My pedestal is hitched in history. What I remember is a personal, historical memory. Words change, images contort and visceral etchings contain them, conform them to a specific, actual, descriptive point. Clouded, here I am alone, wandering at the point.
Her face sinks, crumples and fades. All that life has to offer her now are in her eyes and in her lips. She still stares keenly; she still compels wit. Though her memory is as collapsed as her face, she fights it, repeats it as necessary. She is my grandmother and I know so little about her.
He is too focused on his next breath to apprehend the sounds around him. All that life has to offer him now are in his lip hidden, food savoring teeth and wobbly, obstructed feet. The growing deafness tightens his sagging, thin cheeks and wide, curious eyes. He is my grandfather and I know so little about him.
The past that I am, I am: undiscovered personal history that has gone before and will continue to go before. It is crumbling. Its shape has no definite outline. I trace what remains.
As far as I can gather – and my gathering skills are not that far – my grandparents, on my mother’s side, came to Canada as young children from Germany. I think Germany only because my mother said that I was more German than English, as my siblings and I were determined to cheer for England at the world cup. My father, you see, has English blood in him. Although his mother’s family came from Ukraine, his father’s family is several generations Canadian, which, because they don’t speak French or have a French sounding last name, almost certainly means their lineage stems from England.
My maternal grandparents met, in Speedwell, Saskatchewan, a fact I remember (despite my mother’s occasional reminders) only because Rudy Wiebe grew up in Speedwell and wrote one sentence about my grandfather in his biography “Of This Earth.” Do you see how little I know? Even if I asked little would come. Though I do remember my grandfather’s favorite story which, before his hearing declined, I would often encourage him to retell. When he was a child, his neighbors found an orphaned bear cub and decided to raise it. By the time my grandfather was twelve it was as tame as it was ever going to be. One day, my grandfather was invited to his neighbors’ house for lunch. Before they could eat, however, the bear, in front of everyone, swiped his paw in the butter. Ending the story with a knowing pause and pointed finger, my grandfather would contort a grand smile, while punching the final line with a coughing chortle, “You can be sure I didn’t have any butter with my bread!”
My grandma didn’t tell stories. She prayed. Before enclosing her angular fingers and bowing her suspended head, she would reveal an extensive grin as if hidden somewhere in prayer or praying was an expectant joke: someone so little and ratty communing with a definite someone so high and mighty. Then she would whisper quietly and quickly, opening her eyes contently, watching her young grandchildren gorge upon her laboriously prepared wareneki.
Upon its first taste, my stomach knew immediately the historicity of food. My grandmother’s mother prepared the same dish for her and my grandmother’s mother’s mother did the same as my mother does the same for her children. Every bite is drenched in gooey, sloppy historical process. A process kneaded in worn hands genetically passed through generations of duty bound Mennonites.
I am a Mennonite. More honestly, I am half-Mennonite. My mother broke with family tradition and married a non-Mennonite. My parents only hint at my grandparents’ reluctance yet acceptance of the marriage. For me, it means I get all the gorgeous fatty foods without all the duty and reserve that comes with it.
Duty wears us all. Reserve is its inheritance. It is difficult to speak to my grandparents now, except for the occasional question of clarity of who and what I am. I answer dutifully and reservedly. My grandfather forces his ears to strain to hear the ground he knows sounds are treading. My grandmother forces her wit into all conversation, though she does not know the ground she treads.
“What’s that?” she says.
“Ear rings I gave your daughter,” my uncle says.
“Are you two in love?”
“I’ve got stuff in my ears.”
My grandfather is with my grandmother as a constant. If he is not present, life is awry and she thwarts it. Once my uncle convinced him to leave my grandma behind and travel with him and his wife to Hawaii. My mother occupied my grandma while grandpa was gone. My grandma became convinced my mother was playing a devilish trick on her and that not only had grandpa died but that my father had also died and they were two widows living in a home. When my grandpa finally returned, grandma was sleeping. He subtly changed in the bathroom and very quietly slipped into bed. Grandma stirred and said, “Aren’t you going to turn off the light?”
I visited them once on my own – without the trappings family. I was struggling to live in Tsawwassen. It was a half an hour away from Ladner where my mother and her siblings convinced my grandparents to move into an elder’s care facility. I tried calling my grandparents before I came, but despite my shouts my grandfather could not hear my request. So, I called the front desk and told them to tell my grandparents I was coming for lunch. It was here, despite knowing my mother’s renderings, that I asked them about their history. It was here they spoke about normal school and making the move to Vancouver from Speedwell. It was here my grandfather repeated his famous bear and butter story. It was then I heard my grandmother say grace for the last time.
She breathed heavily, “Dear God,” suspending heaving words, “thank you,” heavier breath sonorous, “Amen.”
I asked them questions. My grandpa answered. My grandmother ate. Praying allowed her the privilege to bless a meal and conversation she would scarcely take part in. When she did speak it was short sentences, repeated often.
“Who are you?”
“I am Ian, your grandson.”
“What do you do?”
“I don’t do anything right now.”
“Is that why you won’t smile?”
I smiled then. “I suppose my face is long.”
I see the labor my mother confronts. Those labors may come to me to inherit. My parents may forget who I am. I may, despite being their son, have to remind them of who I am just as they remind their parents of who they are.
Sixty years in marriage, my grandparents still love. Each year a fulfillment of their promise. Each year a deterioration of the memory of that promise. Each year a firm resolve to forge the remaining memory and remain constant. Without memory love is a guess and then a hope.
Before the casual, repetitious questions and ear stricken confusion, my cousins and aunts and uncles would annually gather into my grandparents’ paint peeling, old folk smelly house in Tsawwassen. One night, as I was on the cusp of reaching a double digit age, each of the grandchildren were awakened by the boiling, bursting conversation in the living room. As we crept upstairs, my grandma shouted and then my aunts shouted. Possibly others. Someone slapped someone. The grandchildren hid listening, sinking into walls, crumpling under chairs, fading into corners.
My family often talks about that night, my older brother filling in details my mother won’t. My mother says it was the beginning of my grandmother’s dementia and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
In the car, riding home from a visit to Banff. Grandma looking out the window, pointing at a cloud, giggling.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud.”
Twenty seconds later, Grandma looking. Out the window. Pointing. At a cloud.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud.”
Then thirty seconds later, Grandma. Looked. Out. Pointing.
“I wondered lonely as a cloud.”
It starts early. I am only twenty-nine and I forget my closest friends names. I know I know them, but I don’t. I stutter, then, suddenly, it comes. I forget what my girlfriend looks like and, while waiting to meet her, I do not go to her until she comes to me. I forget that I shower. Did I shave? Are my teeth brushed? Shall I pray now?