Poppy’s Coat

My maternal grandfather was Charles Duncan. He came from a huge family and a long line of stubborn Scots and he had various scars to prove it.

I just loved him. I feel like so many of my childhood memories revolve around him.

But let me just wow you with a photo:

Charlie Duncan Circa 1950’s

This is Poppy. I think he looked like a movie star.

He was such a handsome man, and had the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.

His ancestral family worked their way down from Scotland to Southern England after the Highland Clearances. Two of the Duncan men were indentured to the New World in 1715 after the first Jacobite Uprising. I discovered this after finding that I share a weird amount of DNA with some North Carolinans after I did a ‘23 And Me’ test. I’m fairly sure I’d find a long-lost cousin at the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain sometime.

But Pop’s own side of the family worked for many years as stable boys, then farriers, then carriage drivers, on the Isle of Wight off of the south coast of England, and eventually crossed onto the mainland to settle in the Portsmouth area.

He married my Nana when she was very young and they were together until he died in his 60’s. They had three wonderful children. I know because my mum is one of them.

He told such stories.

He fought with bare fists in boxing matches on the docks in Portsmouth, Hampshire, where he worked. That may not have been the smartest move ever, but he loved it and his grandchildren thought he was rather cool because of it.

It now just sounds like some dreadfully violent Netflix series I’d tell my kids never to watch, but these things have their moment…

He worked as a coal miner, after being discharged from WW2 due to his shoulder injury. He was a huge proponent of unions and safer working conditions after serving his time in the mines, and his rather conservative granddaughter could never disagree with him on the need for the original unions.

He also never had a drivers license. I don’t know how he got away with that, but it’s true. When they asked him to renew his license when he turned 60, he just decided to let my Nana drive him everywhere rather than explain his 45+ years of illegal driving.

His family had driven horses, how complicated could a car be?

He was one of the Desert Rats in WW2 in North Africa, which is where he earned his shrapnel scar that you can see on his shoulder in this photo.

He used to tell his grandchildren dreadfully gory stories of wounds he inflicted upon Axis soldiers in North Africa, and we discussed this amongst the cousins and we decided we were never quite sure if it was true, but it certainly made a story that we still talk about today….

We were impressed, if slightly skeptical.

But he got that scar from somewhere…

Like all of us, he had his stories, some good, some bad. They make us the person we are.

My biggest memory of my Grandpop, was sitting in the kitchen with him. He had smoked as long as I could remember, and the only place my Nana would let him roll and smoke his cigarettes was by the backdoor of the kitchen in their house at 18 Maralyn Ave, in Waterlooville, Hampshire.

I have many happy memories of that back garden.

I used to come over to visit when I was very little, all dressed up in my long dress because I was always a princess. My Nana was the manager of the local bakery and always was able to bring home cream cakes and pastries. It’s a wonder I’m not 400lbs.

If it was nice, we’d always sit out in the back garden, (or yard, for you Yankee types). One time, Poppy planted this little tree. I was very interested in this tree and insisted on knowing what fruit would grow on it as I was very into fairy tales at the time. There was Jack and the Beanstalk, and then Rapunzel’s mother who ate too much lettuce and had to give her child to a witch.

Suddenly plants were entirely fascinating. (They still are…)

So the next time I arrived at Nana and Poppy’s house, in my little Scottish princess long tartan dress, there was this tree, with a pear and an orange and a banana and an apple. All growing on the same bloomin’ tree.

Poppy had made a magical fruit tree.

(With string…holding said fruit. But I didn’t notice that, because it was of course, magical…)

But what did I know? I was 5 and totally believed it.

We moved to Australia from England when I was 9 years old. It was kind of a big deal, and I suppose, with today’s psychology insights, it might be seen as traumatic etc.

It really wasn’t. It was actually very awesome.

At the time, it seemed like many of the families on the street that I lived on in Southern England emigrated. Australia House, the Embassy in London, was flooded with immigration requests. Taxation under the Labor/Labour government was at 90 percent.

Socialism was creating an Exodus.

My parents left England. My dad opened his own business in Australia and did very well. We loved it there.

Poppy enjoying a beer in our back yard in Australia (in Australia one’s garden is also called a yard. Very confusing…)

Poppy and Nana came to visit us in Australia. We had a wonderful time, although my mum was terribly worried about Poppy as he’d gotten thin. He’d had a heart attack at 47, while he was boating in Ireland with some brother-in-laws. He survived that, I’m sure at that age it was probably genetic, but the smoking eventually got his lungs.

Nana, Mum, and Poppy outside our front door in South Australia. We lived in Reynella.

Eventually we came back from Australia. We lived there 6 years and enjoyed every minute, but my parents were in their 40’s and family suddenly seems much more important at that age. So we came back to England.

I’m glad for that now, I would have never have met my Scott if we hadn’t.

I developed Type 1 diabetes very shortly after we came back to England, about a month after. We were still living at Nana and Poppy’s house while mum and dad looked for a home of our own. I had quietly been feeling unwell for a while, and had gotten terribly thin, and thirsty. I used to go to the kitchen, where Poppy sat by his back door, smoking, and us two very skinny people would chat about school and life in general while I continually sucked cups of water out of the tap/faucet at a terrific rate. I was 15 then, and I knew he was sick and I knew I was sick, and he knew I was sick too. I think he wanted me to tell him I wasn’t feeling well, but I’ve always been rather stubborn.

Ask Scott.

It’s in my Gaelic DNA, apparently. We’ll just blame that.

“You aren’t half of the lass you used to be, Sammy…”

“I know, Poppy… let me help you roll that cigarette”.

Couple of enablers, we were.

And I’d get out this tiny sheet of paper from this little decorated tin and he’d shake and pat out a little line of tobacco into it, in such a delicate, orderly way, and I’d roll and lick it. I can still remember the taste and the smell, a rich, round sense that reminds me more of a wine now. And I’d give it to him, all proud at my tobacconist skills and he’d say to me:

“Filthy habit. Never smoke…”

(He’s right, kids. Never smoke.)

He passed away about three years later when I was almost 18. He watched me through my healing and I watched him through his going.

None of it’s ideal. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Your granddaughter shouldn’t be loaded with a lifelong illness from an immunity confusion and your grandpa shouldn’t smoke and get sick.

But that’s the life we are in. It’s just that way this side of Eden. We all know that if we think about it long enough.

When he got really ill from emphysema those last two years, he was cold all the time. I remember being cold when I was thin. It’s unpleasant and hard to be rid of.

My Nana bought him a good Lord Anthony coat to try to warm him up.

He barely got to use it. But I use it everyday and I have for some 30 years or so. It spends a few months on its peg in the garage in the summer months but the rest of the year it’s my chore coat. You can seriously still find one now (in navy blue) on eBay.

It’s so useful and I think of him every time I wear it. I hope it lasts forever. Like my memories.

It’s my coat that I use Down the Rabbit Hole.

Love you, Poppy. ❤️

Poppy and wee lass Sammy, when we were fatter.

4 thoughts on “Poppy’s Coat

  1. This is such a grand story, Sam! I loved reading about your heritage, especially about “your Poppy” and his coat. You are a very good writer!


  2. I love this. My dad was a Chism (same family as we saw in Scotland – different spelling). He told wonderful stories, too. His sister mumbled that they weren’t true, but they were wonderful stories. My mom’s dad was the smoker. We loved to comb his beautiful grey hair as he smoked his pipe. My grandmother painted her woodwork cream since it would turn that color anyway from the smoke. The granddaughters took turns staying with Granna and Grandpa the summer he died. We helped take care of him. His death was a slow agony and none of us has ever smoked since. Your story brought so many memories to mind. Grampa’s fudge, his adjusting the skates to fit my shoes, cleaning walnuts for his fudge. Thank you so much for reminding me of these precious memories – good and bad. They helped make me who I am.


    1. I’m so glad this brought back special memories for you. You are right, these special times we have with each other are all stitches in our own tapestries of life, making an amazing picture in the end. Thank you so much for the kind comments. I’m so grateful you took the time to tell me.


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