Saturday, October 28, 2017

My Step-Grandfather's House

My step-grandfather was my mother's step-father. Aside from my paternal grandfather, he was my only grandparent-- both my grandmothers died before I was born, as did my mother's father.

He lived in Croom, which is in county Limerick. Croom is a town but his front garden looked out onto a field with cows in it. It was surrounded by roads but there were cows in it. I think I am remembering that rightly.

My step-grandfather and my mother didn't have the best relationship. In fact, my family generally seemed to have a low opinion of him. I've always felt rather bad for him, on account of this, and remembered him in my prayer more often than I might have otherwise.

Me and my brothers liked his house because it included an airing cupboard which ran from one bedroom to another. A passage between rooms, like in so many kid's stories! And it was big enough for us to clamber down.

Another thing I remember vividly from the bedroom was the holy picture, or holy pictures, on the wall. This memory is an extraordinary one because, while I have no memory whatsoever of the pictures themselves, I can very vividly remember how they made me feel. However, this feeling is harder to convey into words. "Solemn" is the simplest aspect of it, but it goes beyond that. "Particularity" is the more subtle aspect. I don't know what scene of sacred history they represented, but I was impressed (without really thinking about it) by the fact that these were people who lived in a faraway time and place, and yet they were somehow ancestral to me. That seems essential to the "flavour" of Christianity, at least in my mind. I could write volumes on this theme. Perhaps I will some day.

More simply, I have an impression of gloom-- dark greys and dull browns-- which has influenced my taste in Christian art.

My step-grandfather was a forbidding old man. I have a memory of him telling me how, when he died, the Devil would cry to him: "I have you now!", and how he would burn forever in Hell. I asked him if he wouldn't burn until he was all black, and I had a very vivid image of a human being reduced to cinders. "No", he said, "I will burn forever". I have no idea if he was serious or not, but I was quite awe-struck.

Perhaps he was not serious, because I have another memory of him listening to St. John Paul II on the television, and saying: "Lies, lies and more lies". (I can just about remember that this was a saying of his.)

I saw a spider in my step-grandfather's bath once, and this is also something that lingers with me. I don't think it frightened me at the time, and the memory is a pleasant one. I've always liked spiders. I think they are very graceful creatures, and the webs they spin are a symbol of the traditions and customs which I value so much in human life. As with so many other memories from my childhood, this one is superimposed with another memory; a villain in a comic-book called Tarantula. But it's still a pleasant memory. I was always more drawn towards the villains in stories, if they were sufficiently stylish and mysterious (Darth Vader, Sauron, etc), than the heroes.

Another vivid memory connected to my step-grandfather is a picture of him on his First Communion day. It was framed on a wall, but I can't remember if it was his wall or somebody else's wall. I was very struck by this picture; the fact that there was a photograph of this old man as a child seemed extraordinary to me. Over and over again, in my life, I've been astonished by the realization that time is a continuum; that the past may be a different country, but that it has no definite border.

More fundamentally, it was in my step-grandfather's house that I was most struck by the solidity of the world. He rarely had the television or the radio on, in stark contrast to my own home, and the relative silence somehow made his house seem especially real. This is something that strikes me in retrospect, rather than something I was aware of at the time. This awareness of the world's solidity, however, was not oppressive but rather ecstatic-- the sheer joy of things being what they are.

Most memorable of all my memories from my step-grandfather's house is the morning I saw all the crows. I've often mentioned this on my blog before, so I won't linger on it. It was a very early morning, and I was awake before anybody else (something most unusual, then or now). The sky was grey, or perhaps it was a dim white-- I can't remember exactly. The bedroom was gloomy. Against one wall was propped a halved brown and white flag-- I don't know what it represented, but I found it most attractive, especially the vague notion that it was an obscure local flag.

And then, outside my window-- I can't remember if it happened suddenly or gradually-- there appeared a vast amount of crows, so many that I was astonished. They seemed to fill the sky. I can't really put into words what this vision meant to me. "The profusion of mundane beauty" is perhaps the phrase that express it best.

I've never ceased to be haunted by this sight. Over the years I'd come to assume that there was nothing really remarkable about it, and that my memory has magnified it. But perhaps not. My father told me, a few years ago, that he'd heard a radio discussion concering strange starling formations in Croom. Croom is not a place you often hear mentioned in any context. So perhaps the bird life there is out of the ordinary, for whatever reason, and I did witness something remarkable after all.


  1. Both homely and rather spine-chilling!

    1. Thanks. I was rather worried this was a weaker blog post. I was conscious I hadn't written anything in a little while!