"Hello, my wee Gran!" I called out as I stepped through the door.
"Well, hello, my wee son," came the response from the kitchen. It was a common refrain, well-practiced and used between us. I was always her 'wee son' even though I stood head and shoulders above her.
The house was redolent with warm oven and furniture polish, two things that seemed to occupy an inordinate amount of her time. Hers was a different generation of woman, a generation that rarely rested and never settled for anything.
"Have you eaten?" She asked. "Well sit here, I have some lovely beef vegetable just warming."
The offer of food was unavoidable. Arrive at Gran's, and expect to see a plate appear. If I was able to time it just right, to arrive before the soup or chicken or beef was ready, there was still no escape. Mounds of toast, made only the way Gran could, would appear. It was as if the toaster was always primed in the off chance someone might stop by.
These impromptu stuffings were always followed by biscuits and tea. Chocolate covered digestives or buttered digestives with a chocolate one at the side. And, of course, the tea.
I watched her make tea all my life and still I am unable to reproduce it. Tea of such clarity, such flavor, perfect in every way. It was Gran's tea, made only the way she could. It was a home of ultimate welcome and comfort. Every guest - regardless of status or position - was treated to the same overwhelming hospitality.
Between mouthfuls, I might try to explain the reason for my arrival. I could try, but they always went the same way.
"Well, I've just eaten and I'm in a bit of a hurry..."
"All right then, son, sit here."
"Actually, the reason I stopped by..."
"Here's lovely roast beef sandwich. It's that nice beef I get from the German. You know he has such nice beef."
"Here, try this and you tell me if this isn't a nice bit of beef."
The proffered chunk would be handed over and as soon as it touched the tongue, it would dissolve in a burst of moist and tender flavor. I have tried to duplicate it as well. I have asked him for the exact same cuts as he sold her. I have followed the directions to the letter and yet, mine is just beef. Gran's kitchen was magic.
But now, with the original piece of ambrosia dissolving, I would be asked on its quality.
"Isn't it lovely? See now, you have some."
And the groaning trencher would appear and I would be sat 'til completion. I remember times when the ritual of arrival bothered me. I remember being hurried and harried and not really wanting the whole process.
Now I miss it with a pain that is palpable. The generosity of spirit and goods. The easy welcome and perennial concern and care. The undeniable love and, of course, the ritual.
Eating was not something hurriedly grabbed at a drive through window. It was an opportunity to talk, to learn and to grow. It was a reflection of her love, served piping hot and plentiful. We used to joke that Gran lived in the fear that someone, someday, might arrive at her door famished, and she must be ready to feed them. She was concerned for the world and everyone in it. So much of what ails the world could be solved by ensuring everyone had a vest and cardigan on.
I never came away from these encounters with only a full belly to show for it. There was always some tidbit of family history, some story as yet untold to be enjoyed. More than once, I found my need to rush had vanished to be replaced by my need to listen.
In one of our last conversations she told me, "I don't want to go. I still have so much to tell you."
Had I known how prophetic and near her warning was, I would have made the time to listen. Returning to that day, I remember that I had nowhere else to be and nowhere else I would rather be. Leaning back well satiated and fortified, I asked about my grandfather.
"He's out back, building something. Here, take him this cup of tea and these biscuits. Tell him he'll need to come in and wash up."
Armed with my Gran's warning and her food, I made my way to the workshop. I walked through gardens of infinite variety and color, flowers and shrubs carefully arranged and masterfully tended. There was great balance and precision in that finery of a level rarely seen in the dedicated amateur.
My grandfather had been a career soldier; a warrior through the roughest battles men could create. His first adventures started at fifteen, running away from his home in Scotland to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He returned just in time to enlist and fight the Germans for five years before the Americans arrived, then he had another four. From there, it was little but engagement after engagement. The Second War was over but that only lead to decades of 'little wars'. Wherever the Empire was, he was.
It was a hard life filled with danger, death, difficulty, and duty. He never had a real home, he never had a chance to dig in his roots and grow. He served, and in the immortal tradition of governments everywhere, once the service is no longer needed, neither is the serviceman.
Retired, he found those roots and planted and nurtured them the best he could. Years of duty had denied him the chance to watch over his own children, so instead, he doted on his grandchildren.
A birthday was never missed, a function never avoided, and of course there was Christmas. Having never had a childhood filled with mirth and folly he went out of his way each year for us. Mechanical Santas danced and lights were arrayed with such intensity that aircraft could be diverted. He was born into hardship and raised in adversity and yet, he kept Christmas well.
The workshop was as tidy as any one could imagine. Every screw had its place and every tool its slot. A lifetime of discipline and order could not be disavowed. On the bench was a cabinet, a request I had made 'en passant.’
I had a small alcove in my apartment that nothing commercial could fit in. The dimensions were too small for most and too large for others. I had asked if he could knock some shelves together, nothing fancy, just to fill the void.
What sat before me, however, was something fancy. Deep wood, polished and varnished 'til it glowed, was offset by fine pale molding. Not a screw or nail was visible, not an edge unfinished. Giving him his tea and Gran's warning I stopped to admire his work..
"Is that it? The cabinet?" I asked.
"It will be when I'm done. Almost finished, I just want to smooth off the bottom of that piece there," he replied.
"It's gorgeous. I didn't mean for you to go to that much trouble. I just wanted something to fill a hole," I said.
Sitting down to drink his tea, he motioned me into the other chair. I waited patiently as he fortified himself, happy to just be in his company. He was a man's man. Devoid of guile or politics. Honest, dutiful, strong, and determined. He was cut from a cloth that is rarely ever seen today.
I have heard the blitherings of idiots who speak with pretentious derision. They speak of men such as this having never existed, of being some Hollywood, John Wayne fabrication. Their own shallowness precludes them from imagining that once, long ago, men lived honorably. To them, they are artificial stereotypes. To me, it was my grandfather.
His tea finished, he gazed over his creation with a critical eye, searching for any fault, any inadequacy. Finding none, he spoke.
"It's never enough to do the minimum. It's not good enough to do only what is required, and it is never bloody enough to accept less. You have to do your best, or at least put in the effort to do your best, or not do it at all. Any fool can clap wood together and call it a shelf. But do you want to be that fool? What happens years from now when someone asks you where it came from? You'll say I made it and then they will make a judgment call on me. They will look at this old thing and they will know that I was dedicated to its construction. It's not vanity. It's that, when all is said and done, all a man has is his name.
"So, you spend the time doing it right. You make the effort regardless of the immediate cost because it is the right thing to do. You put your all into something so you can put your name to it. And when your name and your effort have outlived you, then you have done something noble."
The dresser is old now. It is scarred and scratched, worn in some spots and showing signs of its age, much as I am. But the work and the ideals will carry on even after I am gone. I have told my child the story of the dresser and, with any luck, she will tell hers. Then we can all know that, on that day - so many years ago now - I came away with far more than I had expected.