This weekend, much of my extended family gathered for a quiet party celebrating my grandfather’s 90th birthday. Well, it was MEANT to be quiet and classy but Oliver and Callum were invited too, and were little hellions as usual.
They were unfortunately most disruptive during a speech my uncle gave. After he scared me into thinking that *I* was suddenly going to have a make a speech as the oldest grandchild present (it was a joke, plus I was hiding behind my camera), he continued to explain a few things about my grandfather’s pretty amazing life. I couldn’t do a better job, so I’ve stolen it. This is what he said, with a few minor edits and comments:
Dad was born in 1919 at Freshfield, about a dozen miles north west of Liverpool on the west coast of England. His parents operated a newsagent’s shop and the family lived upstairs. His brother Donald was born three years later. A couple of years after that, his parents sold the shop and moved to a poultry farm nearby. Dad and Uncle Donald enjoyed their childhood play with friends on that farm and on the dairy and pig farm across the road. At age 11, Dad attended the Secondary School at Ainsdale, about 4 miles further north, riding his bicycle to school each day. He swam a great deal, and developed the technique that he still uses today, almost 8 decades later.
In 1933, his parents bought a fish and chip shop in Southport, about 7 miles north of Freshfield, and the family moved there. Dad completed school, and worked for dentists making dental plates, then for an engineering company.
In June 1939, when it was clear that war was coming, he volunteered for the British Navy as an engineering rating, and was assigned to Devonport as his home port. He developed a habit, when encountering a type of engine for the first time, of pulling out and reading the technical manuals and writing to the manufacturer to obtain additional explanations and specifications, until he fully understood the engine. In 1941, he was posted to Trinidad, his job being the repair of the large number of ships of various nationalities and designs that moved in convoy along the east coast of North and South America. The best dry dock in the area was at Barbados, so he visited the island often to work on ships there. That, of course, is how he met Mum. They were married in 1942. It was clear that he would be posted back to England in 1943, so Mum traveled in convoy, Trinidad to New York to Glasgow, in July 1943 and thereafter lived with Dad’s parents. I was born in Southport in 194-. Dad served in the Mediterranean on minesweepers for the latter part of the War.
In 1947, it appeared that Dad might be posted back to the Caribbean, so Mum and I traveled to Barbados in anticipation. Dad served on the cruiser HMS Jamaica during this time, but it was mostly operating far from the island for which it was named. We returned to England in late 1949, and settled in a house in Southport with Dad’s parents. It became clear that Dad’s operations would always be centred in Plymouth, so since by this time my grandparents had sold the fish and chip shop, we moved to Bere Alston in Devon in 1951, to be nearer him. Margery was born there in 195-, and Nick in 195-.
In 1958, Dad decided that the Navy had nothing else to offer him, so he retired. He had four job opportunities, on an island in the Bahamas, in Nigeria, in central England decommissioning old coal mines, and at Quebec City working on icebreakers and supply ships for the Canadian department of Transport. He chose Quebec City, arriving in May 1958, with the family following at the end of July. We saw little more of him than we had seen while he was in the Navy.
In the summer of 1960, the family moved to Ottawa, and Dad took the job of Manager of the head office building of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, then situated on Wellington Street opposite the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. He retired in 1982. Retirement did not slow him down. He taught himself to ski, continued his swimming, did some serious scuba diving in various parts of the world, involved himself in many home construction projects for family members and friends, and has probably read most of the books in the adult section of the local branch of the Ottawa library. He and Mum have until recently spent a couple of months each winter in Barbados.
Those are the facts. Now we get to the hard part. It is perhaps ironic that it is me speaking about Dad today. In the first 16 years of my life, I had seen him for less than about 3 months total. As a teenager, the time when one rejects all adults and particularly one’s parents, I spent only two years living with him. So Dad and I have really only got to know each other as adults, and at long distance since we live 400km apart.
But let me tell you what I see.
The Navy was a hard taskmaster, and Dad still has a residue of the brash and loud and commanding outer veneer one has to learn to survive there. My daughter in law Mary Joy says that the first thing he said to her on being introduced to her 11 years ago was “I’m Arthur Fitton, and I do not have any great grandchildren yet”. [Lucky he didn’t say that to me! I would have considered decking him]
Underneath that veneer is a different person. There is a very intelligent person, who lost the opportunity to go to grammar school and university because his parents could not afford to pay the costs during the Depression, but still reads half a dozen serious books at a time, and is well informed as to the national and international news and the economic situation. He made sure that his children had the educational opportunities that they wished, and that message was passed along to his grandchildren. Relatives completing their education in Ottawa have always been welcome in his home. There is a very generous person, who has never hesitated to help family and friends. Yes, he can seem to be a bit cheap sometimes, but never on anything that really matters. There is a very caring person, perhaps not the huggy kissy kind, but one who genuinely cares about the members of the family.
That’s the Dad I see. He’s 90 years old in two days’ time for three reasons. First, he lives with a world class cook [my amazing grandmother]. Second, he has good genes. Third, he still has many things he wants to accomplish.
Dad, I wish you many more years, with good health and with the love of all of us.
Happy birthday, Grandad. Thanks to my parents for hosting. Thanks to all the guests for putting up with the rascals.