My grandparents were deeply in love until death stole him away one afternoon. I believe that massage was a key to their enduring affection: they took it very seriously, an assortment of massage tools occupied every room of their small home. Most of these tools were prehistoric. Some were made of wood: dowels conjoined disparate beads on which grandma or grandpa leaned aching muscles. Other tools were more elaborate, and needed to be plugged into the wall to come alive. One such beast, in particular, comes to mind.
The device was deceptively heavy. It was small enough to be handled by adult hands, but it was insanely and mechanically dense; it weighed at least ten pounds. The machinery inside the massager heated up quickly and smelled like burning hair. Its chord, shrouded in fabric, not plastic plastic. The ungodly noise the machine made, both ominous and oddly soothing, put me to sleep every night I slept over at grandma and grandpa’s.
Massage led to a large brood of children: six in all– five girls and a boy. Every one of my grandparents’ kids had children of their own well before they reached the age of thirty. The townhouse teemed with grandchildren and the mongrel sounds that closely follow wee ones. My grandparents enjoyed their second childhood when in the presence of their grandchildren.
There are pictures of all us grandkids, lined up on the floral chesterfield. If one looks closely at these pictures, our pecking order is obvious. Lisa is the oldest. Her parents are missionaries; their second child, Josh, was born in Sri Lanka only a week after the eldest male cousin, Adam. There was always a rivalry between the boys, because of their close proximity in age.
I am the youngest child in those pictures. My hair was blonde then, and incredibly curly. In most of the shots, I’m picking my nose, evidence of how far back my off-putting habit goes. Even then, I provoked nurturing in the hearts of women. Cousin Lisa would mother me, save me from the bullying of older boy cousins, who made fun of my curls, my clothes and my middle name. I felt safe when Lisa was around.
There was a park at the center of the townhouses. In the summertime, I was allowed to go there so long as I was accompanied by a cousin or two. I remember the slide, the merry-go-round, and the swings. Under the lower mouth of the slide, was a deep rut, a pit filled with mud and bird shit. My cousins and I often came back to my grandparents’ house completely covered in oily sludge and were harshly scolded by our respective parents for tracking it in: our grandparents giggled, and told us not to worry.
I often lied on my back in that park, allowing the ants crawl all over me. I wanted to keep them as pets, even when they started to bite, having grown tired of their forced, forearm domestication. I lay on my back and looked straight up at the firmament, watching intently as the clouds moved slowly against their massive backdrop of sky blue sky. I knew not about death then; I think blue was bluer then.
Death came in November of 1984; my mom still reserves a special hatred for the eleventh month of every year since. My grandfather was only sixty nine when he died. As a child, he was stricken with scarlet fever; his body got so hot it damaged delicate internal organs, especially his heart.
Ten years before grandpa died, he underwent heart surgery. The surgery was scheduled just two weeks before the wedding of his only son. In the late seventies, heart surgery was a brutal procedure; one can almost hear the sound of snapping ribs and the echoing beats of an exposed heart, when the phrase “open heart surgery” is dropped. According to those who attended the wedding, he looked like death as he performed the ceremony.
Grandpa died on a hunting trip. He loved hunting, though as he got older he no longer went for the kill. In his later years, George simply kept the fire burning and made coffee for his only son. On Saturday, grandpa, my uncle Dale, and an old German friend of his were on their way out of the bush. The three of them sang loud, Germanic hymns, filling my uncles cream coloured Dodge Ram 4×4 with song in celebrating a good day in the sticks.
Suddenly, grandpa grabbed his chest and slumped over onto his son’s right shoulder. He died minutes later, after desperate attempts to revive his heart.
We were at my other grandparents’ house that night. It was there where we received the call. I remember my mother bawling; I didn’t understand why. It was the first time I’d ever seen her cry. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t hear what they said from the back of our Volvo on the way home. Mom was too far away to console. The cracked, upholstered seat was incredibly cold. It was a sad night.
I have no memory of the funeral. I imagine flowers, a plain pine casket, and children running everywhere, intuitively doing their best to lighten the mood. My grandfather was a preacher; actually, both of my grandfathers were preachers. I bet the bishop flew into town to attend his funeral.
Grandpa’s death was the first in a long procession of deaths that soon invaded our church like an invisible plague. Nap Sneed was the next to go. Nap was the first black man I ever met; his wife’s family were the first black settlers to reach Alberta– her name was Willa. Nap and Willa had faithfully attended the church for years, she passed away in 2012 at the age of ninety eight, having outlived her husband by several decades as many women seem to do.
I don’t remember Nap, but I remember Willa: she smelled like baby powder. Her house was full of gold records as her son was Three Dog Night’s drummer. Willa’s home breathed music. Sometimes in church, when the congregation had finished singing a hymn she particularly liked, she continued on, leading us to do the same by singing the chorus again in her thin, mercurial voice. It was a haunting voice: a beautiful voice. Willa was one of my favorites. I liked to touch her hair.
I was born into belief. Singing was my favorite thing to do. I mimicked the exaggerated expressions of our preacher as I stood on a piano stool and sang “Praise the Nord”. My childhood was a musical which ran on for years and years.
On my fifth birthday, I received a cheap plastic record player. Though it was a hand-me-down from my second oldest cousin who never used it, the plastic player instantly became my favorite thing. I fell in love with the ritual of dropping the needle on wax. I hid away in my small bedroom closet with the record player and listened to my small collection of records countless times in the dark.
When I visited my aunt and uncle, I was able to be a record. Uncle Dale and Aunt Sandra had modern stereo equipment. In the early eighties, they owned a space-age sound system– all round and modern, the record player’s dust cover was a translucent, half sphere. My uncle took off the cover, placed it on the dining room’s shag carpet with me inside; I started giggling manically even before he set me a’ spin.
I sang on those nights. Aunt Sandra sat in front of the piano, flipping through the red, tattered hymnal to the dog eared songs I’d remembered. And I stood beside her on the birch bench, singing the songs as if drunken.
Praise the Nord, Praise the Nord, let the earth hear his voice,
Praise the Nord, Praise the Nord, let the people ‘ajoice’
All who gathered near knew I would be a preacher someday. It was in my genes. I preached to all who smoked on the street and I preached to my unsaved babysitters; I was captivated by Samson, in love with Jesus.