On Good Friday in 1965, my grandad died. It feels weird calling him grandad because I never met him. Arthur Reynolds.
He was out driving a truck when he died. It was early in the morning, about 3am, when he had a heart attack at the wheel and drove his lorry off the motorway. Dramatically, it rolled into a huge ditch, cargo smashing everywhere, smoke pluthering from the engine. And my grandad died there, alone, in the cab.
Or so I thought.
From the age of 10 until late last year, that’s how I believed it happened. Noone told me that. I’m not even sure how I’d created my version of events. I knew he was a truck driver. I knew he died at work. The rest I must have made up myself.
I found out it wasn’t true because of my Making Tracks project. It prompted me to talk to my mum. One day last November I said to her: “It must have been awful when your dad drove his truck off the road. Do you know who found him?”
She looked puzzled and then set me straight.
She told me that he hadn’t driven his truck off the road at all. That actually he’d fallen ill while driving, close to Scotch Corner, so he’d stopped at a greasy spoon café, ordered a big mug of tea, sat down and had a heart attack at the table.
Or so she thought.
For 46 years, since she was 11 years old, she’d believed that story. She’d never questioned it. Every time she’d driven past Scotch Corner services, she’d imagined her dad dying at a café table. And for a month last year, that’s how I believed it happened. Until Boxing Day when I said to my auntie: “It must have been awful when your dad had a heart attack at that café table. Do you know who found him?”
She looked puzzled and then set me straight.
She told me he hadn’t had a heart attack at a table at all. That actually he’d fallen ill while driving, stopped his truck, and another driver he knew had gone to help him… which is when she got confused with the details and her husband stepped in to tell us that the other driver had given him a lift in the passenger seat of his truck. Which is actually where my grandad had a heart attack and died.
My mum’s brother later admitted he’d never been sure of how it happened either. For over 40 years they’d all harboured their own version of how he died. They’d never swapped stories or even questioned the truth behind the tragedy that changed their family forever.
Last week, my mum, my uncle and I went to Scotch Corner service station, to the place where my mum thought her dad died. There is no greasy spoon there. We sat in Costa instead. My auntie didn’t want to come because, even after all this time, her feelings about her dad’s death are still raw. She was 21 with an eight month old son when he died. It must have been awful for her. For all of them.
And they all have their own story to tell. In Costa, my mum and uncle took it in turns to talk to a video camera, on their own, about their dad – how he died, how they found out, what they miss, what he was like, how his death affected them.
Watching the videos back was fascinating. Listening to my mum talking about her childhood, how lonely she felt, how she would tell her dad she loves him if he were here now. All things she’s never said before. And my uncle – how he was winched from his navy boat to a carrier and flown home in 24 hours at the age of 16 to share in the surreal aftermath with his shell-shocked family.
It’s amazing, once you start talking, how much you learn about the people you’ve known all your life. My mum and uncle told me things that day that helped me make sense of my own life, my own feelings and who I am. We talked about lots more than just their dad.
The older I get, the more I realise that things are rarely what they seem. I hope we keep talking. For me, family stories are just as fascinating as any book or film.
Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana
Below are a couple of clips from the videos we took at Scotch Corner. When I get time I want to edit the footage into a short video but for now here are some very rough bits.
Mum talking about her dad - what was it like after he died?
Stephen the day he found out - how my uncle reacted to the news that his dad had died
Note: as if to illustrate the point about memories and versions of the truth, since I wrote this, my sister called me to say grandad didn’t die on Good Friday at all. I was confused. He actually died in August 1965. Just so you know the truth.