Wednesday, December 08, 2004

the old men
My father loves family history, but his relationship with his family is distant and the geneology he pores over reads like the driest Old Testament list: X begat Y who begat Z. Perhaps it's because it's based on blood ties and I feel alienated, perhaps I just don't have the geneology gene, but I can never summon any interest in his carefully compiled family trees.
My mother has a much more vibrant relationship with her family, but very little interest in geneology. What she does have, and I share, is a love of stories. My mother has little models of the old men from the muppets in the living room. They are emblematic I think of her, our, affection for the old men of her side of the family.

Once upon a time there were three old men (there was also a young man and one that got away - my grandfather who died when my mother was 15 and uncle Jack who went to South Africa and never came back - stories for another day). The three old men were uncle Mick, uncle Dennis, my grandfather's brothers, and uncle George, my nanny's brother. After the war Nanny and uncle George shared a house and Dennis and Mick lived next door.
The stories about Dennis deserve a post on their own. I don't know any stories about Mick. My mother always asks, 'Do you remember uncle Mick?' To which I reply, 'No Mum, he died the year I was born.' This is her cue to sigh and say, 'Mick was a lovely man.'
The stories about uncle George are all tinged with sadness. George was the most beautiful little boy you could imagine. There is a photo of him, obviously taken in a studio, when he was four or five. He is holding a clay pipe, a bubble pipe, wearing short trousers and a smart little jacket. The striking thing is his gorgeous hair - perfect shoulder-length ringlets - and the solemn expression that reaches all the way to his innocent eyes.
I wonder what kind of young man that little boy grew into. We have a book of poems published before the war that includes a poem written by uncle George. The poem is called 'Violet' and ostensibly describes the flower, however, the story that goes with the poem makes this moment of literary success all the more poignant. Uncle George was in love with a girl called Violet and hoped to marry her - perhaps they were engaged, certainly they were courting. When uncle George returned from the war he discovered that Violet had married someone else.
Uncle George didn't have an easy war, who did? He was in a tank regiment. My memory says he was fighting somewhere in Africa, but perhaps I am inventing that. His tank broke down and uncle George was seperated from the rest of the convoy while he and his crew fixed the problem. It took a while and they were slow to catch up with the convoy. When eventually George's tank reached the convoy the crew discovered that all their friends were dead - there had been an ambush and none lived. George never got over the guilt of surviving.
His civvie years were uneventful - he ran a post office and then a cake shop. My cousin remembers him giving her cakes on the sly and always looking slightly lost, as if the apron was the only thing that reminded him of what he should be doing.
Throughout my own childhood uncle George was a benevolent presence. Not as mad as Uncle Dennis, not as crabbed as Nanny, George still had something of that ringletted, innocent, serious boy about him - he even smoked a pipe. I remember that he loved trees and nature. My last memory is crystal clear. Mum and I were walking in the park with uncle George. The park had a series of exercise bars and activities for kids to play on, the idea was to run around the park in a preordained circuit and stop at each activity. In his seventies uncle George was still proud to be able to complete a few chin ups on a set of bars.

Our phone often rang in the middle of the night - Dad was the keyholder at work and if an alarm went off the fire brigade or police would call him out. So when it rang in the earliest hours of the morning a week or so after our park outing I ignored it and went back to sleep. Mum and Dad must have been sleeping deeply because they never woke. So it was that Nanny couldn't reach us when George collapsed with chest pains. An ambulance came and he was taken to hospital.
Perhaps the trouble started in the desert, perhaps it was when he lost Violet, whatever it was that started it I don't think the years of cakes and pipe smoking helped to heal uncle George. During the week he was in hospital George's heart failed him, but looking back I think it broke bit by bit until he died of it. Through all his suffering he was sweet and good humoured and full of innocent wonder. Of his treatment in hospital he told his visitors, 'It's marvelous you know, the nurses have taken my lunch order for tomorrow: a full roast dinner. Though I suppose they'll have to liquidise it to put it in the drip.'

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