A family story

I pulled a slim black book down from my shelves tonight and turned it to a familiar page. My great uncle wrote it a few years ago. It's the story of his life as a farmer in southwestern Ontario. Great Uncle Reid farmed alongside his brother Elbert, my grandfather. Grandpa appears quite a bit in its pages. As do their parents.

Here's the passage I read:

"Ma took a cerebral hemorrhage and died March 19, 1950. She died the day before my birthday and was buried the day after my birthday.

"At this time Ada came home and looked after Pa until he passed away February 11, 1953. Elbert and I were cutting Max Dawson's bush off into fifty-six inch bolts for pallets. The steering on Max's tractor broke and we were repairing it for him in our shop. Pa sat on a big block of wood by the fire watching us and reading a magazine, telling us some of what he was reading. We finished the tractor.

"Elbert and Max had gone home and Pa and I were going to the house side by side, when Pa just stopped and tipped over. He actually died standing up and fell. This had been one of his better days. Our mailmen, Ira Liddle, and George Bell were just pulling up to our mail box and saw him fall. They rushed over, loosened his shirt collar but he wasn't breathing at this time. We carried him in the house and called Dr. McLean. The doctor said he had died standing up."

I can hear my 93-year-old uncle saying this as I read it. It is written very much the way he speaks, the combination of long sentences followed by a short sentences. The latter more for verbal punctuation than for content.

Such a small amount of text about these important events. Especially for Ma (my great-grandmother).

I have never stood in the spot where my great-grandfather died, but I have watched it happen many times. I've seen the block of wood Pa sat on as he leafed through his magazine. I've listened as my grandfather and great-uncle, in turns, humour and find humour in the bits Pa found too interesting not to share. I have walked on the snow beside my great-grandfather and suddenly realized he has not only has fallen behind, but has fallen down. I have asked Pa over and over if he's alright, knowing full well he was dead even before Ira and George arrive from the truck they've left parked beside the mailbox. I have thought how useless it is to loosen the shirt collar of a man who is obviously not with us anymore.

In the long version of this story told to me one afternoon in my parents' kitchen, the work on the tractor is completed just after eleven o'clock. It's too early for lunch, but there's not enough time to make it back to Max's farm before Ada has the sandwiches ready in the house. The boys discuss using the tractor to finally get rid of that old oak tree they've been vowing for years to cut down. It's in the way, taking up good land.

Just as they decide that's what they'll do, Pa's enthusiasm for the job fades. He decides they should go in early for lunch. He doesn't look well.

If I remember correctly, they never did take down that tree. It was still there 23 years later when they sold the farm. There was no sentimental reason why they left it standing. The boys just never got around to cutting it down.

6 comments:

Jordan said...

Yay family history stories!

Craig Wesley said...

Nice one, Dave. Such a *Canadian* story, too...don't you agree? You're so lucky to have such chronicles, as are your own children...gives you a better sense of who you are.

Dave Atkinson said...

What a curious comment. What would make this Canadian?

(And it is amazing you refer to this as a chronicle -- the name of Reid's book is "Chronicles")

Craig Wesley said...

You grew up in such places, Dave, so it might not strike you as abnormal, this sense of rurality as late as the 1950s (the decade in which I was born). When I think of Canada, it's not Vancouver or Winnipeg, but places like those being described in this story.

Dave Atkinson said...

Fascinating. I think that's the Canada being reflected most often in Canadian literature, too. Funny how we define ourselves by a reality that is a couple of generations old.

Craig Wesley said...

Or, funny that the denizens of such a relatively young country are by nature born old...