For the past several months, I’ve been thinking about my grandpa’s legacy. He passed away last year, early in the morning on the first Sunday in Advent. His absence still catches me at odd moments—a memory, a question I want to ask him, something he gave me—and makes me cry.
I knew, when I woke up that morning and saw all the missed calls from my dad, as well as a text from my brother, why they were trying to contact me. Grandpa had been in the hospital for several months and not recovering.
Before I could return their calls, my dad called me again. It was a quick conversation. From BC, I could do little to help with the funeral except pack up my girls and make plans to be there. I hung up and cried.
My grandpa was 97 years old when he died. Until the day he was backed into by a truck while getting groceries, he lived on his own. He cooked his own food and bought his own groceries. He caught the bus into the city once a month for treatment for his macular degeneration. He drove daily across town to visit my grandma, who is in a care home for dementia patients. Every week, he picked up her laundry and took it back to the condo to wash it, dry it and fold it himself.
In the six years since we moved to BC, I’ve only seen my grandparents a couple times a year. I’ve watched my grandma’s disease worsen, until she no longer recognizes me when I visit. I’ve watched the love Grandpa continues to lavish on her, even in the months when she woke up at all hours of the night—just like one of my toddlers—and wandered around the house, turning on lights or the kettle or the tap, until Grandpa came to turn it all off and guide her back to bed.
At 97, he was too old to be her full-time caregiver, but her illness snuck up on us. I worried his health would similarly deteriorate, that he should join her in the independent living part of her care home. I didn’t expect he’d be killed by shopping for groceries.
Grandpa’s accident happened in September. Usually, in the fall, he would have been helping my uncle—who bought the family farm when Grandpa retired—with the harvesting. For years, Grandpa drove the combine or swather during the harvest.
Even when he stopped doing that, he’d be around the farm, helping in other little ways. The farm dogs and cats knew the sound of his truck in the driveway, because he always brought scraps of food with them. You can take the farmer off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the farmer.
When I visited their condo, I’d stare at the black-and-white pictures hanging on the walls. My uncle used an old window frame to make a four-photo collage from my grandparents’ early years. In those pictures, my grandpa is a tall, handsome young man with dark hair and dark eyes, a quiet smile, a button-up shirt and creased pants. My grandma has curly hair and a pretty dress. There’s a tractor in one photo, a dog in another.
In those photos, I try to see the bent, wrinkled, frail people my grandparents have become.
My grandpa was the youngest of seven siblings—six boys (including a set of twins) and a sister. One of his brothers fought in Italy during World War II, and died just months before his 100th birthday. Until his accident, Grandpa could best any of us at a game of cards and still finish a Sudoku or crossword puzzle in half the time it would take me.
He was the repository of family information. He knew all the faces in the old black-and-white photos, all the names of the relatives who stayed in the States when his parents homesteaded in Alberta.
He and my grandma would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary next year. Twenty years ago, for their 50th anniversary, I wrote a poem celebrating their relationship:
Fifty Years Together
Just fifty years ago today,
The pretty Hainstock schoolteacher
Wed the local farmer of cows and hay.
And for their weekend honeymoon
They traveled to Jasper – the muddy way!
Ten years later love was still strong.
Mom was teaching her three children
And Dad had the cows he had all along.
There was a story every night,
And hard work farming, learning right from wrong.
Still there two decades afterward
Dad’s cows, Mom’s hens, and the children’s
Sheep, turkeys, geese, cats, and dog filled the yard.
The family bought a new Biscayne—
The children learned to drive that bright red car.
They were thirty years married when
They took their daughter on a trip,
Leaving the two boys in charge of the hens.
But they forgot their good clothes and
When they came home, the boys said, “What chickens??”
Forty years, family twice as large;
First a wife for the eldest son
Then three grandchildren in the family barge.
For the daughter a husband with
Eleven Volkswagens and a garage.
Now they’ve been married fifty years.
Through those years, there’s been happiness
And health, sickness, wealth, and yes, a few tears.
Their family loves them very much:
To Grandma and Grandpa on this day, cheers!
And now he’s gone. It’s taken a while for that to sink in. Grandpa was my rock, a shining star in my life. When my parents’ marriage fell apart, when my husband and I moved all over the province and then out-of-province for work and school, Grandpa was always there. I could count on his voice on the other end of the phone, or his smile as he opened the door to welcome us.
It’s hard to imagine his condo sitting empty.
Family was deeply important to my grandpa. I saw that in his love for my grandma, in his pride at being a great-grandpa four times over, in the letters he exchanged with American relatives he hadn’t seen in years.
He left an inheritance not only for his children, but also for his grandchildren. He loved our annual Christmas gatherings, which tended to be loud and crazy and involve a card game at some point in the day.
That, I think, is Grandpa’s legacy to us: family comes first.
What is your grandpa’s legacy? Are your grandparents still living?
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