My Grandad died before I was old enough to truly remember him. I get images of him sometimes, I know that he was tall, and I know that he was bald. But I don’t remember his voice or how he acted around my sisters and me. He was sick for most of my life, so if I had memories of him, they would be tainted by dementia.
I’ve only ever heard stories of my Grandad’s childhood. He was the youngest of ten, living in the Aberdare, Australia. His father had been a coal miner, but he’d left the mines to become a preacher. Not the sort of preacher that gets paid, my great-Grandad just spoke to whoever would listen. Because their parents wouldn’t work, all of my Grandad’s brothers ended up in the mines. My Grandad would have ended up there too had he not been so intelligent that his teachers begged for him to be kept in school. He was not offered an excellent education in and outside of school. The only book he was allowed to read growing up was the Bible.
After graduating high school, my Grandad moved on to the University of Sydney. There he studied Languages (he ended up being fluent in eight), but the experience wasn’t ideal because he was practically starving the entire time due to the poverty that he had been raised into, and that stayed with him until he got his first real job.
In the early 1950s, my Grandad considered attending a graduate school in Florence, but he decided to take on a job at Reuters News Agency instead. He came to his job interview, rather glamorously, wearing shorts. When asked about his ambition, my Grandad replied that he,"wouldn't mind sailing the Atlantic in a canvas canoe.” After being hired as a trainee, he worked in London, Singapore, and South Africa before going to Belgium to help launch the first directly delivered financial services.
At this point, my Grandad had four children. He had met my grandmother through work, she had been a secretary, and they’d been married soon after. Their first child was my Uncle, Barry Renfrew, who, like his father, also went on to be a writer. Then came the twins, Ann and Susan. Ann ended up going to Harvard and studied computer science. She was extremely close to my Grandad, and she most definitely looked up to him. In 1982, at 23, Ann died in a hiking accident near Fort William, Scotland. She had been climbing the highest peak in Great Britain, Ben Nevis, with her twin and my mother. They were separated, and because of the heavy mist, Ann had gotten lost and fallen from one of the cliffs. All of her teachers claimed that she had been brilliant and had done fantastic work. She’s buried on Hayling Island in South England along with my Grandad.
Before the hiking accident, in 1971, my Grandad was named manager of the North American operations. He used an abundance of technology to gain success in his new position. He went so far as to set up a personal computer assembly plant on Long Island. Following a belief that the computerisation and the display of information on screens could enable the agency to reach a huge market, Reuters was able to flourish in North America.
But because he was only given power over a certain part of the company, his ideas didn’t spread to England and other areas of operation. Fortunately, my Grandad was given the opportunity to extend his phenomenon when previous Chief Executive, Gerald Long, left to work with Rupert Murdoch, in 1981, giving my Grandad the top job.
He was the first non-Briton to lead Reuters since its German-born founder, Paul Julius Reuter. As Chief Executive, my Grandad gave the company’s earnings explosive growth. The information on Reuters screens became an essential part of dealing rooms across the world.
After my aunt’s death, my Grandad buried himself in his work. He loved all of his children, of course, but in Ann he saw himself. He saw that spark of genius, and he truly believed that she would do great things in the world of technology. They had all believed she would.
He never really was much of a family man. My mother has told me of how he would lock himself in his office during Holidays. Christmases would be the worst. Memories of a miserable childhood would flood back to him during those supposedly happy times.
Dedicating his life to his work, it was known to all that he was a hard worker. One of his colleagues claimed that he was, “hard on others, but even harder on himself.” As his work at Reuters continued, the company continued to grow. The Agency was duly floated in 1984, which made my Grandad a rich man. Although the flotation was criticized, it aided the company greatly, and gave British national newspapers the money to expand.
His retirement came in 1991, where he moved with my grandmother to the Island of Bermuda. Bermuda is a beautiful island, and a truly ideal place to retire. With its pink sand and crystal clear oceans, anyone would be tempted to stay there forever. He had a retirement party with all of his colleagues and employees, but that event was the end of his contact was Reuters. The company itself didn’t do well after him leaving, although it still exists today.
He spent most of his time after retirement pursuing his passion of sailing. He had had a sailboat when my mother was a child, but after moving to Bermuda he was truly able to dedicate himself to the sport and bought a more extravagant, and larger boat. Their first boat was named Streamliner, while the second was called Ariadne. The Bermudian sailboats were given these names because of their beauty, while the boat they had when my mother was growing up was named the Daphne Ann after my grandmother and aunt.
On rare occasions my grandparents would return to New York. My family and I would visit them and we would stay at the Garden City Hotel. The visits stopped soon after my Grandad died, but those times hold the few memories I have of the man. Garden City was a beautiful hotel, and everyone who worked there seemed to know my family. I remember their ballroom and I remember the tiny chocolate croissants I would eat almost every morning. But there are very few memories of my Grandad. I spent so much time taking in the city and the hotel, that I forgot to spend time with the things and people that wouldn’t be here forever.
My uncle was the one to announce my Grandad’s death. If you Google his name all of his obituaries will come up. They’ll explain how great he was, and how his story is so inspiring. But in all of those stories I don’t see my Grandad. I see a successful business man, a rags to riches story with no relation to me. Obituaries and biographies create a wall between the focus of the piece and the reader. They distance you from the person you so desperately wish you knew. I remember my father telling me to be kind to my mother the day my Grandad died. I was five and just about to go swimming with my friend Hayley, and I didn’t really understand what had happened. At such a young age it’s almost impossible to fathom a concept as complex and obscure as death. And it’s even more difficult to understand the loss of one’s parent. Of course I was kind to my mother, but I didn’t understand why I should be. To me my Grandad was an ancient man who I saw two or three times a year.
Before he died he couldn’t remember a thing. Not his work, not the eight languages he’d learned to speak so well, and he didn’t remember my family. My mother has told me that there was one time, just after my younger sister was born, when he asked for the baby. For a split second he remembered that his grandchild had been born, and he remembered my mother. But then he went back to his amnesiac state, succumbing to the dementia that would soon take his life.
I don’t remember my Grandad. I don’t remember his sense of humor or his wit. I don’t remember the deep sadness that haunted him for his entire life. But I do know that he was loved by so many people. I know that he made a difference in the small ways that he could. And I know that, despite lack of memory, I miss him.