Ninety-nine

Today, my grandfather Gordon MacLeod would have been 99 years old. Last year, I was hoping against all odds that my son would be born on his due date, November 23, as a kind of birthday gift for Grandpa. That didn’t happen, but I hear that gritty old, tobacco-and-weatherstained voice in my mind every day when I look at my son: “Yup, he’s a terror,” he’d say with a chuckle as one or more toddlers (and there was rarely just one) tore around the old farmhouse. He could usually be found holding an infant on his knee as he rocked in front of the wood stove – when he was indoors, that is, which wasn’t often.

I wish he were here to sing cowboy songs to my son, to wrap those powerful, worn hands around his belly, and tell him stories of logging with teams of huge black Percheron horses, of carving out a living from unforgiving Canadian Shield farmland, of doing kitchen table surgery on the neighbours’ kids when they had minor accidents, of falling in love with my grandmother and building a marriage that survived 8 kids, 20 grandkids, lots of ups and downs, and more than 50 years. To teach him how to collect eggs from the chickens in the haymow, repair an engine, survive winters that frequently brought six feet of snow. To show me how to carry a child with grace, bring him along and include him in the daily work of life, let him know he belongs and is valued, show love and respect in my actions. To teach his great-grandson responsibility and loyalty and perhaps even the manly arts of wearing flannel shirts with clean white undershirts beneath them, muddy old workboots, and Old Spice.

 

He was the eldest son of Margaret MacLeod, the local midwife, and she delivered just about everyone who lived in their tiny community in northern Ontario. My parents, vacationing in Florida one year, struck up a conversation with a restaurant manager there and discovered he had been born into my great-grandmother’s sure hands. (Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, they walked into his.) I never knew my great-grandmother MacLeod, but I suspect he took after her. He, too, brought a lot of kids into the world, and adored babies.

Each of his twenty grandchildren felt we had a special connection with him. I know I still do.

 

When he died, I had the great honour of being one of his pallbearers. My grandmother, ever pragmatic, decided that the six eldest grandchildren ought to carry his body out of the church, and it just so happened that we were three men and three women. I told her how much it meant to me to do it – and how cool I thought it was that she was defying gender conventions. She replied, “Well, being a girl never got you out of doing hard work on the farm.”

He was a large man: about six feet tall and two hundred pounds or so. His casket was made of mahogany. What I’m saying is: It was heavy. When we lifted his casket and felt the weight on our shoulders, it felt appropriate. Burying the patriarch of one’s family should take real effort. It should require a slow pace, a solemn tread. You should feel it in your bones.

We sure felt him there, on our shoulders. A fitting reversal of roles for us, the grandchildren he had dandled on his knee – appropriate for us to carry him, for a turn, at the last.

 

I remember how he’d always be the first one up, out in the barnyard doing chores before sunrise. He’d light the wood stove before he went out – and when he came back in, he’d put on a pot of coffee and often, a pan of bacon & eggs, and the rest of us would wake up to the most heavenly smell in the world: coffee, bacon, and the wood fire in the stove. And Grandpa, waiting in the kitchen, tall and broad and tanned from decades of outdoor work, gently powerful, fiercely protective of the clan he’d built.

We remember you, Grandpa, with great love. Happy birthday.