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What I learned from Bob

Tuesday 18th February 2014

Once, in my teens, I endured an awkward car ride with a friend and his grandmother. They were arguing about their different politics for the most of it.

The grandmother tried her darnedest to end the argument with the age-old truism “respect your elders”. My friend, never one to simply back down for the sake of peace, coldly replied “don’t try that ‘just because you’re old you’re wise’ bullshit with me”, and with that followed the longest and quietest 20-minute car ride in the history of the world.

I count my blessings that I get on with my 95-year-old granddad, Robert Robertson, or, as I know him, Bob. And I do respect him, but I don’t believe I’ve ever actively tried to learn from him. Like my friend, I’ve been encouraged to live a life where I forge my own identity and ideas – but my grandfather is old, and I can’t be naïve enough to think he’ll be around forever.

So why should I, a 26-year-old who has just finished a master’s degree, be so headstrong as to think I couldn’t or shouldn’t learn from Bob? What did I have to lose from seeing what wisdom he had to offer me? What could a man who grew up during the Depression teach me about the world I’m about to enter – and, most importantly, just how much better is my life than his? 

When I arrived at Bob’s room in his Christchurch retirement village, I was surprised to find him sitting alone, waiting. The television wasn’t on; the book beside him wasn’t open; even the chair he was perched on was facing away from the window. He’d been simply sitting and watching the door, presumably waiting for my arrival.

Hamish’s Granddad: “He’d been simply sitting and watching the door, presumably waiting for my arrival”

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“How are you, Granddad?”

“Would you like a beer?”

“It’s 10:30 in the morning on a Sunday, I don’t want to deprive you just yet.”

“It was a gift! Look at this view!”

Granddad waved his hand towards the window, where he had a bird’s-eye view of a row of identical houses behind a pristine bowls lawn.

This retirement home, I realised, was a heaven before heaven; a place where you can have your own, roomy space, modern facilities, and people come and clean them for you

“What do you think of my bachelor pad?” he asked with a chuckle. He makes this joke every time I visit – although, as I looked around his room, I wasn’t sure what the joke was. The place was bigger, warmer and more modern than my own home.

“It’s more like a hotel! Everyone yaps at you, the staff are lovely!” Bob continued.

I let his words echo in my ears as I used his bathroom, complete with underfloor heating; a shower that could house a family; and an incredibly handy rail to help you lift yourself up from the pristine toilet bowl. I dried my hands on towels so soft that that TV dog with the sick obsession of stealing toilet paper for his strange nest would cry tears at the majesty of them.

This retirement home, I realised, was a heaven before heaven; a place where you can have your own, roomy space, modern facilities, and people come and clean them for you.

Best of all, no one could judge you. You’re old, and you’re seen as forgetful, feeble and a victim of your own disobedient old body. The sprightly, young caregivers have to smile as they deal with your unscrubbed toilets.

Robert Robertson at 26

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Bob’s present was more luxurious than mine, and I knew I’d never be able to compete with it. But he wasn’t done rubbing in his senior status yet.

“I married my girlfriend, your, ah, grandmother,” he told my single little face. “How long was that after you were engaged to that other woman?” my mum chimed in, before slamming the final nail into my ego’s coffin by adding, “Should we ring your girlfriend, and see if she’s up?”

I couldn’t even pass off my grandfather’s raw sex appeal on the basis he lived in a town with few men to choose from; my nana moved from the sunshine capital of New Zealand, Nelson, to the wetlands of the West Coast just to be with Bob. Back in those days, Granddad assures me, “that was quite a trip”.

It wasn’t just that he was a handsome man who could dance well that made him so eligible; it was also his firm belief that “You always respect women. You’re disgusting if you don’t.”

Their marriage lasted for 65 years, from the point Bob moved out of the family home to start building them their own, up until my grandmother’s death over a year ago.

“She always used to say, ‘Don’t move so fast Bob, slow down’,” he told me from his stationary position on his chair, before adding, “You know what she said to me in the hospital? ‘I still love you’. I just said, ‘What? You don’t think I love you?’ I did.” It was apparent that he still does.

I asked him what advice he has for someone in their twenties.

“Get an education, it’s the most important thing,” he said. “I was a worker on a farm when I was 13, where you were treated as a joke, you weren’t treated like a human being. It was very lonely working by yourself as a kid, so I went to night school and studied at home on a Friday when all my mates went out drinking.”

It occurred to me that there are some aspects of Depression-era New Zealand still true of our modern world.

I couldn’t help but think the rules of friendship were like those at high school: you get what friends you’re given and you hope they turn out to be people you like

Lunchtime came around, and we walked down to the main space of the retirement home. Bob introduced Mum and I to a group of three of his friends.

There seemed to be little reason why these four gents are pals, their differences as plain as the shoes on their feet: one was wearing Crocs, another sneakers, the one that shook my hand with a vice-like grip was wearing brown dress shoes, and my granddad was wearing the black leather shoes I felt like he’d owned as long as I’d known him. I couldn’t help but think the rules of friendship here were like those at high school: you get what friends you’re given and you just hope they turn out to be people you like.

“So do you sit with your girlfriend at lunch?” I asked as we walked away from his friends. “Oh no, I sit with the men,” he said a little regretfully, echoing the rules of the Masonic Lodge that he used to be a member of – a place where “men would go and talk about men stuff”, a sentiment I wished was no longer true of today’s society.

In the distance, I saw a group of residents edging towards the dining room at a slow and steady pace, each one swaying with every step they take, sometimes emitting a little clear-of-the-throat noise in anticipating of the gravy-soaked meat they were about to consume. It was not unlike The March of the Penguins, set in a warmer climate.

In amongst the grey-headed dawdlers was granddad’s girlfriend. Without saying anything, Bob went straight to her to give her a hug and a gentle kiss. It was horrifically sweet and sentimental.

Mum and I decided to should leave them to their social time; later on, my uncle and aunty were going to drop by for a visit. There seemed to be a constant stream of people in Bob’s life; he has been loved and admired for his whole life, and he’ll die still loved and admired by many.

But then Bob is a person who has spent most of his life serving his communities. He helped start his community’s fire brigade, and was a firm supporter of unions to help improve the conditions of his fellow workers; even joining the Masonic Lodge was about “friendship”, he said: “You help each other when needed.”

Even as a retired man he moved to Christchurch to be closer to his family. This need to be around others and create meaningful ties is a . “You had to make your own fun in the Depression. There was no money and you couldn’t go anywhere, but you had friends for life.”

I’m typing all of this on a computer as I message friends on a cellphone, look at pictures a stranger posted from a foreign country, and in a few weeks’ time I will be flying through the air to a different city.

My life is better than Bob’s in some ways; I have more comforts, and conveniences, but how am I using them to make sure that if I make it to 95, people will still want to visit me? How am I advancing the social conscience put forward by a generation that not nothing, but managed to set up systems that still benefit us today?

The challenge laid down to me by my granddad is to try and be more social, community-minded and respectful of those around me, while trying to better not only myself, but others around me. Then again, dying alone and unloved might be an easier life.