The most difficult thing about moving to the other side of the world is leaving family behind. When I left New Zealand six years ago and hugged my nana and grandad goodbye, deep down I had a feeling that I was unlikely to see them again. They were in their 80s then and, as I headed to a country more than a day’s air travel away, I knew I’d never be able to return in time if things suddenly went wrong.
When my father told me on Monday that grandad didn’t have much longer, I wondered if I could make it in time. But, as I wrote my father an email with things I wanted my grandad to know so that he could read them to him, I knew deep down that there was no way.
It’s times like that when the distance hurts – so far from my grandad when he was in his final hours and so far from my parents and sister when I wanted to be able to help and comfort them.
I love all of my grandparents. I know I was special to each of them and I think of them a lot. I have my grandpa’s Yorkshire stubbornness and I aspire to be as generous to others as he was towards me. I think of my grandma every time I’m on a train through Birmingham, as that’s where she was from. My nana was so proud of her family and her grandchildren, making sure that dozens of Christmas cards, birthday gifts and congratulations for exam results were sent on time.
But my grandad lived the longest and so I knew him best.
I remember his way of greeting my younger sister: “Howdy, pal,” – a greeting he once used when she was very young and, as it had tickled her fancy, he had used it ever since.
She remembers him teaching us about the stars. I remember him teaching me about the mechanics of the Titanic, different types of cows (he was a farmer) and about growing plants and vegetables.
When war came, he had his eyes on being a pilot. Lacking the maths qualification needed at the time didn’t stop him. He simply taught himself until he got it.
I remember interviewing him about his war service for a school history project. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for completing a bombing raid in Europe after flack had taken out one of his Lancaster’s engines but getting a sparkling quote from this modest man was seemingly impossible. To him, it was a job that simply had to be done and the medal was a recognition of his crew more than it was of his flying skills or courage. And so that, as he often said, was that.
He had every quality Kiwis admire: determination, resourcefulness and humility. And he was a link to a very special generation that is fewer in number as the years go on. But he had a sense of adventure – traveling to Europe and then later to the Mid East as a pilot in the 1940s. Maybe, if I’m lucky, he gave me a little of that too.