As I toiled upstairs one morning in my grandparents’ house, a rumbling angry voice broke the silence. I couldn’t make out the words, but the emotion couldn’t be misread, even by an eight-year-old. I hesitated, but my need to pee made a visit to the lavatory imperative. Luckily the volcanic tirade, punctuated by the popping of the gas water heater, was coming from behind the closed bathroom door. I crept past and shut myself into the separate toilet. But then–a new problem—if I pulled the chain and released the water the noise would certainly alert my grandfather to my presence. And what about washing my hands? In the event, I chose secrecy over training and cleanliness and scurried away to the safety of downstairs and escape to school.
Born in 1875, Grandfather had grown up in the reign of Victoria and by the 1940’s was elderly not only in the eyes of his grandchildren, but in reality too. Short and slight, he was very upright and precise in his movements and, in spite of his small size, had considerable presence. His black hair, hardly touched by gray and probing dark eyes defined his face, giving him an acute expression which lasted through his old age until his death at eighty seven.
My mother, my younger sisters and I lived with my grandparents for a year after my youngest sister was born while my father was away in Europe. My grandmother, the middle child of a large family, was a sociable, opinionated extrovert, always looking for a laugh, while my grandfather rarely even smiled. He was serious, grave and exceptionally fussy about his domestic arrangements. He suffered from nervous indigestion for which he ate two charcoal biscuits night and morning. These unappetising black lumps, which could have been mistaken for real coal, were neatly laid beside his place each day. His food was served on the dot and often he ate it in solitary splendour, as my grandmother, mother, sister and I couldn’t be relied on not to chatter through the meal. Every night my grandmother served him his Benger’s, a soothing drink supposed to induce sleep. Such routines required no speech and, as the old saying goes, silence is golden, thus on the surface anyway, the household was a peaceful one.
Grandpa, who was a lawyer and the coroner for Swansea, in South Wales, for over twenty five years, dressed formally. His shirts were starched; his silk ties a sombre colour and he wore black suits, sometimes enlivened by a gray stripe. When he left the house he donned a homburg hat, a black coat, leather gloves, and wore grey spats over his shoes. Even on our Sunday promenades with him and the old terrier, Mike, in Cwmdonkin Park, decorum prevailed. My sister and I liked to run along the path around the reservoir, while he preferred to stroll the gravelled walks dissecting the dahlia and rose gardens. But all walks started and finished at the gate by the old fountain, made famous by Dylan Thomas in his poem, “The Hunchback in the Park”. There was something magical in its Victorian curves and curlicues, its overflowing bowl and the small brass cups on chains for the use of thirsty passers-by. But for Grandpa, these seductive little bells were only the prompt for a lecture on the prevalence of germs. Life with Grandpa was filled with proscriptions of activities that children relish. My bicycle was banished to the coal shed and even running was looked on as an unnecessarily dangerous pastime.
Grandpa was an autocrat. My mother, his favourite daughter, wrapped up in her new baby never questioned his authority. My sister spent her time at home entirely with my grandmother and my encounters with my grandfather were of his choosing. He liked to play checkers with me though I was a poor opponent who always lost. And sometimes he would tell me about books, a passion of his, and of mine, but of course our tastes did not often coincide. When I read his obituary many years later, I found he had belonged to an “exclusive club whose members were interested in literature.” My grandfather’s particular interest was modern European and, on his book shelves, he had a set of Proust, beautifully bound, as well as Meredith, Hardy and many other avant-garde writers of his youth. At the time, I found it uncomfortable to be the recipient of his lectures. I, like the rest of us, except for my grandmother, was afraid of his sarcastic tongue. But perhaps I am too hard on him for I also recall that he gave me a school story, The Little Green School and Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore that Christmas; both thoughtful gifts.
Books were at a premium during my childhood, either printed on horrible brown, friable paper or warehoused from before the war. My mother’s sister, our favourite aunt and the rebel of the family, sent us The Welsh Fairy Book, which Grandpa might have seen as a provocation, had books been freely available. He, in common with many of his generation, if they were schooled, spoke English without an accent and never used the fluent Welsh he knew from childhood, except in the office and the courts. None of his children were taught Welsh and all went to university in England. Grandpa however had been born, raised and lived all his life in South Wales, except for the years he spent in Bristol articling as a law student. He never mentioned his family or his Welsh upbringing and his children thought he’d been brought up by an aunt in England, after his mother died when he was ten. In fact, the aunt lived in Carmarthen and took in his two brothers as well as him.
It was my grandmother, an Englishwoman, who used to introduce Welsh phrases into her stories or reprimands, exclaiming loudly, “Ach-y-fi”, when something displeased her. She fought against my grandfather’s dominance in her own subversive way all her life. Silently for the most part but sometimes savagely, as when she burned the pictures of their honeymoon and many others of their early life together, which she admitted cheerily when I asked if she had photographs from when she was young. She loved to tell us about the wild things she had got up to in her youth. Marriage never wholly tamed her.
Their relationship was solid; divorce would have been unthinkable for such respectable, middle-class folks. Besides their bond was strong and they were used to each other, though they were a mismatched pair. Perhaps my grandmother appreciated that her husband was a compulsive hard worker and he knew that she was a constant fighter for good causes. But though they were married for fifty years, Grandfather’s obituary didn’t mention his wife, who had predeceased him, only that he had three children, ten grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been horrified to hear Grandfather indulging in a diatribe that morning long ago. He may even have been cursing in Welsh! My grandmother knew how to get under his skin, even if we children were unaware of this. I wonder now how they filled their years after we and the other children and grandchildren had settled again on the other side of the British Isles. I hope my grandmother renewed her social life and enjoyed the company of fellow volunteers and her circle of friends. My Grandfather of course had his work. He was 80 when he retired from his law practice, several years after my grandmother died. He then “had the distinction of being one of the oldest practising solicitors in South Wales”.
We very seldom saw our grandparents after that year. How often our impressions of older relatives seem to be based on a few encounters, and many of those on special occasions—on memories and absence, rather than presence. If fortunate, they may have acquired some attributes of a white haired, smiling Santa Claus, the bearer of presents and treats. Or at the other extreme, they may be remembered as monsters. We knew “Grandpa” too well for him to achieve either reputation and he remains in my memory as a complicated human being— prickly but often admirable— from a world that has long ago passed away.