This post is about those relatives of mine who were close to me, and have died recently enough that I remember them. It so happens that all three are in the same branch of the family: my grandparents on Dad’s side, and Grandma’s father.
Great Grandpa Berry died when I was young, but not so young that I can’t remember. I remember visiting. I remember speculating about whether he’d make a hundred (“I might”, he said). I remember when we made him the illustrated family tree of his descendents. And I remember the funeral. He was ninety-seven, so at first I thought that “the late Earnest Berry” meant that he was late, so to speak, for his appointment with Death. And I think I know what I wore to the funeral – a top with a picture of a ship on it, which Grandma had made for me.
Grandma made various clothes for me, and they were special ones. The tops always had a picture on the front, and I’d always choose which picture I wanted from a book. The one I remember best featured one of the spiders from the Doctor Who story Planet of the Spiders (the picture itself came from one of those “making of” books). The aforementioned one with the ship was made after the 150th anniversary of the settlement of South Australia in 1836, and came from a book full of illustrations of the relevant historical sailing ships. (I can’t remember which one I chose as my favourite, but Grandma reproduced it faithfully, including the name.)
I’ve still got a stuffed toy monkey that Grandma made. It’s had a few names in its time but I settled on “Popeye” because the eyes are only attached on their lower side; the upper side simply tucks under the eyelids and can be untucked with your finger to reveal the cotton stuffing underneath.
Grandma was also a great cook, and her cakes were particularly loved. (Uncle David’s family once made a tribute to her in the form of a recipe book, based on her files and containing black and white family photographs, copies of which were given out to relatives. I have a copy, though I’ll confess that I’ve never made any of the recipes in it.) But of course, what makes grandparents grandparents is not the clothes or the toys or the food, but how much they love to see their grandchildren. I remember fantasising with her about digging a tunnel from their place to ours so that we could walk there any time we wanted. Grandma really loved that idea!
It was Papa (i.e. my grandfather on Mum’s side) who told me that Grandma had died; this was just after I’d stepped off the school bus one afternoon. It took me a while to realise that he was serious…
Grandpa lived a few years longer, which surprised us all. His artificial heart – with its distinctive tick, tick, tick – lasted a decade longer than it was expected to. Grandpa died during the same week that I was doing work experience at the Flinders University oceanography department. Dad and I were staying in a caravan park that week, and we came home after one day’s events to find a note on the door instructing us to meet Dad’s brother at his father’s place (or something like that). The note didn’t say so, but Dad was quick to realise that Grandpa must have died.
One of Grandpa’s characteristic traits was his sense of humour – a characteristic blend of silly and wry. For example, having recently learned that there are a thousand metres in a kilometre, I once asked Grandpa if he knew. He replied “five hundred”, continued his conversation with Rebecca for a while, and then added, “plus five hundred”. Another example was his explanation of how his pointy nose contrasted with Grandma’s small, rounded one because Grandma had walked into too many walls as a girl. This subtle, gentle humour was manifest in just about any conversation in which Grandpa was involved, though he could be serious too.
Just like Grandma, he loved his family, and whenever we came to visit there would always be a small bowl of liquorice allsorts on the table. He was also a great listener, a kind and gentle soul who took the time to hear what you were trying to say (though abstract topics from physics, mathematics or science fiction were generally beyond him). I fondly remember talking to him about a fantasy story that I’d written, not long before he died; he was the first person ever to talk with me about my fiction on the level of how it relates to real life, and how my characters’ actions reflect the way that people really behave. This pleased me greatly, because until then (although I was frequently complimented on my writing), nobody had shown any sign of looking for something deeper in my stories than the fantasies themselves.
We mustn’t forget Grandpa’s expertise with woodwork. Many items of furniture in my family were made by his hand, and we once made him a top to wear featuring pictures of tools and the slogan, “Happiness is having a Grandpa handy“. He wore it often.
Here is a photograph of Grandma and Grandpa.