From time immemorial, my grandfather had been old. He had grey hair on his balding head, always wore a hat when he went outside, and always used a walking stick when he went for a walk. It wasn’t as if he needed a walking stick—it was simply the way things were done. When you go for a walk, you put a hat on and you take a stick. And guess who also wore one of Grandpa’s hats and took one of his sticks? The fact that the hat resembled a flying saucer on my head and the walking stick looked more like a telephone pole in my hand, didn’t deter me. I presume I must’ve been the laughing stock amongst all the old folk in Grandpa’s neighborhood. But I never noticed. I simply had to be just like my grandpa.

Come to think of it, he never prepared me anything to eat, or fetched me a snack. He never poured me a cold drink or even a glass of water. I was told that he never changed any of my diapers either. All that was Grandma’s loving care. Yet it somehow escaped me. Grandpa was my hero and I loved him to bits.

He retired at an early age and took up bookkeeping duties for various organizations such as the agricultural union, the fire prevention board, as well as the books of some doctors and a veterinarian. He was always busy! As far back as I can remember, he was always busy. When he wasn’t in his office doing somebody’s books, he would tend to his garden. He was a busy man. He never played with me. That was Grandma’s role. However, I didn’t really notice that. But what about Saturdays? On Saturdays Grandpa would buy the newspaper and start on the crossword puzzle. It had to be completed before Wednesday to reach the judges in time. He was a busy man. But I adored him.

From Grandpa I learnt to question—not that he instructed me intentionally. It just happened. And I began to question religion. Grandpa and Grandma read the Bible and prayed together every morning and evening. And when I visited them, I would be in the bed between the two of them, sharing in their time of devotions. In their way they had their relationship with God. I never questioned their future destiny, and still don’t. But some things just simply didn’t make sense. On some Friday evenings Grandpa and Grandma would go out to play the card game Canasta with two friends. On some Saturday evenings Grandpa and Grandma would go out to play the card game Bridge with two other friends. On Sundays Grandma wasn’t allowed to play the card game Rummy with me, because it was a sin! Two plus two didn’t make four in my understanding. Those were the years when children were seen and not heard. To ask the question, “Why,” was basically unthinkable. I had to wait many years for answers.

Grandpa made the rules, and Grandma bent the rules. He would say, “NO,” in no uncertain terms, and when things had quieted down, Grandma would get the show on the road again. So, when Grandpa took his Sunday nap, Grandma would take the cards out and we would very quietly play Rummy!

Every Sunday Grandpa went to church. He always sat in the one wing, right at the back. And at the weekends I was there, I accompanied him and sat next to him. His best friend always sat in front—in the pews reserved for the church elders. Grandpa was never an elder. He didn’t qualify. He had previously been a member of a secret organization—the Free Masons. His best friend was also a member of a secret organization—the Afrikaner Brotherhood. But he qualified to be an elder—and for many years he was one. On that issue one plus one definitely didn’t make two. It didn’t even come close to three! (Today I know why neither of them should have been members of either of those organizations, but that’s a topic on its own.)

I loved Grandpa very much. But did he love me? If ever there were two people who loved each other very much, they were my grandfather and grandmother. To me they were an example of a loving happily married couple—a happiness I have seen repeated in my own marriage. When Grandpa saw Grandma for the first time, he knew that she was the one for him. That she was engaged to someone else didn’t deter him. And they were truly happily married—ever after.

Then Grandpa became ill. He contracted a form of dementia. He started to forget. He became rude to people. He even became rude to Grandma. For her, that was the worst part of it all. One day he refused to sign the cheque to pay the apartment rent. Grandma couldn’t persuade him. My mother couldn’t budge her father. My father couldn’t reason with him either. Eventually, it was my turn to try. I sat down and spoke to Grandpa, and amazingly, he responded. I handed him the cheque book and he signed a blank cheque for me. I turned the page and he signed another, and another, and another… My father was very quiet because we all realized the implications of what I was busy doing. But it was either that or a court order declaring Grandpa incompetent. I gave the signed blank cheques to Grandma to sort things out until…

In the aftermath I just knew that he loved me, because, despite his mental state, he signed for me, and for no one else. Shortly afterward Grandpa went to hospital. I was there the night he died. That was three months before I was to get married. He was the first close relative of mine to die. I was twenty-three.

Today, I’m a grandfather and I have a grandson. What will he remember of me?

Even though I prepare some snacks for him and play a few games with him, it’s his grandmother who devotes her time to him—feeds him, plays with him and teaches him. He wants to know why I’m ALWAYS busy and grumpy! I lay down the law. His grandmother bends it when the dust has settled. And the questions! Every statement is followed by a, “Why?” and the answer is followed by another, “Why?” Ad infinitum! I love him very much. Will he realize that one day?

The day I saw my wife for the first time, I knew that she was the one for me. And God has been very, very good to us in our marriage. My Grandpa and Grandma’s history repeated. Who will be my grandson’s bride? Will I be at his wedding? Will he also have a very blessed married life? How old will he be when I go home? What kind of grandfather will he be?


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© Emil Kirstein

(Author of Quest for Freedom)