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...a sweatshop of moxie

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

More Cockroaches Than Feet

I had two very different kinds of grandfathers.

I suppose this is true of many people, whose sets of grandparents often seem to be mirror-opposites of each other. One set, warm, generous and lax. The other set colder, stricter, more strangers than close family members, despite their best efforts.

But as often happens too, neither set conformed to such outright stereotypes, except maybe superficially.

My British (paternal) grandfather was strict, dour, and yet generous, often making up for thrifty Christmas presents his wife, my grandmother, gave us by indulging his progeny in private. To the end of her days, she would give my father a £5 note every Christmas, with a completely straight face, good Presbyterian that she was, and he would later privately add a morocco-bound set of books to sweeten the vinegar.

My Austro-German (maternal) grandfather was sociable, hearty, with a tremendous will to live and let live, and yet was often unexpectedly fierce, with the kind of Teutonic hatred of weakness or inferiority, perceived or real, which made him a terror to his children and staff.

Grandpapa loved everything to do with the underdog, or those treated unfairly by society or history, such as black people, and often visited Africa with my grandmother -- losing themselves for months in remote hideaways, deep in bush country. Since he too was a physician, he acted as a kind of one-man Médécin sans Frontière, long before his son actually joined that organisation.

It's not surprising then, that of the South American countries, he began a long love affair with Brazil, back when his father visited it in the late 1920's, an official guest of the then Brazilian government via the British Council.

Later, he took my grandmother on a South American honeymoon, back in the days when you requested leave from the Army for such a purpose, and they granted it understandingly...for a whole YEAR. What a different world it was.

But as happens with people, not everything is as straightforward or logical as it would appear.

I recall telling my father that his dad may have been ahead of his time in certain respects (a vegetarian, e.g.), but if he was so egalitarian and unracist, why was it that I had never seen a black person cross the threshold of his house, except to clean it?

He had no reply.

Opa was a different kind of man. A boulevardier, complete with David Niven moustache, his ever-present impeccable Homburg hat, and lemon gloves in his hands whenever he went riding, which was daily until he died.

The story everyone in my family told of him was that if he found the least imperfection with his clothes, despite them coming fresh from the laundry, he would throw them disgustedly to the floor, and have them laundered again, without ever wearing them.

Unsurprisingly, his bedroom seemed like a male wonderland to me, with drawers and drawers, and Schrank after Schrank (those heavy Germanic mahogony dressers) filled with clothes, handkerchiefs, hats, and treehorned shoes polished to a sheen. There were discrete manly scents dripping vetiver and verbena, which he sprinkled on his hands. He liked being watched by the whole family just before dinner, as he did so. When he died, they discovered steamer trunks full of bespoke shirts, dated decades before.

And yet this fastidious worldly man was devoutly Catholic, and often (as a bachelor, but also later as a married man) went on pilgrimages to Lourdes, Fatima, Santiago de Compostela, braving travelling discomfort, and the press and acrid odour of humanity, from which he normally recoiled.

He meekly volunteered to push invalids to the Shrines, grottoes, and altars, lifting them in his arms when they were too weak, and he thought nothing of sleeping in the open air, rather than deprive someone less fit than himself, shelter for the night in bursting towns.

But again, as it happens in this illogical world, he hated infirmity, germs, disabilities, and thought it almost a slur to his honour when he or his family got sick. Even worse, was his distaste of ugliness or disagreeable features, taking a violent dislike to anyone around him who was fat, or had a big nose, stuttered, or limped.

When one of my aunts was born, the youngest, he took one look at her rather stiff "Chinese" black hair (which ironically fell off, producing a shock of wavy blonde after a few months), bristled, and walked out of the house, not to return for a week.

Even worse than that, he used to remind her of the fact with gusto years later. Poor dear.

So when I was thinking of them today, after a friend quoted an impossibly hilarious line from Conan the Barbarian, I thought of a saying I associate with each of these very individual, not to say particular men.

These sayings resonate with their spirit whenever I think of them.

And they tended to repeat them, as older people sometimes do. I suppose they think it sums up their personal philosophies, and maybe you can learn from them into the bargain.

Let's see if you can pick out which man said what, based on my descriptions of each above.

"There are two types of people in this world. Those who are hammers. And those who are nails. You choose which one you want to be."

"Always remember. There are more cockroaches...than feet."

If I did my job well as a writer, you'll know immediately.


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