A few years after my grandmother died, I joined my mother and brother to visit her grave. Her remains are located in a crowded cemetery, one that has different markers to guide mourners to the right place.
After visiting a different relative, my mum got turned around and could not get us back to my grandmother. My mum is a blisteringly smart woman, but directions are not her forte. The three of us wandered the rows in search of my grandmother, laughing at our predicament.
Eventually, with my mother in the distance reading people’s graves, I stood next to my brother and turned my face up to the sky. “Grandma!” I called out. “Your daughter got lost, but this time it was en route to find you. Can you give us a hint over here?”
Moments later, a crow starting cawing and flew to the far end of the section that my brother and I were standing in. We turned to look at each other sharply.
“Come on, let’s go!”
We both sprinted toward the bird at the same time, our pace slowing as the tombstone came into view. We found a crow sitting on my grandmother’s grave. The gravestone was double length, as she and my grandfather planned to share a double plot whenever he should pass.
We took a few moments to stop freaking out, and then called our mum over.
“How did you guys find it?” She asked, incredulously.
“Well you’re not going to believe it but…..”
My grandfather proposed to my grandmother on the day they met, an action born from a connection far deeper than many of us can comprehend.
He saw her and knew, he said. There wasn’t a question in his mind.
Through the entire length of their marriage until her death in 1996, he was a gentleman deeply in love with his wife. Subsequently, and among many other things, he was a widower who would still tear up upon the mere mention of her name decades later.
I am comforted by the thought of them reunited again at last, twenty plus years later.
My grandfather proposed to my grandmother because he caught a glimpse of her on a fateful day in 1944.
He enlisted in the Air Force and was sent to England in the early 1940s. That too is family lore, because the man wore thick glasses since he was a child. But he wanted to fight for his country during the Second World War, and wanted to join the Air Force to do so. He couldn’t disclose his terrible eyesight, however, so he failed the eye test several times taking it without glasses. They rejected his application.
Did he give up? No. He never gave up. He memorized the eye chart and waited until a new doctor was giving he exam. The sneaky strategy paid off and he finally passed. He was sent to Gander in Newfoundland for training, and eventually onwards to England. The ruse was up eventually, of course, and he was not able to fly planes. Instead, he served happily from the ground.
(I got my stubbornness from several family members, him among them.)
Eventually, he transferred to a base on the coast of England. There, he and his Air Force buddies would spent one evening a week at a hotel near the sea, playing poker with injured son of the owner.
One week in 1944, a young woman caught his attention on his way to that weekly game. She was walking down the stairs at the hotel with an older woman, her mother, and she stood out immediately, he said.
He turned to his friends and told them to go on to the game without him.
In all of the times I have heard this story, I never thought to ask how he broke the ice. I imagine it started with a cheerful hello. Perhaps, as he saw her heading to a room in the hotel, he asked her if she was retiring so soon. It was early evening, and the sun hadn’t set.
“Hello..are you retiring so soon? Would you like to take a walk along the beach?”
Seeking an escape from the London smog for a weekend, my great-grandmother brought my grandma to the coast with her. Slim, petite, and always introspective, I can only imagine what was going through her head that she agreed at age 19 to an impromptu date with a stranger.
He was 25.
I suspect it wasn’t logic, because my grandmother, like my grandfather, confirmed that it was love at first sight. Further, unbeknownst to my grandfather, she was engaged to a gentleman in London. For a shy (engaged!) young lady to leave her mother and wander the beach during the war took something larger than life. Love.
She did not retire for the night, and instead did what she always did because she was always cold: she went and got a sweater. She turned and explained her need for a sweater to my grandfather – this part we all do know – and that she wanted to get her mother settled for the night.
“Ok. Then I will wait,” he replied.
And he did.
Their first date was a drawn-out walk along the cliffs at the edge of the sea, one that culminated in a proposal. Complicating matters was not only my grandmother’s engagement, but that my grandfather too was promised to a woman in Canada who he planned to take up with after the war.
Regardless, and as they both told it, those previous plans were impossible now. Something shifted in the universe, something firm and unyielding. They felt that they were meant to be together despite the chaos that would it would likely cause in their individual families.
Before they knew it, it was almost curfew. My grandfather had to be back in his barracks or risk being declared AWOL. A gentleman, he tried to walk my grandmother to the hotel regardless, but she insisted that he not risk his enlistment. They made plans to meet at the hotel the next day, and she told him to rush back before it was too late.
My grandfather made it back in time and in one piece, but my grandmother did not.
During the war, a country-wide blackout went into effect Sept 1, 1939. Lights could easily geolocate a spot for Germans to bomb, so at dusk there were no lights. The effect was immediate, and conditions like “blackout anemia” spread as city dwellers got used to a life without nighttime light. “For the first minute going out of doors one is completely bewildered, wrote Londoner Phylllis Warner, “then it is a matter of groping forward with nerves as well as hands outstretched.” Near the sea, it was especially important that the blackout was in full effect because U-boats were patrolling the waters.
With darkness upon them, my grandparents split up to make their way back to their respective sleeping spots. In the inky blackness, my grandmother felt her way along the cliffs toward the hotel. En route, she tripped over a retaining wall and promptly collapsed a lung.
What was she thinking, inching back in the dark after accepting a stranger’s engagement, in pain and alone? Again, the questions I never thought to ask as a child.
Clearly, the mother-daughter trip to the coast was over. My grandmother and great-grandmother left at dawn for to London to see a doctor. The next day, my grandfather returned to the hotel as planned, only to find out that my grandmother was gone. He begged the hotel for their London address, and on his first day of leave he rushed to London to see her.
Today, treatment for a severe collapsed lung usually involves inserting a needle or chest tube between the ribs to remove the excess air. In 1945, however, it was simply bedrest for as long as it took to hopefully heal. So for several months, my grandfather made the trip from the coast to London and back again whenever he had a day of leave. As they couldn’t go anywhere, or do anything, they talked.
And through that multi-month recovery, they got to know each other.
One day, my great-grandfather took my grandpa aside to ask him what his intentions were, since he was doggedly returning every chance he got. “As soon as she is better and strong enough,” my grandfather said, “I plan to make her my wife.
They were married in 1945 in London, and honeymooned in Wales.
It’s worth mentioning that my grandparents were as lucky as they were star-crossed. In the case of my grandpa, the ship he was supposed to take from Gander to England was hit by a German U-boat torpedo on its trajectory. Thankfully, a pilot friend was also being shipped out to England, and offered my grandfather a seat on his plane. Everyone on the ship bound for England died.
So too did my grandmother cheat death. After recovering from the collapsed lung, she took a her job at the office of a munitions factory in London. She had perfect attendance at work, until she came down with the flu over a weekend. Not wanting to miss work, she only allowed herself to stay home on Monday morning, returning to the factory in the afternoon. She arrived to find it completely levelled; it suffered a direct hit by a German bomb that morning, and everyone inside was killed.
In a similar vein, she had a near-death experience on her passage to Canada. When the war ended, my grandfather returned home with his fellow servicemen. As many Canadians stationed in England met and married English women, the government provided them special ships that transported them back to their now-husbands. The Canadian government estimates that by 1946, 48,000 marriages between Canadian servicemen and civilian women overseas had been registered. The women were called “War Brides,” and while most were from Britain, a few thousand came from elsewhere in Europe, like the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy and Germany. By the end of March 1948, the Canadian government had transported approximately 44,000 wives and 21,000 children to Canada, sent across the ocean on huge troop ships or modified cruise ships.
My grandmother sailed on a troop ship and came up on deck feeling nauseous from sea-sickness during a storm. Being so slight, when a wave crashed into the ship she went with it. A sailor holding a guide rope grabbed onto her just before she was swept off deck.
She arrived safely to Halifax eventually. My grandfather eagerly awaited her smiling, no doubt exhausted, face. They settled in Montreal, eventually starting a family of their own.
We humans love to connect dots, and to create a compelling narrative where there may not be any. Were they just lucky? Perhaps. In my family, they were far more than that. A couple that was simply fated to be, with an incredible love story that transcended time, a war, and borders to bring them together.
Every conversation with my grandfather started with intense cheer.
“Hello Dolly!” He would say when he saw me, “tell me some good news.”
It wasn’t just me. He brightened everyone’s day, no matter the place or time. He was universally loved, to the point where his caretakers and nurses sobbed when they heard the news of his passing. Throughout his life, he comported himself with dignity and a strength that you knew you never wanted to test.
Before he retired, he worked in the menswear industry, building a modest company into a huge operation over the course of his career. Due to his vocation, he was impeccably dressed until his heath interfered and people had to choose them for him. In true grandpa fashion, too, he was classy and comfortable without ever appearing snobby. He dressed well because he believed in the products he made and the materials he traveled far and wide to personally source.
He is the only man I’ve ever met who could make an ascot seem normal.
That’s a testament to his shapeshifting nature, one day selling his clothing to shops, and the next in the countryside to see what raw materials he wanted to buy next. I drew on his strength many times when on the road and out of my element, or up to my eyeballs in fear. He was a comforting chameleon who charmed everyone.
The man also did great at anything he put his mind to. And I’m not just talking about his work. He bowled a perfect game for most of his life, and at 89, he complained to my mother that his arm was hurting. My mum gently told him that perhaps three different bowling leagues weren’t the best idea as he approached his 90th birthday.
Fiercely independent and unrepentant in his desire to live each day fully, he was not impressed by her suggestion that he cut down to two.
He learned how to play bridge at 85, not only learned but learned, remembered, and kicked some serious bridge ass.
Around the same time, he decided to join meals on wheels, for “something else to do.” Not content to bowl, go to the gym (yes, the GYM), socialize, and participate in community programmes, he wanted to give back. That’s right, in his 80s he joined Meals on Wheels to serve the food, not to receive it.
“I’m going to visit the old people,” he’d tell my mum with a characteristic chortle.
He was, of course, older than many of the people who received those meals.
My grandfather taught me to stand up for what I believe in, not just because someone tells me to do so but because it was right. Because I knew it was right inside. No one could take that from you, he would say, looking right into the heart of who I was.
“You stand up for what you know is right.”
Integrity mattered to him, to me, and to all of his grandkids.
My grandfather taught me that anything in life was possible in life and love.
He taught me that mealtimes could be anything I wanted them to be, with his joyful celebration of soup for dessert. Why have ice cream when there’s soup available? He never turned down a bowl, something my cousin Alanna and I clearly inherited from him.
By extrapolation life could be anything you wanted it to be, too. While he didn’t understand why I quit my job as a lawyer to start traveling, when this blog turned into a website and a business, he believed I was making a difference. (Plus, by then I was telling everyone “I eat soup for a living”, so I am sure that bought me some goodwill). I was effecting change without compromising my values, something that mattered to him.
I have handwritten notes from him well into his 90s, encouraging me to keep doing what I was doing.
One of my favourite memories of him was a trip to New York City when he was 90. I was working at a law firm then, and my parents drove in with him during thanksgiving weekend. He traipsed around town with us, over the Brooklyn Bridge, down into the subways, and into Times Square. He had not been to New York since the 1950s, and I remember looking over at him in the neon chaos of 42nd street, with all its noise and bustle and movement. He looked up, he took a deep breath, and said “you know, take away the neon and it really isn’t that different.”
He was adaptable in ways that I couldn’t even fathom, and his ability to find connection to everything, everyone, everywhere, is a part of why I traveled the way I did.
He made it to 100, spending his milestone birthday last year surrounded by friends and family.
By that point, dementia had set in, and he did not understand why everyone was clamouring around him, or that he was 100. “I AM?” He would say, astonished. “100? Are you sure?” He did not recognize who I was, and asked my mother how she and I met.
“Dolly,” he said conspiratorially as I walked by him at his party, “what is going on?”
Someone cut in to say that it was a party for him. “We are all here to celebrate your birthday! Do you want to say something?”
And he did what he always did and took charge of the situation with grace, poise, and authority. Despite not remembering he was 100, nor did he recognize the people in attendance, he spoke clearly and confidently.
“I want to thank everyone here for coming to see me today. And I hope you all enjoy yourselves and have a wonderful time!”
I was too sick to attend my grandpa’s funeral, the second grandparent’s life celebration I’ve missed in the last few months.
To grieve alone when your family grieves together is a deeply isolating thing, but thankfully with family in town for the funeral, I was not alone for it all. My cousins piled onto the floor of my tiny bedroom for hours to grieve with me.
My grandfather proposed to my grandmother on the day they met, and though he taught my cousins and I many things, the legacy of their love abides in each of us. In the time since, he lived an astounding life full of more variety and purpose than most people get during their time on earth.
With every single thing he did, and every person he interacted with, he was charming, polite, and perspicacious. But when we all gathered at my mum’s last week before his funeral, the love story was the first thing we discussed.
As with many stories that span distance and generational time, however, it succumbed to a game of broken telephone over the years.
Eventually, at my cousin’s wedding in 2007, the close family gathered around my grandfather during a break in festivities to hear the truth straight from the horse’s mouth.
The candid photos from that gathering encapsulate his status as beloved patriarch: us cousins gesticulating, our parents shaking their heads, and my grandfather in the centre with his head thrown back in full-body laughter.
My cousins and I reminisced together about this famous family day, and then we moved on to the rest of our memories. How during loud, drawn-out family gatherings, he would glare at us sternly until we piped down enough for him to say blessings before the meal. And then, while the meal was served, he would come to the kids table, ostensibly to “check on us,” but inevitably to sit down and spend part of the meal with his grandkids. We shared what we learned from him, over the many hours of wise advice we received during our respective lunches, phone calls, and visits.
That nighttime tribute with my cousins felt like a beautiful celebration, one that he would have approved of. Later, we all went upstairs to rejoin our our parents and continue the memories until we could barely keep our eyes open.
I’m still on bedrest, but I know the smaller reminders will hit harder when I start interacting with the world again. Grief follows no timeline, of course, but even with time it comes back without warning in the smaller remembrances that give a sharp gut punch.
How he loved a bowl of Wendy’s chilli, and how every road trip (or city drive) with him involved a Wendy’s stop. Any excuse for a Wendy’s stop.
How we would all go for Chinese buffets as a family, and when everyone got dessert, he’d loop back to get another bowl of soup.
The smell of pipe tobacco from before he quit smoking. His beloved ascot. The pageboy caps he wore in the winter months.
That raucous, eternal laugh.
In early April I was on resting and reading in my mum’s room. A flash of black caught my eye, and I looked up to see a crow flying straight at the window. It veered suddenly and disappeared.
Intrigued, I got up from the bed to look outside. The crow was sitting on the street in front of the house, and stared me straight in the eyes before flying away.
“Goodbye grandma,” I said softly. It reminded me of that story from her grave that I hadn’t thought about in some time.
That night, I went to my computer and downloaded a whole bunch of photos of me and my grandfather that I had stored to the cloud. I’m not even sure why, other than the crow reminded me of his beloved wife. When I told my brother, he shook his head and said, “well Jodi, the birds certainly seem to give you messages.”
My grandfather passed peacefully in his sleep that night, in the early hours of dawn. Peacefully, and unexpectedly.
I suppose nothing is unexpected when you are a hundred and a half, but his body was so robust that we were all shocked.
When I saw the bleary panic and grief in my mother’s eyes the next morning when she woke me up with the news, I never even thought that it was about my grandfather. He was a hundred, yes, but he was indomitable.
Of course, he was also human.
Transcending our grief was our relief that he passed painlessly and quickly.
And in death, as in life, he kept the whole family on its toes.
I miss him very much.
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