Friday, 2 June 2017

The Last Time I Saw My Grandpa

The last time I saw my grandpa I was 21 years old.  Hadn't seen him since I was 12 and before that, I had just a handful of visits with him but I remembered his deep, rough voice and his laugh.  His honest kindness.  He liked to tease, he was funny.  I held him up high in my memories, I loved him without question.

He was a fascinating and unconventional man.  He owned three antique/junk shops.  I remember visiting one when I was 12. It was walking into Aladdin's cave to me.  Dust settled all over glittery things.  Beautiful ornate things.  Odd clutter.  Piles of comics and books.  Interesting jewelry.  Pieces of people's lives.

"Choose anything you want!"  he said, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, a smile on his face.  I was shy at 12.  I chose a butter dish.  An odd choice for a 12 year old but it was a thing of beauty, the dark red-purple glass shone like jewels...

But anyway, the last time I saw him, we met at a pub, The Magpie and Stump, in Banff.  He was back, briefly, from Haiti.  He was just passing through.  Couldn't stay long because the road out there, the road out there, it always called and it had a strong voice.

It was dark in the Magpie.  We sat there for hours.  Long enough for him to smoke about two packages of cigarettes.  The waitress came back every ten minutes to empty the ash tray and pour more black coffee.  He called her "sweetheart" and I could see she was charmed by him.

He'd lived in Haiti for years at this point.  Ever since the day he sold those antique shops and everything else except his car which he drove from Ontario to Florida.  Went away forever, aside from the occasional trip back home to Ontario.  Chatham to Florida to Haiti. Beautiful, dangerous Haiti.

He'd written letters about lying awake at night listening to voo doo drums in the distance.  He wrote us about finding a dead body on his doorstep.  Although he had owned the antique shops, he was a carpenter by profession, so he lived near a group of nuns and built house after house for the poor there.  Constant action, constant work, constant love.

He loved the people there.  He saw need and beauty and truth in them.  He used the money he had left and paid for collage educations for girls so that they could be nurses instead of having to work in other, far worse, professions.  He joked with the children and made friends of the adults.  Because he was authentic in the way he treated others, the people he met loved him.  He wrote story after story about the individuals he met.

My favorite was a simple one.  Nothing "huge".  Nothing like paying for a collage education or building a house but it moved me all the more for its simplicity.  He wrote about a homeless old lady who refused to live in a shelter.  She just wanted her head rubbed.  To be touched.  He wrote to me that he made time to go see her and to rub her head.  That moved me because in life, is that simple act of love not equally as great as ones we would consider greater?  He wrote about her with genuine affection:

"This little sweetheart loved to have her head rubbed.  She didn't want to live in an institution in town because all her dead friends were still in the neighborhood.  Eventually she joined them."

He corrected wrongs where he could.  He wrote of how many people died of starvation.

"This man is a resident at the homeless shelter.  Here he is enjoying a snack.  When I returned he had died --- of starvation.  I checked through the town and made arrangements for the Sisters of Charity to provide food for the remaining 8 crippled residents.  So for the past three years now, no one has died of starvation.  This cost 45 US dollars a month."

There were countless such stories that he described in his forthright yet humble way.  These letters and stories made me want to go to Haiti and work with him.  At 14, it was my strongest wish.  Instead I went to Catholic boarding school and read the history books he sent me and the letters he wrote.  I studied the photos he sent and dreamed of a "bigger" life.

However I never went to Haiti and years passed before I saw him again.

The last time I saw my grandpa, we sat across a dark wood table from one another.  The Magpie was dim and the steady stream of smoke from his cigarettes made my eyes burn and his conversation made my head spin.  He was a brilliant man and he wanted to talk.  Well, not talk, he wanted to argue.  He was intensely intelligent, often argumentative, self-educated, a prolific writer of fascinating letters and an avid reader.  He enjoyed playing the devil's advocate.  He was good man with a good heart but he wasn't really an "easy" man.

The oldest son of Icelandic immigrants.  A hard worker all his life.  A man at home in unusual places with unusual people.

He made unconventional choices.  He cared deeply and intensely for the poor, for criminals, for the marginalized.  He was a man at ease when at work, when providing for those who couldn't provide for themselves.

I could have been wrong but that last time I saw my grandpa, I thought I heard anger running through his words.  Anger at injustice, anger at the world we live in.  Anger at some of us having everything and some having nothing.  An anger that wanted to understand how this could be so.

His sense of humor was wry.  He wanted to engage.  But he was talking to the wrong person.

I wanted to know him.  To ask him more about so many things he had written to me about in his ten page letters.  I thought he might want to get to know me as well.  Looking back, he probably did want to know me.  But he wanted to know me through verbal combat.  It's safe to say, he didn't fit the traditional, cozy grandpa stereotype.

I remember him challenging me on where I got my information about various things from.  Asking me from across the table, "Do you even read books?  And come on, don't just tell me you read fiction!"  I could hear the disdain for "fiction" in his voice.  I sat there bewildered and answered that I read all the time.

I felt like every question he asked me was an attack.  Now I understand it's just the way he spoke, the way he connected with people.  He liked a challenge, he liked to question everything and he enjoyed making comfortable people uncomfortable.  He delighted in a mind that could logically argue, defend it's point of view, but I've never been like that.

After a few hours, he gave me the last hug he ever gave me and drove off into the mountains.  I cried on and off for days.  I didn't know what to make of him.  I was sorry we had had such a terrible and upsetting visit.  He later told my mom it had been a fantastic visit. :)  When I heard that I remember feeling angry with him but now, it makes me smile that while I found our visit stressful and confrontational, he enjoyed it.  I'm glad that to him, our last visit was "fantastic".

I think William, my grandfather, was a good man with an authentically good heart and soul.  He was extraordinarily gentle and caring with those he met in Haiti.  I think he was also searching all his life for something he already possessed without knowing he possessed it.

His whole life, if one were to write it, would make a fascinating story.  These few paragraphs are only my poor and incomplete description of our last meeting and some of the history that went before it.  I can't possibly claim to understand him and I know I don't have a full picture of his life.  I have only little glimpses.  Bright memories full of sunshine and dust.  An inherited love for "old" things.  I have words written in faded ink on paper and on the back of pictures.

But then again,, all we ever have of someone else is our own filtered impressions and they may differ greatly in comparison to someone elses but the things I write about him are how I perceived him.

Below is my favorite photo of him.

"My dance troupe.  When we were building the little house for a man and his family, we hauled the stone from the river about 200 yards away.  The children would climb on the truck to go to the river but coming back, there was no room for them so I would dance with them all the way to the building site.  The little girl on my right made up a song about dancing with grand pere which all the kids sang as we danced, much to the amusement of the neighbors."

His heart was in Haiti.  He left a legacy of good there...

(I have written more about him here:

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