One afternoon my Grandad said to me, “Son, to men, women always remain a mysterious entity while to women, men become a flawed utility.” He made the comment with a chuckle and it made me smile because I remember Grandma telling grandad time and again that “You never load the dishwasher correctly,” or saying to any one present “He never puts things back in the right place,” which was possibly a little harsh. There were other observations of a similar nature but the irony was, if anyone else but her was forward enough to criticise him, she would launch herself at them with one or two of those pithy observations for which she was famous.
Of course, from a woman’s point of view I can see that my grandfather could be exasperating. Part of him was over- detached and, I suspect, if he was watching his house burn down he might well turn to me and say, “Son, do you notice how every flame that rises is unique. Looked at selflessly, there is a miracle in everything you see” which might be true, but the need to act is sometimes more urgent than the ability to observe: a factor he could overlook.
He was a teacher of English at the local institute and his reluctance to prioritise was a source of wonder or irritation to many, but probably not central to his occupation. I once raised the subject of men who were violent or without conscience and he nodded. “There is an example for anything you want to imagine in life, sad as that is, but I am what is called a domesticated male and grinning weakly is my last retort.” He was the least self-important man I knew and somehow the most inspiring.
On the subject of my grandma most of my grandad’s remarks were made by means of eyebrow movements but even in their eighties I remember him saying of her, “When your grandma walks she is the picture of grace: do you know that” and I did because he said the same thing about her regularly. She was an ice skater of some note in her youth and that innate sense of balance and poise remained present in her movements.
He was capable of wearing out her patience with an unbroken supply of good humour until she would just shake her head and retire behind her knitting. I remember him saying on another occasion, “When God created men and women a passing angel said, “If they don’t kill each other they’ll have to learn to live together” and I agree with that.
At the end of his life, he contracted pneumonia, born with his customary good grace and she nursed him tirelessly while criticising him for going out in the rain in the first place. At the heart of their relationship, it seemed to me, was her belief that, hopeless as he was, he reminded her of the possibility of “Good” and she protected that in him every day.
As fate would have it, the strain of caring for him in those last days caused her to have a heart attack and she actually died two days before him. I remember being astonished by the news and thinking there must be some mistake, but there wasn’t.
They were buried on the same day, and lie in death, as they did for fifty-three years in life, together and in the same bed. “Life is a mystery son” he said to me, “But an engrossing one” and in all my days their marriage was the finest example of a life well lived I ever saw: their union gave a purpose to his days and my grandma the freedom to be herself.
Hidden behind her irritation was the knowledge that beyond him lay wilderness, from which his love protected her, and in her cherishing of him the world became civilised. I shall miss them dearly.