The Spot Writers – “Death in the Family,” by Tom Robson

Welcome to The Spot Writers. The title of this piece is the prompt for this month and comes from Tom Robson, author of Written While I Still Remember, a Patchwork Memoir.

***

Death in the Family.

There is an irony in this prompt which requires me to publish a story, on line, on the occasion of my eightieth birthday. Achieving this milestone brings the reminder that death looms large. Yet I am the exception that proves the rule that the males on either side of my family tree don’t last too long in this life. Both grandfathers just made it to seventy. My father’s body succumbed, before he reached sixty, to the long term effects of wartime malaria and breathing in noxious substances working at an oil refinery. Uncles passed long before their spouses, while  many of the females lasted well into their eighties and even ninety. Perhaps I have inherited a preponderance of their genes.

More irony. At birth I was not expected to emerge without damage. Birthday minus one, through to delivery I had refused to somersault, seeming determined to be born feet first. In 1936, even at the prestigious St James Infirmary in Leeds, extended breech births to first time mothers were risky. Perhaps the fifteen minutes of fame that fate entitles us to, were the first minutes of my life when the medics saw that I was alive and apparently undamaged. My mother often told me that I cheated death when I was born.

I was never allowed to deal with death and loss as a child, teen and young adult. In consequence, funerals were alien experiences and occasions to be avoided.The first funeral I attended was my fathers, when I was 34, married and with a family of my own. My children did not attend their grandfather’s funeral.

To put this avoidance in perspective, I grew up in wartime Britain. Every day, death was in the news. Two uncles were taken. Conversation around their deaths excluded myself and my young cousins. But all three of us heard our grandfather’s ale-stimulated opinions of the U-boat attacks, the navy that refused to stop for survivors and the blame that could be attached to Churchill almost as much as Hitler. But he did not argue about our evacuation to the countryside after another son was killed in an air raid, before he even enlisted in the army.

After the war, there was a polio outbreak  where we lived. It took the lives of a few children but there was no gathering of schoolmates at the burial service. Fear  of contagion was more powerful than the need to grieve during  that particular summer vacation.

In my early years of teaching my best friend was killed in a car accident. I should have read the eulogy I prepared but I could not bring myself to attend the service and face friends and students at the school where we both taught.

The surprising consequence was that my stumbling excuse that I couldn’t deal with the ending to his life, was understood by many of our friends and colleagues. My generation of Brits kept ‘a stiff upper lip” but often it was because we avoided confronting death. Many understood. We were discouraged from being in the presence of its aftermath. We did not intimately know death. We did not confront it. We did not talk about it.

I was sixteen when my father’s mother was eighty. In her declining years she would spend time living with which ever of her children agreed to take care of her. She would live with one until it was agreed that another wanted her or felt guilty enough to take a turn. My father was her youngest and I was the youngest of her many grandchildren. We had been close in the war years when my mother and I spent time living with and helping her.

That winter of 1952-3 she came to the warmer south of England to live with us. I gave up my bedroom to sleep on a cot in the “front’ room; that vestige of Edwardian lifestyle which was only used when people who had to be impressed came to visit. This teenager quickly spoiled its pristine appearance.

We had our Christmas dinner at my nearby aunt and uncle’s house. In the evening we were joined by various family friends. My aunt and her mother were avid card players. The preferred game was Partner Whist. Aunt Mabel organized sixteen or twenty of her guest into two person, teams to compete for the 1952 Christmas Cup.I partnered my grandmother. This delighted both of us.

I am not sure whether we won because we were the only sober couple, the only pair who treated the game seriously or whether my aunt cooked the results. My grandmother was almost delirious, still talking about how well we had played as we took her home and persuaded her that it was way past her bedtime.

On Boxing Day morning, we let grandma sleep in. My uncle arrived on his bike about 11:00am. He was making his Boxing Day round of visits to friends and relatives, enjoying a drink at each stop. He would be sleeping at one of his visits when he could be persuaded that he was no longer capable of riding his bike to the next ‘pit stop’

As he arrived we could hear my grandmother moving around and I was eventually asked to tap on her door and tell her “Bert is here!”

I did this and when there was no reply I opened the door, assuming my hard-of-hearing grandma missed my too gentle knock.

Grandma was in an untidy heap on the floor, her dead body reflected in the mirror on the wardrobe door.

I cried for help in a voice strangled by sobs. My father came and ushered me out of the room, calling on my mother to look after me and for Bert to help him.

After the doctor visited and signed the document certifying that she had suffered a fatal heart attack, the undertaker had been called and my uncle sent home to comfort his wife, daughter of the deceased, I had to be attended to.

To this day I do not understand why I was removed from the presence of my grandmother and why I was left alone and unwelcome at her funeral. I vaguely recall a statement from one of my parents that “it was better if I stayed away. It was not…” ;and the rest of the reasoning has gone but it was something like”funerals are no  place for children!”

I was sixteen. I was trying to believe that I was no longer a child. I had spent many days and nights, of the six years my father was away at war, at his mother’s home in northern Leeds, where she would be taken, by train, to be buried. I did not realize then that I needed to say goodbye. I only knew I was sad and I wanted to be there.

Instead, one of the many calls that Boxing Day afternoon, on our new-to-us gadget, the telephone, was to my friend Pete’s mother, asking if I could stay with them for a few days. Less than four hours after her death I was delivered to the Appletons, sat down at their late lunch of Christmas left-overs and given my choice of playing pieces for the evening game of Monopoly.

There had been a death in the family. Someone I loved dearly had passed away. Why was I not invited to say goodbye?

My grandmother left a reminder. I love to play cards. The only thing I do left-handed is deal cards. The only thing my father did cack-handed was to deal cards. My right handed grandmother, who taught both of us to play, also dealt left handed. I’ve been reminded of grandma many times in the sixty five years since she left, when asked, “Why are you dealing  left handed?”

* * *

The Spot Writers – our members are:-

RC Bonitz:         rcbonitz.com

Val Muller:                   http://www.valmuller.com/blog/

Catherine A MacKenzie      https://writingwicket.wordpress.com/wicker-chitter/

Tom Robson     https://robsonswritings.wordpress.com/

 

 

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