How do you know if it’s true love?

There’s a bit of mystery around the death of my paternal grandfather, but as best I can tell, he drowned in his own blood.

But misplaced somewhere, lost, before this tragic time, there is a remarkable photograph of him.

The photograph I’ve hunted high and low for includes a World War II jeep – parked in an African desert. There are also three mammals in the picture. One is Alec Stafford, my grandfather. He is perched on the rear of the jeep, one foot on the ground. He is wearing desert-appropriate army fatigues – khaki shorts and a short sleeved shirt. And, I think, a hat.

The other two mammals are a matching pair of cheetahs. Yup. Cheetahs.

They belonged to an army buddy of my grandfather’s. The army buddy was on the other side of Africa and my grandfather was transporting the cheetahs back to him as a favor. As you do.

I’m fascinated by this story. My grandfather told me the cheetahs were much like dogs. An important difference being that you had to chain the cheetahs up at dusk. Otherwise they would vanish into the desert night.

However, to my deep disappointment, this cheetah-photo has gone missing. So I’ll use another one for my story.

I’ve chosen this second photo because of my reaction when I first saw it.

I thought, “Ohhhhh, now I get it!”

My next photo choice also includes my grandfather. However, in this second photo all the mammals are humans. Zero cheetahs.

My grandfather on far right
My grandfather on far right

My grandfather is standing on the far right of his immediate family. His parents, my Great-Grand Parents, are in the front. My grandfather’s two siblings – my Great Uncle Roly and Great Aunt Eileen – both still alive and well – are behind on the left (2024 update: both Roly and Eileen now sadly passed).

My grandfather is wearing a new-looking woollen military uniform – no desert army shorts here. It looks cold. I assume they are in England.

I think my grandfather looks quite the dish in this photo (‘dishy’ being a term that I believe was in common parlance back in the days). He was young, tall, his skin was clear, his dark curly hair smoothed into film star waves.

Yup, he was quite the looker. Back then.

As a callow teenager, before I saw this photo, I never understood what my grandmother saw in my grandfather.

If my remarkable grandmother, Pauline Stafford (nee Blaxter) hadn’t died just shy of her 90th birthday, she’d be 104 now;

A feminist and a rebel – my grandmother was decades ahead of her time. In addition to English, she was fluent in French, Italian, and German. She was a skilled artist and a lover of literature. She taught English and completed a Master’s thesis on the role of the heroine in English Literature.

I’d read her thesis. Apparently her male supervisor didn’t like it. I can see why.  In her thesis, my grandmother seems really angry, painting women as victims of abusive men.

In London, during the war, she was busy making bombs when she wasn’t dodging them.

My grandmother was vivacious. Even in her later years, her social life made me feel tired. Her intellect, charm, and multi-linguicism, kept her front door revolving with visitors of all ages and nationalities.

My grandfather would also be around 104 now; if he hadn’t drowned in his own blood at the age of 64.

There’s a bit of  a “let’s not talk about it” shroud around the circumstances of my grandfather’s death. However, as far as I can ascertain, his throat membranes ruptured, bleeding uncontrollably. Most likely a consequence of decades of alcohol abuse.

Aged 15, I cried at my grandfather’s funeral for two reasons: one valid, the other not so much. The less valid reason is that I cried because I felt I ought to. The more valid reason was that I felt I never knew my grandfather.

The grandfather I knew was a crashing bore.

He’d lost the good looks of his youth. His frizzy hair had greyed and thinned. His skin had reddened and coarsened with decades of cigarettes and alcohol.

Although well-meaning, his mental health wasn’t great. He told lame, awkward jokes. His alcoholism and recurrent depression may have impaired his mind.

While I realized, when I saw the second photo, that my grandfather’s youthful good looks may have appealed to my grandmother, I also came to realise that she saw something much deeper in him. Something critically important for her. Something critically important for everybody.

My grandmother grew up in a upper-middle class English home. They had all the social and material trappings that privilege and money could buy.

Emotionally the house was bankrupt.

Pauline’s father could be great fun, but always strictly on his terms. And there were stereotypical evenings where nannies would take my grandmother and her two siblings to see their glamorous mother before she went out for the evening.

It gets much worse.

Apparently my glamorous great grandmother told her daughter, my grandmother Pauline, that when she was pregnant with Pauline, she tried to trigger an abortion by throwing herself down the stairs.

My grandmother also had hazy childhood memories of a dead baby in a suit case. Of an Au pair girl who suddenly disappeared.

Of course my grandmother and her siblings went to boarding school. Not a guarantee of doom in itself, but it added to the family distance. My grandmother considered the emotional coldness to be normal for her family’s place in the rigid English class hierarchy of the time.

I believe my grandmother felt unwanted by her parents. I know she felt ‘less than’ both her siblings. Less than her older brother – by virtue of being a mere girl. Less than her older sister – by virtue of her sister being ‘the pretty one’.

I later heard two more stories which helped me better understand how my grandfather was able to attract and keep my grandmother.

One of these stories was told to me by my grandmother. Actually, she told me this story three times. When you say something more than once, it means something.

The story goes that my grandmother told my grandfather she was considering taking up the trumpet.

He was silent. He went away. He came back.

He said, “I’ve been thinking. You excel at everything you try. So we must get you the best trumpet we can afford.”

The second story was told to me by my uncle. As a child, he was out working in the garden one sunny afternoon with my grandparents, his parents.

My grandmother slipped and fell. Injured.

My grandfather leapt to her side and picked her up like a feather.

My uncle saw true love in the anguish on my grandfather’s face.

I take from these stories that my grandmother got the unconditional love from her husband that she never got from her family.

My grandmother never remarried. Quite deliberately. She missed my grandfather, she told me, but she put her freedom to good use. An intrepid traveler, she did restrict her travels to tamer parts of Europe as she aged. A Nepalese trek at age 80 proved a bit tougher than she expected.

My grandfather’s alcoholism and depression dominated great swathes of their marriage. However, I’m confident that my stoic grandmother had no regrets about her choice of life partner.

He needed her.
She needed him.

Was their love co-dependent?

Co-dependency being a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.

I assume so. But not, I think, completely.

My grandmother told me she joined Alanon. A support group for people in relationships with alcoholics. The people at Alanon advised her that she couldn’t stop her husband drinking, but she could avoid enabling his alcoholism by not drinking with him.

And she didn’t. It may have been easier in the short term if she’d joined him in his drinking. It may have reduced conflict and tension – in the short term. In the longer term it may have hastened my grandfather’s already untimely demise.

She chose the harder route – in the short term – by not enabling his drinking. She chose the non-co-dependency route.

Was their love true?


What are your experiences? How has alcohol or other substance abuse affected you and your family? And/or how do you stop it affecting you? Please share your comments below. Feel free not to use your real name if you’d prefer your experiences to be anonymous.

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