Charles Mitchell died this morning. Known as Charlie to his friends and his long – deceased wife, he was 85 when he breathed his last breath, thought his last thought closed his eyes for the last time. His heart gave out. He was alone. He was my grandfather.
Granddad came from a generation of men born just after the First World War. He was born into poverty and barely moved out of it all his life. Charlie was born into a large family; so large he didn’t know how many relatives he had. His Uncle had sailed in the merchant navy before Grandad was born and was never seen again. Nobody knew and there were few ways to find out.
Granddad was a Geordie, born and bred with a near-impenetrable accent to those who didn’t know him. He fathered 4 children, a single son and three younger daughters, the middle one of whom is my mother. They lived in a small flat, the kids sharing but with enough of an age range to make it comfortable. It was a typical working-class Northern family, work options were limited, thinking was optimistic but life was tough.
Like many working men who work and have little time or opportunity for creative expansion, Granddad had an alcohol problem throughout his life. He had little else to do in his free time and wasn’t blessed with the physical gifts to allow his alter his outlook. It was never the best environment to grow up in. Granddad didn’t want to be an alcoholic. He, along with a lot of men of his generation and his part of the world, knew of nothing else.
Granddad was a worker though and consistently so. He was a miner, a gravedigger and finally the gasman. Grandma held the family together. She died in 1984 aged a mere 63, dying from lung cancer, accelerated by her smoking habit. I don’t remember Grandma much. I remember sitting on her knee, his croaky laugh, her looking very old. For people aged so much quicker in the past with their differing diets and social habits.
After Grandma’s early death, (I can still remember crying with my older sister), Granddad was devastated. Like a lot of parents, he tried to be a better grandfather than father. I remember shopping with him when I was about 7, looking for swimming shorts for him. Then we went swimming together. He had come down to Devon, the furtherest he ever left his Newcastle. He read a lot then too, trying to occupy his mind. His ageing and bereftness made him seem more timid and kinder to me.
He moved to a flat that seemed to get darker as he aged. It was stark with unused rooms and an unused, ageing smell. Being Newcastle, I can never remember the sun shining but maybe that’s because we visited in February or October. Granddad used to have pictures on the wall, updated as often as possible. I would send postcards from my travels to him and he would display them.
He moved slower as the years went on. He kept his sense of humour, was heard joking with the nurses only yesterday, for he was always abit of a ladies man. He was recently helped out by the police after being spotted on the hard shoulder of a dual-carriageway on his disabled scooter on his way to the pub. For he still drank with his friends though death started to carry them too. They put a little ramp to make entrance easier for him.
I hadn’t seen for him about 2 years. That was mostly my fault. My travelling, a little laziness and a slight fear of him looking old and weary. Newcastle is nowhere near I am but it’s always with me. I remember his handshake. His hand was big. He was a big man, rounded and firm. He walked with a stick by then, his hands shaking, his eyes condemning him into near darkness. Grandad was the last of my grandparents to die. But I never really knew any of them. Two died when I was young, another as I was a teenager. Granddad was in Newcastle, but I grew up in Devon.
I heard the phone ring this morning at 3am. I knew it was probably my Aunt calling with bad news. Who else calls at that time? And so it was. There were two calls but I didn’t want to ask. I spoke to Mum in the morning. She was upset. She had a flight booked for tonight to see him. She had accepted his death but had wanted to see him before he died. Maybe to tell him she loved him. I don’t know. Just to see her father maybe.
So I didn’t see Granddad either. Maybe I didn’t deserve to. 85 years of life and memories have been lost to the world, lost to all of us but especially our family. We know what happened in our history but for the whys, only those directly involved can answer. I suspect like much in life, there was no plan. But I didn’t ask enough questions. I feel bereft of my own history like Granddad was of his. I don’t what his ambitions were, what he thought as the world changed world around him, how he felt about his life.
Granddad lived a long time but also a in revolutionary time. He worked through the Second World War where nothing was sacred, the Cold War, the Beatles and the Moon Landings in the 1960s, the era of labour strikes in the 1970s when the dead were left unburied, the Thatcher decade which closed down so many industries intertwined in Northern history. Over his life, society has changed so fundamentally, that those born after the late 1980s would have no idea. Access to information, the speed of life, the choices available have all increased exponentially. TV, public transport, the welfare state, personal phones didn’t exist when he was young. He has lived through it all, as simply as he could. But above all, he has lived through a family, my family and he lives through us still. My mum has had a bad few year, being ill herself, losing Smokey and now Granddad.
Life is can seem so fickle and death so deinifte, you could mull over the whole process and deem it futile. We can spend too long trying for relatively empty achievements, missing out on a closeness that can only being bred through being around for each other, not just around each other. I picked up The World According to Garp again. I got bogged down a little before, deciding that as Garp’s ages, so he starts to bores me. But last night, a chapter stood out. Garp hears that his wife is having an affair with a student of hers. She explains she just wanted to feel young and excitingly loved again. The frustration of ageing and the forgetting why we get into relationships can be made all too obvious when it goes wrong. Like my Granddad, no one leads a blameless life. We all carry our inner thoughts close to our chest, fearful the suppressed realities make us appear weak, bad or a failure to others.
It left me wondering what Granddad was thinking as his body failed him. His mind was lucid to the end but he knew his time had come. At 85, you could say he lived to a good age, especially with his alcohol problems but is it ever enough? As a young man, I would say no but I think Granddad knew different and I will too one day. As the new are born, the old must exhale and move on. And so Granddad has.