Today would have been my maternal grandfather's 91st birthday.
Jim was born in Otago in New Zealand's South Island, serving a rough apprenticeship on saw mills and steam engines as a youth. There is a picture of him at 18 years old, tough and lean, peeling potatoes with his crew. All his life he retained a love of steam, taking us grandchildren to those museums which maintained working engines around the district and even building a miniature replica of his own.
In the war years he fought as an infantryman with the 26th Battalion of the 2nd NZEF, experiencing at first hand the horrors of Cassino. He would tell us grandkids the odd funny story but didn't say much about the rest. Family tradition has it that on one occasion a shell landed nearby and what was left of his mate fitted into a matchbox.
I imagine he must have been haunted by a few things.
He was always deeply affected by the sound of the pipes. He had Scottish heritage of which he was very proud, but also spoke of hearing the Scots advancing to the pipes off to a flank and this was not something he ever forgot. The family surprised him with a piper on the occasion of his 70th birthday. It is a memory I cherish.
After the war he found work as a carpenter, married, and produced two sons and three daughters. He was a good honest man who drove a Dodge and worked hard but never saw great financial return from his labours. He built his own house out of town but was forced to sell up and move in closer to doctors and amenities as he and my grandmother grew older. They retired together on a pension to a kitset house in a newly-developed neighbourhood and while he put on a brave face he missed his shed, his wood-turning lathe and, I suppose, the satisfaction that comes from living in a home you have built with your own hands, among neighbours you've known for many years.
I didn't see him so much after I went to university, but whenever I went home I would go to see him and my grandmother and no matter how old he felt he would always rise out of his chair and greet me with a powerful hug and affectionate words.
He passed away peacefully in his sleep in 1998. I still think of him often and while I have never been able to properly articulate how important he was to me, I did have the chance to try one time when he was very ill. He just said "I know, son". Those three words have given me much peace.
He has thirteen grandchildren and (so far) sixteen great-grandkids. My own kids never got a chance to meet him, but I reckon if they did they would love him to bits, just as I did.
So happy birthday Jim, and I hope they have something 'medicinal' hidden away in a cupboard somewhere that they bring out for you on occasions like this!