It doesn’t need to be Armistice Day for me to remember my grandfather. He may have died four and a half years ago but there isn’t a day that goes by without me thinking about him or my Nan (who died six months to the day after he did). But on Armistice Day I think about him more than ever.
I was walking around a supermarket yesterday buying party bag fillers for Sissyboo’s big day this Wednesday, when our negotiations over content were interrupted by a tannoyed warning that at 11 we would be asked to observe the 2 minute silence. Although they have talked about Remembrance Day at school, Sissyboo asked why it was really necessary to interrupt her excited mission to buy enough glitter and confetti to outcamp the set of Strictly Come Dancing.
I explained that we needed to do this to remember the many hundreds of thousands of men and women around the world who had given their lives in the service of their country. But since that is a bit abstract for even a compassionate nearly six-year-old, I added ‘it’s to remember people like my Grandad who gave up so much for us.’
‘But he didn’t die in the War, Mummy, did he? I met him when I was a baby, didn’t I?’ she said. She’s right. He survived. Once he flew his damaged bomber plane all the way back to the UK with only one other crew member alive on it. But he survived, even if he carried the war with him until the day he died. And how he did so was one of the many things that made him a great man in my eyes.
My Grandad was one of nine children to a working-class family in one of the most economically deprived parts of the Midlands. Somehow, with little formal education behind him, he became a highly-regarded bomber pilot. The war saw him become a bit of a hero to those who knew him, including my Nan whom he met and married in those years. All the pictures we have of him from the early 40s show a handsome man (he looked virtually the same until the day he died) who was always laughing and joking and the centre of any party. He remained that man for the rest of his days, despite being beaten down by years of caring for my grandmother whose descent into dementia no doubt contributed to his own death. But the war clearly changed him, despite his love of life.
He rarely talked about those years. When he was demobbed, he elected to come home in a badly fitting suit rather than wear his uniform. My Nan was livid and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t proud of what he’d done. But he could never quite come to terms with the reality of war (of what he had done) even though he was a patriot and would have done the same had he had his time over. He would tell you as much if you gave him enough glasses of scotch. (It took quite a few – another war legacy.)
There were good times, for sure. He loved meeting people from all over the allied world. He loved travelling to Canada where he was based for a time and was offered a job after the War that he longed to take but couldn’t accept because my Nan wouldn’t leave her mother and sister. He once danced with Ginger Rogers in the Stage Door Canteen. I still haven’t quite picked up my jaw after hearing that anecdote at the age of 7. But these were poor compensations for the horrors he saw and inflicted. And the sadness it brought him when he allowed himself to think about it was clearly immense.
I’m not saying my Grandad’s response to his war years was the right one. It was unique to his experience. But it helped to turn him into the man I knew and loved. Correction: love. A man who valued family above anything, who was proud of his kids and grandchildren beyond anything that tallied with our achievements. He was fun to be around and the life and soul of any celebration, because he could have fun in the way that only people who have known real horror can. Because he knew what really mattered and what was at stake.
I don’t regret many things in life. I don’t much see the point, to be honest. But one thing I do deeply mind about is that he never got to meet Boo. When he met Sissyboo, Grandad was frail and more ill than he would let on to us. But the minute he saw her, she rekindled his energy and that zest for life that I will always associate with him. It meant so much to him to meet her. You only need glance at the photo we took and see the look on his face to understand that.
And I know he would have felt the same about Boo. After all, in a very different way, they have so much in common. Both have been through things no one should have to go through. And both seem to have (and to inspire in others) an appreciation for life that is deeply instructive and infectious.
In the dark days of the NICU, of wondering whether Boo would die, or of contemplating the potential problems that lay ahead for him and for us, I often thought of Grandad and what he would say to me if he could. ‘You’ll be alright, chick,’ he would have said. ‘You’re tough as old boots and you’ll both make me proud whatever happens.’ He’s right. Because I’m his granddaughter. And I had a bloody good teacher in him.