Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.
Today ANNIKA PERRY shares poignant memories of her strong but kind fisherman grandfather.
LOSS OF A PATRIARCH
The humid heat radiates around the room as the bright summer sun glares through the wispy cotton curtains. Sleeping bodies are sprawled on the beds, sheets cast aside or crumpled in a heap. The day has arrived. I lay wide-awake. Just thinking; thinking of the day and trying to feel. Trying to feel anything but hot. How pathetic on this day of all days to concentrate on my own selfish needs. I am alive and can enjoy the beauty of sensation, thought, sight. Yes, I am alive. And where is Morfar?
I remember him alive: his teasing, his laughter, the passionate discussions. The interesting chats about world affairs and events closer to home. The mealtimes that ended up resembling global conferences, punctuated with the occasional clanging thump on the table with his big hand as he emphasised a particular point.
He’d been hard at work for most of his 92 years. Fingers lately swollen and gnarled, but incredibly strong all the same and once in its vice-like grip, my puny fingers didn’t stand a chance. Rue the day the giant crab took Morfar’s thumb in its claw and held. You never had a chance Mr Crab! Morfar’s patience far outlasted yours and sorry, I am sure you were a most delicious dinner – for those who like crustaceans!
Slowly I stand up and pad about the room, take a quick refreshing shower and by six I am dressed in shorts and T-shirt heading outside. The beauty of the day strikes me immediately; it is so quiet, calm and just the right temperature. Everything is sparkling in the brightest clearest hues. The blue sea is still and peaceful. Walking down to the harbour I see a fishing boat heading back in. On many such mornings and many stormy ones too no doubt, Morfar steered his vessel into the harbour. Once he had off-loaded the catch, sorted the nets and cleaned the boat he’d come home for breakfast. Often I would just be awake and at the table munching away on Mormor’s homemade bread and drinking my chocolate milk. All bright and breezy he would come up via the cellar, washing first before greeting me with a teasing “Good Afternoon!” The conversation would be fast and at times incomprehensible as the morning’s catch was discussed; the number of crabs, other fishes, market price. I kept my fingers crossed hoping it had been a good day. After breakfast, as I sauntered to get dressed and ready, Morfar would be out fixing the nets.
I sit down on a bench looking out to the island where he had lived all his life. The blue bridge, which connects the oasis to the neighbouring island, now brings modern life and its opportunities as well as problems that much closer. On the untouched southerly point the rocks ripple in colours of greys and pinks with yellow flowers taking hold in the tiny cracks whilst heathers grow abundantly in the shallow dips, their purple a delicate and beckoning welcome. The two lighthouses guide the way to ships at night. How many times had I climbed those rocks? The same rocks my Mamma grew up on and the same rocks Morfar and his friends clambered.
Wasn’t Morfar just that? A rock: A patriarch to a large family of five children, 19 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren and increasing. He was infinitely wise, but always humbly so. Praise was only offered at one’s peril; unwelcome and brusquely brushed aside and a new topic quickly introduced.
These thoughts are going through my mind this summer morning, as anything else seems too grim in this tranquil haven.
I recall the smell of Mormor’s fresh bread filling the house, as I’d quickly dash downstairs to see if I could scrounge some before lunch. I shudder at the memory of the fish odour in the boat, the sight of crabs in the wooden boxes scrabbling to escape, the sensation of bile in my throat as the fishing boat bobbed slowly but sickeningly in the waves as Morfar hauled up the nets. Ever so slowly it seemed to me. Please hurry up, I’d mutter. He’d looked at me surprised, amused at the thought of rushing the act of fishing. I know I wasn’t a natural sailor, but thank you for showing me your world.
Thank you God for reuniting Mormor and Morfar; thank you for letting them be together again. A thought I cling to for the rest of the day, a phrase repeated by many and the only possibility that brings any sense to this madness. That Morfar is no longer with us. Even now, in black and white, the words are too nonsensical.
Morfar is here. He is at home, just back from the net-making factory after doing some work and having a good chin-wag with the chaps down there during morning coffee. Often he jokingly referred to these friends as ‘babies, well most of them were 20 years younger! Whilst eating the homemade cakes, Morfar would start discussions with “well, chaps, what arewe going to talk about today?” Later at the funeral, these warm kind friends brought me to tears as they spoke with such love of my Morfar.
Resigned that I could not stop the day, I head back to the hotel to get ready. Mundane life continues as we prepare to say farewell.
Outside the heat blasts like a furnace. At least in dresses and shawls, us women don’t swelter too much, the men in suits do, however no one complains.
In near silence we drive to the island, first across the bridge. This time the usual tummy butterflies of excitement fail to greet me, instead heavy dullness crashes onto my heart. Cope with this minute, then the next; that mantra is how I struggle through the day.
The changes on the island are more striking than ever. The newly built houses and marina greet us where before the rolling rocks stretched to the water. The hill up and over to the centre of the island remains the same, as is the tree-lined lane up to Morfar’s house. We pass his house and home. We don’t stop. No, this is all wrong. So wrong. After what feels like an eternity, we finally arrive at the cafe by the old harbour. There is his boat. Not that he has been on it for the past year but it was his. The past tense angers me. Clip-clopping on our high heels we meander along the wooden quay. The sailing boats bobbing rhythmically, children running past playfully, a couple sipping coffee in the shade.
Our dignified group takes a seat in the shade, the choir rehearsing in the cafe adding certain pathos to the day. The café which used to be a net making factory built by my grandmother’s father and where Morfar used to moor the big trawler and off load the nets, all spread along the wooden pier to dry before repair could begin. History, I’m surrounded by living history. Morfar, I know you are no longer with us, but oh, you are so very much all around us, inside us. Never gone.
The silent morning is broken by a few disjointed mournful utterances. Silence dominates. The crying air is deafening. What is there to say? A few practical points are addressed. Toilet stop. Shoes. Where best to sit. Sun? Shade? Then once again silence.
A smart group walks purposefully towards us along the quay and I realise it’s my brother and his family. I see the resolution in my brother’s eyes. I feel it. To get through this day and not to be too emotional or he will crack. I understand.
Memories of our last visit to Morfar and our goodbye come to mind. Leaning against the kitchen counter Morfar once again said goodbye. Just before he had given my son the biggest longest hug. The two of them squeezing each other like there was no tomorrow. My son engulfed by this huge man and his love for his great-grandchild. My son who loved and respected his great-grandfather so much. His ultimate hero. Their greatness and goodness so alike. Holding him out, Morfar looked at my son and my little man returned the warm thoughtful gaze. A farewell hug to last a lifetime. Morfar hugged with me with strength and depth, yet I sensed his inner weakness, his frailty. It was not commented on, but definitely noticeable; his appetite was near non-existent and he seemed in constant pain. Subconsciously I wondered whether we would we see him again – a thought I immediately dismissed.
It was hard leaving him after our wonderful days together. We all had such fun, joviality and laughter and felt closer than ever. A journey of discovery had been undertaken and completed with a quiet resolution. Everything felt right.
The gleaming white church stands on the hill, towering over the park and gardens. The beautiful gardens created by the fishermen over 50 years ago and tended by them and their wives. A few years ago a moment of insanity drove the local council to rip up the fragrant border of pink wild roses and replace it with a plain white picket fence.
I walk towards my three fishermen cousins, who live on the island with their families and were particularly close to Morfar; they are already red-eyed and totally inconsolable. No words are exchanged. Just hugs. Us grandchildren are self-conscious and self-aware in our grief. Looking around I notice Mamma talking warmly to her siblings, father’s friends, to her cousins, sharing tears and hugs. So natural and right. We have a lot to learn.
The bright light outside throws the foyer into a gloomy darkness. Or is it just my soul? We wait. As always we are early. Then it time and the door to the main church opens.
A glorious warm light strikes us and I spot the beams up to the high vaulted ceilings. White and wood. Wood. There he lays in the light wood coffin surrounded by a variety of flowers with the anchor, designed by Mamma ,in white and blue flowers, resting at its feet. The coffin. The reason we are here and yet again I feel anger and a sense of finality.
A single angelic voice radiates around the room and tears at our hearts. The first verse is the serene acappella of ‘Amazing Grace’ then the soft tones of instruments are layered with the voice and finally, the soul-wrenching choir comes in; it is heavenly and moving beyond words. Here is our release. Mamma, at last, cries her heart out. Most are moved to tears and beyond. It is as if the song never wants to end. No, don’t stop, I want to cry out. This is enough. Just let us sit here, listen to this ethereal infinity and feel. Alas the song ends, now we are all shaken to the core.
The service ranges from the everyday to the deeply touching. The talk of Morfar ‘going home’ seems fine the first time. I can relate to the imagery here. But the numerous repetitions drive me to distraction. “He had a lovely warm home,” I want to stand up and shout at the top of my lungs. A home built into the hard granite rocks that he helped blow up and haul by hand up the hill, a white wooden house with lots of steps. He had his chair right where it should be, in front of the TV and don’t you dare come and disturb him now, it’s time for the news. A home he lived in for 67 years. It is his home; rock solid, waiting for him, now so lonely and sad.
At one stage people come to the front and say a few words. At this point I collapse in tears as one of his friends recalls Morfar and some of their good times. He paints such a true picture of the man, his life and vitality that I expect Morfar to walk through the door with a funny teasing comment. Even his grand age becomes the subject of his wit as at lunch one day Morfar commented that he had been told he was now officially the oldest person on the island. As silence descended, everyone was unsure what to add, Morfar filled the gap with a sardonic, “And that is not always a good thing!”
The choir consists mainly of Mamma’s cousins, singing some beautiful songs, some of his favourites and some I remember Mormor singing as she cleaned, baked, cooked.
Suddenly I am at their house, transported away from the church. Mormor bending down to the living room floor and giving it a loud couple of knocks with her knuckles. Ouch, that must have hurt. Morfar downstairs in the cellar, busy with the nets and as usual he’d failed to hear her initial call down the stairs that lunch was ready. She’d asked me to knock on the floor but was unimpressed with my quiet feeble efforts and so had come over to sort the job herself as usual; she was always so efficient and fast in all her actions. After lunch Morfar would lay down on that very same floor, just a cushion under his head and rest for 20 minutes whilst we, the grandchildren, would have fun jumping over him to see if he woke, or reacted at all, but to no avail.
The service is drawing to an end. Despite my earlier inner predictions that someone would faint from heat exhaustion we are all still very much alert.
The night before we had written little notes to place on the coffin. At the time we thought we might feel self-conscious leaving them there, but no, how wrong we were. We walk respectfully past, we all pause for a moment, place our notes carefully under some flowers or ribbons, bid our inner goodbyes.
Soon it is time to leave the church. With resolve my brother and five of my cousins move to the front and take their place by Morfar’s coffin. Eighteen years ago he was one of six to lift Mormor’s coffin onto their shoulders and carry her out to the hearse. Handles this time, but I wonder, what is he feeling? He is never a man to speak easily of emotions, if at all, I am troubled for my brother. He has, literally, had so many burdens to bear.
The bells toll ever so slowly, so mournfully and resonate with sorrow and loss; echoing the moment and all our emotions. Later, we walk towards the grave and see Morfar’s coffin laid out on slats, placed above the hole. My brother once again, along with our cousins, takes the weight of the coffin as the slats are removed and lower it slowly to his final resting place. I know this would soon be it, our final farewell to Morfar.
A few more words are said by the priest – reiterating once again the phrase of ‘going home’, a song is sung and people step forward for one last farewell. I have said mine and so remain back. My brother and his family step forward and I hear a gentle clang. Oh yes, the stone from the island picked by my nephew the day before. How perfect to throw it down and leave forever a fragment of the island with Morfar. Perfect cosmic balance.
I lift my head and gaze across the blue sea with its sparkling dance as ripples of diamond light reflect on the water. There you are Morfar. My eyes move to the rocks and trees. I can feel you Morfar. Quickly I glance up at the sunlit sky. Yes, you are there too. Not in that deep dark hole. Most of all, you will live forever in our hearts. Missing you forever, the earthly human contact now gone and mourned, but you are still here. Reunited with your beloved wife and lifetime companion, reunited with your long-lost parents, seeing your brothers and sisters once again. You are with them as well as with us.
Hope the fishing is good Morfar, catch lots of crabs won’t you and look out for that thumb! Who knows, you might meet your match one day in the form of a very patient huge crab!
Judy Collins – Amazing Grace
Hungry for more? Here is a piece about Annika’s GRANDMOTHER
And another about the FISHERMEN of old.