So I was diving off the raft at the McConnell place, up at Little Cedar Lake (Lac aux Cèdres, en français, near Maniwaki, and God sue me, people, but I’m too lazy to look up the French html accent codes) when I thought I saw my cousin Michael on the shore. Michael, who was supposed to be in Ottawa, so of course I already knew. I was 11 years old at the time. I swam to shore, and “It’s Da,” said Michael, but of course I already knew. I kicked a stone with my bare foot, and I was glad to feel that it hurt, because nothing could ever hurt me again like Da leaving me like that.
He was not demonstrative, Da, he was quite canny and cagey in his loyalties and affections. But once when I was very, very young and he had had a few and was playing his fiddle, I was his girl. His “wee darlin’” he once called me when I was two or three years old, and this I still remember.
He died at St. Patrick’s Home on Riverside Dr. in Ottawa, which I’ve only recently realized was meant as “a House of Refuge for the Irish Poor,” which was run by the Grey Sisters. But I guess I always knew what it meant, even when I was very young.
There was this old man Sammy at St. Pat’s, who used to shuffle down the hall toward us, and my sisters and I, we felt embarrassed to see him, with the unthinking and unreflective conceit of the very young; but our father said, “Have a bit of decency!” He was an old man, was Sammy, and his parents off the boat from Galway or Mayo or one of those places, and then who knows how or why he ended up at this “House of Refuge”? He used to reach out toward us with this ghastly grin on his face, and offer us some humbugs.
The smell of stale tobacco, and of humbug candy that had first softened and then hardened into a faintly acrid but cloyingly sweet aroma. A musty old missal, well-thumbed, and Da’s rosary, of jet-black beads that I thought of as so masculine when I was so very young. A man’s beads. There is nothing like that in the world anymore, where religiosity is now coded as feminine.
“She’s got a good head on her shoulders,” my grandfather once conceded of me, and higher praise I’m sure I will never know. Da was a man of few words, who would not suffer fools gladly.
It is a true sorrow to grow old and die, because you have to leave the ones you love; but better to have a grandchild who refuses to forget you than to be consigned to the dustbins of history, surely?
The face of Sammy shuffling down the corridor, and the jet-black beads of my grandfather’s rosary.