December 15th, 2014
Funny, I didn’t even know this photo existed until this past summer, when my aunt showed it to me. There’s my grandmother, in the top-right corner, standing beside her mother, and beside my great-uncle, who was a member of the Canadian Navy (I think). The caption on the back says that it’s D-Day, June 1944–and I am nowhere, not remotely alive, but that’s okay.
That my grandmother had a life, an entire world away, before she came to Canada as a war bride and become, as I knew her, my Nanny, intrigues me. It’s a research project, to find out more, more, more about my grandmother’s life. I remember more of her, because she was alive, with me, for longer than my mother, but she’s no less enigmatic, because so many questions I have remain unanswered. Her’s was a hard life, one of supporting tragedy, of having lived through the bombs, and the Blitz, and of ushering in new life (my aunt!) in the wake of all that blew up, oh, those Boomers. What was to come? Losing herself to colon cancer, that runs in our family, her son to follow a decade later, losing her middle child to the accident, like we all did, widowhood, and raising her grandchildren as much as was necessary–and that’s the part that I feel like I can tackle now.
I did not know her in this photo, but I want to. I want to ask her what it was like to be in London during the war. What it must have been to go to work at fourteen, when she really wanted to stay in school. What it was to meet my grandfather, and to see your life in that first blush of romance, to spend all that time with someone that maybe you shouldn’t have been with, to be an only child, to be British, and then staunchly Canadian. To be private, to have lived a life inside yourself, and so responsible, even if life gets beyond you. These are all my questions. These are all moments that I wish I could go back and ask about.
My favourite memory of my grandmother, and there are so many, are of her playing invisible snap with some friends of mine from high school. Of her holding court over a crazy pile of teenagers in the backyard of our house on Chaumont Cresent, where we lived in Mississauga. The first time I had a drink (peach schnapps, I do not recommend it). The first of many times my house was invaded by piles of teenagers and, still, my grandmother had a spirit and a presence about all of it–letting me find my way, enjoying my friends, enjoying herself. Another moment in time: my head in her lap as she ran through family history with me, noting cousins, aunts, uncles. I still have the piece of paper where we mapped it all out. Since then, I’ve gone through a half-dozen more generations, tracing as far back as I can to somehow reach deep down and figure out who I am. I’m not there yet.
In that moment, right before she died, wearing an oxygen mask, and settled in her bed, I wanted to shout out a list of everything she saved me from when she stepped in during the first tumultuous years after my mother’s accident. She saved me, most of all, from myself. She gave me her spirit of adventure, and her tenacity. She cut my hair, and loved me fiercely, but quietly. She was firm, but strong, and had character that came from someplace I would never understand. She made my clothes, and tried to teach me how to knit, backwards, because I’m left-handed, and left behind a space that aches when it’s sunny, in particular, at the cottage, a place she loved.
No special anniversary to celebrate. No giant, sweeping epic. A few secrets, I’m sure. It’s again, more of the everyday that I miss. And that’s the rub, that’s the intensity of losing so many people that you love. You can’t appreciate the small moments, in detail, because they’re forgettable. And that’s the way it should be. You can’t climb back through time, because it’s impossible. You can’t remember everything. But there are moments when I wish I could slip into the photograph, and stand beside my grandmother, wear my own pinny, wave a flag, and shout out: “I was here. You were here. And I love you, desperately.”