For the first half of my life, both sets of my grandparents lived in Sarnia. When my mom, dad, brother, and I went to visit, we would stay at my mom’s parents house, and spend some of the time visiting my dad’s parents. When I was around thirteen, my mom’s parents moved to Barrie, and trips to Sarnia became only for visiting my grandpa and nana on my dad’s side. The drive from Barrie to Sarnia is around three and a half hours. When all parties involved were younger, we would visit for a weekend; as everyone got older, it became only one night — we would stay at a hotel, sometimes we’d sleep at my grandparent’s. In more recent years a visit could sometimes be down and back in the same day. It was all we could schedule, it was all my grandparents had the energy for.
“Going to Sarnia,” as the event was labelled, for many of the years, went like this: we would wake early on a Saturday morning, my dad would drive, my mom would sit in the passenger seat, Lucas would sit behind my dad, and I would sit behind my mother. Lucas would undoubtably sleep a large portion of the drive. I would sleep some, and engage my dad in conversation for the rest. As soon as we got to Sarnia, Luc would wake, we would park at my grandparent’s apartment and grab our things, then we’d go to the front door where we would buzz up to my grandparents on the eleventh floor. Though the symmetrically decorated lobby we would walk, greeting whomever we passed. We would ride the small elevator in quiet anticipation. My grandparents unit was right beside the elevator doors. For some reason, I made sure I was never the one to knock, and I would always enter the apartment tailing my parents. My grandparents would be in the hallway to greet us, they would be beaming. I would take my shoes off and shuffle past my parents, I would hug my nana in the kitchen, and my grandpa would round the corner from the living room singing a welcoming song. For as long as I can remember, my grandfather was difficult to understand in his speech. It was subtle, just a light mumble or lack of clarity — it was as though he had half-mouthful of food; those unaccustomed to his dialect would have to listen very attentively. I found I could generally interpret him quite well. From time to time, to clarify his speech — sometimes out of frustration, sometimes to land a punch line — my grandpa would project his voice in a low bellow — and when he was excited, the bellow would be in song. “Hello, hello, my family is here, hello, hello, my family is here!”
I would hug my grandpa at the end of the hall — in this generalized memory, I picture him tall. He was tall — probably six feet — and though I eventually stood taller than him as he bowed with age, for many years when I hugged him, I would come in at his belly. I always remembered his thick, hard belly. He wasn’t overweight in the slightest — but his belly showed that he was well fed and, in my mind, happy. Always when we visited, my grandpa was happy. It overflowed from him.
We would settle in the living room. At the mouth of the room, two reclining chairs assumed the space, facing the windows. A couch rested to one side, a glass cabinet containing countless (what I know know to be called) Royal Dalton’s occupied the other side. The middle of the room was wide open, and making sure to leave the view from the chairs unobstructed, at the other end by the windows, was another ornate chair and a grandfather clock. We would talk for hours — or my parents would, and my grandparent would. Lucas and I would listen, we would tell our grandparents what new thing we were doing, what new stage of our schooling we had coming up. Always, always, what we were doing was so wonderful; always, we were making our grandparents very proud. Talking in the living room would be so comfortable that often lunch was not eaten at the table, but instead served there, and we would eat in our laps while we continued to talk.
After lunch, it wasn’t uncommon for Lucas or I to fall asleep on the floor right in the living room, with conversation surrounding us. We would nap for an hour and then wake and join right back in. It wasn’t rude; my nana said it made her happy, that we were comfortable in their home, comfortable with them.
Sometimes in the afternoon, we would peruse into the library/office room where my grandpa had all of his books, and where his computer was. Lucas and I might’ve played a game or otherwise occupied ourselves.
Dinner would be at the dining table. My grandfather cooked — always. Second only to God and family, he loved food. He was a good cook. I loved the food at my grandparents, and there would always be a lot of it. But the growing boys didn’t consume the most — no — Grandpa did. He was hard of hearing; whether we were home at the apartment or sometimes when we went out to a restaurant for lunch, my grandpa zoned completely out of conversation: he was locked in on the food. I got secondhand joy from being at the same table as him. I can picture him clearly at a Chinese restaurant, eating plate after plate of food, oblivious of anything going on around him, and speaking only to comment on his fondness of the meal. Truly a man in his element.
Once for dessert, we were served a delicious banana cream pie from the local grocery store. Maybe only because the patriarch was full from the main course, or maybe because of my insatiable sweet tooth, — certainly because of he quality of the pie — I ate the most dessert. My grandpa commented on how much I must have enjoyed the pie. I said I sure did, and from then on, banana cream pie from Sunripe Grocery was served for dessert. You would not hear a single complaint from me.
After dinner, full and tired, my grandparents would retire to bed and we go back to the hotel for the evening. The four of us would watch cable television and sleep. Always in the morning, my parents would go for run, always they would be done showering by the time I was waking up. It would be time to go.
On Sunday, we might go to the local market, or maybe down to the waterfront for a walk. In the more recent years, we would go for a drive. At the market, my grandpa would engage with everyone. Often my nana might wait in the car. My grandpa would walk up and down, talking to vendors, talking to anyone he might recognize. Always he would buy too much food. A dozen cobs of corn, for just the two of them. Four litres of fresh tomatoes. He couldn’t help himself; where a middle aged white woman might be unleashed in a Target — my grandpa was nigh unstoppable at the market. Surrounded by the best the Sarnia had to offer, he was again in his element.
Lunch again — back to the apartment to eat grandpa’s great bounty. Then we would say our goodbyes and drive the long way back to Barrie. My grandparents were always so thankful for our visits. They made it feel like I was performing charity. I would say I loved being there — I didn’t need their gratitude for it to be worth it. But they were so generously loving towards us — knowing my presence brought my grandpa to song was half of the joy. A weekend away, seven hours in the car, sure — it was the easiest philanthropy of my life.
♱ ♱ ♱
On the morning of this writing, my paternal grandfather passed in his sleep. He was ninety-six. Beyond being an enthusiastic man who warmed the heart of anyone he came into contact with, he was a steadfast husband, a great father, a theologist, a bibliophile, an autobiographer, and —in the words of one who remembers him— an inspiration. Herein are words for my father’s father, the Reverend Douglas Greenough.
♱ ♱ ♱
He was humble, generous, knowledgable, and full of life. He was an self-made historian. I suppose his study of the bible and theology played a role; his prolific consumption of historical fiction and non-fiction also contributed. Often in conversation, when a factual query was raised, instead of turning to Google, my dad or aunt would turn to my Grandpa and ask: “Dad, was it the this group that came to this historical location first, or was it that group?” Always, it seems, they would get more of an answer than they bargained for. So much raw knowledge would come from him that it was impossible to absorb any of it — like you were being attacked on all sides, and you couldn’t focus on one thread of information, let alone all of them.
He was joyful. That was his most endearing quality. He enjoyed life. He was grateful, even when he didn’t need to be. It’s easy to see now, in writing this, reflecting on him as an entity, as man who lived a life, not as a person anymore but as a legacy embodied, with beginning, middle, and end — complete — that this was his great talent. And ripe to take away from his many wisdoms, both spoken, and in this case unspoken, is just that: be grateful for all that is in your life, worry not of what isn’t. He would walk into a restaurant and he made it clear that he was happy to be eating there; the host would know, the server would know — his pleasure was contagious, and I could see it infect their disposition through the course of the meal. Simple, but difficult… people like happy people. If you can muster it, it will be reciprocated to you.
I will not recount the events of Doug’s life. Mostly because I don’t know them; I’m not close to them. He’d already lived over seventy-five years before I started sharing experiences with him. There’s an encyclopedia worth of his life that I don’t know — literally. For that version of his story, I can direct you to his many-volumed, picture-filled autobiography, which he wrote after his retirement from the church, and I’ve yet to read. A copy resides stacked in my room. What I can tell you succinctly is that Doug was minister for the United Church for nearly all of his working life. He lead many congregations, he wed many couples, baptized many infants, he delivered many services, and bettered many lives. For all that, he was not a dogmatic man; growing up as the grandson of a minister, my family did not practice, and I’ve only yet been to one church service in my life.
♱ ♱ ♱
Briefly: a memory.
It’s stupid what scenes come back to you when there is such a rich bank to pull from. Reflecting on my moments with him, I realized there were not many shared by just the two of us. Despite my wanting for something else — something like an image of him pulling me into his lap and teaching me a love for the written word, telling me in a definitive way that he loves me (all of which he gave me in smaller memories)— instead the following moment came to mind, wholesome in its own way.
On one visit to my grandparent’s apartment, when I was around ten, my grandpa was showing me around his things — his extensive library with buckling shelves, his many small figurines and artifacts, his papers, his writing, his collections of collectibles —, telling me the story of each. He showed me a pen that was attached to a crystal bookend on his desktop. It was not a particularly fine pen; it was ballpoint, the cap of it was mounted upside down to the crystal. I don’t remember the story of the pen in the crystal. I remember I pulled the pen from the cap, and on a piece of paper on the card table that stood in the middle of the cluttered room, I wrote my name. As I wrote, my grandfather commented on my left-handedness — an occurrence even by then I’d become accustomed to.
“Are you left-handed or right-handed, Grandpa?” I asked.
He replied that he wasn’t sure; he said he thought he was ambidextrous.
“Which hand do you write your name with?” I asked.
“Either one, I think,” he said.
I said I thought we should test it.
So I stood over his shoulder as he sat on the pleather footstool beside the table, and below my name, wrote his own, Douglas Greenough, first with his right hand — presenting a typical, slanted grandpa scrawl, then with his left: a certified scribble.
“You’re right-handed, Grandpa,” I said. He seemed fine with that.
♱ ♱ ♱
I last saw my Grandpa in September, for his birthday. On our way to Sarnia, my parents had warned me, gently, that I might notice both of my grandparents being in poorer shape than I had previously seen them, some months prior. It was true — I noticed it when I saw them — thinner, more curled, slower, and softer, but maybe not in a way that warranted warning. They were cheerful to see us — that was there, bright — and it made the differences less noticeable, it made things more the same.
The day was the same, just condensed. A meal, socializing, sitting on the couch, being comfortable in front of them, wandering to my grandpa’s office, perusing his still impressive collection of books, returning, eating again, sharing news, and being showered with their pride.
I took that day in — fully. Not in any way that would make it stand out from all the others that are so the same — but in a way that blended all the days together, emulsified them, raised them, brought them all to be just one cherished grandson-hood — so in that day I knew what a life with my grandparents had been. When it was time to leave, I had to fight tears and the burn that came with them. I had to inhale through my eyelids, withdraw the stinging moisture, fend off the droplets that were present to deliver a message known but unacknowledged, that this would be the last time seeing him. Maybe her too. It felt different. So well we were saying goodbye, I was saying farewell. It was a private parting.
My grandpa had lost his hearty strong belly a couple of years ago. That made me sad — the first sign that he was not timeless, that he was perishable. This hug, there was more than the absence of his belly — more, he could not take me in, he could not wrap around me. I felt the bones of his shoulders, the unsteadiness of his stance. I was holding him, but that was okay. He’d become so much more to me than just the tall singing man from all those years ago.
♱ ♱ ♱
My dad is born on December 25th. Every year, Christmas Day is a double header. I am with all of my family, and we are all with Garth to celebrate. In the same breath on Christmas morning, it is Merry Christmas, and Happy Birthday. This year was the first that we did not get to give that to him. This year, he was in Sarnia, in the hospital. The limited circulation to my grandfather’s legs that had ailed him for many years had gotten to an unbearable level. He was in pain. Finally in the hospital for a stay long enough where they could take a good measure of his health, they found that it was not in recoverable state. From there, over the following two weeks, he transitioned first to palliative, then to hospice.
I did speak to my dad on Christmas morning. Over FaceTime I spoke to him and my grandpa. It was not what I wanted. My dad was obscured by a full set of PPE for COVID protocol, and my Grandpa, on new drugs, was indecipherable. Again I had to suppress the burn in my eyes.
I’ll close with the an excerpt from my Aunt’s update on December 30th, regarding my grandfather’s condition. He passed on January 8th.
Dad started methadone yesterday. The change in medications had an immediate effect. When I visited him, he was in a deep sleep and I couldn’t wake him up for lunch. The nurse told me that Dad had eaten all his breakfast so I wasn’t worried about him missing lunch and we put aside a fruit cocktail for later in case he woke up before dinner.
I went home and returned around 4 in the afternoon and Dad was still sleeping. I was able to wake him up though, with just my voice. He was hungry and surprised that it was already four in the afternoon. He told me that he was seeing a lot of people when his eyes closed, coming in and out of the room. This could be hallucinating but he also is in a room with two other people and there are voices happening all the time. If you are drifting in and out of sleep, it would be easy to see people. Dad asked me what had happened as he could feel no pain. He said it was wonderful to have no pain.
Dad was very aware and I told him about the new medications. He checked his emails, Facebook, ate almost all of his dinner, and then played bridge until I had to leave at 7pm.
B. F. Greeno,