It is nearly a year now since my dad died.
This morning I spoke to my mum, who is currently languishing in hospital recovering from the symptoms of a minor stroke and sporting a broken arm and a fractured cheek. It’s strange, but I really can’t remember when they lost their super powers and became mere mortals. A couple of years ago they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and seemed unstoppable. Now one is gone and the other seems to have been badly beaten with a sock full of Kryptonite!
Few of us probably fully appreciate our parents until they are no longer there. Two years ago my parents had, between them, a combined life span of some 170 years. They had survived the Blitz as children on the streets of inner city Birmingham, struggled through the austerity years of postwar Britain and my dad had served in Palestine during the first ever Arab-Israeli conflict. I had never really considered them particularly remarkable though. To me they were just my parents and much about their lives before I emerged into the world was a mystery to me.
Pablo Picasso once said, “It takes a long time to become young”. I never really understood that until I sat down and really talked with my parents a couple of years ago. Only then did I realise that I had spent my entire life living with two virtual strangers. My dad had spent much of his life as a painter and decorator. What was he doing racing around Palestine being shot at by Arabs and Israelis and running a gauntlet of fire to deliver the barrack laundry in a 30-ton fire truck? And my mother…riding around in the blackout on the back of a motorbike…with a man who wasn’t my father! It was the most animated I had seen them both in years. My mum told me about sleeping in the Anderson shelters during the air raids and watching dog fights above the streets of Birmingham. I heard about their old dog, who could sense a German bomber from about two miles away and the night that a bomb broke the cuckoo clock. I even found out about their exciting honeymoon, spent getting their ration books changed!
We had never been a particularly close family. Both my grandfathers died when I was young, my mum’s two sisters emigrated to Australia as ‘Ten Pound Poms’ back in the 1960s and me and my brother never got on. Growing up, I never really felt any sort of affinity towards kin and kinship. I knew my grandparents owned a chip shop, but I never knew that my maternal grandfather was an ARP warden during the war. I always knew my mum’s older brother as ‘Uncle Stan’, but the image of him racing through bombed out rubble on his bike, chasing down crashed German fighters was a complete revelation to me.
One particularly engaging tale related to my mum’s grandmother, Granny Sutton, a lady that my mum obviously remembered with a great deal of affection. She lived in the small village of Shenstone, just outside Lichfield and was, by all accounts, a truly remarkable woman. Tiny in stature and dressed entirely in black, she lived with her disabled daughter in a little cottage next to the old village church. Almost blind, she nonetheless raised her daughter alone and kept the cottage and its surrounding garden immaculate. The old iron grate was always blackened, the red tiles practically shone and there wasn’t a weed to be found anywhere. All this in itself, whilst admirable, isn’t what made this little slice of family history so extraordinary though…
…What made Granny Sutton stand out was the fact that an entire U.S. Army base adopted her as their own!
At the proud instigation of my young mother and her brother, an American soldier turned up at her cottage one afternoon to pay a visit, to be greeted with the immortal words…”Ooo, got any gum chum?”. In spite of a serious deficit of teeth (by then she was in possession of a single, solitary tooth), my late, maternal great grandmother it seems had a penchant for chewing gum and was not backwards in coming forwards to ask for it. The soldier went on his way, suitably charmed, soon to be followed by others…along with a regular supply of gum, chocolate and anything else the old lady required. The Americans it seemed adored her. On the day that they left, a photo appeared in the local newspaper showing Granny Sutton standing next to a tank, bidding a fond farewell to her benefactors…and doubtless asking for a last stick of gum for old times sake.
Eventually she went completely blind, but that didn’t stop her visiting the local pub for her regular tot of whiskey and on the day she died she was just six weeks short of her 103 birthday.
We seem to spend so much of our lives these days looking beyond our immediate surroundings for inspiration, that sometimes I think we fail to value what is right there in front of us. In our attempts to constantly strive for more, we seem to have lost the true meaning of what it is to be human…
…just ordinary people, living some extraordinary lives.