Love lost, read and found
How I would have liked to wish my father-in-law ‘Happy 100th birthday Ernest’ in person. He was born 100 years ago on 25th January 1917 and seven years ago I was certain he was going to still be around to make it. Make the one hundred not out so to speak, but a year has four changing seasons and each one of them capable of channging so many things.
Ernest didn’t make it past 94 and a half years of age and though we joked about it for many advancing years, he wouldn’t get the telegram from the Queen that we were predicting. He was a man of not too many words you could say, but his gentle nature meant you wanted to listen to every one of them.
‘I’ve lived a good life, and I am ready to go’ is what he told me, not to far from the end, and he didn’t want anyone to be sad about his leaving. Here now six years later, I don’t want to write in a way of regret, I just want my daughters to know something more about their grandfather, and the home were their mother lived, before together we made our new home.
At sixteen years of age, its not common to know for certain what you want out of life, or how to compare the good with the rest without much experience, but I always relied on my instincts I guess, and it was such that brought me to Ernest’s home. At college I met and fell in love with his daughter Katherine.
I remember walking her home one day soon after having recently met her, taking a long walk down Nightingale Lane and then she going her way and me going my way down Trinity Road in Wandsworth, and the next time I thought, I would walk her all the way home. She lived in Tooting Bec so close to Wandsworth Common, and I lived on the other side of it, just the big park keeping our houses apart, and though it was some time ago, I remember things from her road, like I was walking up it just yesterday.
Her quietist road was split in two by the busier Trinity Road that cut through near the top end of it. The Surrey Tavern public house could be seen from the top of her road before I would turn onto it and one of the very first houses on the right hand side had a low railing fence and gates that ran alongside most of its side garden, where a dog would bark like crazy at anyone walking past, and that managed to startle me on many of my visiting occasions.
One of my first times meeting Ernest, was when I with a group of friends was with Katherinethe at Fiona’s and her father came to give her a lift home, and she asked him if I could get a lift too. I remember apart from ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ he never said another word the whole way, and it was hard to think then, how much I would come to later think of him.
A few weeks ago I found myself thinking about him whilst in the middle of the wonderful theatre show of ‘Half a sixpence’, when the actress Jane How came on stage. She was Ernest’s next door neighbour, and though she wouldn’t remember me, I met her on a couple of occasions when I was with Katherine and we stopped to talk with her. That was around thirty years ago but I found myself thinking of all those early memories of walking down her road either with her, or going in the hope to meet Kath.
It was also one of the very first times walking down her road, that I met 13-14 year old Emily. She was Kath’s childhood neighbour and friend from a few doors down, who had the most up high tree house that I had ever seen in London. It was in clear view from Katherine’s bedroom window, and anywhere in her garden.
Emily would often be at Kath’s place or in the garden and I never had any idea then that as Kath’s widow I would one day 26 years later, track down Emily once again, or that I would be invited with mine and Kath’s daughters to come and have lunch with Emily and her mother.
Ernest had a summer house at the back of his garden with a pond not too far in front of it. They used to put food out for the foxes and hide in the summerhouse to watch them come and eat from that plate, and Kath and I with her mum Esther too, would wait hushed in silence to be all too soon rewarded with close up views of foxes and hedgehogs munching. The summer house was our favourite place in those late teen years and we would often meet with friends and go to Foodplus petrol station for loads of snacks which we would all then take back and we’d all sit in it listening to music and chatting, as an alternative cheap night out.
Ernest’s house was massive! He had a basement that was three separate rooms and in each of them he had tools hang up in orderly fashion, and shelving and work tops for all his DIY efforts and loads of storage too. The house itself was set out on three different levels and was originally divided up into three flats, that he acquired all of over a period of time, but the middle floor was the heart of the home with a kind of spiralling stair case that went up through the middle of it.
A few years later when Kath and I were properly dating, I remember sitting in the best room, were they would often have a glass door fireplace crackling, and the TV in that room was hardly ever on, but we would all sit there in calm quietness with only sporadic conversation either side of tea being properly served. I always loved how non rushed it was around Ernest, he just made life feel like it was so calm.
One time I remember Kath and I climbed out of the ceiling hatch window located at the top of the flight of stairs, and sat on the house roof staring out at the views of London buildings on the other side of the river. Kath’s bedroom was on the top floor, as it had another smaller bedroom that came off of it.
Thinking of those early years of knowing Ernest, I don’t think I realised how close he and I would become, even though I was dating his daughter. He was someone I respected a lot of course, and the same of his younger brother Len who often visited, but I think it was after Len’s death and nearer to Ernest selling his home of more than fifty years, that he and I really bonded so closely. Where he had always been a DIY kind of man, his home was set up as his domain and I was always a willing guest at it, but when Kath’s parents moved to be nearer to where we had bought our own home, their new home needed a lot of work doing to it.
Ernest was 82 when he took on that move and its hard for me to still get my head around it, but then he was already 69 years of age when I first met him. As young as he was for his age, and he defied his years by many, he was old to be taking on that kind of new home renovation commitment, but living just one road away, I was able to come around every day and help with the setting up of home with him.
This is the home that my daughters now know and remember their Granddad in when they regularly visit their grandmother Esther. It has photos of Katherine in it of course, but it was never their mother’s home and unfortunately they will never have any knowledge of it, but I like that the house has history of Ernest and my friendship with him. The wallpaper in every room, the painting of ceilings, the hanging of chandeliers, the assembly of radiator covers, the erecting of his garden fencing, and a million things more, and every time I see anyone of them, I think of the quiet man whose memory I have now come to adore.
I remember his huge cups of milky sweet tea and of the many little DIY tips that I picked up from him, and his love of puddings and desserts and second helpings, and how he always asked me for help or morale support in doing something big or even quiet small, and he never tired of putting on his overalls and doing something useful.
He was still up the top of a double span ladder at the age of 92. Ernest was simply someone who never aged in our eyes, and he was sure to go on forever.
My girls remember him for his many blue shirts and his tireless energy in pushing them on the swings that’s he put up for them in his garden, and when they had had enough of that, the cards would come out and he would love playing snap with every one of them.
The years rolled us by and the photos of him and his birthdays where never ending, but at 94 he slowed down all of a sudden, and then he was the first to tell us that there would not be much more. A huge effort getting out of bed to come to his Granddaughter’s Aimée’s First Holy Communion party would be his last hoorah, and then the cakes would come no more.
So here we are Ernest on your centenary birthday anniversary and though you and Katherine are both gone, you are 100 not out, of heart and mind, and every one of my simple memories of you are things wont don’t grow old. Your cake may be missing my friend, but your candles are always burning!