What do I want?
My two grandfathers were a study in simultaneous contrast and similarity.
Both were relatively 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.
Yet 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.)
He started his career in a CIL 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.
McMasterville had one thing going for it: 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. He promptly banished it to the attic, in disgust. A reminder of that job was the last thing he wanted. (What were they thinking? That he’d need his briefcase for the commute to the kitchen?) I inherited the briefcase when I started my engineering studies.
He promptly became what’s known as a Lay Reader and Parish Visitor in his local Anglican Church, the tradition in which he was raised.
And then, whether or not he realized it . . . . he came into his own.
He became the 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?” He was greatly loved and appreciated by one and all.
Mm=eanwhile, as the Engineer was soldiering in the dynamite factory . . . .
. . . 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.
Grandpa was amazing. We would spend summer holidays at their cottage at McLaren’s Landing, 45 minutes west of Ottawa. It had innumerable hand-crafted gadgets and maintenance projects around the place, all Grandpa’s work. He was always gleeful when something broke. Awesome, another thing to fix! Where most people groaned, his face would light up.
He rarely talked about his days as a pastor.
And that should have been a clue.
I heard much more from my grandmother about it. 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 in Ottawa. Not long thereafter, clearly battling depression, he was behind the wheel of the car, driving the family near Kemptsville, when they were hit head-on by a drunk driver.
Seat belts? You must be joking.
That accident still casts a long shadows in my family. Everyone was in the car except my aunt and her new husband.
My uncle, then in his mid-teens, suffered terrible burns from the gasoline. I picked him up rececntly, and as we were driving, in the course of conversation he innocuously used the words “the accident”.
The Accident. I knew what he meant.
Sixty years ago.
Not sixty years ago to him.
My grandmother would get out of hospital first. She was then immediately preoccupied with caring for my mom, uncle, and grandfather, who were still in. 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.
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 came home, the church had already hired his replacement. Oh yeah, you. We remember you.
Whether it was in response to that or not, is not known to me. But his reaction was:
You can stick that job where the sun don’t shine.
He never pastored again. His remaining working years were spent as a clerk with the federal government in Ottawa. He was able to retire on cue, with a reasonable pension and the 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 school in their teenage years, were sent by their parents to study for careers to which they were entirely ill-suited. Their natural abilities were not considered, and they themselves were not consulted.
My great-grandparents consulted their friends on what the friends thought ought should be done for their sons.
Both men did not question parental authority, and did as they were told. As you did back then.
And then slaved dutifully in the professions (badly) chosen for them. Because of course, we mustn’t waste Mom and Dad’s money.
The result was: Many years and Much Potential Joy, wasted.
Nobody, neither the boys nor their parents, asked a very important question. I don’t know if it never entered their heads, or if it did but the social mores of the time discouraged its asking.
That question was,
WHAT DO I WANT?
(Poke yourself in the chest.)