Yesterday we laid my Grandfather, Owen Cottage, to rest in Birtin Cemetery, Outibridge following a service at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, Grenoside, Sheffield. I loved him. He strived to be a good man all his life. I admired him for his many wonderful accomplishments and I was angry with him that he was so neglectful of my mother when she needed him most. He made the LDS church his family to the detriment of his own daughter. He endured the tragedy of nursing (and losing) his first wife, Mary, to cancer during my mum's teenage years. He was then widowed a further two times in precisiely the same way. First Ray - who spilt our family apart, and then Lottie who brought us all back together. He patted me on my head when I was tiny, tried to teach me as a teenager, argued with me as an young adult and in the last few years finally stopped lecturing me and clung to me whenever I was with him. I had a much closer relationship with him than I do my own father. I think a tiny part of me thought he would go on forever. The following is the eulogy I gave at the service:
“Eh up Sausage” was how my Granddad usually greeted me. Occasionally it was ‘Hello Flower’.
In November Grandad admitted to me that he was getting tired and that he wanted to go. So we must take comfort from the fact that Owen was ready to say goodbye. All the times I have said goodbye to him in last years - each time there has been a pang - is this the last time? Is this last time? I guess I was forgetting that in actual fact it would be today.
When I think back I am sad we wasted so much time on disagreeing about our different beliefs. Because what I realise now, is that we were in complete agreement with our values. So many of the values that l learned from my mum, about honesty, kindness, justice, patience and caring for others, came from him too.
Mum (Owen’s daughter - Jeannie) was telling me just this week of the time when as a small child she was scared of a thunder storm and he snuggled her in a blanket and sat with his arms wrapped around her in front of the open window while he explained what was really happening with lightning and electricity. “If you can hear the thunder - you’re all right”
I remember his love of science and nature, of growing things, of landscapes. I loved his sense of humour so much. Like most of our family he never turned down an opportunity to make you laugh.
Grandad said me that given the number of dicey moments he’d managed to escape he was rather surprised to having ‘got so old’. I think he’d like me to entertain you with some of those times now.
The only time I actually thought that my grandad was going to die was whenever we went one of his famous drives - careening around the hills of Derbyshire in his red Skoda while he gesticulated wildly about the beautiful countryside, trying to teach me the names of the mountains, with not one eye on the road ahead and what seemed to me, a cavalier disregard for the edge of the road. I was terrified I was about to die too. When he told me that he’d passed his driving test in a GPO truck with a full load of telegraph poles - I believed him.
Owen spent his early boyhood in the slums of Pitsmoor this was during the depression. He remembered the privilege of having shoes when many of his little pals had none. He told me how you could get into the Saturday cinema for the princely sum of a clean jam jar and how the pianist was a saint to be playing in the midst of a hail of orange peel flung by excitable kids. Owen and his tradition of escaping potentially deadly events started around this time:
In his own words: “ Few kids in Pitsmoor enjoyed the luxury of a ‘proper’ sledge - most were home-made, including mine. My sledge was a very large Yorkshire Pudding tin, in which I could just sit comfortably with my feet hunched up to my bottom. The tin, once burnished by the ice, made a swift efficient square boat but was, unfortunately, very difficult to steer…most of the kids managed to steer off to the right into Grove Street and gracefully slow down…[the Yorkshire Pudding tin] rarely responded to my frantic efforts to turn off. I would continue at an ever increasing speed on down the hill - more often than not facing the wrong way round…the only hope of avoiding a crash was to fling myself off.
After many such hair-raising rides I would happily return home, hand back the battered tin with my my grateful thanks, whereupon my Aunt Marian would endeavour to restore it to its original shape with hammer.” [in time for Sunday]
When he joined the navy Owen decided to train as a medical nurse and it meant that he spent the war nursing those that had suffered from the extremes of violence - her served both on aircraft carriers and on hospital ships. Owen had many close shaves but one of the more alarming he told us about was trying to get back to his ship, HMS Furious, during an air raid in Belfast. In the event of bombing he’d been told to report to a police station, however he discovered the police station itself had been hit and the sergeant ordered him back to his ship. Making his way through the burning docks he found himself trapped and the only way to escape was through an alleyway next to a burning building. After wondering what to do, he made a dash for it and ran the 100 yards like a thing possessed emerging at the other end with his clothes smouldering. He was then confronted with the sight of a land mine dangling from parachutes in the path of the fire and both the Commander of the Furious and an able seaman, with a large hammer apiece, bashing the horns on the mine in an attempt to bend them to prevent detonation. It was a do or die situation and a race against time. It occurred to Owen that he was witnessing his last moments on earth. The insanely mad, desperate effort succeeded in making the mine safe with just a few minutes to spare before the flames burned through the parachutes and the mine plunged harmlessly into the water.
After the war things obviously settled down, but my Grandad was determinedly independent and remained a man of action.
There was the time Owen fell off his ladder - this was during his window cleaning business years - he broke his leg and ended up with a cast up to his thigh - but he still insisted on digging his garden. My mum remembers looking out of the window - periodically he would disappear from view having toppled over but then bounce back up again to continue putting in his potatoes.
His independent spirit never ever waned - in his eighties he decided to fell a rather large ash tree at the end of the garden. He fashioned himself a harness and proceeded to saw it from the top down - much to the alarm of a couple of missionaries below who were frantically trying to help. Apparently Lottie had to turn her chair around so that she couldn’t see him out of the window.
Owen was a master in the pragmatic art of just keeping going. So it is fitting that his favourite poem was the Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. My granddad treasured this poem all his life and often sent it to people for birthdays and Christmas - he sent it to me on at least 3 separate occasions. If Owen could say goodbye to you himself, this is probably how he would choose to do it. And while I read it, know in your heart that he would tell you this with all his earnest desire to help and with all his love:
“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”