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June 28, 2016

I would rather be ashes than dust: Eulogy for my grandfather

Steff

granddad eulogy

granddad eulogy

Granddad and Nana on their wedding day.

Death has a habit of creeping up on us when we’re least prepared for it. Both our own demise, and the death of those we love.

Last week I flew back down to my hometown to attend the funeral of my grandfather – Granddad Neville, as we knew him. He was my father’s father, and had been a pretty prominent fixture in my life, especially when I was a child. It never really occurred to me he could be gone … until he was. He’d been sick for some time, and his wish was not to linger. He received the death he wanted – peaceful and quick. The good death that becomes important as you realise how close it looms.

As far as funerals go, his was wonderful. More than 200 family members and friends gathered to honour his life. Afterward, we had a wake at my parents house, where we cracked open some of granddad’s booze and toasted him with stories and memories.

Listening to the eulogies given by the other speakers, and to all the conversations at the wake afterward, I realised how much I owed to this man, even though I knew him as a grubby-faced kid could know her kind, boisterous granddad. Everyone talked about Granddad’s work ethic; he did a lot of different jobs in his lifetime, but every one of them he attacked with tenacity and pride. All my uncles (his sons) have this same work ethic, and it’s the same attitude I share,. Granddad was careful with money, and his instructions regarding the funeral were that it be simple and cheap, because he didn’t save all his money to spend on “an expensive bloody coffin.” He was prone to disasters, and had several near misses on his life (this I can definitely relate to!) He loved the outdoors, and especially the beach. The best job he ever had was managing the campground at Aramoana beach, where my family would stay every summer and visit many weekends. It was an incredible place to grow up and I have so many wonderful and hilarious memories from that time.

I was asked to say a eulogy on behalf of the grandchildren. I was pretty nervous doing it, as I’d never spoken a eulogy before, and I tend to get pretty emotional at these kinds of things (ask me about the time I was performing a wedding for two close friends and the groom was crying so I started crying) and I was afraid I’d be too much of a wreck to speak. But I did it, without crying (much) and I’m so glad I did. It was an honour to do this small thing for my Granddad, to say thanks to him in my own way for everything he’d given me.

I try not to talk too much about my family on my blog, because I believe they should have some privacy, a shield between my public life and my private. But I thought I’d share this because … well, because we’ve all lost someone we cared about. And even though my granddad never did anything truly wild or miraculous and his name wasn’t in lights, he was kind, and generous, and wonderful, and he deserves to be remembered.

Eulogy for my grandfather

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

This credo, written by the author Jack London, has been running through my mind ever since I heard the news about the death of my grandfather, Neville. We’re gathered here today, to commit Neville’s ashes to the earth. They are the ashes of a man who truly lived, who used his time for the things he enjoyed most: for hunting and fishing, for being by the water and on the land, for friends and good times, and – most of all – for family.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Stephanie Green. I’m a writer by trade, which is probably why I was roped in to writing the eulogy on behalf of Neville’s grandchildren, and I’m also the daughter of G, and granddaughter of Neville. Which makes me one of the luckiest granddaughters in the world.

My memories of Granddad are intrinsically tied up with my childhood. Neville was a fixture in our lives. We visited him frequently, and spent whole summers with him when he managed the Aromoana campground. His house at the beach had an attached shop and a cupboard filled with candy, which to a kid is basically the same as being related to an astronaut.

Granddad would let us kids help him make up the 50c lolly mixes, back when 50c bought you a small bag of treasures instead of two minutes of parking time. He’d set out twenty saucers on the table, and we’d divide out the lollies evenly between them. He’d then place a plate for us to pile up our favourites for our own private stash. Only, instead of a saucer, ours was a dinner plate. Like I said, luckiest granddaughter alive.

Granddad allowed the ice cream trucks access to the campground, only if his grandkids were allowed free ice creams. We used to rip pieces of a rainbow bar box off and take them to the truck to exchange for our treats … any ice cream we wanted. And boy did we take advantage of this loophole – double cones, chocolate-dipped, covered in sherbert, five chocolate flakes, and one severe stomach ache later … luckiest grandchildren alive.

We would visit Neville at his house in Waipawa, as well. I remember my sister and I inventing elaborate games which always involved us chasing his chickens around the garden. Every time we came down the driveway those poor chickens cowered in terror, and after we left they went off the lay for three days. Poor Granddad missed out on all those eggs, but he never complained, he just liked seeing us having fun.

My family was visiting Nana and Granddad when a particularly nasty earthquake rocked the house. We cowered under the kitchen door and watched as every glass and cup toppled from the shelves and broke on the floor. Afterward, as we were sitting shaken in the living room, Neville poured himself something alcoholic into a flowery mug – the only drinking vessel left unbroken – and annoucned that we weren’t to worry, because he certianly wasn’t.

Granddad was always smiling, always happy to see us, always indulging our games and asking us about school and hobbies. But growing up, I never asked Granddad much about his life. My questions were more akin to, “Granddad, can I have another free ice cream?” and “Granddad, can Belinda and I put a dress on your dog?” I knew very little about the life of this man who was such a figure in my own.

At high school, I was given an assignment to write my family history back to my great gandparents. I had to interview the surviving members of my family and write about their lives. So off I went with my Snoopy tape recorder to interview Granddad.

He talked a lot about his childhood. His father was a keen hunter and was always bringing home some new catch. Neville said he and his siblings used to get pissed off because he’d bring home a whole deer and then they’d eat deer twice a day for the next week. He was also a grand axeman, who would chop at the show. “He won a lot of money,” Neville said, “but still managed to be broke all the time.”

Neville attended Waipawa Primary School, and then Waipawa High School. He said, “I left before they could kick me out.”, and he then started work for the Co-Op in Waipawa, then became an apprentice baker.

I learned Granddad worked on the construction of the Waipawa bridge. He showed me the wheelbarrow he still kept as a souvenir. He then worked on the Rices bridge in Hatuma, and then went to Johnsonville to build the leading and flyover bridges over the highway.

He married Pauline,  and they had six sons. Growing up on the farm there was no TV and little money, so the boys spent their days chopping down trees, eeling, damming creeks, blowing stuff up, killing defenceless animals … the usual kind of stuff.

After I wrote up my report, I wanted a quote to put at the beginning of my report, something profound to encapsulate our family, like the latin motto on a prominent crest. I asked Granddad to give me one. He thought for a moment, and then said. “I have a quote for you. ‘I have never met a Green who had any money. And if I did, I’d ask him for a loan.’”

Granddad was not an overly emotional man. His signs of love came in simple, if not overt, gestures. A wink; a hand-squeeze; a smile. His spark may have burned out, but his fire will live forever in our memories. Should you find yourself missing his affable humour, his stoic nature, his gentle love, then I think you have only to look to your neighbour, your siblings, your children … to anyone in this room who he has touched, and you will find him. Rest peacefully, Granddad.

Thank you.