The Gift

As I write, it is December 12th. My granddad died on this day, some eleven years ago. He died on his one hundredth birthday. Coincidentally, it was also exactly one hundred years to the day that the Wright brothers’ performed man’s first powered flight. He died of a stroke, flying home from Moscow. Economy class. His only child, my father, preceded him by some fifteen years.

My brother and I were his only living descendants. His only blood.

When the dust had settled and my granddad’s lawyer had done his thing, my brother was given granddad’s sole remaining asset, his house. There was a three hundred thousand dollar mortgage on it, but Stuart cleared about half a million dollars. Me? Granddad left me this envelope.

Granddad was the one relative of mine whose company I had actually enjoyed. I was always his favourite, though he tried not to show it. As a child I spent all my spare time with him. He taught me to shoot and to skin rabbits. We went duck hunting together. He bought me my first camera, a little Kodak Instamatic. Do you remember those? They had this plastic cartridge that encased the film to protect your photographs from errant fingers and memory destroying light. Do you even remember film? God I feel old.

As I was saying, I was his favourite, and as such he told me things. Things that he told to no one else. Things about the world as it was, when he was a kid. Of surviving two world wars. He had been too young to go to the first, and was too smart to go to the second. He had felt guilt over the former, the guilt of a youth untried. He weathered the scorn he received over the later. But he lived through and beyond that.

He told me about his surviving the Great Depression. How he fed my dad and my Nanna, by selling rabbits and their skins to the wives of men who had jobs, and bartering to those whose husbands did not. Granddad was a skilled hunter and a quietly brilliant shot, with both shotgun and rifle. On my wedding he gave my wife and I a silver tray. His trophy for winning the Victorian Gun Club’s twelve gauge State Championship.

And he told me of his dreams. Dreams that everyone else he knew would have only laughed at. He loved to tell me that he was born before man had ever flown in the sky, mind you, he only beat the Wright brothers by a few hours, and even that was by a fluke of geography, and that now he had seen a man travelling in space. He had lived to see a man walking on the Moon.

He was a down to earth man, but he dreamed of going to space. With all his heart.

In the nineteen-nineties he was retired, living alone in the substantial house he had taken a lifetime to pay off with half a century of a labourer’s wages. One Sunday night he called me over to discuss something very important. Over a glass of beer he told me that he had found out about a company in Russia that was providing flights into orbit, using old, mothballed, Soyuz equipment. The cost was three hundred thousand dollars for a twenty-four hour orbit. There was no age limit, all they cared about was your money.

I quietly helped him battle the banks to get a forty percent mortgage on his house, a debt he had no hope of repaying. Essentially he was selling nearly half of his house to the bank. This whole project took the two of us nearly five years. The delays and dealings with the Russians were a nightmare, as they were with the bank here in Australia. His friends called him a fool, but with no wife or son left alive for him to convince, he shook off all protests like his labrador Sandy shook off water.

He finally got to Russia in the northern summer of 2004, where he spent three months doing ‘training programs’ and waiting. Eventually, in the dying days of that year, he went up. He spent twenty-four hours in space at the cost of half of his house. Fifty years of saving for a one day experience. He was only allowed to take 500 grams with him. He had asked me if he could take the old instamatic camera he had bought me all those years before. He knew that I still possessed it.

It was on the flight home that he died.

Favouritism can be an ugly thing within families. In my experience, it comes out at it’s worst during funerals. I still feel a little guilty about what happened with the reading of granddad’s will. I tried not to show my feelings, but members of the extend family were downright embarrassing. The condescension. The faux conciliation. The smugness. The anger. It is sad how otherwise good people can react to what others decide to do with their own money. Money that they earned.

When all is said and done, I do hope that the money made it easier for my brother, but it was nothing to compare with what granddad had given to me.

So, what’s in this envelope? Why do I still have it with me now, all these years later? I carry it with me all the time, did you know? It contains the twelve photographs, along with the strip of negatives, that Granddad shot out of the Soyuz port hole. They are nothing really. Badly exposed, blurred almost beyond identification. They are just a memento really. A proof. A physical reminder.

So what had my granddad given to me? He gave me the chance to see, yes and even, in some small way, to share in, a dream come true. What could possibly be worth more than that? What could possibly have more value than the certain knowledge that dreams, fantastic, unbelievable, impossible dreams, can and do come true?

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.