Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April 1

What we have once enjoyed we can never lose.
All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.

-Helen Keller

Today is April Fool's Day, which is a very special day in my heart. Not just because of all the Serious Silliness that tends to erupt within my family during the morning hours. But because it is also a date that marks a very special occasion; one that I will always remember. Nearly seventy years ago, my maternal grandparents eloped on April 1.

They completely duped their families, who knew they were engaged to be married, but certainly never expected them to sneak off like that. My little Great Auntie used to tell the story of being asked to press a sharp crease down the front of her "baby" brother's best trousers that morning. But, she delighted in telling me, he was such a gentle, innocent young man, she didn't even think to ask him why. She just did him the favour, and never supposed that he could possibly have been "up to something".

It was quite a coup that they were able to pull it off. My grandfather's people were relatively boisterous and headstrong, and they were closely-enough knit to know one another's business... To top it off, my little Great Auntie and my Grandmother-To-Be were best friends, and worked together as top-notch nurses at the brand-new local hospital they had helped to found. Indeed, my Auntie had been responsible for my grandparents meeting in the first place... There couldn't have been many secrets between them.

But those were years when money was scarce, and the idea of throwing even a modest wedding seemed frivolous beyond comprehension. Even so, when the Happy Couple arrived back at the family farm and announced their news, the Folks' first instinct was not to believe them. They were soon convinced of the truth, however, and welcomed the new bride to the family. The April Fool's Day anniversary was never "lived down", however...

The newlyweds settled into what would be a long and happy life together, taking up residence on the floor above the general store that they owned for many years. I never actually saw the store while my grandfather was the shop-keeper, but the old photographs I have make it look like a magical place, filled from floor-to-ceiling with tins and boxes and barrels and packages, all in apple-pie order... There was a big, jingly old cash register, an enormous grocers' scale, a big roll of brown paper and a long strand of twine dangling from the ceiling, ready to tie up customers' purchases. They also tended an ice cream counter-- ice cream being one of my grandpa's favourite foods (he was famous for his "sweet tooth", and always in search of "good stuff" to eat). The store had an area with a few sets of tiny wire-backed tables and chairs, just as one would have found in any soda fountain of the time.

It wasn't long before they started a family, and my mother was their first-born child. Although motherhood seemed to come easily to my grandmother, the actual carrying and bearing of children proved difficult. Their second child, a daughter, was born prematurely, and Grandma suffered a terrible post-partum infection that she contracted during the delivery. She was dreadfully sick, and very nearly died, herself. One afternoon, when I was visiting her just after my grandfather passed away, we were looking at old photo albums, and she told me about her little lost daughter. Even in her delirious state as the result of the infection, she said that she had been able to hear her baby's cries growing weaker and weaker, and suffered the agony of being unable to save her. Grandma was the only local specialist in nursing premature babies, and tragically, there was no one else in their tiny community who had the training to be able to help. The baby died, and although my grandmother lived, she was unable to attend the funeral. Indeed, I understand that she was never able to make the trip to the tiny cemetery to view the gravesite-- her intense grief was simply too overwhelming. It was one of the only burdens that my steadfast grandfather bore without his wife by his side.

My grandparents went on to have more healthy, bright, boisterous children, however, and the family soon swelled to include three daughters and a son. The family continued to live in the rooms above the store, and although it was crowded, and no doubt very cold in the wintertime, with a wood-stove as their main source of heat, but they were a closely-knit, hard-working and happy brood. Money was tight during those years after the war, but my grandmother told me that it was partially because my grandpa was such a tender-hearted, generous soul. There were many citizens of their area who were considerably less fortunate than my grandparents, and Grandpa could never turn down a request for a little "spare change", or a few provisions to "tide over" anyone who needed help.

They raised their four children, and did their very best to educate them and see them off into the world. Once "empty nest-ers", they eventually retired to a home on an island-- the home that I'll always remember. My grandfather had a wonderful garden, in which he grew beautiful flowers, and trellises full of the tastiest sugar snap peas that I have ever eaten. They had a pretty little patio to sit out on, and the most enormous, brilliant-blue hydrangea bush that bloomed a riotous display every summer. Their neighbours were very kind, and I have a vivid recollection of being hoisted into the air by my grandfather when I was about four or five, and passed over the tall, dark wooden fence into the arms of a lovely old lady who had a granddaughter just-my-age, who needed a playmate...

Grandma and Grandpa's basement was my "wonderland" when I was a child, because they had carefully kept most of the toys, books and games that my mother and her siblings had played with years before. I remember the long plane and ferry-boat rides that it took to get to their house... and even though my brother, sister and I were exhausted and cranky by the end of the journey, the thought of being allowed to snoop through the boxes down in the basement storage room THE MINUTE WE ARRIVED kept us going. For there were old barbie dolls and play-dishes and a croquet set and stacks and stacks of "Archie" comic books... I remember the sensation of the smooth wooden stairs under my feet... They were polished to a high-gloss, and were particularly treacherous if you attempted to descend them at top-speed, in stocking feet... They led down to the "rec room", where the piano, marimba and other musical instruments were kept. We sneaked through my grandfather's painting room, and slipped behind a curtain in a doorway... I can remember the sweet, slightly-damp scent of the boxes, which were stacked so perfectly, and held childhood treasures within...

They were wonderful grandparents to us, and although we lived far apart, we never really "felt" the distance. Grandma was always sending us packages-- every Easter, she mailed us little chocolate chicks, and one year I remember being sent the tiniest pair of white gloves to wear to church. They sent "random" parcels full of toys during the wintertime, which my mother kept on a high shelf in our hall closet, and took down for us to open on days when storms kept us house-bound, stir-crazed and out-of-school. They never forgot birthdays, and indeed, my grandmother was "in residence" when my brother and sister were born.

I knew them from our frequent childhood visits, but didn't really get to know them well until my husband and I moved closer to them, when we were first married. My grandfather's health was starting to deteriorate, then, and I was glad to be able to jump on a ferry and go over to provide some "distraction" for them, every week or two. Getting to know them as an adult, and truly appreciate the people that they were, was a "gift" for me. It was wonderful to have the time to sit for long periods at their kitchen table, nursing numerous cups of my grandmother's lethally strong, percolated coffee, and talking with them. We spent hours pouring over photograph albums, and I was fascinated to hear the stories of their lives. One day I stayed home with my grandfather, who was suffering from Parkinson's and congestive heart failure, while my grandmother nipped out to the store. We chatted about weather and the upcoming winter, and the preparations that would have to be made around the house. I was confused by some of the details my grandfather was describing... until I realized that the house he was planning to ready for winter was actually his old childhood home, long-ago and far-away. He had such a happy expression on his face, talked so matter-of-factly, and looked at me so intently, that I didn't try to correct him, but just listened. It was fascinating to me that he could just slip-back-in-time in his mind for a few moments, and then all at once, be perfectly at ease in the present.

He was hospitalized several times before he passed away, but my grandmother visited him three times a day, to nurse him and help him with his meals. I accompanied her whenever I could, and remember one particular lunchtime when she was chattering away excitedly to me, and rapidly shovelling food into my poor grandfather's mouth at the same time. Unable to keep chewing and swallowing fast enough, he finally caught her by the hand to get her attention, and gently said, "What makes you think I want MORE???" We all fell about laughing.

But in actual fact, it was hardly a laughable time. We all knew that Grandpa was fading. Later that afternoon, Grandma went firing off down the hospital corridor to ask the doctor a question, and I sat down on the bed next to my grandfather and patted his hand. His soft brown eyes met mine, and he whispered, "So tell me... How is The Boss?" His heart was giving out, but he was far more frightened of leaving the love of his life alone, than of his own impending death.

My grandfather passed away at home one morning, quite suddenly, as my grandmother was stooped over, tying his shoelaces for him. She had lovingly nursed him for nearly two decades, even though her own health was far from good. Grandma chose a final resting place which is shaded by the boughs of an enormous cherry tree, in the local cemetery. Once the burial was over, I told Grandma that I though it a beautiful place to spend eternity. She looked down at the spot where he lay, and said reassuringly, more to him than to me, "It won't be long before I'm here, too."

At the same time that my grandpa was dying, I discovered that I was expecting my first child. It was wonderful to be able to give my grandmother the happy news, and I do believe it helped to ease her grief a little bit. That evening after I had returned home, I stepped out onto the balcony of our little house, and looked up. It was the very first time in my life that I ever saw a shooting star-- brilliant and sparkling and streaking a long arc across the sky. I was sure in my heart at that moment that my grandfather was happy for us, too.

Grandma lived alone for many more years, and continued to be the steadfast matriarch of our family. She was wonderful about keeping in touch, and we spoke often by telephone, after my husband and I moved to Ontario with our new baby daughter. During my second difficult pregnancy, when I was on long months of bed-rest, she called me every single week from the retirement home that she had moved into, and willed me to "hang onto that baby". She understood the worry and the risk better than anyone, and her loving encouragement meant the world to me.

When she quietly passed away several years ago, the clan that assembled to pay tribute to her memory was formidable. I made the long trip with my (then) two little girls, and my brother brought his Scottish dress uniform and bagpipes, to "see her off properly". I had a difficult time holding myself together while reciting the lines of the poem I had chosen for the service, and marvelled at my brother's beautiful composure, as he walked slowly back and forth at the front of the church, playing traditional tunes that he felt she would have loved.

"How did you MANAGE it?" I asked him afterwards... He had played so steadily and perfectly, and reduced most of us to tears.

"I just 'put' her in a chair... right over there," he replied, nodding towards an empty seat up on the platform near the altar. Clearly, we all felt Grandma's "presence" strongly, that day.

And we all feel it still. Both of them. They are wonderful memories, and guiding forces in our lives.

April Fool's Day is undoubtedly a day of Serious Silliness in this household... But for me, it is far more than that. Every year on this day, I think of my grandparents, and the incredible family they created for all of us.

Happy Anniversary.



shawn said...

Thank you for this CGF ... I never made it home from BC when my Grandma's life ended at the tender age of 95 ... though I had trooped my three wee ones to see her before she passed from this life to the next ... the ache of not being there to celebrate a grand life has never gone away ...

I read your post with tears in my eyes ... there is not a day that passes that I don't think of my Grandmother (she always liked you btw!!) and what wondrous family she, like yours had presided over ... You have offered and INCREDIBLE tribute today.

Thank you for sharing this.

Multi-tasking Mommy said...

This post actually gave me shivers and brought a true tear to my eye. Thank you for sharing that lovely story with us!

One day, I'd like to hear your brother play! I know he's one talented guy. I LOVE the bagpipes!!!

painted maypole said...

a very sweet and moving post

mrinz said...

Thank you CGF for a wonderful post - like Shawn it brought back memories of my own grandparents.

Its scary to think that now I am the Grandmother and everything that I do now will contribute to memories my Grandchildren may (or may not) have!

And your turn will come also.

shauna said...

What a beautiful post! I'm sure your Grandmother was with you as your typed it. I've read posts on her before, and it's amazing that you have such a fabulous bond, and such great stories of them to share with your children.

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