I just got back from Ontario. I always leave that province with a little bit more inspiration, a heart that's a little fuller, and some more direction than I had when I arrived. After the sun came down somewhere in eastern Quebec, I tried to help keep the drivers - my father, his wife Susan - awake and motivated by talking and asking questions. We talked a lot, Dad and I, about leaving there to live here. We bitched about the cold, materialist certainty of grey, brick-buildinged Toronto, but we also talked about the smaller places in Ontario and in Toronto itself. Home in all of its personal enormity, as well as possibility in the immediate familiarity of towns and cities and neighbourhoods we could live, if we had to, for some crazy reason, leave this coast. The people we miss because they make us miss them so, because they love us and we love them so.
My dad parroted the old cliche, "Blood is thicker than water." But you know, you get older, it's true.
Watching people get old from afar is weird. Missing the years in between exploring the woods, climbing rock piles on sturdy legs, taking the boat out on the bay, and the slow and cautious, precious steps in smaller rooms than ever imagined.
I am so lucky to have had a relationship with all four of my grandparents. Certainly luckier than most. Even my grandmother - my active, playful grandmother - who died of cancer far too young, at 61, when I was 12 or 13, is someone of whom I have countless fond, funny, sweet memories. And maybe it is only because her absence allows me to romanticise our relationship, but that was probably around the time I stopped feeling particularly close with any of my parents' parents. I suspect it's more likely, though, that being a teenager had as much to do with that. And then moving three provinces away when I was in my early twenties.
Sean and I used to do this thing, when we were together, when one of us got back from a trip somewhere, where the returning person would be asked to state his or her favourite moment. And I know I should, you would think I would, say: Ted and Hayley's wedding, of course. Ted and Hayley's wedding was beautiful, perfect, a darn good time in every way imaginable. But I've got to give the Favourite Moment Award to the only time I cried during my trip to Ontario.
I have and always have had a different relationship with my mother's parents than I do with my father's parents. Neither relationship is more or less significant, just different, because of who they are and who I am.
For a lot of years I don't think I felt at all close to Granddad, my father's father. Neither he nor my father are the best at keeping in touch, and I saw far less of him after his wife passed away. And besides, Grandma and Grandpa - my mother's parents - had the cottage. We'd spend week-ends and even weeks at a time there, with them, every summer. But I really don't think it's just circumstance and proximity. It's my Granddad, too, and I think I have finally pinpointed it. Granddad talks to everyone, young and old, without reserve, without censorship, with criticism and intelligence and honesty. And in turn, I feel that I can speak to him that way. That I would not have to be polite if it were at the expense of being genuine.
My mom's parents, on the other hand, are people I sure as shit wouldn't swear or smoke around. Which is not to say they're especially proper or anything. But when Granddad, a few days ago, requested that I play that song with the line about masturbating, I happily obliged, before imagining Grandma and Grandpa's horror-stricken expressions should I perform the same song for them. Never in a million years.
Grandpa took me fishing on Georgian Bay, taught be how to bait a hook years before I became a vegetarian and had the only fight I remember having with him, which is likely why it seems so particularly painful when I conjure the incident up in my head. Fighting with my grandfather about his going fishing, on the front deck that he built. Self-righteous tree-hugging teenager I was then.
Grandma held me up the window at their condominium in Brantford to watch the trains go by, read me books, sang me songs. She was always singing. Her voice has this integral, soothing, sing-song quality even, so that when I imagine her voice it always sounds like a tune, and which my mother has undoubtedly inherited. These two Sellar women, they have always made me feel safe.
No one knows what people will take from them. They just put themselves out there the best they know how. There are incidents I remember so vividly as speaking so clearly of their individual characters, and all the while they are and were carrying their own histories and relatives who began long, long before I did. It is probably in their sons and daughters that I know them best.
In Burlington, Ontario, my mother and I had a brief visit with Grandma and Grandpa at the retirement building they now reside in, until they or someone else determines that they are no longer capable of residing there alone, without assistance. That time is coming soon. Grandpa moves slowly, Grandma can't remember to take her medication. They don't want to let go, and who can blame them? The visit was less personal than it might have been, because my mother and I brought along an old friend of theirs, who had moved his travel plans around so that he might spend the afternoon with Frank and Jean Sellar before leaving for China. Gerry, this friend, lives in England, and hadn't seen them in twenty years. In the meantime, he had lost his mother (who lived to be 97!), his wife, and, tragically, his youngest son. At 70, Gerry is a good fifteen years younger than my grandparents, but must nevertheless be feeling his age in ways that he didn't a decade ago.
"China!" Grandpa exclaimed. "Aren't you tired?"
"Frank," he said, "Of course I'm tired. But I want to keep going, for as long as I can. Because I know all too well that one day I'll have to stop."
Granddad was in the hospital for two months earlier this year. He was fainting all the time, and no one could figure out how to stop this from happening, and no one wanted him to leave the doctor's constant care. Except for Granddad, who figured that if he was going to die, he would much prefer dying in the comfort of his own home, being able to see Dog Lake from his bedroom window. He and his wife Anna live at the end of a series of unpaved roads, a half hour drive from Kingston, Ontario. Granddad is lucky to be able to afford this financially, and to have a healthy, willing, and able wife to assist him.
He is still fainting all the time. It is such a terrifying struggle to help him down the stairs, even on the lifts that have been installed there, as I witnessed on Friday, when the four of us finally did help him downstairs and into the living room for the first time in two weeks.
But he doesn't seem old at all.
A few months ago, I wrote a song about my grandmother's death. More about my grandfather, really. Outside of the condominium they lived in in Mississauga was a small house that was always locked. Granddad and I would take walks around the grounds - the garden, the fish pond, until we would finally come to that house, and peer into the windows, imagining what it was used for, or who lived there. The first and only time I ever went inside was for the reception that followed my grandmother's funeral, and I sure wished it had remained a mystery.
The song came up in conversation with Anna when she, Dad, Susan and I were sitting around the kitchen table on Friday morning. "You should tell your grandfather about it," she said. And I really, really wanted to, but I just didn't know how appropriate it would be. "It's sad," I said.
And so, "It's sad," I said to Granddad, as I took out my guitar, upstairs in his room, just a few hours before I was to leave this province and these people that I am made of.
But some things are sad. Lots of things are sad. I couldn't get through the song without crying, but I couldn't stop either. Granddad was tearing up. And Anna, too. She was Grandma's best friend. And she is Granddad's wife. And no one, no matter how much they are loved, and needed here on this earth, gets to live forever that way.
It was a moment. I'm so glad I could let my grandfather know how much I love him, and that I could see how much he loves me. And if I have to say good-bye, I'm glad I could say that too.
And then he asked me to play the masturbating song.
Dad and Susan and I outwitted a tornado in Ontario, beat a hurricane in Nova Scotia, driving all night. We told stories about ourselves. My father's voice is so much like his father's.
We opened windows and played cds to stay awake when we ran out of questions, or one or two of us passengers began to fade.
We listened to Kev Corbett's brand new album, "Son of a Rudderless Boat." We heard "The Driving Song," taking the same route, as though it was written for us. And we listened to "Son of a Rudderless Boat," and with new ears I felt light and lucky, and so happy that it was my father up there in front of me, driving me home, persevering, saving us from the storm. "Row hard, in this rudderless boat," I was thinking, as the sun began to rise somewhere in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.
**I didn't format the lyrics like I usually do, not because I'm lazy, but because I asked Kev to send then to me so that I didn't have to listen over and over and over again and type them out myself (because I'm lazy), and he was happy to oblige, and I like they way they looked, in paragraph form, so I kept them that way.**
Son of a Rudderless Boat - Kev Corbett
Grampa sailed a dory; he fished upon the sea. And though he knew what he was for, he didn’t know just what to be. He lost his arm at a logging camp. And up ‘til he died, he still chopped his own wood. He told me a story ‘bout going out with a new guy in the boat and when they got out on the water new guy just sat there and choked, so back inshore later on Gramp says, b’y, you can haul that fish yourself. We’re all scared out on that water, but next time you can swim, or you can help. He said, gotta work hard, gotta pray hard and just try to keep it strong and if you want to work with me man, gotta pull that weight along ’cause by the Father and by the Son and by the Holy Ghost, by the angels and the saints and by the heavenly host, by the fields of grass that bore me, and the sea that awaits I know I got no control, but I will fear no earthly fate. From the ocean we did come, and to her we shall return. She puts the fire out in us when our souls cease to burn and so to find true love and tend it is your only hope. Just give up the ghost, man. You’re a son of a rudderless boat.
My father tried his hand out as a fisher of men It was at least one job for a papish boy from the steel plant back then but he jumped that ship, I guess, left his robes upon the ground and I, for one, am glad he did, musta seen this gig comin’ round. He’s a student of his time, a renaissance guy to be sure. He lets me hoist myself, but my ears ring with his words: Son, I pray that you grow to be a very gentle man with Respect for those ‘round you and respect for the land ‘cause life don’t owe you another 10 seconds, you already got today but I believe it comes around if you treat the World that way and everything you need to know you learn from watching others fall but you’ll rejoice in their successes if you really heed the call. You’ll choose the high or the low road when life has you by the throat. It’s a choice we all get to make. We’re all sons and daughters of a rudderless boat.
I’m learning to love the Winter. Spring ain’t too far away.
So my paddle hits the water and I’m off among the trees. And I’m just lucky to be here, living like this in times like these I feel the weight of the whole world in all the choices that I make under the gazes of our mothers, and environmental stakes. By my unborn children, by the lepers in the streets, by the world already drowning in pools around our feet, may we come to patch this leaky boat that we’re all here sinking in and stop making up some right to throw the weaker ones in. By the earth and air and fire and water lapping at the shores all our spirits are the same and all our hands are on the oars. May we come to fix this tired old world before we drown in smoke. I’ll do my part. Row hard, in this rudderless boat.