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By Tony DeLorger © 2011
John reached for the leather bound book at the centre of the gnarled wooden table. Apprehensive at first, he turned to the first page. The ink on the parchment felt as if it were raised, like tiny black trails across the pulp. His fingers searched yearningly for meaning without reading, the text somehow speaking to him by touch alone.
He straightened his back in the chair and after clearing his throat he focused on the introduction. The words were elegant and flowed from his mind like a gentle breeze on a barmy summer’s day, each word an echo of the past, drawing him closer to himself.
The words were from his Grandfather, a man he had never met. But as he read, he began to know this man, a man who had constructed himself within these pages, opened his truth to the world, without qualm of any consideration. The words were so honest that John felt a sudden tinge of intrusion. The man’s personal thoughts were heartfelt and in an unexpected way, vulnerable.
There seemed an underlying thread that John couldn’t quite put his finger on, nor could he dismiss this feeling of imposition. Grandad told of his childhood with sadness, feeling misunderstood and spurned by his father who just couldn’t relate to him. He told of a bond with his mother, a woman who loved him beyond words and who fought his ever battle, strife and quarrel. She was a relentless force, intent on his security and protection from a harsh world.
As John turned the pages, he felt a warmth permeate his being, as if Grandad was there, guiding him through a torturous life. John felt his pain, his torment at school and as he grew the confusion that all but swallowed him, like a darkness that followed the man, snapping at his heals like a rabid dog.
Grandad later in his teens worked in a car parts supplier, as a stock boy and later as a salesman. He learned everything about cars and parts and worked with real men, big buff bully boys with hairy forearms and slack tongues. Grandad was never one of them, but they let him be and when it was drinking time, they left like a rowdy mob in a cloud of dust. Grandad walked home alone.
At twenty, Grandad finally met someone. Their eyes met in the middle of a church service, part of a Sunday ritual that his mother had well instilled in him. From that moment Grandad’s life changed. Behind the church, there were secret rendezvous and further planned meeting in the dead of night. No-one would understand, so everything had to be hidden, undetectable.
John slumped back in his chair, considering what was plain in front of him. He reached for a small black-and-white photograph his mother had given him. It was of Grandad and Victor, arms over each other’s shoulders like two buddies on the farm. They were both slim and dressed as you’d expect two farmhands to be. Their smiles were infectiously happy, yet, for John, he had never thought twice about it, never considered anything more.
Then it was 1900 and obviously this kind of relationship was not to be revealed or discussed. Grandad wrote about how they had saved enough money together to buy a small acreage and to make a life for themselves. As John read through the memories and particularly about Victor, he smiled feeling the love and warmth that these two people had in their lives. Some of their life must have been a lie to survive, but what was written was blissfully happy and both were content.
Grandad wrote mostly about Victor from there, his idiosyncrasies and the little things that Grandad loved about him. Each morning Grandad’s boots would appear at the back door, cleaned and polished ready for the day, and when he awoke each morning, Victor would be up and at it in the kitchen. He was a brilliant cook and Grandad wrote endlessly about the breakfast and evening meals, all the detail and time spent on them.
John smiled, unable to fend off the joy in Grandad’s words. There was no shame, no regret just love between these two men. And as hard as it was for John to understand it from his view, he accepted that it was real and honest and perfect for them.
When the war came, both Grandad and Victor were enlisted, trained and sent overseas. Although in the same battalion they were separated on landing. The campaign was long and they wrote to each other every week, at least when they could. But on July 20th 1915, Grandad’s world fell apart. Victor had been lost in the assault on the Dardanelles.
Grandad didn’t know for sure what had happened, only the letters stopped coming. From that point Grandad’s life seemed meaningless to him, at least that’s what he wrote. Somehow, when the war had ended in 1918, Grandad had survived and he new that Victor hadn’t. John paused for a moment, imagining the pain of not knowing about Victor and having to fight for survival as well. It was incomprehensible.
John continued to read. Grandad wrote less personally about his arrival back home and at the farm afterwards. It was obvious without Victor, Grandad’s life would never be the same, and he couldn’t bear to think of anyone replacing him. So that’s what happened; Grandad lived the rest of his life on the farm, just getting by and living in the memories of his past.
It was a sad memoir, a deeply pained life that clung to love regardless of anything else. When that love was gone, the life just receded in Grandad, ebbed to basic survival. Grandad was a sensitive man, perhaps misunderstood, but a good man, a loving man.
As John closed the book, he wished he had have known him, shook his hand and maybe help to diminish his grief in some way. But time was not on his side, and John could only imagine his Grandfather, see him though the memories in his words.