Almost ten years ago now my Grandpa ,Ian MacInnes, died and I wrote the following passage for a school task. On Thursday his wife and my Granny, Jean Park Buchan, passed away and since it is often hard for me to express myself verbally I thought it was appropriate to resurface this fond memoir I have of them.
Thistlebank is the home of my grandparents and has been for decades. It overlooks my hometown of Stromness and is one of the elegant houses hidden from the harbour behind a wall of trees. You walk in through the red gate and are greeted by the massive garden with a vast lawn on the left surrounded by trees and rose bushes which served as my childhood playground.
In the summertime the whole family arrive in from exotic locations as far as Poland and even Lincoln. My cousins and I would play capture the flag in the garden while our parents would all be on the patio at the top of the slope in the garden enjoying some homebrew. A giant tree on sat on the slope with a rope swing attached and it became a popular attraction in Thistlebank from the early 1960's. The tree acted as a huge parasol protecting our fair skin from the midday sun; cowering over creating a cave of leaves and timber. When on the swing we had to slowly walk backwards gaining height making sure that there were no branches peering out waiting to catch a victim before you let go and flew into the high branches.
A concrete stairway split the grassy slope into two and I would attempt to make my way up the stairs before Grandpa would swoop down collecting me as well as empty pint glasses. He would drop me at the top of the stairs and his familiar smell of heather ale lingered in his woolen gansey[jumper] as I followed him into the kitchen. Grandpa had been bald for as long as l could remember; though his favourite blue flat cap would often cover it up leaving just a few whisps of white hair on his neck. I was told that he used to have a head thick red hair like mine but it was hard to believe as it had disappeared long before myself or a colour camera was brought into the family. Grandpa's other prominent features were his sticky-out ears and were constantly the punch line of his jokes if he wasn’t just wiggling them to make us laugh.
A large bucket of brewing heather ale was propped up on a stool and the flowery scent became stronger as I stretched my legs to let my nose touch the brim. Grandpa always let me do the job of dropping in the hydrometer and watching it bob up in the flowery froth as if a boy at sea. Grandpa would look over me cautiously as he filled up the beer mugs. He knew all too well that alcohol and small children is never a good combination - especially when the child is accident prone and the alcohol is filling a ten litre bucket.
The kitchen had a glass window looking through to Grandpa's studio. Every visible (and some no longer visible) storage space was taken up by art materials and half-finished paintings. Grandpa would often let us use his paints and those tall enough, his easel. After retirement he continued to teach, maybe not officially but he taught us as his grandchildren and was always proud when we brought home some artwork our teachers commended. On the floor of the studio there were three floorboards that had been loosened and could be lifted. Underneath there was a gateway to the house foundations and those who were small enough got the privilege of climbing around in this chamber. Soon it grew into a small underground maze, as we discovered more than one area with loosened floorboards. It soon became a hiding place when we were told that we had to go home in ten minutes; though it took a couple of attempts to work out how long we could stay in there before a serious search party was about to be called -or so we thought.
Across the hall from the studio was the living room. The furthest wall from the door had a fireplace in the centre with bookshelves of equal size set symmetrically on both sides. Granny spent a lot of time in this room, she had her seat next to the fireplace with the best view of the television and Grandpa sat in an armchair across from her. She sat next to the telephone as she liked to be in charge and know what was going on. Grandpa had painted a portrait of Granny in the 1940's and she was very elegantly dressed, thin, with black waved hair, Mediterranean skin tone and her hand on her hip. The only thing that had changed was her hair, it was now paper white and everything else was the same. She still carried an air of grace and class than I didn’t inherit a single drop of. She had smoked for most of her life and was told to quit when she was eighty, though the smell of tobacco still clings to the walls if only slightly. Granny spent most of her time in the chair by the fireplace armed with the remote ready to control the telly at 6pm to start the soap marathon for the evening. With a crossword and toffees to keep her amused she would happily spend her days talking to the endless stream of visitors that came to the house - as long as it wasn’t during quiet time or the soaps. A tame seagull appeared at the living room window almost everyday, it was a mystery whether it was the same seagull or one that had heard there was free food going around. It would come and knock on the window with its beak and grandpa would greet it with his leftover toast from breakfast. The bird was aptly named Checkov after my Grandpa’s love of Russian literature.
As well as in the summer my Polish relatives would come and stay for Christmas each year.
The night before would usually consist of us all watching re-runs of Christmas specials while
begging if we can open one present since it was Christmas Eve. Once it got late we pretended to sleep though we could hear our parents being merry downstairs drowning out the sound of Santa Claus' reindeer trotting on the roof. Grandpa created the rule that we must have breakfast before opening anything but since the four of us woke up about five hours before anyone else, this rule was often breached.
New Year was also spent up at Thistlebank and there was a routine that was carried out every year. My parents, my sister and I would go up at about ten and the first hour would be meeting and greeting with a constant flow of relatives. At eleven Esti and Maria would phone their Dad in Poland and send him their "Szczęśliwy nowy rok!" Granny would greet the New Year by opening the back door to let the old year out and then the front door to let the New Year in. Everyone knows what comes next, the multiple kisses being flung in your direction from people who once knew you and you still don't know.
My memories at my Grandparents house are some of the fondest of my childhood. Both of them influenced me in obvious ways from my Grandpa’s skills with a paintbrush to my Granny’s skills on the ivory keys. They also have influenced me ways I could not have seen coming and ways I am yet to realise. They helped to reach for my dreams and let me do everything I have been so privileged to do in my still young life. However they never let me forget the importance keeping my feet on the ground once in a while. I will always wish to have spent more time with them but their influence and memories will always stay with me and I can only hope I can make good use of them and make them proud.
If you still have Grandparents go visit them. Ask them about their life, where they grew up, their first love and their own grandparents. You'll unlock a fascinating key to a simpler time which is now so distant and forgotten. Where communication was always real and personal, broken things were fixed and cherished - not thrown away. Please, you'll regret it when it's too late.