Sunday, 19 May 2013

Meeting grandad - the meeting I never knew about

I never knew either of my grandfathers.

Ernie Graham
My mother's father, Ernest Graham was born in Belfast in 1922, and was tragically killed in an industrial accident at Pembroke Dock in October 1972, where he was working as a boilermaker. A person who was supposed to be on a job that day did not turn up, and Ernie, on his day off, volunteered to take his place. A scaffold he then worked on suddenly collapsed beneath him, and he tragically fell to his death. I was only 2 years old, and never had the chance to meet him. In recent times, I did manage to hear an echo of his life, via two letters that he wrote in the 1950s. I had written an article about an earlier family generation in the UK's Your Family Tree magazine, and had included a family tree chart showing how I connected to that person via Ernie. A reader recognised his name, and contacted me to inform me that her parents were very great friends of Ernie, her father having worked with him as a boilermaker in Aden. She sent me copies of photos that her parents had taken of my own grandparents - one of which I in fact already owned - and also two letters. The words in the letters not only told me about activities in his life in the 1950s, but also allowed me for the first time to hear his own 'voice'. It was my grandfather talking, not to me, but to a friend from another time and another place.

Charlie Paton, outside his wireless shop in Belfast
My father's father, Charles Paton, was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1905, to two Scottish parents. He survived the occupation of Brussels in the First World War, later moved to Northern Ireland, survived an encounter again with the Germans during the Belfast Blitz, served in the RAF and later worked as a wireless shop manager. I have spent many years finding out about Charlie also, and have even been to Belgium to trace his war story there as a child civilian, having been enthralled by his life story. My father did not get on with him, however, and I sadly never got to meet him, particularly tragic as I returned from Britain to live in Northern Ireland in 1979, and never knew that Charlie lived down the road from us in Donaghadee. He died in 1987, when I was 17, and I have often wondered if I could have visited him if I had known he was so close. But a meeting with him was sadly not to be either.

Or so I thought... I am just back from a visit to Manchester to visit my mother, currently in hospital for a treatment - and she has just told me, out of the blue, that she actually met him in 1971, myself in tow. We were living in Scotland at the time, and she had returned home to see my aunt Sheila following my christening in Helensburgh, who had then taken her down to Donaghadee, along with my infant self, to see him. So it turns out, 13 years after I first started researching my family tree, that I now learn that I did in fact meet one of the ancestors I have always wanted to know more about.

I have met one of my grandfathers, but what I know of him now still comes from a pile of documents and recollections of others. I have heard the voice of another from an echo on a few sheets of papers from half a century before, but in a conversation to someone else.

But what I wouldn't give to trade all those documents for a ten minute chat with either of them today.

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