My parents worked in the summer, so it fell upon my maternal Grandmother to provide childcare for me when I was young. She didn’t drive (my Grandfather had been a chauffeur. I assume she felt her driving was unnecessary) so our day trips would always be taken on the bus. She was adventurous and we would travel the length and breadth of our county. We would take trips to wildlife parks, the seaside, or a town that she particularly wished to visit. Her stamina was remarkable for a woman in her late seventies. I would make us sit on top of the busses. Simultaneously complaining about the cigarette smoke whilst secretly enjoying it. As much as I hate to admit it, my becoming a smoker was inevitable from a very young age. The fat plumes of blue smoke would fascinate me as they rose above the heads of the adults. It would move slowly at first, before being stretched and drawn out as it was sucked out of the windows above their heads. I’d tell Grandma how dreadful it was while sucking the smell deep into my nostrils.
From our vantage point at the top of the bus we were treated to fine views of the local country side, sitting above the hedgerows, peering into fields normally obscured to me in the back of my parent’s car. Although I was fortunate to enjoy a great deal of variety in these trips one in particular was a fixture that we did every summer.
My Grandparents and my Grandmothers oldest surviving brother (she came from a large Victorian family, most of whom had died long before my birth) had moved to a small waterside community after my Grandfather had retired. Although none had any previous connection with the area it had quickly become home. So much so in fact that the local church was where my parents married and I was christened. So it was no surprise that when they started to die, the church became their final resting place. Grandad had gone first. He was ill for as long as I could remember. To me he was a loving man who sat in a high backed chair in his dressing gown. Next was my uncle, grandma’s brother. Years of smoking did for him. I’ve vague memories of him in hospital, but none at all of his death. In my mind’s eye one minute he was there, the next gone. Once he left Grandma moved to be closer to us. I was her only grandchild and I was lavished with love and attention.
So once every summer we would make the trip to visit Grandad and my Uncle, to lay flowers and say quiet words. The church and its grounds were picture postcard. It was an old stone building, in good repair, and starkly cold even in the heart of summer. There were two entrances to the graveyard where our loved ones were. The main entrance was via the Lychgate, which was familiar from my parent’s favourite wedding photograph which had been taken in front of it. The other was a modest gate and a footpath that took you directly to the graveyard.
When entering via the Lychgate, we would stop and peruse the various notices hanging up, and the wreaths memorialising fallen soldiers. Beyond it was a path leading to the church in one direction and the graveyard in the other. I hated going this way. There were graves here on either side of the path. These were reserved for children. One in particular was covered in faded Star Wars figures. It was my first memory of empathy. Seeing those figures and knowing that there beneath the earth was a child just like me, who loved their Star Wars toys, who would never play with them again. It made my stomach ache, and my legs would feel unsteady. How could that happen I wondered?
Finally we would come to the headstone marking the spot my relatives ashes had been interred. There was a large ash tree, which would sway lazily in the summer breeze above, and rhododendron bushes scattered about, breaking the spaces and giving contrast to the grey of the stone. Grandma would take time to wash and clean the stone, and clean out the metallic holder in which she would place flowers. She cut the grass with her shears and then dig a small hole in which she would place a small pot plant. I would help by taking rubbish to the bin and return with the watering can. Then she would bow her head silently. More often than not she would have to dab tears away before silently taking my hand and taking me back to the bus, and the summer.