Distant Voices

Books, even children’s books, stir up all sorts of memories and associations. Perhaps the association leads us to pick a book or the book triggers the memory. I’m not entirely sure.
Either way, today has been a day full of the legacy of my wonderful maternal grandfather.

On Friday I will be taking my daughter to her first amusement park on the outskirts of my home town. It surprises me but the remembrance of my association with the place came later, as did the mixed feelings I held. My grandfather worked there for a long time and when he finally became too old to continue, the family feeling – rightly or wrongly – was that his employers handled it badly. Whatever the realities of the situation, his strong spirit was dented by the scrap-heap, he declined rapidly after leaving the role and he died a few years later having lived his final years in deep unhappiness, which was far from my experience of how he had lived his other 82 years. Loyalty, misplaced or otherwise, led to a vow from me that I wouldn’t add to the owners’ wealth by giving them my business. Some years passed when I never had cause to think about returning anyway and it surprised me that it was some time after suggesting I take my daughter there that I remembered my vow. In that context, the idea of “going back” entered my head and I felt really quite unsettled by the thought of returning to a place that had led Doug to feel such turmoil. And guilt that – albeit temporarily – I had forgotten about it. About my vow. About him.

At bedtime I read “The heart and the bottle” by Oliver Jeffers. We’ve read it before but today it provoked some tears. The story is about a tiny girl and her beloved grandfather, the time they spend together and all he teaches her.
One day she takes a picture she had drawn to show him and his chair is – and remains – empty. She puts her heart safe within the glass walls of a bottle and grows older. Until her adult self comes across a small child who needs her to get the heart out of the bottle in order to communicate. But of course it’s been in there so long the now grown-up girl has forgotten how to get to it. The child helps her. Having released her heart, she revisits her grandad’s empty chair and looks over all the many things he taught her.
The book released my grandfather from the dusty shelves of my mind, horribly overlooked in recent years. Not because he’s forgotten, but because we have lived in a state of emergency for so long that unless something is on fire, it lies neglected. In some part the cause of my tears reading the book was the realisation that, for the first time, I was experiencing remembering my grandfather as someone from a long time ago. I had a sense that I was accessing a memory of a memory – like looking on a familiar black and white photograph of an ancestor when they were young. It was a shock to realise how far away this man, so dear to me, seemed because life had kicked and screamed its way to get between us. I remember vividly those raw, wild days after his death and how much I resented every second that carried me further away from the hours he last lived. Every fibre of me fought the march of time that would lead to this inevitable day, when even just for a few minutes, it would be impossible to truly conjure him rather than a synthesised over-processed photocopy of his features.

However shocking this feeling, Oliver’s book elicited treasured memories and gave me an opportunity to tell my daughter about this wonderful man from whom she got her twinkly eyes, who showed me unconditional love and from whom I inherited my generosity and consequent utter uselessness with hard cash.

A very beautiful, poignant – and for me – timely book to have read today. Thank you Oliver and most of all, thank you Doug.

My daughter was rather taken, after the Heart and the Bottle, with my tacky New York snow globe and the Empire State Building marooned inside. This city sleeps

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We also ended up adding a snow-globe to the current contents of our bed: 2 adults, 1 toddler, 3 pillows, discarded pyjamas, jettisoned hair bands, 3 books, fairy lights, milk dippy cup, snow-globe between my right ear and shoulder…

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