All that remains…

I found out a little over a year ago that my late grandfather liked to write. It is a failing of myself that I had never thought to ask.

It came up in casual conversation with my great-aunt, whom I’d dropped by to visit over a busy Christmas schedule in the Caribbean. I love Aunt Helen, who helped me land my first job in journalism and who, despite her years, is still a formidable force to be reckoned with in the field. I was telling her about my job in IT and how I’d been keeping up my writing through my blog and with the occasional piece I write for various publications, including hers. I don’t even know if she knew about this blog; the Internet is not something too much in her frame of reference. Telling her about the IT, I almost fell asleep myself. But her face just lit up when I talked about writing.

“Oh, your grandfather always knew you were going to be a writer, just like your dad.” I woke up immediately. What? My grandfather died when I was 11; the last thing on my mind the last time I had seen him was what I would end up doing with my life. (In retrospect, the only thing on my mind when I was 11 was, “I hope my parents don’t find out how often I masturbate.”) How in the world did my grandfather ever imagine that this particular grandson, out of so many, would end up writing?

“Your grandfather used to love writing. He said it made him feel calm.” My grandfather was a politician, holding several cabinet positions during his career. The only writing I imagined him doing was writing speeches. But his sister was talking about what he wrote in his spare time. “He raised four children, so he didn’t have much time, but boy, whenever he had time, he loved it. He was very funny. He just never had time.” I was stunned. Did anyone else in the family know this? “No, he kept it rather quiet. It was just one of those things he loved to do, like gardening. It relaxed him.”

I asked her if she had anything in storage that he had written. “Oh, no, I don’t think that ever occurred to him. Honestly, I think he would have been a little embarrassed. I don’t even know if your father ever even knew.” She paused. She is getting on in age, and her hands shake. Her signature always looks like an ECG readout. “But he always knew you would do something like that. He saw it in you when you were very young. You’re just like him, you know.” She then asked me if I wanted any of the black-eyed peas on the table with my lunch. I declined. Black-eyed peas are vile.

************

One time, I came home from university abroad, somewhat depressed, for those vague, completely stupid reasons people get depressed in uni. It was a lovely day, and I was supposed to meet my father for lunch to watch some cricket, so I drove to his office.

Barry, a guy my father worked with for more than 20 years, saw me pull in and told me Dad was stuck in a meeting away from the office and wouldn’t be back for half an hour. We chatted a bit and then he told me I should just wait in Dad’s office until he returned.

The first thing I noticed there was a picture of me and my siblings, all flashing bright smiles. Then there was a picture of Mum, that photo I knew he loves so much, and next to that was, to my shock, my most recent article for the Guardian. It was surrounded by several others. In fact, my father, a former journalist himself, had almost covered his desk with his son’s newspaper clippings. I sat quiet for a moment, then grabbed my backpack and headed out to my car. I’d wait for Dad there. I didn’t want him to see me seeing all that at his desk. It would have been embarrassing for both of us.

************

A few months ago, I did a reading from my Dad’s newly-published poetry anthology. My brothers and sisters were all there with my parents. While I was up front reading, apparently some women in the back of the room were carrying on a conversation. (I can never hear this when I’m on stage; I’m too busy concentrating on not urinating on myself.) People talking during a reading is nothing unusual, or even bad; readings are, on the whole, pretty boring, and I’m sure what they were talking about was far more interesting than whatever I was blathering about up front.

But one of my younger sisters would have none of this. She stood up, walked to the back, crossed her arms and stared at the chatty Cathies. “AHEM! Excuse me, but my brother is reading from my Dad’s book right now, and you need to be quiet. So be quiet!” She stared at them for another 10 seconds or so, then turned back around and sat down next to my father.

From what I’m told, they were very quiet from then on.

************

I was talking with a friend recently about my writing, specifically, the minute details of my life and of my family’s life I have included in this blog. Then she brought up something that, once again, I’d never even considered: “You ever thought just how fascinated your grandchildren are going to be reading your blog? It’s going to be like a time capsule.”

Imagine that. Imagine being able to read about your grandfather’s life, and his times, from when he was in his mid-20s and 30s and 40s. His fears, his hopes, his dreams; by the time they read these, they will know the ending of the story in a way the author does not. They will have a tie to their roots, a little sliver of understanding of what has helped make them who they are.

This was never the intention, but, truth be told, that might be one of the greatest gifts this blog could ever give, if I can keep it going.

************

When you strip it all away, we are lonely and confused and, all told, rather pointless. Our constant bluster must be amusing to whomever created this universe; nothing we do is important. In 90 years we’re all going to be dead, and whatever we have created during our short time here will be forgotten. Everything I’ve ever written, anything I’ve ever done, will, eventually, be the dead sea scrolls, relics, strange curiosities easily dismissed.

At the end, all we really have is family. We have the people who know how we used to cry whenever we lost a big game, how we would get scared and crawl into bed with them after listening to jumbie (ghost) stories, how we never could pronounce the word “denominator” without stuttering over the third syllable. They’re the people, the only people, who are with you at the beginning, the middle and the end. They’re the only people who, honestly, really matter. Everything else just occupies the time, gives us something to do.

My family is the reason I’ve been able to do anything, and they will be my only legacy. That’s just fine with me. I couldn’t ask for any better way to go down in history.

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Parents rule!

My parents celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary just before Christmas. Now, obviously, that’s a figure that blows me away. 41 years. Ignoring that I haven’t been on earth that long, and ignoring that I’ve never even been married, just simply let that roll through your brain for a while. 41 years! My parents were married during Watergate, the Thatcher years, and during many more momentous times.. And yet when I see them together today, they’re the same. Mum’s making fun of Dad, he endures the good-natured ribbing with a shake of his head and a grin, and at times they’re just like a couple of kids so comfortable and enamoured with each other you feel like you stumbled across them on their honeymoon.

Now, you might think I’m going to be pithy in this column, a Pip-like Londoner full of cute little snide comments about my West Indian family, how they don’t get it, how they’re getting old and crotchety. But no. My parents are normal, sincere, hard-working, straightforward people who have set an example for me that often sends off internal alarms any time I feel I might be betraying it. In December 2010, I flew back to the Caribbean with my US-based sister to join the rest of our siblings to celebrate their 40th anniversary, and the whole trip served to remind me why I think my parents are so great.

Four examples that immediately come to mind, out of the thousands:

They recognize and enjoy that they have interesting, and sometimes weird, children. A couple years ago my mother was telling me about a conversation she had with someone. She was telling them about her son in London, and her daughter in America, and her other kids,  the paramedic, the teachers and journalists.  Her friend’s response was something along the lines of: “You have such interesting kids. You raised them well and they’re really living their lives.”

I could hear my mother positively beaming down the telephone line when she told me that story. She couldn’t have been more proud if her friend had told her we should run for President. My parents never blinked, not once, when I told them I wanted to be a journalist; they never panicked when I walked away from a steady job to help start up a new newspaper with no guarantee of success or income, and they never blanched (at least not openly) when I decided to move to London, following what must have seemed like a senseless flight of fancy. My parents have never really ever pressured me to do anything other than what I believed in, unless you count eating black eyed peas. Talking to many of my peers, pushed and pressured to become doctors and lawyers and accountants, I gather this is a rare, rare quality in parents. I’m not sure my father has yet worked out how to send a phone text message, but I often feel he has supported this mad dash of mine since before I even knew it was what I wanted.

They’re really just mother lions. As a kid growing up, I could always count on a clip behind the ear from a giant paw when I stepped out of line (which was often!), but if you really want to see my parents’ fangs and claws, just mess with one of their children!

The night before I left, we went out for dinner. A friend of mine showed up who, coincidentally, happened to know an ex-girlfriend with whom I’d not had a very amicable split. This fact was brought up to them, and they, simultaneously, squished their faces as if they’d just stepped in dog manure. “It’s a good thing I never saw her afterwards,” my mum said, “because I would have had a few choice words for her.” To this day, the mere mention of her name draws their ire, far more than it does mine. I don’t even think about it much anymore (really), but they never forgot how much that break-up gutted me, and they likely never will.

They never fail to tell me how much they care, but don’t embarrass me by actually saying it. I don’t think we are a hugely lovey-dovey, touchy-feely family, and I wouldn’t want us to be. I know my parents love me, and vice versa, so we don’t need to go on and on about it. They always pick the right times to show it.

On my surprise trip for their 40th anniversary, heavy snow in London had forced all the major airports to close. They were still closed a few days before my return to London (I was flying back before Christmas), and I was desperately hoping that I might get stuck out in the Caribbean for another week. I could tell my parents were secretly hoping the same and my mum looked quite crestfallen when we realised that flights had resumed just the day before I was due to leave. I was quite gutted myself.

My friends can’t believe they’re as old as they are … and they’re not even that old. My parents married young and they both still take care of themselves (and each other). Unlike me, my dad has all his hair and I probably have as many or even more grey ones than he does (I am SO thankful for L’Oreal MenExpert!) Dad still occasionally gets mistaken for an older brother and Mum has a face at least 10 years younger than she really is. My parents are not decrepit old people; it’s like they insist on remaining as young as possible, and by doing so, they keep me young too.

I am getting to the age now where some of my friends have lost their parents. It makes me so sad, just to think about it. They’ve done their best to fill that cavernous gap, and they haven’t done it the way I suspect I would – depressed months and years of aimless wandering. How? I can’t even begin to imagine. I would be so lost without both my parents in my life. I know that’s dopey, and certainly not very hip. But I love my parents, and simply the privilege of knowing them, let alone being able to call them my parents, is my boundless good fortune, and it’s one I will never take for granted.

Happy anniversary, guys. May you have 41 more. Please.