Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Return of the Prodigal Grandson

At ten minutes past two, on Friday morning, one of my great-uncle Ivans passed away. I had, or have, two uncle Ivans - my father's uncle and my mother's. The Uncle Ivan who passed away on Friday was my father's; the youngest of my late grandfather's five brothers. He was seventy-eight years old and, in keeping with an old Ulster Presbyterian tradition, he was buried from home. 

I would by lying if I said I had been close to Ivan, in anything except genetics. At the time of his death, I hadn't seen him in nearly ten years, since my own grandfather's funeral.  If I'm honest, my memories of the five brothers as a collective are patchy, even before that. All five of the Russell brothers looked so alike that, to a child, when gazing up at them, it was often difficult to tell them apart. But I can remember that my grandmother, May, who I spent most of my  childhood Saturdays with, always spoke of Ivan with great fondness. I think he was her favourite brother-in-law. In fact, I know he was. My grandmother and I are too alike in that respect; we never did bother with hiding our favouritism. Thanks for that little trait, Granny...

The funeral was held in Lurgan, a town about twenty miles south of Belfast. Once upon a time, going to Lurgan was the happiest route of my life, because it meant I was going to my grandparents'. But then, Granny May lost her battle with cancer and, eighteen months later, my grandfather, strong as an ox, fell from the roof of a church he was working on and died later of complications. I was fourteen years old and, with them gone and their house sold, there was less and less reason to come to Lurgan. Unless it was to visit their grave, with the simple words The Lord Is My Shepherd engraved in gold letters at the bottom. Grandpa chose the verse himself.

Driving back into Lurgan on Sunday was therefore a pretty surreal experience. Everything seemed somehow both foreign and achingly familiar. It was in Lurgan that I'd had my only serious personal experience of the Northern Irish Troubles, as a very young child, during an IRA car bomb scare, when I was whisked out of the town centre by my grandfather and deposited in their house, before he dashed back in to try and retrieve my grandmother from the other side of the police line. It was in Lurgan that I had my very first memory - I was walking in Lurgan Park with my grandfather and I apparently ran off to try and walk on the ice that had frozen over the lake. The ice broke under me after a few steps; so my first memory is of my arms outstretched in front of me, trying to clamber back up out of the water, before my grandfather's arms reached in and pulled me out. I don't remember anything else really after that, apart from the fact that he saved me and that the sleeves on my jacket were beige, with a  dark stripe somewhere near the elbow. 

But despite all those memories, I'm not a Lurgan boy. Apart from my  paternal grandparents, I didn't really know anyone there. I grew up elsewhere - in Saintfield, Belfast and County Down. I have no trace of that distinctive Lurgan accent. Like the people of south Belfast and south Down, I tend to emphasise the last syllable of my words; the good folk of Lurgan emphasise the first. Only a few months ago, I remorselessly teased a close friend, who is originally from Lurgan, when he asked me how my I-talian lessons were progressing. It was good natured teasing, though; secretly, I sort of loved hearing it. 

Inside Uncle Ivan's home on Sunday, it was accent role reversal; as soon I began to speak, I suddenly felt very conscious that my accent sounded different to nearly everybody else's in the room, except my mother's. It possibly even sounded affected. God knows, it wasn't helped when I was asked what I was doing with myself for living.  Honestly people, there's just no good way of saying "I'm a writer" without sounding either incredibly pretentious or like an unemployed wastrel. Why didn't I become a lawyer?

As more and more people filed into the small living room where the service was to be conducted, my mother and I sat on a sofa in the far corner, as my dad caught up with old relatives. I looked around, particularly at the men. Many of them were my age, or thereabouts; practically all of them were my close blood relatives and, yet, to all intents and purposes, they were strangers. I didn't know them; they certainly didn't know me.  I don't know how to describe how I felt. Maybe it was a little lonely?

The minister, from a small local Presbyterian church that Uncle Ivan had gone to Sunday school in back during the 1930s and which my grandfather had remained faithful to until the day he died, cleared his throat and announced we would begin. There was an opening prayer - the kind that only a Northern Irish Presbyterian minister is truly capable of. Long, sonorous, much more like a conversation with God than a formal prayer. Then he started on three readings from the Bible - one from the Psalms, one from the gospels and  one from the epistles. They weren't short readings. They were long and had a lot more theology in them than simply offering hope of eternal life to the grieving widow and family. They were all punctuated by prayers and reflections on the nature of God, Heaven and sin.

As I bowed my head for one of the prayers, it struck me how absurdly provincial - backwards, even - this service would have seemed to many of my English and American friends. I began to think that maybe these kind of home-grown services which, as a child, I'd thought of as the closest thing to holiness imaginable, were basically a bit ridiculous once you came back to them as an adult. But then, somewhere around Psalm 23, it all came flooding back to me. I remembered what it was like to be part of this, rather than simply an observer.

I looked around the room and I began to see it properly. I saw the minister, his hands shaking with multiple sclerosis, defiantly leafing through the pages of the Bible and speaking to his makeshift congregation. Not at them. I saw elderly relatives whose names and faces I knew, watching him intently and nodding as he mentioned the mercy of Jesus and the reality of God. There was total certainty on their faces and I remembered what it had been like to feel like that. I watched as everyone rose, dressed to the nines in understated black mourning, and filed out neatly into the street to walk behind the coffin as it was escorted from its last earthly dwelling place. The entire street  where Ivan had lived came to a halt; they drew their curtains as a mark of respect and many came out to stand by the roadside and pay their respects. As the coffin was placed in the hearse and we drove to the graveyard, ordinary men and women on the streets of Lurgan doffed their caps to the coffin as it went by; some crossed themselves. Many bowed their heads.  They didn't know this man; they didn't know whose funeral this was, but they paid their respects anyway. In a really strange way, the whole thing had a kind of weird, sad beauty to it. Like someone had turned the mute button on the hysteria of modern grieving and brought everything back to a more quiet, more dignified, maybe even a more sincere, way of doing things.

At the reception afterwards - tea, coffee, homemade cakes and sandwiches in the local Orange Hall, where an official portrait of The Queen still stands framed by two immaculately-maintained Union Jacks - there was a return to some kind of good humour. Food and, of course, tea was being pressed into my hands by the pushy women of the Orange Order whose mission in life seems to be to magic up industrial-sized quantities of food and drink at a moment's notice. How they do it, I have no idea, but may God in Heaven help you if you don't say yes when they offer you a slice of their homemade chocolate cake. They don't trust a man who doesn't eat. Fact.

I sat next to my great-uncle Jack. He's eighty-eight now. As a child, I thought he was my grandfather's twin. Turns out, Jack was actually three years older. As we sat chatting with him, he told me how he could remember clearly his first day of school - eighty-four years ago. But he struggled to remember what happened last week. Jack had worked all of his life as a builder, in partnership with my grandfather. I'm told that between them they built half the homes in Lurgan; although maybe that's just a family boast. Dad asked him if Grandpa had been a bit of a rascal at school and Uncle Jack shook his head: "No, no. Bobby was good. Bobby was always good." I was about to say something about Grandpa's famous ability to cheat at a game of Lexicon or Scrabble (he'd spell out dubious place names from the Bible and then insist he be given points for them) when Jack spoke again, "I meet your Grandpa every night. Every night I dream that we're back out working together. And then I wake up and forget for a wee minute that he's gone. Bobby was the best man I ever knew. The best man." Mum's eyes filled with tears and I had to bite the inside of my lip until it nearly bled to stop them coming. (A South Down accent is one thing, but crying in public is something I'd never recover from.)

And he was. Since the day Grandpa Bob died, I've met some of the most brilliant and fascinating people from all walks of life, but Uncle Jack is right: wee Bobby is still the best man I ever knew. I was brought up on stories of the family that went right the way back to John de Courcy and the tomb of Saint Patrick. As a child, I was fascinated by the debutantes, rebels, knights and merchants who were said to dot our families' histories. But looking back on it now, my Grandpa Bob was without question the most honourable, the most decent and most genuinely good man I ever met. He was a builder, who worked with his hands every day that God sent him, except Sundays, Christmas, Good Friday and the two weeks a year he took off to go on holiday with my grandmother to the north coast. And he was my hero. Somewhere between Down High and Oxford, New York, Malone, Meredith Harper and the best part of a decade, I think I'd forgotten that just a little. It was nice to remember. The two of them really were absolutely wonderful grandparents.

I'm not a Lurgan boy. I don't really know it now, except in memory form. But going back there on Sunday brought back a lot of memories. It made me remember all the things that my family have done for me and how all the bits of us, the many families and experiences that we all have, make us into who we are. It also made me remember how proud I am to be Bobby's grandson.

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