A year ago today, while Melbourne was in lockdown, my grandfather died. With funerals capped at ten attendees I was only able to attend the funeral electronically, but it reminded me of times spent with him and how he had influenced my life.
When I first heard the news of his death, I went out into my local Dandenong Ranges to think and to remember him, and the memories just kept coming. After all, he had always been a part of my life. Until he wasn’t. But I realised that he’d had an important influence on my life, and came to realise that that influence would continue.
At first, this post was just a collection of individual memories, but as I wrote I saw patterns emerging. Some of the memories are of him specifically, some of them are of time spent with both him and my grandmother.
From very early on, I think when we visited them we felt welcomed. Wanted. Valued. We knew that we mattered to both our grandparents, and that they each in their own way wanted to encourage us and help us to have fun.
Both my grandparents wanted to share with us the things that were important to them, and show us how they saw the world. That included religion, of course, but it also included things like camping and hiking and reading. In his case it included things like the interest of maths and the importance of measuring time.
That also meant making time for us. Thinking of my grandfather, I know now that he was very busy, but I’m not even sure if I did know it back then. I knew he had time to talk with us, time to listen, and time to help us. And I guess if there wasn’t really time he’d make time.
I think these are the kind of things that I didn’t necessarily appreciate in childhood. Maybe I didn’t take it completely for granted, but it was just the way the world was. Didn’t everyone have a happy childhood?
As I’ve grown older and heard more stories I’ve come to realise that, while it’s part of our “grandparent” stereotype, it’s not quite as normal as I thought. By caring about me, by making time for me, by showing I mattered to them, my grandparents did give me a powerful legacy.
Out in “the country”
Up until I was 10, my grandparents lived on a country property near St Arnaud. It was 3 or 4 hours drive away, and we would visit them sometimes.
We’d arrive half asleep after a long evening drive and be warmly welcomed. The following day we’d wake up in a different bed, knowing we’d be doing different things from normal.
For example, I remember sitting round a bonfire, talking and toasting marshmallows till we were sent to bed. I remember the excitement of torch-lit walks to places where we could see the stars (far more than we would ever see in Melbourne). I remember climbing trees, and finding frogs and tadpoles in the pond.
All of which brings me to one of my strongest memories: The Raft. It was a packing case with empty milk bottles under it to float on a small dam there.
It must have been made by my grandfather, and we loved it. I’m not the only one to still remember it, either.
As all their children and grandchildren lived in Melbourne, they visited fairly regularly. For some years they had a small granny flat at our house to stay when visiting, which meant we got to see more of them than our cousins did.
After they left St Arnaud, they moved to the suburb next to ours. That meant we were able to see them more regularly. Their house was even closer to our school. Sometimes, when convenient, we could walk straight to their house after school.
They were, by their own choice, an important part of our lives.
Camping and hiking
One of my memories of times with them was going camping (and hiking) in places like the Grampians, the Australian Alps, and the Mornington Peninsula. Their car could fit three children, and they wanted to share this experience with us. Sometimes it was with other siblings, sometimes it was with cousins, and always it was a great experience.
Here’s a photo from I think the last time I went camping with them, just before I started university:
Last year when I was in the area I stopped by that campsite and it brought back some of those memories. It was perhaps ten years from the last time I went camping with them to the first time I went camping by myself. But I think part of the legacy was just knowing that it is an option. And I believe in my travels since I have camped in each of those areas of Victoria.
I remember my grandfather talking about experiences of camping. Ways of dealing with unfriendly weather - strong winds, rain, even snow. Preferring powered sites, and typically having things like a fridge and a kettle.
Not all of that stuck: I tend to follow a much more minimalistic approach camping (“What can I leave behind?” not “What can I make work?”), but the influence continues.
Nor am I expert with tents. I’m reminded of a time when I was going camping with a couple of siblings in the Grampians. We had a tent, but weren’t sure we knew how to put up. I don’t remember how he found out we were unsure about it, but the evening before he came and wrote out detailed instructions how to put it up. Was he busy at the time? Probably, but he clearly made the time for us.
The hiking wasn’t just while travelling, either. There are various places around Melbourne I remember walking with them, and one of them - the Dandenong Ranges - I later made my home. And he was still active and enjoying the Dandenong Ranges early last year.
My grandparents travelled to far more of Australia than I have, as well as to places like the UK and particularly the US West. As children we got used to getting postcards from a variety of locations while they were out and about.
One location I particularly associate with him is the Grand Canyon. I remember him talking about the difficulties of photography there and the need for a wide-angle lens. About the need to be prepared for a long uphill climb (I believe they found it difficult the first time, and before subsequent trips trained for it on my now-local Thousand Steps). About how people there could get lost and suffer heat exhaustion and dehydration and not even have the presence of mind to drink the water in their backpack.
That last one was interesting because at the time as a child I was confident I was in control and knew what I was doing - of course things would always work out! He was gently pointing out that life isn’t always that simple: The mind isn’t always as reliable as we might hope, and we have to be prepared for that. And at the time perhaps that felt like a kill-joy message, but I came to see its importance.
It’s possible to walk from Grand Canyon Village down to the Colorado River and back up in a day (though not generally recommended because of the heat at the bottom and the climb required to get out again). And when I was there I planned to do exactly that, since I knew my grandparents and father and uncles had done it before me. The discussions I’d had with him didn’t necessarily completely prepare me for going there, but they did make me want to experience it and then feel a greater connection with him once I had. And maybe one day I’ll get to the parts of Central Australia he loved that are more like that Arizona desert.
When it came to travel he was always glad to talk about what he liked and didn’t like, or to offer suggestions of places to visit. Some of those suggestions I’ve taken, and some I haven’t (yet), mostly because of time pressures. But they’ve certainly taken me to places that I’m not sure I would have discovered otherwise, and made me feel connected to him and to family generally.
A love of reading
Like in our family, books were very important to my grandparents, and there were always many full bookshelves that we could explore and borrow from. For example, they gave me access to many of the great P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. And also to the continuing debate over whether he just wrote the same story over and over again (I maintain that the conclusion may be predictable, but the way it gets there and the language used isn’t. And I think my grandfather was somewhere in the middle - he had certainly read many of them).
I think my grandfather’s recommendation that had the most influence on my childhood was W.E. Johns’ Biggles. While at the time I probably preferred the action sequences, I remember him talking about the many parts of the world covered by the different adventures.
In teenage years I remember books and discussion on the history of mathematics, which I was fascinated by and he knew more about. More recently, my favourite post in 2019 was partially inspired by borrowing his copy of First Man, a book which I know he enjoyed.
I’ve already included a photo of me on the raft at St Arnaud. Not only must the raft have been made by him, but the photo was probably taken by him. Back in the good old days of 35mm film, he took quite a few photos of us, and used to get multiple copies of each photo so we could fill our personal photo albums with the photos of us. That means that now, when I look back through my photo albums, I can see precious memories of time spent with siblings. Memories that I would never have had without him seeing the photo opportunity, taking it, and then sharing the result with me.
At some stage, he moved to a digital camera, and I remember discussions about composition and about flash photography. When it came to birthday parties in the family, he was one of those who wanted to get photos (as was I).
And so looking through my digital photo collection I see many photos of him and memories with him. Most recently at Christmas 2019. In those photos he seems so alive, and now he is not.
He had been a teacher, then a lecturer in engineering at the University of Melbourne (the same university I studied software engineering at, actually). At the funeral one of my uncles talked about him being first and foremost a teacher. And I’d never quite thought of it that way, but I guess it was true.
Take for example one of my earliest memories with him: Talking about the fence-post problem.
You have a fence 100m long, and have a fence post every 5m. How many posts do you need?
I think he was talking about it while we were walking around at St Arnaud and seeing actual wire fences with star posts. The obvious answer is probably 20, and it’s wrong. And I think once you’ve been told that it’s not too hard to figure out the right answer. But the discussion went far beyond that into mathematical reasoning: Why the obvious answer was wrong, some other related problems, and what that showed about the world in general.
As it turned out, I ended up a software developer. We have to care about boundary cases, and about off-by-one errors. This kind of reasoning is important. Though still easy to get wrong even if you should know the answer…
Another time was when we were at Cape Schanck. A worker was hammering in a stake in the distance, and he used that to demonstrate the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound.
And I’m sure there were many times like that. Some of them I would have specifically noticed, others I probably learned something interesting or important without even realising it.
He had retired from the university and moved to the country before I remember. And perhaps I wish I’d known more about it when I was actually studying at the same university he taught at. From time to time interesting details about his career came up in discussion, but I don’t know I ever got the complete picture. He still had an interest in mathematics, in engineering, and perhaps particularly in bridges, but his life had moved on.
I mentioned that my school was very near his house: Well, he did once teach there for a term as substitute teacher. I don’t think he ever took my year level, but maybe I’m wrong. His influence on me was not through formal schooling but in influencing my reading, and helping me find more in areas - like mathematics - where we shared interests.
I couldn’t do justice to my grandfather or his influence on my life without mentioning religion. When I talked about my grandparents wanting to share with us the things that were important to them, that definitely included religion. Dinners at their house would always involve family Bible readings, which he would always lead.
And I guess the example I got from him, and indeed from most of my relatives, was that religion was not just something to be held, but to be strongly involved in. He was dedicated and hard-working. In addition to attending religious services multiple times a week, he was involved in lay preaching (he didn’t belong to the same congregation as us, but visited and was sometimes guest speaker). In various committees over the years. In building relationships with non-Christadelphians who wanted to talk about the Bible. Probably more things that I was only dimly aware of.
He retired early, and an important part of that was to focus on religion. A lot of my grandparents’ travel involved visiting individuals and congregations in more isolated areas and supporting them (and he encouraged us to do the same). It also involved leafleting to try and make people more aware of the good news of the Bible as my grandparents saw it.
When I made the decision to be baptised, my grandparents took me through pre-baptism instruction at their house. And, as it turned out, it was in the same house nearly fifteen years later where I first broke the news that I was quitting. It was a lengthy discussion afterward, and neither my parents nor my grandparents were happy with my decision, but after it was finalised I don’t remember him saying anything more to try and change my decision or to tell me I was in the wrong.
It probably created a little distance between us, just because there had been topics we had been able to talk about that we were no longer able to, but he continued to make it clear that he wanted me there. And maybe to people who haven’t been involved in strict religious families that sounds like the bare minimum. But the fact is that religion can often put a serious strain on such relationships, and not all are so lucky.
An indirect influence
When remembering him after his death, I had thought of ways he had influenced me directly. And the funeral reminded me of things I’d known but forgotten, as well as giving me stories I hadn’t heard before.
However, it wasn’t just memories. Some of what was said about how he had influenced his children reminded me of ways in which my Dad had influenced me. In effect, by influencing my Dad he had indirectly influenced me too.
This was the most important thing I realised from the funeral. And in retrospect it seems fairly obvious. But it was still a big surprise to learn it, and it gave me a greater appreciation of his role in my life.
He cared about me, and about my siblings. He cared about all his children, including my Dad. And that gave him an influence for good that I hadn’t fully appreciated.
An influence that continues
Reading again my notes from the funeral other memories come back. There is more I could say. When someone has significantly affected your life, I suspect there’s always more you can say.
I find it easy to feel and act like the people who have always been there in my life will continue to always be there. Even though I know logically they won’t, it’s still a shock the actual moment realising one of them is gone and will never come back.
What hasn’t gone is his influence. He changed my life for the better, and that remains true though he is no longer with us. And that influence doesn’t just affect me, but also indirectly those I come into contact with.
Now I come to a place where it’s complicated. I do have to say that he believed in a future resurrection, as do most of my family. I do not. I believe his story is over. That’s got nothing to do with what I want, just of the reality of the world as I see it.
However, his memory remains while there are people who knew him. And that too will fade. I expect that in a hundred years there will be no-one left who remembers him as I am remembering him now. No-one who will remember what his voice sounded like. What his handshake felt like. His smile. His love of licorice allsorts. His mannerisms. His gentle and welcoming nature.
I do hope there is still some record of him in a hundred years. But that’s not all I hope for. His story may have ended, but his influence on my story and his part in the human story continues. And I hope that his influence will continue to ripple out for good in the actions of those like me who knew him as well as in those who we influence. And so in a hundred years his influence will be less obvious, but I hope that it will have reached more people.
In the meantime, though, I’m sure I will continue to remember him at different times, and for different reasons. And that memory will continue to influence me.