When I arrived to stay with my Grandad, after he got sick, he was chopping vegetables with a butter knife.
I almost asked him why, but after a moment's consideration I realised I already knew.
An engineer all his life, my Grandad was famous – at least within our family – for making new things out of other things. Need a new wardrobe? We'll whip one up out of this old door we had lying around. A new shelf for the coffee table? I'll just bang one together out of this old fruit box! I suspect there were at least a few other folks outside of our family who appreciated his talents, as he volunteered for decades at the Anson museum in Poynton, making steam engines work, building enclosures and supports and new pieces wherever they happened to be needed, to really get the best out of the machinery that was brought in, but he was always quietly proud of these things. Never one to blow his own trumpet or to brag, he would just quietly get on and make things work.
Some of the best and most memorable gifts I remember from when I was a child were things that had been made out of other things. The sled made from an iron bedstead, which was used once and then forever confiscated for fear of us beheading some other small child, ill-equipped to move out of the way of our heavy and brakeless vehicle barrelling down the hillside towards them at unstoppable speeds. The pop-gun made from an old bicycle pump and loaded with wine bottle corks, which was quietly hidden from my younger cousins after causing havoc around the entire neighbourhood. The indestructible set of hand cut and coloured wooden building blocks, which were handed down from sister to brother to cousin, and are probably still somewhere in the family, being used to build small walls and occasionally beat competitive siblings around the head. He had a talent for coming up with the noisiest, messiest, most dangerous, but above all most exciting toys, all of which were things made from junk that just happened to be laying around in his shed or in the house.
As a grown woman now, I look back and see that some of what lay behind this was that, with a large family and little money, making the best of what he had was always an important part of life, but I also suspect that the reason he had such a way with all of us was because he was firmly in touch with the part of him that had never grown up.
He never treated any of us grandchildren differently because we were girls or boys. It is only in hindsight I realise how unusual that was. If you showed any interest in his workshop he would take you out and show you how things worked. It was Grandad who gave me my first hammer, showed me how to use a screwdriver, all of those basic sorts of DIY and carpentry things, and showed me the sorts of things that you could achieve with just a few simple tools. He also showed me that a lot of the time, if you don't have something, you can make it just as easily as going out to buy it. This is a philosophy that has stuck with me through the years and, in times when I too was short on cash, has made the difference between having what I needed or going without. 'Make Do and Mend', a slogan from his teenage years during the war, was firmly centred within my own childhood philosophy and still informs at least some of my thinking today.
Towards the end of his life, it became clear that Grandad was becoming increasingly unwell with the cancer that would finally kill him, but he remained fiercely independent. Determined to Make Do and Mend his way through to the last. When I came to stay, with the express purpose of helping him out around the home, he initially insisted on cooking dinner for both of us. After all, I was a guest!
That first night, while he was still up and walking around, before the pain and sickness got too much, I watched him chop carrots with a butter knife, and I felt a sense of rightness in the world. We might not have the perfect tools to do the job, but we had a knife sharpener dammit and we could make do.
I was not a perfect nurse. Care giving is something that has never come particularly naturally to me. He was not a perfect patient either. Fiercely independent, he struggled to receive help in any form. Over the coming weeks, though, we fell into a comfortable pattern of companionship. I would work on my laptop, in my Gran's old armchair, while he would watch the TV. Later, over dinner, which he would allow me to cook more often as time went on, we would talk about his teenage years, or about engineering, or about the many crazy jobs he had done in his working years. Having known him all through my childhood, I treasured this time getting to know my Grandad again as an adult, even while it was hard watching him shrink away and slowly lose what remained of his sense of humour, as constant pain and physical weakness started to get the better of him. He was still him, though. Still the man I had adored as a tiny child, climbing on the back of his armchair to comb his hair into ridiculous shapes using the steel comb he always kept in his pocket, laughing along with my delight at the crazy shapes I created, like horns or a mohawk. Still the man who had told me he would drive his invalid cart off a cliff rather than be looked after. We made do.
Later, when it was all over, I gathered with my family to clear out the house. There was one object, and only one that I was determined to have as a keepsake. One that nobody else cared about.
I made a bee line for the kitchen and picked up my Grandad's butter knife. It was razor sharp.
It lives now in my own kitchen drawer, because what is the point of owning a tool if you're not going to use it? (I can almost hear my Grandad saying this even now) – I keep it sharp, as no butter knife ever was, and sometimes I chop vegetables with it. It reminds me that even imperfect tools can make life better, and that a lot of the time in life, you already have what you need... it just happens to look like something else.
Adventures of the Polka-Dotted One
- My Grandad's Butter Knife