“Grandparents are a precious unrenewable resource.”
That’s how an uncle put it when I lost my second grandfather.
Somehow, I reached the age of 30 with 4 grandparents still living. And then at 40, I still had 3. There is no doubt that some magical thinking began to take place, because although my Nannies and Poppy were undeniably aging and growing weaker, it was still impossible to conceive of the world without them in it.
My twin and I were the much-loved result of an ill-fated union between two Newfoundland teens who found themselves working up on the Mainland after graduating. Our childhood was spent All Over the Map, moving from Toronto to Newfoundland, to Nova Scotia, back to Ontario, then for me, on to Quebec, Japan, Alberta, and back to Toronto. We attended 13 schools before finally graduating with 2 degrees each.
Our grandparents provided the continuity we desperately needed during our annual anchoring summers back on the island. Nanny and Poppy Stuckless and Nanny and Poppy Laing all lived in their little Lanes from the early days of their marriages until the ends of their lives. These were houses that they had built themselves and filled with their many children, grandchildren, and eventually great-grandchildren and beyond.
Grandparents and grandchildren get to take a delight in each other that is often lost in the daily grind of front line parenting. Our grandparents could be parental, but we always wanted to please them, never wanted to hurt them, and there was so much love and wit shared. When I lived in Japan, I spoke to my grandparents more than my parents even, and we all marveled at how I could be oceans away on that other island, and yet sound like there was nothing between us.
My grandparents and their generation in Newfoundland had an experience quite different from most Canadians. Things like cars and televisions came to the island a few decades behind the rest of Canada. Until their children were mostly grown, you could only travel between many communities by boat, and you survived the long winter by freezing and canning and jarring all you could manage to gather in the summer months, because no supply ships could get through. You dressed yourself and your family mostly in clothes you sewed or knit yourself.
When I think about my grandfathers, I think of the most manly men I know: men who built everything from scratch, fixed anything that was broken, caught anything they ate, drove anything that was mobile, skippered ships, and raised barns. But these were also the gentlest of men, men who loved to laugh and yarn, and men whose faces lit up just to see you walk through the door.
When I think of my grandmothers, I think of comfort and duty, and how for many years in Newfoundland, there wasn’t much time to rest or ‘have a spell’ as they said, because there was always so much physical toil. And yet, my grandmothers passed on their skills joyfully. For my Nanny Laing, my last beloved grandparent, and the one I lost just last year, knitting was both work and solace. Although we learned the act of knitting at their knees when we were about 6 years old, it was only in the last several years of my grandmothers’ lives that we began to knit ‘things’.
The photo gallery includes some pictures of those first deeply flawed knitted things, the most obvious example being my first ever pair of mittens. The first mitten was knit perfectly under the watchful eye of my Nanny Stuckless, who rarely needed a pattern and just gave me verbal instructions to remember. Alas, I was on my own for mitten #2 back in Toronto, and the result was in Nanny’s words: “just like a lobster claw!”
The small blanket I knit for my grandfather the year before he died. I remember noticing the mistakes I was making, but having neither the time nor the skill to fix the mistakes to get the gift ready in time for his anniversary. I didn’t mind them so much, though, since I knew that he would be able to see and feel that it was really me who had made this imperfect thing – and that some of those womanly island arts were being passed down after all.
When things on the island opened up and you could buy anything you wanted and drive without difficulty to a big town, some of those artisan and handmade things fell by the wayside for a while, devalued in the face of unlimited commercial options. Now, I think we appreciate again the value of the home made, rare as that is in our plastic world.
Without a grandparent left in the world, we inch closer to our own mortality. Poppy Stuckless, the first to leave us, would have been 101 this week. We raise a glass and eat his favourite Chinese food every year in memory.
I can tell you, they were hard to let go of and I miss my Nannies and Poppies every day; even more, the world with them in it was a less fearful and much brighter place.