My grandfather died 80 years ago today. I was born 21 years after his passing, so Frank Skinner lives on in my father Bob’s precious shared memories of the father he lost when he had just turned 16.
Dad recorded his memories of that terrible day in December 1942 in a poignant, brilliantly observed blogpost two years ago: “At sixteen I had just started work as the Penarth Times reporter and was in Penarth police court when called home. My father was seriously ill. I knew before I got there that he had died. It was from a heart attack. He was 52.”
Dad went on to reflect on the sense of shock and loss: “Like this year [the coronavirus Christmas, 2020], it was an unusual [wartime] Christmas with families separated, celebrations muted. I remember very little of those few days, and have no recollection of Dad’s funeral. I did go out one evening, to join our church’s young people’s group carol singing. Mum thought it would do me good to get out of the house for an hour. Looking back, the saddest part was that I had so little time to get to know Dad.”
When I was 16, I was fearful of history repeating itself and losing my own father at an early age. (Dad’s grandfather had also died young, so I had reason to be concerned.) Ten years ago I told Dad of these fears for the first time, during a wonderful, celebratory dinner to mark Mum’s successful cancer operation in January 2013. Now, as Dad faces Christmas in hospital, I reflect on his extraordinary life, and his memories of losing a much-loved father 80 years ago.
I’m also thinking about the lovely grandfather I never knew. Here he is above in his Great War army uniform. Frank survived the catastrophe of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, and before the second world war forbade Dad from joining the school cadet corps because of his horror of war – a similar emotion that inspired Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany.
Dad told me that his father featured in the national press after Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935. Frank featured in photos of two barges named Italy and Abyssinia. He was on Abyssinia and was throwing stones at the boat named Italy. It would be fun to track down the images in the newspaper archives for 1935.
Frank died almost exactly half way through the second world war, not knowing what tragedies his family might endure as Bob and his elder brother Bert entered adulthood. Happily, all lived to celebrate VE Day and VJ Day in 1945. As my father has noted, they never lived together as a family again, but remained close, a precious closeness that we all share to this day.