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Intimacy through Memory: My Grandfather's Death Helped Me Understand Him

By Lily Shield-Polyzoides

Intimacy is an emotion, not a physical act or specific phrase. Intimacy for me, is achieving an intangible, mutual psychological closeness and understanding with somebody. In our lifetimes, it is the knowing laughter borne from an inside joke, strolling at a synchronised pace, recognising emotion from a fleeting eyelid flicker. I achieved this with my grandfather when he was alive. I achieved it again, in a way I hadn’t understood before, after his death.

I’m sure I understood my grandfather, the person he was, on those days when his soft, long fingers would interlock with mine when we went for a stroll. I would always ask how things were with his wife, his extended family –important parts of his life that affected him, but I didn’t often see. I would, most importantly, listen closely to his answers. I would pick up on his mannerisms and things he appreciated, like being able to stand with the back of his legs pressed to the radiator, being passed a Battenberg cake even if he initially said no – he always wanted one.

It took a few years after he died, to realise this was only understanding one part of my Grandfather. I understood the mannerisms and emotions he had picked up in the latter stages of his life, but not much more. True psychological closeness of him as a person, who lived the fullest life before I was even a slight consideration, came only once I gave the time to steadily relive his life in photos, stories, objects and documents. It is true, I sat with my Grandfather on many occasions looking at photo albums –but, there is something unique about death that gives you time, and a toolkit of emotion, you never thought possible. Pictures that never triggered too much emotion from me while he was sitting next to me, are now capable of pulling me into a warm, long blanket of reflection and fitting a new lens of perspective.

It was in these black-and-white, then grayscale, photos of a familiar smile with a thickhead of hair and vibrant skin beaming at me, the metallic feel of his Boys Brigade badges, that I felt closer to my grandad in a completely new way. He wasn’t just a grandfather – but a son, husband, father, colleague, friend, who had lived his life completely. My anger in his suffering, the upset that we had time stolen from us - began to be replaced by some sort of existential, perhaps even spiritual, closeness and understanding.

He had achieved so much: He had been a loyal son and school friend, one of the last men to be conscripted for National Service, a loyal colleague who had spent 40 years at Land Rover in Birmingham, a dedicated and loving father, and husband. Later, he had seen both his daughters married, my application to university. I remember his text, he was glad I chose London – I wanted to be a journalist, and “that’s where all the papers are.”

Not only did I understand his life, I began to understand his death. It was unfair, painful, wrong. But there came another perspective. He was 79 and he had lived so many, enjoyable years in his life - from grandson to Harold and Grace, to grandfather to my brother and I. He had died following the correct, generational pattern, the one life designates to us. Real tragedy is to experience death backwards. His death, and the man I would interlock fingers with on our strolls, made more sense then.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence I started researching my family tree about a year after he died. I didn’t start researching with any conscious association to reconcile my ancestry because he had passed – I often give myself research projects when I feel a loose end. But it certainly speaks to the larger realisation that was given to me once he died. To achieve intimacy, a psychological closeness and understanding with somebody, is one of life's greatest compliments and joys. I will forever be grateful for the relationship I shared with my grandfather. But I know now, this kind of closeness doesn’t disappear once a person’s physical being does. I now understand my grandfather more than I ever did. But I also understand the circumstances in which it came to an end. It was nice to get to know you all over again, Grandad.

Lily Shield-Polyzoides is a second-year History and Politics student. "I'll usually be reading somewhere - currently it's Zorba the Greek. I turn 21 pretty soon (I have the same birthday as Johnny Knoxville)."

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