Growing up, I didn’t get to see Grandpa that much because he lived so far away on the West coast. He would visit occasionally, but most of my early memories are of the summer trips we took to B.C. to see him at his home by the water. The details of those visits are a bit hazy, but I recall all of us walking along a rocky, foggy shoreline a few blocks from his home, collecting pieces of driftwood that had washed up onto the shore. I also remember exploring the mossy woods behind the buildings that made up the Kiwanis complex, all the time sure I was moments away from being eaten by an angry bear or, at the very least, getting a tick in my hair because I had forgotten to wear a hat. Most of all though, I remember the way the other residents all seemed to know my Grandpa and always wanted to stop and chat. As a kid, these interruptions were frankly a bit annoying because we obviously had very important places to be and things to do, but it turned out that Grandpa was a bit of a big man on campus at the complex, serving as the unofficial handyman, pie-chef and local dance celebrity. On that last point, he had clearly figured out that as a spry 75-year old man who loved to dance, being vastly outnumbered by widows eagerly seeking a Friday night dance partner was a pretty good position in which to find oneself. It made me proud to think that all of those people who stopped us as we made our way through the grounds admired my Grandpa just like I did.
The other thing that’s burned into my memory from those summer trips is our visits to the Royal Fork. If there was one thing that Grandpa liked as much as fixing things (or at least telling other people how to fix things…) and cutting a rug to an old-time waltz, it was tying into a good meal. And if ever there was a shrine to the excesses of consumption, it was the Royal Fork, just a short drive across the U.S. border in Washington. Maybe it was because I was not accustomed to American buffet style dining at the time, but I remember being in absolute awe of the spectacle that unfolded there. People of all shapes and sizes, mostly round and large, converged at what seemed to me at the time to surely be the largest restaurant in the world, to feast on a vast array ribs, pasta and everything in between. Though we collectively couldn’t hold a candle to the rest of the clientele in terms of getting value for our all-you-can-eat dollar, I could tell that Grandpa loved the place and loved taking us there. I loved it too. The ride back to White Rock was always a quiet affair as we each tried to digest our last helping from the sundae bar. To this day, I can’t pass a buffet or dig into an industrial-sized vat of lasagne without thinking about those trips.
While there were periodic visits over the years, my memories of Grandpa really start to pick up in the mid 1990s, when we began to see him on a more regular basis. During one trip to Saskatoon, he ended up in the hospital with heart problems. After a lot of poking and prodding, the doctors sent him home with the message that the situation was dire, that there was really nothing more they could do and that we should enjoy the few days or weeks we had left with him. That was over 10 years ago at his 90th birthday celebration - apparently he disagreed with the prognosis. For anyone who knew him, that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. We were just happy he was right.
Once he moved to Calgary in 2000, he became a constant in our lives. Even more so for his new roommate who probably never expected at that point in her life to be sharing a toaster and fighting for the remote control with her father. But somehow it all seemed to work out and Grandpa soon slipped into our routine of Sunday dinners, birthday celebrations and random family gatherings. One thing you never had to worry about at these events was a long lull in the conversation; Grandpa could always come up with a story to fill the void. Even if there wasn’t a void, he could still come up with a story that, however loosely, somehow related to what you were discussing. It didn’t matter whether you had heard them a hundred times before - and in many cases you had - it was always entertaining to hear the stories about him travelling by sled to town in the dead of winter after accidently lobbing off his toes with a hatchet, or of childhood adventures with siblings and friends bearing unlikely names like Skookie, or about Mom, Auntie Peg and Donny (as he always referred to Uncle Don) when they were kids. If the number of stories you have to tell is a gauge of how full a life you’ve lived, then I think it’s safe to conclude that his was overflowing.
In the last couple of years, he began to noticeably slow down. I guess that tends to happen as you approach a century on this planet. The stories didn’t flow quite as easily, the naps became more frequent and he didn’t seem to get the same enjoyment out of a good meal as he had in the past. The one source of joy that never seemed to diminish though was spending time with his great grandchildren. Even though he couldn’t get down and play with them as he probably would have liked, his eyes would light up whenever Jack, Kate, Marc or Maya were in the room and you could tell that nothing else mattered to him but watching them go about their business, whether that meant putting on a concert at his 100th birthday party or simply playing quietly in the backyard. They were a very special part of his life that he cherished and I feel very fortunate that my daughter Maya had a chance to visit with him that last Sunday in the hospital. I know he took great comfort in that, as did we.
Grandpa lived a long, full life on his own terms. And even though we all knew it was eventually coming, it still came as a shock to get that call saying he was gone. Having been down the road so many times, I think we all assumed that this would pass, that he would recover and that life would return to normal in a week or two. But he was tired and it was his time to go. It’s a cliché to say that he’s in a better place, but I like to think he is. In fact, if I had to guess, I suspect that as we speak he’s probably at an all-you-can eat buffet with Annie, Donny and his brothers that passed before him, telling stories about his great grandchildren and those darn missing toes.