I had the absolute pleasure and honour to spend some weeks with my grandfather, a few months before he died. It was Christmas and my grandparents lived only a few doors away. Every other night, at 10pm, I would go round to their house, the one I had known since childhood; the one my Dad grew up in. I’d go in the back door and shout for Grandad. He’d be in the dining room with a dram and a cigarette, all set up.
He was losing his mind but he’d remember me: “oh, it’s you, Plastic Bag” or “Aye, Boss Cat”. Or “Come away, Girl”.
The next thing he’d ask is if I wanted a drink. He had a cupboard with optics in it, so I’d pour myself a gin and get him a whisky and he’d say “do you smoke, girl?” and I’d say yes and he’d try to give me one of his B&H but I’d produce my own.
And we’d sit there for a bit. Just smoking and thinking and taking sips. After the first few times of engaging him in general conversation I realised his mind had retreated so far he didn’t recognise the present. Sometimes he’d spout off a few lines of poetry, so I’d write them down, then look them up on the internet the next day, print the whole thing off and come back the next night and recite them with him.
He was happy then, I think. No questions about if there was jam in the cupboard, or who’d robbed him this week or who was in the room, or who had died and what was what. We just were.. We recited The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, The Owl and The Pussycat, The Temperance poem, Robert Service.
And I realised, my Dad had passed the love of all these poems on to me, but they had started with my Grandfather. He did remember reciting The Owl and the Pussycat to me when I got upset about not have the “baby duck apron” (yes I got was the owl & pussycat one and I was so sad) and so he took my hand (i was five maybe?) and dried my tears and told me the poem. I’ve never forgotten it.
So then, every other night it was a joy to go and see him, to have a dram and a cigarette, to ask him about war stories he had told me, over and over again. To read poetry together. It was one of the best times of my life.
And when he died my father asked me to read the eulogy. This is a massive deal. In the Highlands, it should not be a member of the family – sons. daughters, brothers, sisters etc. But at 94, all his friends were dead. And Dad and he and I had shared that bond. Dad felt I was the right person. We stayed up night after night, getting drunk and writing it. One night we were all like “fuck everything, this will screw everyone up! We are geniuses!” and then the next day over coffee, we looked at each other across the table and shook our heads.
My Grandfather, William Ritchie McPhee, liked tradition. But he also broke it in his own way. He was a hard man, but a man with a soft centre. He was complex, talented, he loved poetry and yet was from an unforgiving background from the North of Scotland.
I got a laugh, during my eulogy, which Dad and I had planned for (even though the bugger whispered in my ear “don’t trip on the stairs in your high shoes” on the way up to the lecturn in the High Church). We wanted it to be respectful and yet show what the man was also like underneath. He was a fixture of Inverness, the Highland Guard, if you will. He was a war pilot, a Highland councillor, a JP, a man about town. He was the only person I’ve ever heard of who could go into his bank and demand money without showing any ID. He was larger than life, all my life, a big bear of a man, until the end when he seemed so small and frail. And yet when we read those poems together, his voice would sail. He was almost transcendental.
After he died, my Dad found multiple copies of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I have three of them. One is the most beautiful painted copy you’ve ever seen. I’m more like Grandad that I had ever thought.
Dad and I both sniggered when we told the minister at the High Church that I would be reading from it and he looked aghast (eep! Muslims!). That was worth every second and Grandad would have loved it. It wasn’t heresy, it was just beautiful poetry.
So here are the two for Ritchie McPhee. I love him and miss him and am grateful for the time I had with him.
From Your Girl, your Plastic Bag, your Boss Cat. L x
“Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.”
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”