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Swallows

Grandpa was fascinated by water and childhood

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When I was 14, Grandpa sent me a copy of Swallows and Amazons in the post.

Swallows and Amazons is a very British book by Arthur Ransome, published in 1930, about four siblings who spend the summer of 1929 sailing around the Lake District in a dinghy named Swallow. The four Walker children set up camp on an overgrown island with a hidden harbour. While sailing to and from the island and the shoreline, they meet two girls who sail a dinghy named Amazon.

On the title page of the secondhand book he wrote, With love to you Zoe from Grandpa, in scrawly handwriting. When I opened it for the first time in ages, a longer note fell out:

Dear Zoe

Thank you for reading these two books and for giving yourself to the story and saying ‘hello’ to the characters.…Thank you for our many jaunts, good times.

Love Grandpa.

And, just this morning, I discovered two extra pages glued between the final page and the back cover, photocopied from a book on how to sail.

This was typical of Grandpa: he tried not to ‘interfere’ with the lives of his eight grandchildren. But he needed an outlet for his sentimentality, so he would send us books with handwritten notes and annotated articles inside.

Grandpa was the kind of person that I couldn’t, and still can’t, explain to anyone. He was an indecipherable human being—knots on knots on knots. He once asked me to look under the table for nuances. I did, and didn’t find any, because I didn’t know what ‘nuance’ meant. This was a standard conversation with Grandpa.

He was skinny and six-foot-something. Within the family, he was famous for wearing a red cap. When we were young it was a Streets ice cream hat, with a swirly red-and-white heart. He carried between three and five plastic bags with him wherever he went, which usually contained books, newspaper cuttings and McDonald’s napkins. He wrote on the napkins with a four-colour ballpoint pen, in shorthand that he invented himself. I used to imagine that I would comb through his study, collect the napkins and other notes, pin them up on a pinboard like a detective from a movie, decode his colour-coded shorthand, and string them together into a narrative.

He could be awful, especially when Mum and her three sisters were growing up. One Christmas Mum gave me The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, and told me that some aspects of the relationship between the father, Sam, and the oldest daughter, Louie, reflect her relationship with Grandpa growing up. Like a tyrant, Sam is egotistical and controlling. Like a child, he is full of goodwill and blind to his own egotism. As a result, he “insinuates himself into every pore of his children’s beings,” as Jonathan Franzen puts it in The New York Times book review.

Grandpa mellowed in old age. I think he realised that being overly involved in his children’s lives was damaging, and so he tried to make our childhood extraordinary without ‘interfering’. (“I’m not interfering, I’m not interfering,” he would mutter to himself.)

He took my sister, Poppy, our six cousins, and me on adventures along the coast—surfing at Bondi, walking out to South Head, catching the ferry to Manly in the choppy water just before a storm.

I’m sure Swallows and Amazons was meant to inspire us to start sailing. But it wasn’t just a ruse. For Grandpa, it was a comment on childhood—on freedom of perception, imagination, something like that. I enclose a copy of each book for you to put on your shelf as keep as your own, as is the way you read them—your own, he wrote in the long note.

I remember him reading the opening scene, where seven-year-old Roger is ‘tacking’:

Roger “ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm…The wind was against him, and he was tacking…He could not run straight against the wind because he was a sailing vessel, a tea-clipper, the Cutty Sark.”

I think of Roger as a young Grandpa. I wonder if he did too.

Grandpa died a few months ago, at the end of April. The funeral was held at the church on the corner where he and Grandma got married in 1960. I wasn’t sad at the funeral. It was the first funeral I’d been to and the second—the funeral of a friend’s family member, a week later—was so tragic that Grandpa’s death seemed peaceful in comparison. Afterwards we went to Grandpa’s old sailing club. We sat on the balcony and watched the sun set over sailboats tugging on their moorings.

Poppy talked about Swallows and Amazons in her eulogy. “The book directly deals with what I presume were Grandpa’s questions about how childhood should be experienced,” she said, about how children need distance from “an adult-controlled perception of the world”.

I only think about Grandpa occasionally, when I come across a passage that I think he would have liked, usually a pretty passage about childhood. The opening of In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, about a young Patrick watching men skate on the frozen river at night, holding flaming cattails like torches. A Christmas Memory, the short story by Truman Capote, about a boy who spends every Christmas with his best friend, an elderly cousin. All of The Little Prince.

Or if I find a note in a book, like his message in Mr. Happy:

Zoe, many years ago, we crept into a cover of sparkling cool shade under Grandma’s big shrubs in huge big terracotta pots. We talked and smiled and listened and helicopters came along too we let the world slip away for the moment and from then on, at every puddle, there was a helicopter to lift us over the puddles; and we met Mr. Happy. We loved him and he loved you as I, your grandpa, do and Grandma too. The world seemed an alright place. Love from Grandpa to Zoe.

I should have written a eulogy. Held back by the thought: anything you want to say now will just sound saccharine and dumb in the morning.

I’ve ordered a copy of Swallowdale, the second book in the series. It’s coming in the post, without a handwritten note in the front.