always seems in slow motion in my head, but I’m not sure if that’s some facet of sentimentality or simply the mechanics of Grandfather’s lengthy limbs. Either way, as it came forward, Grandfather’s arm was no longer an arm, but a weapon of pure fluidity and lethal grace. The rock hissed through the air, I lost sight of it momentarily, until the unmistakeable punch of car panel impact rent the air not once but twice as the rock exploded through the rusty doors clinging to each side of the car. How fitting that Sir Nigel’s attack on the vehicle sounded like sword on armour. The silence of our disbelief was as deafening as our pitchy wonder-laughs. My head whipped around, scanning the leopard print earth for a hefty rock among the sticks, leaves, and charcoal chunks. Finding my ammo, I unleashed hell, or at least purgatory … perhaps the equivalent of tin shed interior on a warm day, but it felt pretty deadly to me. I’m pretty sure that first one missed, my arm almost travelling with it. Grandfather stepped in. “Rock back when you load and shift your weight forward when you fire. Use your body, don’t try to throw hard.” Whoosh … BANG! I had it. My brother must’ve been somewhere nearby. We peppered those wrecks for what seemed like hours, sweat sting our eyes, the rocks beating their tattoo on flaky metal.
When it came time to head home, there must’ve been protests from us. I remember coming to a point on the trail I knew was close to home and we discussed why it always seems quicker on a return journey, but my most cherished recollection is looking at Grandfather the whole way home through hero lenses. He’s old, but he threw a rock right through two car doors! The fact the doors were rusty mattered not. Not one of my rocks had done more than dimple the duco. In hindsight, I think it was the fact such a calm, gentle, refined man could unleash such power that just blew my little mind. I had never seen Grandfather do anything really physical. I had seen him do small burnouts in carparks and eat dog food to make us laugh, but this was otherworld. I was to find out later he captained representative cricket and rugby teams in England, and was a champion boxer. I guess that explained his throwing power … and his nose. But, many years later, I also learnt something else.
My Grandfather wasn’t perfect. While undoubtedly a great man, his many achievements and good deeds (none of which he ever spoke about and many of which we only discovered after his passing) alone would earn him that moniker. However, he was, like all of us, flawed. What I never knew was he suffered from depression, had a “mental breakdown”, and was subject to the same human frailties life exposes in us all. At first I found this shocking. Not this man. This athlete, this policeman on multiple continents, this trainer of a Grand National winner, this man who literally punched out his friend and stole away the love of his life (Granny) when he found out she was a domestic abuse victim, surely not. But when I thought about it, it made sense. Life is hard. Adhering to your beliefs and a decent moral code can be hard. Raising kids is hard. Caring for a sick partner is hard. Being compassionate and empathic is hard. And while all those other achievements are fantastic, Grandfather’s real power was all of these things, and, above all I think, how he made people feel.
So, why am I telling this story? We are all flawed. We will all fall short in some facets of life. But when you are a man, husband, and/or father there can be an inner expectation, and sometimes an outer one, that you must be a perfect provider, protector, parent. You must be able to withstand the rigours of all that life may vomit upon you without apparent struggle. You won’t. And that’s ok. I am sure Grandfather, when going through his own struggles made mistakes as a parent, husband, and person. What’s significant though, is that his commitment to compassion, empathy, and courage were a huge factor in his life choices. He did not always choose the easy road, and I imagine rarely the selfish one. He lived his life in consideration and service to those he cared for and this is what they remember about him. So, don’t get hung up on your flaws and mistakes. Accept them and move forward, but, most of all, be there for those in your life. Listen, love, care, teach, laugh and you can be just like Sir Nigel.