A Townhouse on the Hill

The memories I have of my grandparents’ townhouse are among my most valuable intangible possessions. Full of colour, sound, flavour and texture, these memories have kept me company ever since my grandmother moved out of the place in the winter of 1984 when my grandfather died suddenly. The townhouse was a humble abode, ultimately destined to be bulldozed in order to make room for the luxurious condos that now peer down at a small tributary of the Bow River on Calgary’s Northeast side. I make a pilgrimage to the spot every time I go back home.

There was a pool table in the basement, so that’s where the men and the children spent most of their time. My grandfather had taken up the game in his retirement: he preferred eight ball to snooker, and was impossible to beat. I remember well my uncle’s frustration as his father beat him game after game. I was too small to play. The cues were off limits to me and the other kids, so I resigned myself to playing with cubes of chalk instead; my fingertips were blue within minutes of descending those stairs.

I spent most of my time underneath the pool table. I watched the legs of my father, various uncles and grandfather frantically circle around me, only stopping momentarily to line up a shot. I would try to guess, based on the position of any given pair of legs, which of the pockets would quiver under the weight and velocity of polished ivory. In time, my predictions became startlingly accurate.

These games were often cut short, however, by the aroma of sausage and fried potatoes which would waft down the wooden stairs, my grandmother’s unspoken call to dinner. Ours is a family which loves to eat. We were organic way before it became trendy to be organic; the men of the family were comprised of avid hunters, fisherman and farmers.

In the summer, our menu consisted mostly of fish and rice. My grandfather left me an inheritance of rusty spoons, betraying his longstanding love for a sport, most solitary. His legacy, a legacy of five-o-diamonds, jigs and plugs was given to me, the youngest of his massive brood of grandchildren at the time of his death; I look at those lures often. He loved to fish. The bow of his tin boat bounced upon the waves of every Albertan lake. He ran his small outboard into the water. Most of his lures were built with pike in mind, he called those fish “little sharks”.

Winter promised the smell of a different, and less noxious form of flesh. From late October to Christmas day, a large sheet of plywood sat atop my grandfather’s pool table. The plywood, in turn, was covered with brown, waxed butcher paper, and used as a makeshift butcher’s block. That table bore the tremendous weight of Winter’s spoils. That table transformed a multitude of deer, elk, moose and sometimes even bear into roasts, steaks and sausage as the men loudly celebrated by singing hymns in German and English.

I remained underneath that table. I collected the odd piece of flesh that fell to the floor. I rolled the scraps between my thumb and index finger, breathing deeply the heady, wild fragrance. I remember marveling at how the grinders, which were bolted to the edge of that table, would process all that meat: spices were added and, combined with pork and fat, eaten raw to test the mix. I was not allowed to partake of this feast, for fear of sickness. My stomach wasn’t strong enough yet.

There’s more. For instance, my grandparents took massage very seriously. An assortment of massage tools occupied every room of their small home. Some of these tools looked prehistoric. Dowels conjoined disparate beads on which one leaned aching muscle, instantly relieving one’s strain or stiffness. Other tools were more elaborate, and needed to be plugged into the wall to come alive. One of these, in particular comes to mind.

The device was deceptively heavy. It was small enough to be easily handled by an adult hand, but it was insanely dense; it probably weighed five pounds. The machinery inside the massager heated up quickly and smelled like burning hair. Its chord was wrapped in fabric instead of plastic. The noise which emanated from the machine, both ominous and oddly soothing, put me to sleep every night I slept over at grandma and grandpa’s.

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