Monday, 19 March 2012

Long Way Home

This weekend we finally did it. We went for the "big" road trip down to the country to see my grandfather's house. My Grampie passed away 6 months ago, and I haven't set foot in his house for several years. He and I had what I can only call a complex relationship. I was his only granddaughter, and despite the fact that he had two daughters of his own he often seemed unsure as to how to deal with me. My Grammie would take me to the kitchen and bake with me for hours, finding little tasks for me to "help". I find myself doing the same with my kids these days. While I was in their old home I found the toddler sized apron I used to wear while I helped her still tied up in the same spot in her kitchen where I left it when I outgrew 20 years ago. Through all my turbulent times with the family, I have a core of sweet memories with my Grammie I can turn to.

My Grampie and I, on the other hand, had a more complex relationship. I remember as a child I wanted so badly to be his shadow. I tried rabbit trapping (horrifying memory here involving a not quite dead rabbit being skinned. We had it for supper that night. Ew.), fishing (my fish were often thrown back, in retrospect probably because he did a lot of catch and release), woodworking (this turned into me splitting wood unattended for their fire place at the age of... 9???) and water sports on the lake (I was just lousy at this. Hands down spazz). I felt so often that I wasn't of much interest to him. My brothers and cousins were more exciting, interesting, and at the very least far less squeamish about all his favourite activities. They had no problem baiting their own hook, understood sports, and had no qualms with hunting and trapping.

As the years went on and we didn't visit their house as often, my memories turn to he and my Grammie dropping by our house when they came to town, usually with small gifts and some sweets. I would do my best to be polite, but would do my best to flee the scene. After my Grammie passed away it was even worse. He would come to town with his new wife, a very sweet lady, and want to talk to me for as long as he could grab my attention. Part of me felt guilty. I knew I should treasure my time with him. I'd already lost 3 three grandparents, never having time to really ask all the questions and hear all the stories I know they had to tell. The other part of me saw him as a sort of anachronism. There he was, exactly the same as I remembered him as a kid (he aged very well), but not in his familiar setting. He hadn't changed, but I had changed immensely. We were worlds apart.

On the long drive (with 4 kids, ninety minutes in a confined space is a long time) to the old family home, I sat in the passenger seat trying to cobble together my memories to make some sense of the man. At his funeral, droves of people had sang, cried and laughed, soaking in their memories of this man. He was a prankster, a father figure, a dedicated volunteer in his community, and the life of any party. Stories of his various mishaps and stunts made the rounds, both during the eulogy and around the over-full tables at the reception. Family and friends co-mingled, impossible to distinguish at his funeral just as they had been in his life. His funeral had been a glimpse at the man I wanted to know, but had found unreachable. The mistakes he'd made with me, and other members of my family, clouded my desire to take the steps to peel away his rough exterior to find this diamond of a man everyone else saw.

As we came in sight of the old house I'd spent every summer at for over a dozen years, the backdrop of so many memories, I felt a lump in my throat when I realised Grammie wasn't spying us from the kitchen, yelling for Grampie to come help us bring in our bags. We weren't coming to stay, we were coming to take one last look. As we walked through their oddly empty house, littered with the legacy of their lives, I stumbled over memories and possibilities. Here were the measuring cups my Grammie used to let me fill for our little baking projects. There was Grampie's collection of tools old and new, still as he left them the last time he'd been healthy enough to go in his shop. As we glanced through the old upstairs bedrooms, we found a stack of letters, tied together with a faded yellow bow. After noting that they were addressed to my Grammie (by her maiden name), I absently tucked them in our bag, along with my old childhood apron and a few oddments we collected from around the house.

When we got home and got the kids to bed, exhausted from their long drive and overfull of snacks provided by my Mum, their Grammie, I settled down to take a look at the thick stack of faded letters, mostly written on White Rose Oil Company stationary. Glancing through it became clear very quickly these were the love letters my Grampie wrote to my Grammie over 60 years ago, before they were married. They were living in different towns because of his work, and would get together every weekend. These letters, from about a 6 month period, were written once and sometimes twice a day. I feel a little guilty reading them, but then I can't resist. He wrote exactly the same way he talked, with all the funny little tics and expressions I can hear slipping off his tongue in his old, familiar voice. In these letters I hear the man, while reading the words of his love, devotion, and humour mixed together seamlessly. Old stories I would have loved to hear, I get to read in his familiar style.

When I thought I no longer had time, I at last have found him. Here in this carefully saved stack of letters I am reading the soul of the man. His hopes for the future, his devotion to the woman he loved until death parted them (and beyond), all mixed in with the kind of humourous banalities he was know to ramble on about in his later life. For example, more than one mentions getting his pants hemmed or his hair cut (less of a concern as he got older and swiftly lost all his hair).  Somehow, after all these years of struggling to find a sweet memory to focus on, I have in my hands a way to keep the best parts of him, the parts I loved and mourned at his funeral. Any time that I miss him, I can take out one of his letters and hear his voice in my mind, wooing his sweetheart and dreaming of a life well lived.


  1. Well... I'm a mess! That was so beautiful!! I recall saying goodbye to the family house (that my father had been raised in) of my own grandfather after he had passed away, as they were preparing to sell it off. Like your grandfather, he had been widowed and found new love later in life, except he hadn't re-married. I spent almost every holiday staying there, from my birth to his death about 4 years ago. I recall all the little nooks and crannies... the memories made there...

    Your writing is so touching, and I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm so glad you found those letters, and I know that they will be a cherished treasure to be passed on to future generations. I hope they give you the answers you were seeking <3

    1. Thank you for your comment, Michelle. Our family homestead, which my great grandfather built and where my Grampie and his siblings were born, is being sold too. It's a shame, but there's a chance a family member from the village may buy it. It's a beautiful home, and were it not for the location, we would probably buy it ourselves.

      It's funny how a house can become the seat of so many memories. It's hard to let go. Luckily even once the house isn't ours, I still have the memories. We'll also be bringing home the dining room table, which will be my way of having a physical anchor for my favourite memories of the family. Hopefully those memories can live on and grow for our kids.