My whole life, my grandfather has never been able to drive. Long before his body began to weary, he had given up on driving, shelving it away as something he didn’t much care for. I’m still not sure why. In our family, it is one of those things that just is, like having your father’s nose or the freckles on your arm. Driving my grandfather home late at night after our weekly Friday night dinners is as much a part of our family routine as the meal itself.
The drive to his house is familiar and well worn. Humming along the familiar road late at night, I often feel as though I could do it in my sleep, the route ingrained into my mind like a favourite lyric or poem. Something that stays with you wherever you go.
Riding in the car to drive Grandpa home was always an extra special treat. When we were younger my cousins and my brother would fight over whose turn it would be to drive with mum or dad to take Grandpa home. I would sit in the back seat of Dad’s car, crisp and clean in fresh pajamas, watching the late night world outside rush past my window in a blur. I would listen quietly as my dad and my grandfather talked, sometimes softly, sometimes loudly.
My grandfather would jump in and out of the car with ease and Dad would take the long away home along Beach Road. I would stare out toward the inky black water of Port Phillip Bay and listen quietly to the music Dad would play as we drove. As we both grew older I still looked forward to driving Grandpa home, still quietly listening to the comforting buzz of his and my father’s conversation from the back seat. When I was learning to drive I would practice late at night with Dad after we had dropped Grandpa home, bunny hopping through the silent streets of East St Kilda as I struggled to master driving a manual car.
Now, my grandfather is slow and heavy on his feet. He is increasingly less mobile and unable to jump on his beloved trams across Melbourne. I often pick him up during the day now. Invariably, he will ask to stop at the post office, and then the chemist.
“Won’t be a moment,” he’ll say in his deep, gravelly voice, insisting that he doesn’t need any help as he shuffles slowly away. He walks bow legged and it takes him a long time to slowly fold himself creakily and painfully into the front seat of my car. As he swings his stiff legs around in front of him, I have to buckle his seat belt. Each time, he’ll exhale a deep sigh of relief and smile at me, “Gee, you have a beaut little car.” As we drive, he’ll ask me endless questions. Other times, we will drive in silence. When we arrive at his door, he will always say goodbye to me in the same way – “Goodnight… You light up my life.”
I recently visited my grandfather one typically steamy Melbourne summer evening. I heard the slow, rhythmic shuffle of his slippers against his hard wooden floor well before he unlocks the door and lets me in. His small Middle Park apartment remains the same – walking in I am often struck by how small a space it is, and how large it felt to me when I was young. The bookshelf holds a radio, various library books and photos of his grandchildren and children, as well as a large black and white photo of his mother. Every time he catches me looking at it, he’ll tell me nostalgically, somewhat sadly, how alike we are.
“She’d have loved you. Have I told you the day you were born your dad said he could feel her in the room? I think there’s a little bit of her in you. Everyone says so.” He is in the midst of preparing his dinner as I arrive. Two pieces of smoked chicken breast, a pile of steamed peas and asparagus, mashed carrots, a cruskit and a hearty serve of tomato chutney on the side. He eats slowly and deliberately.
Driving home the long way along Beach Road, the lights of Station Pier twinkle dimly ahead. I remember walking hand in hand along the pier with my grandfather, walking right to the end, where I would slip off my shoes and let the tips of my long, skinny toes jut out just over the edge of the pier. Holding tight onto my grandfather’s hand, I would stare into the deep water below with trepidation and curiosity. Afterward, we would walk back along the beach to my nearby home. With a pang of sadness and regret it dawns on me that creaky bones and old age mean my grandfather and I will not be able to take our old, long walks along the promenade together. But for now, we’ll have our late night drives together after Friday night dinner.
This weekend, my Grandpa John will celebrate his 80th birthday, in the company of family and friends, half a world away.
Happy birthday, Grandpa John. You light up my life.