Bang….bang…bang bang bang. The rhythm of Dad’s hammering vibrated throughout the house. He was intent on driving nails into the cupboard doors. More rooms, more doors, and even more nails. The thumping of the hammer kept ringing in our ears as Dad worked his way around Grandma’s house. The year was 1980. Uncle Bill had just moved into a nursing home and my sister Delys along with her two friends were about to rent the house. As Dad drove the last nail into the last door, he announced “that should keep out any prying eyes.”
Following Grandma’s death, my family continued to visit the house at 10 Redpath Street, although it took a few years for our minds to comfortably make the transition from it being “Grandma’s house” to being “Uncle Bill’s house”. Our cart rides continued until we outgrew the cart. Grandma’s bedroom remained the same as she had left it; her old brass bed still wore the vintage blue eiderdown that waited to be folded back in readiness for sleep. Her wide brimmed hat still sat on the bedside chair awaiting the cooler hours of the afternoon. The antique wardrobe with the mirrored door still housed her petite dresses that awaited her caress. The room became a memorial awaiting the return of its mistress, which of course she never did.
The rest of the house remained unchanged also. The two children’s bentwood chairs still held pride of place on the back kitchen wall, as did the scrubbed pine hutch that housed Grandma’s vintage china. The oval timber dining room table and chairs, along with a couple of occasional chairs sat where Grandma had placed them, decades before. Uncle Bill did not embrace change. He continued to preserve his Mother’s presence; that protective arm to comfort him throughout the following years of living alone.
Time continued to march by and I still knew very little about my Great Grandfather, The Military Man. His life had been encapsulated in one statement: “He was a military man, he fought in the Boer War and in World War One.” These words were bandied around by various family members. They were well rehearsed; there were no elaborations.
On that night in 1980, before Dad drove nails into the last cupboard, we found ourselves seated on Grandma’s old brass bed, for the first time since my childhood. I sat and watched my father as he was about to close the cupboard doors indefinitely. It was a task he took upon himself, to prevent any unwelcomed scrutiny of his Grandparents’ precious possessions. Before he did, however, he turned the key in the door of one of the dark timber cupboards that sat against the wall. As the doors swung apart, the heaviness of old books and camphor consumed the air. Standing before an assortment of small boxes, books and papers, Dad’s eyes were scanning, searching, as they moved from shelf to shelf.
“Ah, here it is.” He exclaimed as he pulled out a long thin object wrapped in a plain blue sheet.
He placed the object beside me on the bed and unwound the folds of cloth, with the care of a father unwrapping the swaddling that protects a new born child.
“This is my Grandfather’s dress sword,” Dad said, as he pulled the sword out of its leather sheath and we spent the next few minutes admiring its magnificence against the dimness of the single light bulb that hung from the ceiling.
Immediately, mesmerized as the light bounced off the engraved chrome handle and blade, I knew that this object was indeed very special although I still had no grasp of its real significance. Dad rewrapped the sword and placed it on the bed. He then returned his attention to the open cupboard and pulled out a few more objects. Each item aroused our curiosity more than the one before; each item told us a little more of the story that formed the military life of my Great Grandfather. One of the items retrieved was a small engraved brass tin. Upon lifting the lid we found what looked like a silver bullet and a card marked “Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas from Princess Mary and Friends at home”. This was a gift to my Great Grandfather and his comrades from the daughter of the King in 1914.
The cupboard was a memorial to a time long ago; to a life we knew little about. We only had time to peruse a fraction of the contents before Dad replaced each item in its rightful place. He then closed the doors and began hammering nails once more. Along with the smell of old books and camphor that lingered in the air, thoughts of my Great Grandfather lingered with me. That was the night my family gained a new appreciation for the “Military Man”.