Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Last Rose of Summer

For as long as I can remember an image of 'Our Lady' sat on the mantlepiece at my grandparents' house, a single-bud vase at its side. Throughout the summer, my Grandma would pick the best rose from my Granda's garden for Our Lady's vase. As September approached, she would start to declare that each bloom she picked was probably the last rose of summer. Granda's roses always managed to present her with another month of flowers.

Depending on the knowledge of the questioner, there are many ways for me to answer "where are you from?" - from a simple "the UK" to "I was brought up in South Shields" or maybe even "Chicago". On the other hand, were anyone to ask me "Where is home?" the image that would always spring to mind would be my grandparent's dining room, overlooking a garden full of roses and generally just a little too full of long-legged relations.

Grandma and Granda Williamson lived in Summerhill Road for their whole married lives and their five children and one of my cousins grew up there. Whenever I stepped off a plane or a train, we always went first to Grandma's; if my sister and I went clothes shopping, we had to swing by on the way home to show Grandma and Granda what we'd bought; if you wanted to catch up with family you just popped by for coffee on a Sunday morning and aunts, uncles and cousins would always appear.

My Grandma was the chatty one, generally bustling about feeding everyone who came within reach. She always had a freshly baked cake lying around, maybe chocolate, nusskuchen or a victoria sponge, and visitors were always plied with a cup of tea and a pile of biscuits, often with a sandwich or two thrown in for good luck. Granda was a quiet man, although with a delightfully droll sense of humour. As a young man he'd thought of joining the police force but, in line to enroll, an army recruiter approached him and he decided to enlist in the army instead. His first year was spent as a Coldstream Guard, guarding the palace in a smart red uniform and the traditional bearskin hat. For the rest of his life, his walk was unmistakably that of a soldier. Decades later, my Aunty Eileen's new neighbour saw him walking his regular five mile route to visit her for a cup of tea and asked if he had been a Coldstream Guard.

He was then posted in Palestine and Egypt but his four year term of service was extended when war broke out and eventually became nine. Captured in Italy, he initially escaped from a prisoner of war camp but was recaptured and transported to Munich. When I told him I was moving to Germany for a time he said that I'd like the Germans - of all the European nations they were the most like the British. He showed me the German books he'd brought back after the war. He'd been put to work mending the roof of the Rathaus and still bore a deep groove in his middle fingernail where it had been crushed by a rolling beam. That was the most I'd ever heard him talk about himself. As a rule, he simply led by example. He never ever raised his voice, or lost his temper. If he disapproved of our behaviour it was enough for him to simply raise his index finger, or softly wave his hand up and down to tell us to settle down.

After the war he joined the fire brigade and was one of the longest-serving members in the area. Over thirty years after his retirement, he still received a 90th birthday card from the fire service.

He and my Grandma were married for 64 years. With family at the heart of their life together, they always referred to each other as "mam" and "dad". When we were children, my Grandma would go shopping in Newcastle every Thursday with my Aunty Eileen or mam. Granda would check that she had her purse, her keys, her glasses and a handkerchief and, after seeing her out the door, enjoy a couple of minutes of quiet. Then he would watch the clock until her return. Grandma rarely used her key to get back in, Granda was always at the front door as soon as the car pulled up outside.

While Grandma fed us and chatted to us, Granda nursed us. The inside of his trouser legs would wear away from children sliding up and down into his lap. Whenever I hold a baby the first rhymes that I sing are always those I remember him singing to his grandchildren.

Granda Williamson with his first great-grandchild

We lost my Grandma on April 30th, just two weeks before I was due to arrive home for a long overdue visit. I was unable to change my travel plans and had to miss the funeral by a few short days but my mam asked me to make a recording of "Going Home", the one song that my grandma had specifically requested for her funeral. Every single member of the Wicker Park Choral Singers stayed late after rehearsal a few days later to record this with me and through the kindness of these relatively new friends I was able to be with my far-away family in some way.

My Grandma was a devout catholic and for many years attended mass almost every day, walking down to St Gregory's. Granda rarely stepped inside a church. At one point in their marriage Grandma asked the parish priest what she should do.

"Does he support you in raising your children as Catholic?"
"Well, yes he does"
"Is he a good husband?"
"Yes, he is"
"Then leave him in peace!"

For many years she did just that but as they both grew ill my Grandma worried about his lack of faith. "I know there's a better place and that I'm going there, but what about you?" "Don't worry," my Granda answered, "You know where you're going, I'll just come with you."

My grandfather passed away on Wednesday, 21st September. He was lost without his wife, it was time for him to go home. At his funeral tomorrow the British flag on his coffin will commemorate his service to his country; local firefighters have asked to attend in a fire engine to mark his many years as a fireman; 5 children, 11 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren mourn his loss.

And, for the last time, this morning we gathered the roses from his garden to place in the church for Our Lady.


  1. So so sorry for your losses this year. I hope being with your family this week provides you with some peace. and that story with her an the priest made me laugh!

  2. I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story of your grandparents.

  3. what a beautifully written tribute to your grandparents, and the love they shared for each other and your whole family. I am so sorry for your loss, Helen.


  4. This is such a fantastic tribute, and what a great love story. We too are so sorry to hear this.

  5. Lovely. I have a few tears in my eyes, so sorry for your loss.

  6. I'm so sorry for your loss. What a lovely tribute to your grandparents and the legacy of their love.


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