This story was read aloud at:
This is a story of two personalities: My
Grandfather Denys, spelt with a y, and a British seaside resort, Salcombe,
spelt with a B.
I always remember my Grandfather as being the ultimate
British Gentleman. I remember once, when I was 12 or so, he took my brothers
friend aside, and quietly and politely told him that gentleman did not wear
a hat indoors.
Salcombe is a beach resort on an estuary. An
estuary is a river that is tidal. We would look out the window of the
hotel to see which way the anchored boats were pointing in the water to know
if the tide was coming in or going out. The town and hotels were on the
green hills of one side of the water. On the other side was the beach. It
was a large flat white beach surround by rocks and lush British greenery. The
beach was small when the tide was high, but became an infinite playing field
when the tide was low.
My Grandfather began taking my family to Salcombe
in the 50’s. Each year they would leave their northern town and
travel south to the sometimes sunny resort. Each year they stayed at
the Sunnycliffe Hotel (spelt of course with an e on the end.)
While growing up in California in the 70’s and 80’s
the tradition continued but only every other year.
The motor launch my family rented always looked the
same. Fifteen to twenty feet long, stained dark brown, with no mast,
but a thumping covered engine in the middle. We would all pile in for
the journey across the water from the hotel to the beach. My grandfather
always sat at the back, with the tiller under his elbow and a smile on his
face. I remember him wearing a pale blue sailor’s cap, he would
smile and wink at me and tell me that it was to keep an old man’s bald
head from burning.
When the tide was low, we would play cricket on the
beach, the British cousins making fun of the Americans because we dropped the
bat after hitting the ball. My grandmother would make tea for my grandfather
and the family on the beach towels.
The town of Salcombe is tiny, one cobbled street lined
with shops. As children we would walk together into town to buy a Flake
99 ice creams. Or stand at the docks with fishing line trying to catch
Every night the whole family would congregate at the
hotel bar with my grandfather presiding. The children would
drink orange and lemonade. The parents, beer and wine.
At dinner a number of tables were pushed together
to make one long thin table. My grandfather would sit at the head. Beyond
him was a view of the darkening night of the estuary and our cricket beach.
While we were children, after dinner we went to the
living room of the hotel and played monopoly and other board games while the
parents sat around and talked.
When I was fourteen all the children went down to
the pub together and I ordered and drank my first beer. A larger and
lime. I was so proud. Back at the hotel, while the parents were
sitting around talking, I told my mother probably a little too loudly, that
I had a larger and lime. My mother smiled and I went to my room and promptly
Later I would hear stories of when my mother and father
were courting, and their drunken nights at Salcombe.
Into my twenties the visits to Salcombe became less
and less regular. That is also when my grandfather began to forget things. Arriving
at his house, he would recognize me, but my name would not come, and he would
say, Luke, James, Tom, Pete and then finally Ben.
When this happened there was pain and frustration
on his face. And shame. Shame of not knowing the names of those
he loved so much.
Then there was a three or four year break between
family gatherings at Salcombe. I had not traveled to England or seen
my grandfather in that time, and the change was startling. He looked
old. His athletic frame was leathery and baggy, his face was hollow,
and his eyes looked lost. His body, which used to bounce in and out of
boats, moved slowly and with caution.
At the bar before dinner he did not join in the conversation. He
had problems remembering where he was, and what was going on. He watched
his family sit around and drink and enjoy themselves. At the dinner table,
we ate and talked and laughed. But there was a dark undercurrent, we
all knew that this was the last time we would all be together with my grandfather
at the head of the table in Salcombe.
After dinner Granddad rang his spoon on the glass
and stood up. There was a nervous pause, and we all wondered how coherent
he was and if he really knew what was going on.
My granddad told us he wanted to thank us. That
he knew that this was the last time that we would be together. That he
would not be with us for very much longer. And he wanted to tell us how
proud of us he was, how we are the most wonderful family any man could ever
have, how it made him happy just to be with us.
I looked at the tears in my mothers eyes, and she
smiled back at me with a thin lipped smile.
A short time later, when my grandmother could no longer
take care of him, they put him in a home. He survived a week in the care
At the funeral and afterward, there was the one image
that always came to mind of my grandfather. Sitting at the back of the
boat, with his arm on the tiller, his eyes both searching ahead for waves and
boats, and inward upon his family, with a smile on his face.