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21/11/2012

Goodbye Humble Joe

On Monday we finally said farewell to my Grandad, Jospeh Henry Grant. The service was split into two, with the first half being held at the Anglican church - according to the wishes of his wife, Norah, who wanted to ensure the community who knew him had chance to pay their respects. From there, he was travelled to the crematorium where a short memorial service was delivered by a cousin of mine, who is a practicing Jehovah's Witness (his immediate family are also mostly affiliated to this denomination).

Over the past two weeks I have crafted a journal-entry-turned-eulogy, returning to it at various points to add and amend. I now feel ready to publish this and share it with the world wide web, as a public record and celebration of his life. 

On Saturday morning, 3rd of November, I received an early morning phonecall at around 8.30am. It was my mother. She started immediately with, "I've got some bad news..." It's the kind of much-dreaded opener that often goes through your mind when someone close to you rings at an unexpected time. On this occasion though, having not spoken to my mother for a few weeks, it did not - I just assumed she was finding time to catch up in-between work and other family commitments. 

The news that followed was the passing of my grandfather, Joe Grant, at the age of 91 having suffered breathing difficulties the night before. I fell immediately silent, and my wife took over the conversation. The initial wave of sadness at this news was quickly mixed in with a growing sense of regret knowing that I had pencilled in to see him just the week before, during a week off work - but had found myself instead drawn back to the office to catch up on paperwork. It was easy, I guess, in that moment to quickly turn from grief over his loss to anger at myself, knowing that the window of opportunity to spend that one last treasurable time with him was missed. 

I ventured out for a run shortly after and took the time to allow the news to settle in further. I reasoned with my grief and anger, knowing my Grandad had led a long life and had died relatively peacefully, and knowing that the sense of a missed opportunity was not healthy to dwell upon nor something not readily felt by so many people who lose loved ones. We often look to our elder relatives as invincible, even as the years creep up on them, and it is all too easy to take for granted their temporary presence in our lives. 

On my return from the run and gradually over the weekend, a quiet, still sadness settled over us as a family. It was noticeably not an outpouring of shock and grievance at the time and manner of the passing as happened with my other beloved grandfather, Roy Jackson. It brought me to thinking that my Grandad would approve of this, that he would not want any 'fuss', that he would have considered himself as having a good Geoffrey Boycott-style innings - cricket lover that he was. 


My Grandad was in many ways an unremarkable man, leading an unremarkable life - at least on the surface. He was the classic working-class northern Englishman - I seem to remember he even wore a flat cap at one point, to protect his fair skin and bald head whilst out gardening tending to the tomatoes and tending to the pet rabbit Marmalade. He had worked ordinary jobs, lived in an ordinary house, drove an ordinary car and so on. But for all his ordinariness, taking time over the past two weeks to piece together and reflect on Grandad’s 91 years has brought, for me at least, many insights about life and what it means to be happy. The kind of insights you'd usually expect from reading some great figure’s biography. 

See, Joe Grant was a quiet, jovial man who spoke little of his life to his grandsons, and it was only in the last year or so that I gathered the courage to persist with getting to know a bit more of his life before I was born - with direct questions posed via a small whiteboard due to his profound deafness. My Grandad would often switch between reminiscing readily in response to my promptings, to dismissing them with a casual bemusement, "why do you want to know such things?" Often then Auntie Norah, his wife, would step in– and he’d look at her with a suspicious smile, not being able to hear but knowing she was filling in the gaps. 

I don't know if he had always been this reserved about his experiences and feelings about them, as I guess what a grandson sees in the man that becomes his grandfather, is very different to what the son saw, what the wife saw, what the father and mother saw, what his brothers and sisters saw, what his workmates saw, what his drinking pals saw, and so on. Certainly, it would seem many others had the same experience of this 'friendly man of few words'. 

What little I do know about my Grandad beyond his life as a grandfather is that he was born to a broken and patched up family living in the aftermath of World War One in Hull. It is likely he took the surname of his mother's husband, but took his first name and lineage from a businessman from Louth named Jospeh Kingswood - his mother's 'lodger' who is said to have died relatively young following a cut to his finger from a rose thorn (we can guess he caught tetanus). It seems at some point early on his mother was forced to abandon her youngest three sons, with Little Joe being placed in a Barnado's home. We could be judgemental about this but 1920s and 1930s England was a harsh place both in terms of economic circumstances and the social customs, which were not long out of Victorian times.

From there I am told he was fortunate enough, if you can call anything fortunate in this situation, to be rescued from the Barnado’s home by his elder sister after being scheduled to be shipped to Australia for a new life – he narrowly escaped becoming one of the child migrants which the Australian and British governments apologised to a few years ago due to the widespread abuse they suffered in their new homeland. As a young man, my Grandad, like many of his generation, was enlisted in the armed forces during World War Two and is said to have driven lorries across Egypt, Jordan, India and Burma. He recalled to me one day, very casually, how he had to dodge bullets whilst fixing his lorry as their convoy passed through Anzio, Italy, which I later found out was a relatively famous World War Two battle. My father recalls that he also once told a story of refusing his superior's orders to dig a trench because it meant certain death - and that he and his comrades escaped court martial because army officials recognised they had a point, it would have meant certain death. Another close call I heard just recently was the story of him struggling to get his lorry onto the army ship he was scheduled to sail on, resulting in an ear-bashing and a long wait for another, only later finding out that the original vessel he was due to travel on had been sunk by German bombers. Again, my Grandad experienced a morsel of fortune in a time of grave misfortune. 


The heroic side of Joe Grant is one I never really knew or recognised until a few years ago. To me he was just my big jolly grandfather who would come with Auntie Norah to babysit us every other weekend and give our parents a break - with faint memories of us bouncing on his belly. My Grandad, I suppose, could be described as a reluctant hero. He is said to have thrown his medals away from World War 2 stating that there was nothing to celebrate about war. He did not glorify his efforts against the Nazi Regime and their allies, but seemingly, nor did he make a show of his principles - it was just common sense. 

Having married his Elsie, and brought two sons up into the world, Joe is said to have left her, having fallen for Norah. It would be easy to be black and white in our judgements of this, more so having witnessed the bitterness that seemed to consume my Nannan Elsie until her final days. But it was before my time and knowing my Nan as well I did, I can see how they may have initially complimented one another - Elsie the passionate, perfectionist young woman, daughter of an over-bearing mother perhaps, with Joe the easy-going gentleman, son of no mother. And I can also see how they could have eventually found themselves in perpetual conflict, and all that followed. This is perhaps summed up by a second-hand story told to me just recently, of Joe and Elsie at one time attending Jehovah's Witnesses meetings together with their two children in tow - only to then suddenly stop going because Elsie argued for new clothes ahead of each big event, perhaps eager to support her husband and make a good impression with the various new faces, whilst Joe insisted it wasn't about materialism. 


But what has struck me over the past few years is how at peace my Grandad seemed to be. He seemed to harbour no ill will or worries, there was a sense of acceptance about him that I have not seen in many other people, if any. He was a man of simple tastes, he was a man who didn't indulge in luxury - he enjoyed watching sport on the telly, having a pint or so in the afternoon, and spending time with whoever was stopping by. Of course he would always insist also that visitors shared a pint or other drink with him. Interestingly it is these kind of people - the seemingly most simple unadventurous, unambitious folk - who are often the most cherished, perhaps because they radiate something the busier, striving folk don't. 

I think Grandad Joe's sense of contentment for what he'd got probably came from experiencing life as a child on the poverty line, and by the near misses he had as a young man. Grandad didn’t smoke or drink heavily, and he is even said to have had a full set of teeth – unlike most of his peers. But for all his wholesome living, it was ultimately Auntie Norah’s love and care – particularly in his final years - which helped him to keep going for as long as he did. Looking at how they were together, perhaps that's what the term 'golden' in 'golden anniverary' really points to - not the number of years the relationship has existed, but the condition of the relationship at that particular time of life. Around six months ago I remember my Grandad saying, again in his matter of fact way, that he was ready ‘to go’.


Again there was that something about him that said he had no nagging regrets and was grateful for the life he'd had. I guess he was blessed to reach such an age where you can feel like this, but I also think it was also testament to whatever it was beneath those old watery yet still sparkling eyes and that wry smile - a reflection of a strong inner substance which he didn't readily reveal too much of, but which you just knew was there. 

As I say, my Grandad was not remarkable in the way society views remarkable these days, but he was remarkable in many other ways. Much of what I have said about him today is through piecing together the little glimpses he gave me and those around him - some of it may even be legend. But one thing that comes from all of this is an indisputable fact - as my father said the day after his passing - "He was a good man." 

I feel blessed to have had Joe Grant as my Grandad, and my hope is that a little bit of him carries on into my own life. He will be missed.

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