12 September 2014

Backing Life

There are some people in life who can truly inspire you, simply through their ability to live it. My grandfather was one of these people

Growing up, my sister and I spent a lot of time with him and my Grandma. They moved down to Bath to be near us, and our Monday evenings were filled with Anne Robinson winks, no deal boxes and Countdown conundrums. Grandpa would always know the answers, but it didn't stop me from trying - he made me want to give it a go. He would always say "No deal". So did I. He was a chance-taker. He encouraged me to push myself, as I set there in the miniature chair he built.  

My Grandpa built things. Quite literally - with hammer and nail - he made two doll houses for my sister and I. No "make it yourself" kit. Just wood; the true way. Mine is a perfect Tudor-style, six-bedroom abode, complete with a basement renovation a few years after the original build. 

 It is one of my most treasured possessions. Much of the original furniture was also made by him, while my Grandma did much of the sewing for the pillows and bedding. We also remember spending one day with her and charlotte, making the food for my cousin's doll house by baking clay shapes and then painting. Bless my grandma, she lovingly said "oh Sophie, yours are so good, I think you should keep them for your house". I still have my handmade spaghetti bolognaise, funnily enough. I still have my house in my room, frequently admired when people come to stay, and decorated each year for Christmas. 

Speaking of Christmas, it was  partly my Grandpa's building skills that made him - in my eyes - resemble one of my favourite festive figures:

The parallels didn't end here. In my formative years, the pipe was similarly there; furthermore, Brigg's beloved Saint Nick, like my grandfather, was strong-willed and not hesitant to offer an opinion! Father Christmas has always been one of my favourite christmas films; every year, it was the one film I ensured would be a fixture in my festive viewing, and in the past twenty-four hours I realise part of the reason why. Brigg's Santa reminded me of my grandfather. He was not some unrealistic, perfected Santa Claus. He was human. He was rough around the edges; at times impatient and stubborn. However, he was also uniquely wonderful. Imperfectly perfect. 

His optimism - his faith that life could keep going - is an outlook that I think everyone can learn from and be inspired by. This brings me onto a more recent Christmas embodiment of my Grandpa - my family's latest Christmas classic, which I am sad he will never watch with us. 

Grand-Santa. I don't know how many people will have watched Arthur Christmas? If you haven't, put it on your list! It is funny, heart-warming, a great story - everything a Christmas film should be. Think Madagascar in the North Pole. Grand-Santa is the retired Mr Claus, with the job now being filled by his son, and eyed up by his Grandson. Grand-Santa is doubted, by the third generation in particular. He is set in his ways, a bit aloof - but underneath it all, he is someone who cares. The first time we watched it, I remember all of us just turning to each other and saying "it's Grandpa!" Especially looking at my Grandpa's resolute determination to keep driving - in recent times he even announced how he wanted to go on a coach trip to Guernsey! The reaction was much disbelief, echoing the disbelief of the younger Claus generation. 

My Grandpa never did go to Guernsey - it was a pipe dream. However, beneath my incredulity, there lay another emotion - admiration. As unrealistic as he was being, he was so determined that you could not help but think "good on you!" Good on you for dreaming, for hoping.  My blog title, and my outlook on life, centres on this idea of possibility. My Grandpa epitomised this. All too often in this world, people can resign themselves; relegate their life to the substitution bench if the match is not quite going their way. In his final years, my Grandpa's match was plagued with so many disruptions and penalties; even a highly determined person would hold up their hands and say "I accept the inevitable". For my grandpa, there never was an inevitability. Maybe some would call this naivety, but I never saw it that way. 

I have my fair share of experience of life not quite mapping out as you hoped, but watching my grandpa being as resilient as he gave - and still gives - me so much hope. Moreover  he wasn't just resolute about living his own life; he wanted it for his loved ones too. When he found out we were going to Asia, and mum contemplated cancelling in case he needed her, he wouldn't hear any of it! 

He wanted us to go on that adventure - to climb that mountain - because it is what he did all of his life. He took chances, he pushed himself. Yes, at times this caused exasperation. Yes, many people would have placed him in a care home years ago. That was never happening. That wasn’t him. His body was ageing but his mind never did. When he joked about turning the clock back each year, for him it held some truth! In mind, at least. 

Every morning he completed the crossword - it really was incredible. No modern day googling of answers. Just his mind. On Sundays he would send it off for the prize draw, alternating the submission name between my sister, my three cousins and I. He never won, a fact that I am thoroughly dissatisfied with - I'm sure many of the winners are smart phones. Everyday, he placed his bet for the races. This was his biggest hobby, but it wasn't all to do with the gambling. It was following the horses, the trainers - he knew it all like the back of his hand. Occasionally, he would ring up to say that he'd won with a horse called "Sophie's Prize" or something with a literary name. He said he "knew it would be a winner". Little things like this brightened my day; it reminded us that, even on the other side of the country, he was thinking about us. 

He hated being cooped inside - he loved to go out, to see people, and to talk. Like me, he loved to talk! Always telling jokes, making people laugh. Occasionally the jokes flew over our heads, but some were truly brilliant. My grandfather lived life on his terms, always believing that the top of the mountain was reachable. If there is one silver lining, it is that he did this to the last. On his final day he enjoyed a pub meal, chatted away to people, saw friends. His body simply couldn't climb anymore, but his mind was always on that mountain peak. 

He never wanted to be wrapped in cotton wool, and this is an approach I have adopted in my own life. It is something he instilled in my mum, and she likewise with me. When so many people doubted me going to University last year, my mum was the one person who always believed I could; she has my grandpa's outlook. It is why I know that going back on Sunday is absolutely the right thing, because the best way I can honour this person's life, is to keep living my own. 

A person who, for all their single-mindedness and conservative views, could be so incredibly open. First of all, he astonished us with how he took to Millie - dubbed "Willy" at first - even visiting the Newcastle pet shop for treats, and saying she could get a quality groom appointment! However, the most marked occasion for me, was when I got into Exeter. I remember how, when I realised the Oxbridge application dream was over, one of my initial thoughts - being me - was worrying about disappointing him.  When I received the Durham rejection - same feeling. I also had this vision of my going to Newcastle on  Saturday and going to The Dragon House Chinese with him.

Nevertheless, all of this worry… ultimately  he could not have been happier about Exeter. He thought Durham was "cold" and Oxbridge (even if I had by some miracle gotten in) too pressurised. He told mum it was the best place for me. In that moment, I understood; it wasn't the destination he admired, it was how I got there. His eye wasn't fixed on the finish line, but how i was running and how I would always keep trying. This was the same for my sister, and my cousins. 

So many things in my life link to my Grandpa. My love of puzzles, 'thinking' games. Even my risk strategy - Grandpa and I were always the ones saying "no" when watching Deal or No Deal. We were putting all the cards in, taking that chance and hoping it would pay off. As I've already mentioned, he was a builder. This included aeroplane kits, particularly the Lancaster Bomber, the plane he was on during Bomber Command, as an engineer. One thing I am so thankful for, was that he was alive to see the memorial for Bomber Command finally made. I remember feeling so proud of him the day my parents went with him. Another hobby was bargain hunting. Literally - we would receive a phone call out of the blue asking if we wanted a new BBQ or lawn mower! Some of his discoveries were amazing; he introduced us to Lidls! He loved doing things to help his family. Before I went to University, he gave me the most beautiful green cover book, which held the collected plays of Shakespeare. Every single one. It is perfect.

My decision to horse-ride was mostly because I loved it, but this stemmed from having seen them on the television from a young age. I would never race, but I rode for over a decade and loved to tell him about it. When he came to one of my lessons, I remember sitting in my saddle and feeling so happy. When I won my first place rosette, I wanted him to know. He was someone who I felt so proud to make proud, and this wasn't just attained by grades on paper. It was by living. One thing I am already upset about, is knowing he won't see me graduate. However, he saw many other things that my Grandma never could, and for that I am grateful. Grateful that one of them saw me go to University, studying what I loved.

After I found out I had gotten into Exeter, he said over the phone "I know when to back a true winner".  I will make sure of it that he did; for winning is not about passing the post first. It is about to give everything you've got in the race - to never stop running. This is always possible - it does not require skill; it is about determination. Trust. Trusting in that possibility. 

This quote, from one of my favourite books, captures why my Grandpa was one of the most courageous people I knew. After my Grandma died, he didn't give up. When his body started breaking, he never lost hope. He saw it through. In my eyes, he definitely won. 

Goodnight soldier. When it came to backing life, the winning horse was you, and that will never stop being a source of inspiration for me. I'll never forget you, and I'll never stop running. 

*ps: I'll make sure, one day, we get those crossword winnings for you. They're long overdue.


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