My granddad is in this photo. He’s the kid perched on the plough. It’s his father driving the car. David Henry. My granddad ended up looking just like him. Uncle Reg is beside David Henry, and their neighbours are standing beside the vehicle. This photo was taken in their hometown of Napinka.
This has been a difficult winter, and I don’t know why, exactly, except that there are so many ghosts around. The ghosts won’t leave me be. They won’t let me focus on the people I can still hear, and see, and touch. They hang around the periphery of my conscious mind and say nothing; they’re just there. Taking up space. Making me remember, and remember, and remember.
I am the keeper of many stories in my family. I am the last who will remember them, after my father and my aunt and uncle. My children never knew these people’s laughter, the light in their eyes. They never knew the huge Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter dinners around the tables in that tiny kitchen with the south and east facing windows. My cousin only saw two.
My grandfather and his four brothers, in the halcyon days after the first world war, before the Great Depression, and before the second world war. All four would survive. They had a sixth brother who died as a toddler. Their mother (Aggie May) was a teacher, and she was a musician. Their father (David Henry), who was born in North Dakota to Irish immigrants, was a farmer and a mechanic. Robert, Maxwell, Reginald, Percival, Gilman, and Clare. Those were the six boys.
In WWI, Uncle Bob was overseas when he heard that Uncle Max had lied about his age to enlist. Bob told his CO, who got this information back to Max’s CO, who sent Max home. Max was, at 16, understandably livid. He wanted to fight. He wanted to serve his country. Two weeks after Max was sent home, most of his entire company was mowed down by enemy fire. None of the soldiers Max would have been with survived.
Who will tell these stories when I’m gone? Will they be important to anyone? I have forgotten so many stories – my uncle Gil was the story keeper of those boys, and there were many days I sat at his knee and listened. It was just him and me, his booming voice, his upside-down smile and percolating laugh. I didn’t know any of the people he talked about; only knew them as names and as faces peeking from faded photographs. I would meet some of them eventually; they were old men by then, but their wits were sharp and their eyes bright and they never shied away from a sniff of whiskey and a story.
I asked where Grandpa had been born, and without missing a beat, Uncle Gil said, “oh, out in the yard, you know. He was the fourth, so mother just kind of squatted down and out he came, and it was so damned dry he tried to get right back in, like one of those rolling window shades, you know, but mother scooped him up out of the dust and let the cat wash him off.” So maybe some of the stories aren’t exactly true the way they may have actually happened, but you know me – there’s a good chance that they did happen that way.
My grandmother was in labour for over 40 hours with my mother. Grandpa had to drive her 100 miles to the next biggest city because the hospital in Swift Current couldn’t deal with whatever was happening with my grandmother’s uterus. My grandmother was just a wee thing, not even five feet tall. She was a nurse, and had worked as a private nurse for a wealthy American woman in Detroit during the war. Grampa wanted to marry her before he left, but he refused to leave a war bride, so she waited for him.
When my grandmother was pregnant with my aunt, my mother went to live with her aunt and uncle – there were complications with the pregnancy and my grandmother was supposed to be on bed rest. My aunt refused to wear shoes for most of her childhood. She would bury them in the gravel pile out behind the house when it was time for church. She was in to everything and was always dirty. She had imaginary friends who I wanted to adopt. Kanina and the Waaa-man, in particular. She once broke a huge bottle of bleach and blamed it on a giant grasshopper. She used to bite faces out of pieces of bread and then leave the bread faces in secret places, to be found, dried out and gaping, by my grandmother.
I did the same thing when I was little, which is how I learned my aunt had done it first. My grandmother screeched at my aunt for leaving bread faces, and Jesus Murphy, wasn’t she too old for that sort of thing? And my aunt said it wasn’t her and I said, I did that, Nama. I made a face out of my bread! Only I forgot where I put it. (It was under the chesterfield.) They both stared at me, then at each other, and then my grandmother asked why I’d done it and I said, I like to make little bread balls and then eat them and when I’d made two, it looked like eyes…and then my aunt interrupted and said, so you ate a mouth into the bread and made it a face. I said, yes, that’s what I did. Then they laughed so hard they cried because I was only four and no one had ever mentioned bread faces; in fact they’d forgotten about bread faces until Nama found one under the couch. So I ask you, how did I know about bread faces?
In with a bunch of things at my mum’s house this Christmas, I found a box labelled to her from my great uncle. There are photo albums inside. My uncle worked for the CPR, and in his retirement years, rebuilt steam engines, old vehicles, and tractors. If you go to the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, you’ll see some of sorts of machines he worked on. In his younger years, he played in a band. He played saxophone and toured the country during WWII playing concerts all over Canada and the northern US. He played baseball and rumour has it is mentioned in the provincial baseball hall of fame. He was a writer, and could turn a phrase better than most of us turn a corner. He had in one of the albums a ticket for passage on a boat that ended up being sunk by a German U-Boat. I don’t know why he wasn’t on the boat, nor do I know how he came by the ticket. I don’t know enough of his stories.
My uncle’s photo album is partly a collection of the pictures of the people in his family and the things he loved to do, and it’s partly a collection of obituaries and notes about when all of his friends and family died and left him behind. He was the last of the story-collectors and keepers of his generation. There are videos he made of himself telling some of his stories. Many of them have damaged audio tracks, and I don’t know how to fix them. In them, he sits in front of his camera, with bright southern Saskatchewan sunlight streaming in to his little bachelor pad, and he talks. He knows I am his audience. It is still just him and me, and I still listen raptly to the one about the time he and his buddy hit a rifle shell with a hammer in the shed out back and ended up shooting their neighbour – which is a story they promised never to tell anyone as long as they lived but since everyone else was long dead, it was probably okay.
It’s more than just keeping the stories. I have pieces of them with me. Pieces of these icons, the larger-than-life characters on whose shoulders my tiny family was built. The paragons of the prairies in the early 20s; the men and women who had nothing but who gave everything. It seems like their memory is not enough somehow, that they can’t be *gone*. They can’t just be gone just because they’ve died. A hundred years is nothing. My grandfather and my uncle lived nearly 100 years, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly long enough.
My mother lived almost half of that; her mother nearly 70 years. And it wasn’t enough. We always tell people, “but they will live on in your memory forever”, and that, my friend, is simply untrue. They will not live on. Because memory and stories last only as long as the story-keepers. Every one of us has stories to tell. Every one of us is important because we are here, sharing the same place and the same experiences as everyone else. What we need to do is tell those stories. And never, *never* pass up the opportunity to tell someone you love them.
Because 100 years is just too goddamned short.