sunburnt children, homemade cookies, and a grandfather’s tears

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

7 Comments

  • John Green (@realjohngreen)posted a quote that caught my eye today:

    Here dead lie we because we did not choose / To live and shame the land from which we sprung /Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose; / But young men think it is, and we were young. -A. E. Housman

    (yes, that took two tweets)

  • i have not read much in the way of mass emails or blogs in my time in front of a screen. i will let this flow and we will see where it goes. i wonder if there is a limit. and if i will find it.

    just back from a short trip to support my sweetheart i look in on my inbox and open the only worthwhile one, one from my sister. the cat sees my intensity and jumps up wanting to get some of whatever i have to offer in the way of pets, offering a muffled purr in return, should i slow, the kneading begins…you know cats, you know this.

    the tears flow easy with the words of my sister, in text, on the telephone, in person not as much. why. not sure.

    i remember and am instantly returned to a time that i did not know was some of the best times of my life, with some of the best people to have walked this earth. now with that written i have to wait for the blurr from the tears to pass…it doesn’t and i type anyway-oh yeah i can touch type.

    pop was a smart strong man. a good man and a handy man. he did not waste time or mince words. he had heard ducks fart in shallow water before and he had heard men die. it is sad in a way that with a face wet with tears that i cannot imagine what i was thinking to not have preserved this more or at all. i was not thinking. it was play time. it was a safe place to play. real play. boundaries that were respected less i find myself with a thick ear. but i was only stretching my leg and so on. boundaries that made sense. boundaries that were not arbitrary or random. preserve our safety, and the environment. i live minutes from a grandma i have never really known. and i spent thousands to be with my nana for a few minutes of lucidity. i was busy and far away and i knew to listen to my sister. she was not one to tell me what to do. anyone who knows my arogant pigheaded self would know that you would have better luck standing in front of a bus. but i listened. for a minute with nana i would spend any amount. all the riches in trade for but a minute with someone who knew the value of a penny. someone who told me so many years ago that the same number of beans makes five when i was letting her know that she was outdated with her values and ideals. gawd was i wrong. it took me twenty five years to understand that phrase. one minute.

    but that is not how it works.

    nana will not wait. come now. elizabeth gave some very good advice that i will always remember. and our nanas last words to me were advice. advice i will share and hold in my heart to my grave and beyond. she devoted her life to her kids her neighbours and her grandkids and all her relations. she promised her life her devotion to pop.

    pop.

    i remember that a man who could carry twice his weight on his strong back and walk until a man who carried nothing could walk no longer. he showed me that a man could cry. and that was strong. and i did not understand. and i still don’t. i have heard the last breath of a man once and tried to give him more life but that is not how it works. but it is different when someone dies because they are old and not because they belong to the wrong side.

    what is wrong. waste. disrespect. ignorance in the face of knowledge. carelessness. thoughtlessness. our nana and pop were a force of nature. a powerful force and one that i still learn from. like today. while checking electronic mail i was looking to see what i needed to do i realized that i need to remember. i learned this from my sister who has been teaching me since i started breathing. i have only one regret as a parent. i never gave my daughter a syballing. i often bless my family and especially my big sister. endlessly patient. smarter than anyone. the one i looked to to make sense of the dirty world i did not understand and could not change. non violent. a student of a topic for a short time and then a teacher of that same topic. amazing. nothing less. you have much power big sister.

    we have pop in us. the stories are still needing to be told. and as i remember to remember as you remind me to tell my stories, i realize that they are there. the stories of love, pain, truth, joy and wonder.

    i told a story today when i was thousands of miles from home of you that i have told many times. and will continue to. a story of courage and inspiration. i spoke with a woman who did not know me but wanted to. her husband a physician and her a nurse. she was paralyzed and hurt so badly and we shared stories. stories of our path to health. how we did it. impossible though it seemed. we told the same story of traumas and hopes. of how we guide with compassion to help if we can in our vocations as yoga teachers. our stories differed though. i had a angel guide me. she did not. she had herself. i had bridget.

    with love,

    david

  • David, I am deeply touched by your words. You have a way of saying it exactly how it is in your heart, and I appreciate that. I love that our stories have overlap, but are also complimentary, so that we support each other hearing and remembering that other thing, too. The same number of beans make five. It’s been years since I heard that.

    I am sad that Kristina does not have a sibling to help her remember, to share her memories. Because who else would tell her about duck farts? Pop would love that you put that in there.

    And he would be proud of you telling your stories, of love, pain, truth, joy, and wonder. He would be proud that you are hard-working, that you help your parents, that you are straight with your daughter. We are all guides for each other. with love, yerbigsistah

  • Thank you beautiful people for being the continuation of our lives. You have taken what we were able to provide and made it better. Love to All.

  • Les, thank you for your visit, and for your very kind words. This post moved me as I wrote it, and means all the more for the way it has stirred hearts. We are all in this together. We help each other remember.

Leave a Reply to Les Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

link to your last blog post with a check here