What do I want?
What do I want? What a question. How dare you!
My two grandfathers were a study in simultaneous contrast and similarity.
Both were quiet, introverted men.
Happy to sit in the background and watch the world go by.
Happy to let their wives do the talking. (My grandmothers needed little urging in this regard.)
Risk-averse, play-it-safe, obey-the-rules.
Yet in other ways, they were opposites. One was sure of himself, sure of the ground he stood on and the convictions that had always stood him in good stead.
The other? Sure of little, if anything.
One a professional engineer, who should have been a pastor. (And late in life, became one.) The other a career pastor, who should have been an engineer.
The Engineer was utterly useless as a handyman or general household fix-it man. (To my grandmother’s chagrin. And that of his father, a Sussex-apprenticed carpenter.)
- Grandad started his career in an explosives plant near McMasterville, Quebec. In 1929, he was fired when he refused to falsify production records to make the foreman look good in front of his superiors.
As far as he was concerned, McMasterville had only one thing going for it, but it was a good thing:
He met my grandmother.
The next 10 years was a collection of jobs doing whatever he could find, in various places. Sudbury, Toronto, Temiscamingue, Buffalo, Quebec City.
He always referred to that period by the same expression: The Dirty Thirties.
He eventually found job security, which by then seemed awfully important, with the federal government in Ottawa.
When he retired from his job as national exposives inspector, on cue at age 65, they gave him a briefcase with his initials on it. Which he promptly banished to the attic, in disgust.
What were they thinking? That I’d need a briefcase for the commute to the kitchen?
He promptly became what’s known as a Lay Reader and Parish Visitor (read: part-time pastor) in his local Anglican Church, the tradition in which he (and my father, and I) was raised.
And that's when, whether he realized it or not . . . . he finally found his calling.
He became the church rector’s right arm and go-to guy.
He would visit the sick and elderly, and be the taxi service when then needed a ride to the doctor’s, to the hospital, to church on Sunday morning. Or when they just needed a listening ear.
When the phone rang, it was often, “Is Henry available?”
Greatly loved and respected by one and all.
It had been a long road from the dynamite factory in McMasterville.
And while the Engineer had been soldiering with cordite . . . .
. . . the Pastor was being besieged by . . . . whoever happened to be on the warpath that day.
Might have been the Ladies’ Sewing Circle. Or the church warden. Dunno.
He was just being interrupted constantly.
My Grandpa was amazing. We would spend summer holidays at their cottage 45 minutes west of Ottawa, surrounded by innumerable hand-crafted gadgets and maintenance projects, all Grandpa’s work.
He was always gleeful when something broke. Awesome, another thing to fix!
When most people would groan, his face would light up.
In divinity school (I know. But that's what they called it) at McGill University, he rigged pulleys in his dorm room, so that he could turn the light switch on and off without having to get out of bed.
An engineer who can't fix anything. A mechanical-wizard divinity student, who can't preach his way out of a paper bag.
It's enough to make you smack your head, and go AAAARRRRRRRGGGGHHH . . . .
Grandpa rarely talked about his days as a pastor. I heard more about it from my grandmother.
Had I been older, I would have recognised that as a clue.
The only thing I remember him saying was, “In THAT church, they patted themselves on the back if they had paid the pastor his full salary by February of the following year.”
In the mid-1950’s, after three pastorates in Quebec, he moved the family to a new charge (read: pastor job) in Ottawa.
Not many months later, and clearly battling depression, he was in the car driving the family near Kemptsville, when they were struck head-on by a drunk driver.
Seat belts? You must be joking.
That accident still casts a long shadow in my family. Everyone was in the car except my aunt and her husband, who had just recently married.
(My uncle, still a teenager, suffered terrible burns from the gasoline. I visited him recently, and as we were driving, in the course of conversation he innocuously used the words “the accident”.
The Accident. I knew what he meant.
The Accident was over sixty years ago.
But not to him.
Grandma would get out of hospital first. What health and strength she had was immediately spent caring for my mom, uncle, and grandfather, who were all still in.
My Mom suffered severe concussion and a fractured leg. (She has a slight limp to this day). She was out after four months, my uncle not long after.
Grandpa was in hospital for thirteen months.
A year. Thirteen freakin’ months.
His internal injuries were disastrous. The docs figured he was a goner.
Then, incredibly, Some Great Physician intervened. The organs that the quacks had written off began to recover.
(It's an incredible story, too long to recount here. The Great Physician, in fact, had arranged for his recovery way back when Grandpa was in the womb. Another day.)
The Grandpa I knew as a boy showed no visible ill effects. He would hoist me on his shoulders, somersault me over his head time and again, and build campfires with me at the cottage.
Key word there: visible.
When he finally got home from the hospital, the church had already hired his replacement. Oh yeah, you. We remember you. Sorry. Guess we should have told you.
Whether it was in response to that discovery or not, I don't know. But Grandpa's reaction was:
That's okay. You can stick that job where the sun don’t shine.
He never pastored again. (Although he and Grandma remained faithful United Church members to their dying days.)
What working years he had left, were spent clerking with the federal government in Ottawa. He was able to retire on cue at 65, with a reasonable pension, and with the insurance payout from the accident lawsuit.
It is only now that I am in my 50’s that I realize . . . .
. . . . the tragedy my two grandfathers unwittingly personified.
Both men, as they finished high school, were prepared for careers to which they were entirely ill-suited.
At considerable expense to their parents.
Their natural abilities do not appear to have been considered.
Neither man was even consulted.
In fact, from what I know, their parents consulted their own friends on what should be done for their sons.
Neither man questioned the choices made for them. Neither man questioned parental authority.
They did as they were told. It seems that's what you did back then. To do otherwise was tantamount to ingratitude.
And of course, we mustn't be ungrateful. We mustn’t waste Mom and Dad’s money.
They slaved dutifully, uncomplaining, in the professions (badly) chosen for them.
My Grandad never said, This is madness.
My Grandpa eventually did, but only at the point of death.
Many years . . . .
. . . . and Much Potential Joy . . . .
Nobody, neither the boys nor their parents, asked a very important question.
Maybe it never entered their heads. Or it did, but the social mores of the time beat it out of them.
And we are in terrible danger, in this day and age, of allowing it to be beaten out of us.
That question was . . . . and is . . . .
WHAT DO I WANT?
(Poke yourself in the chest, as you look in the mirror.)