When I first heard Eddie Montgomery sing these lines (link at the bottom), I knew exactly what he was talking about:
There’s a story that my daddy tells religiously
Like clockwork every time he sees an opening
In a conversation about the way things used to be
Well I’d just roll my eyes and make a bee-line for the door
But I’d always wind up starry-eyed, cross-legged on the floor
Hanging on to every word
Man, the things I heard
My grandfather was one of my favourite people. And he was the consummate storyteller. I did not appreciate that nearly enough when I was younger – because we don’t really.
We visited Nana and Pop every summer at the their cabin, perched on a hillside above a small bay on Vancouver Island. It was heaven: a garden above, blackberries to push each other fall into, Nana’s cooking, the switch-back trail Pop built down to the water, the near endless salty tide flats.
And Pop’s stories.
The rhythm of days was different at the cabin. Nana and Pop were retired, stable folk, they had their routines, the order of things, everything in its place. They lived by strong values: family first, waste-not-want-not, fix it if you can, look out for your neighbour.
Nana could make a delicious meal out of nearly anything, and baked her own bread in a wood stove. She would listen with compassion – although she had no time for self-pity – and generally gave advice only if asked for it.
Pop could jury-rig any tool he needed in the shop that was a mix of tool shed, mad-scientist lab, and man-cave; if you stayed out of his way, he didn’t mind company. He was happy to explain what he was doing if you asked a reasonably intelligent question about it.
They’d have a drink at five o’clock and talk about the news of the day. Children were welcome in the conversation – sometimes we wanted to be there; other times, we were itching to get back out in the sun, to the tire-swing or the tide.
But then Pop would start one of his stories. About the war.
And we were sunk.
Pop was one of the first Canadians to join the (British) Royal Air Force near the beginning of World War II, at a time when it was illegal for Americans to fight with the British. (America was still ‘neutral’ at this point.) He met my Irish grandmother while on leave in London – the stories of their whirlwind courtship and the brief times they shared at the beginning of their marriage are wonderful and exciting.
But the war stories always led to, well… war. War is brutal and ugly, and Pop’s stories were not of glory.
My grandfather was brave and strong, but he was not proud of what he did. He knew so many young men who did not come back, and many others who came back maimed and broken, in mind and body.
Sitting in a chair at the table, with his tea growing cold in front of him, Pop told his stories. While we wondered when we could run off to dig clams, or catch jellyfish in our bare hands, tears would roll down Pop’s face, his heart tormented by his memories.
We were kids: it was natural for us to want to run and play in the summer sun. But we always stayed for Pop’s stories – because they fascinated us as much as they horrified.
Even though we knew they would always end the same way: with an old man’s tears.
I miss Pop.
I grew up calling today, November 11th, Rememberance Day. Today, I make a point to remember Pop’s stories. A society cannot afford to forget the horrors of war or the sacrifices we ask of young men and women who fight.
Because even if they come back, they are forever changed by it – we are forever changed by it.
listening to: Montgomery Gentry, Something to Be Proud Of