Saturday, 23 May 2015

One hundred years of memory...

Marathon training update - yes, I've been doing my homework everybody. I enjoyed a nice 5miler along the canal this week, followed by a strenuous set of hill-sprint reps up and down the Links (trying not to get hit by any golf's like a gauntlet out there!). Today has been a stunner of a Saturday so I pounded out a leisurely-paced 9miles, or thereabouts, in the sunshine. Distances are a smidgen up on the training plan, but I can't promise I'll keep that up - it all depends on how far the mood takes you...and how many pints you had the night before. 

Thankfully, I have been very sensible of late. 

But on to more important things...

Today would be my Grandad Frank's 100th birthday, so I wanted to tell you a bit more about this person I am fundraising and running in memory of, and why he was so special to me and such a great character to have had in our lives for those who knew him. I'm hoping we can raise £1,000 for Alzheimer's Society - I think he'd be quite chuffed with that...

Francis Gandy was born on 23rd May 1915 and was the middle child of five Gandy reprobates! I only say that because he was the one who told me he'd earned the nickname "Knocker Gandy" as a kid, chapping the doors of the Gandy empire to collect rent money! He told so many stories about his home and growing up in an area of Widnes called West Bank, which is right on the River Mersey beneath the Runcorn/Widnes Bridge. 

"St Pat's" Primary - Front row, second from the left...looking cheerful as ever.
Special shout out to the poor kid with a broken arm on a stick at the back.
Widnes was a heavily industrial town and West Bank was famed for being the home of Gossage's Soap Works, part of which still stands now as the Catalyst Museum, an industrial museum about the local industry and area with an awesome glass roof terrace and amazing views. I remember taking my Grandad up there not long after my Nan had died and we walked around the building and around West Bank too. He showed me his house on Mersey Road, pointed out all the shops that used to be there, told me about the families that lived in each house along those streets. Pointed out an area where he said there used to be a graveyard and where some of his brothers and sisters were buried who died when they were very young. 

I later looked this up on historical maps of the area and sure enough, there was a small graveyard which is now worryingly close to a housing estate! Further to that I did some census record research and found that he did indeed have two siblings who died in infancy...our family had never known any of this before. It was amazing. His memory, despite his dementia, was crystal clear with vivid stories about his childhood and it was so special to share them with him that day because it was like they had been locked away before this time. 

He told lots of stories about "my big sister Kitty" (or Elsie as she was christened) and big brother Tom, along with his younger sister Rita who I treasured as a Great Aunt and have so many fond and funny memories of too. He also had a younger brother called Les who I believe died when he was young, but no-one seems to know much about Les at all. I guess this highlighted another side to my Grandad, one that was very private and quiet, and kept himself to himself. Never made a fuss.

Grandad's father was a roofer. I remember drinking tea in the kitchen with my Grandad one day (this was not unusual!) and him telling me about the time his Dad marched him up to the school and told them that he was no longer going to be attending because he was old enough to be working. That was his 14th birthday, and after that he learnt his trade for life...building.

"What health & safety!?"
Grandad helping his Dad, up on the rooftops of Widnes and Liverpool
He became a bricklayer and was one very busy guy from what I can tell. During the war he worked on Reserved Occupation, building bomb shelters in Liverpool - he used to say they couldn't even knock 'em down when the war was over, they were so strong. All the bants with Grandad, see. Then in 1941 he was called for Active Service with the 51st Highland Division, as part of the Royal Army Service Corps. He drove a truck and my God was he proud of it - he was responsible for transporting all sorts of things - ammo, supplies, folk and so on. He used to ask me ever since I was really tiny, "What's yer number?!" and I used to have to say "Ten sixty nine, ten seventy nine, 51st Highland Div"...that was his number, and neither of us ever forgot it. 

Speaks volumes...
The 51st Highland Div were a support unit to the 8th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats. Grandad spent a lot of his time in the desert in North Africa and though he never ever spoke of what he saw there, by all other accounts it was pretty fucking horrible. During his time in the Army he was in Belgium, Sicily, Germany, North Africa, France, and probably some other places too. His unit were the first into Bergen-Belsen after it was liberated and I can't even begin to imagine the horror he must've witnessed. Sometimes I wish that those were the memories he lost in his later years...though I very much doubt it. 

As I said, he never ever talked about any of this. We have put these pieces together from the very little we know. Most of it came from one incredible source...

One day, when my Dad was undertaking the MAMMOTH task of clearing out the out-buildings at the house in Runcorn, he came across something buried in the wall, tucked away like a time capsule. It had obviously been there a long time and was falling apart...

He opened it up to investigate...and realised he'd found my Grandad's bag from the war, and that it had been tucked away there for many years. Hidden? Perhaps...

Everything was still in it and in tact...letters from home, photos of his first nephew Geoffrey, his reserved occupation card, his letter calling him up for active service, his toothbrush, his sewing kit, kit badges, leaflets about all the different places he was going. Maps, albeit very very basic ones with very little detail obviously, documentation about getting your identity back after you'd been taken Prisoner of War, pristine Belgian francs, photos of people we don't recognise at all but who are probably friends of his, from when he was my age, away from home, no Whatsapp to check in with family, no way of knowing who was safe and where your loved ones were. As a generation we take far too much for granted, but I have always counted my blessings when I think of what my grandparents' generation experienced and lived through. We should all learn something about patience and perspective. At least we know where our loved ones are and that they are safe and well.

On a happier note, after the war he met this stunner. 

Hot stuff
That's my beautiful Nan, Mona. Enjoying the sunshine in Bournemouth in 1947. Look at that hair though! 

They met at the dance - got married in 1950 and my Dad was born in 1951. Grandad kept the receipts for the engagement and wedding rings he bought for my old romantic, maybe...maybe just keeping his bases covered (lols), or possibly just a hoarder, because I also found the receipt for their fugly brown velvet three piece suite in the same box. 

Grandad and Nan, with my Great Grandmother "Nanna Gandy", my Great Auntie Rita and her husband Jack...the cheeky one at the back!
With my Dad on holiday adventures around the UK
Anyway, whatever the reason, The Last of the Great Romantics was married to my Nan for the rest of his long and generally healthy life. They look like they had plenty of good times and I have nothing but wonderful memories of the 12 years I spent living with them as a child. 

It wouldn't be fair to post this blog without also highlighting the love my Grandad felt for a bonfire. He bloody loved burning things, the pyromaniac. The fire brigade turned up at my parents' wedding because they thought the hill was on fire, but it was just my Grandad burning stuff. Thankfully my Nan was on hand to dish out tea and hotpot to the firemen, what a schmoozer! 

Why our neighbours hated us...
People speak of my Grandad with such admiration and respect. They talk of how fair he was in his business and what a gentle person he was; sure enough we still have people in their older years phoning the house to see if there's anyone we'd recommend to help them with building repairs, etc. It speaks volumes not only about how much people valued my Grandad's good work, but also about the fact that people can feel so vulnerable to being ripped off or taken advantage of in their later life. Again, perspective.

This is the last photo I have of them - they lived all their married lives together, latterly in their beautiful little bungalow in Winsford. Though my Nan was frail, she always had all her faculties and wits about her. Sharp as a tack, so she was, and incredibly house proud. My Grandad's memory was failing him by this time, but he was physically fit and healthy at the ripe old age of 91! They were a force to be reckoned with and were very independent. 

Though I'm glad they had each other for balance, there were certain things going on that we never really knew about. Grandad had a few "funny turns" over the previous couple of years, one of which I witnessed by chance because I was off school with flu. After Nan died it became clear that these weren't just down to old age, and we found he'd been having a series of mini strokes which lead on to him eventually being diagnosed with vascular dementia.

Grandad's life with dementia wasn't as tormenting as many other people's can be. He liked routine and was generally very healthy, getting himself up and going through the motions of getting washed and dressed, making his tea and toast for breakfast. But then he started doing this at crazy times of day. He used to seriously tell my Mum and Dad off for staying up late (I LOVE that, I love it so much, it's brilliant), and had a real struggle committing anything at all to his short term memory. 

He loved going for a walk every day - but then he started getting lost. He recognised this, which was part of the heartbreak, and eventually he just used to walk to the end of the drive way or a little distance along the road, but he never lost sight of the house because somehow he knew that he wouldn't be able to remember how to get home, or remember his address, or even who he lived with. He used to pocket handfulls of leaflets and pencils from hotels for some reason, and we're pretty sure he was shoplifting screws like an absolute trooper because unopened packs of B&Q's finest used to turn up in his coat pockets on a regular basis! 

Perhaps the saddest part for me was when he'd ask me how long I was visiting for...or the time he looked my Mum Margaret straight in the eye at the dinner table and asked her "where's Margaret?"...I remember the day he told me "my memory fails me sometimes" after asking me "and who are you?". I just used the word "Grandad" as many times as I possibly could so he knew who he was to both of us could experience the love and connection for a moment, even if he wouldn't remember it. 

I said goodbye to Grandad at the bottom of our drive way one sunny day in 2007. He offered to walk me to the train station but that was a can of worms I was not going to be responsible for! I'm not sure if he knew who I was, but he was kind, warm and friendly. That is a lovely memory we shared, but one that I have to keep safe for the rest of my life, because sadly I knew that he couldn't. That was the last time I saw him - a choice I made because I wanted to have that lasting memory of him, nothing else. Several months later he died suddenly, following a massive stroke at home on an otherwise entirely normal day. 

More than anything else, I have indescribable respect for Grandad - I will never take for granted what I have, because without the sacrifices he made and the difficult experiences he lived through, our lives could have all been so different. We have a lot to be thankful for. Lest we forget. 

Now, I shared all this for a reason...please head to to make a donation to Alzheimer's Society. I need to hit that £1,000! Not everyone is as fortunate as Frank was to have caring company around him during this confusing and unnerving time living with dementia. What's more, it can happen to anyone and there is currently no cure.

I'd also encourage you all now to share a memory about someone you have loved and lost. Share it in person with a friend, share a photo on Instagram, share a few words on Facebook, but share the memories because they are important and your loved ones will be grateful that you are taking such great care of those memories you built together. 

Lots of love and thanks, 
Nikki. xxx

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