I’m in Toronto right now. I flew in on Thursday for my grandfather’s funeral, which was held in Alvinston, Ontario, yesterday.
My grandfather died suddenly and unexpectedly on Tuesday. He was at home, on the farm, fixing the washing machine when he collapsed. My grandmother was with him when it happened. She called 911 but my grandfather never regained consciousness and died before the paramedics arrived.
My grandfather may have been 84 but we all thought he had at least another 10 years in him. He was incredibly strong and healthy. He still worked the 400-acre farm that has been in his family for three generations.
My grandparents were farmers from a different era. They made a modest living planting and harvesting soybeans and corn, and raising cows, pigs and chickens in southwestern Ontario for almost 60 years. They never sought to accumulate wealth or acquire material goods. If my grandfather’s boot leaked, he would cover it with a plastic bag and tie it up around his leg. My grandparents lived simply and humbly with a deep connection to the land.
My grandfather was proud of his orchard, which was filled with an abundance of apples, pears, plums and cherries. He also took pride in his garden, where he grew beans, potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, onions, grapes, rhubarb, raspberries and carrots, just to name a few. My grandmother raised four children (including my mom) and still found time to make every meal from scratch.
It was hard, grueling work that started at sunrise and lasted well past sunset. They still lived in the same house that my grandfather was born in and that was built by his grandfather in 1860. Somehow, it’s still standing. The porch is sagging, bricks are falling out, it’s not insulated and the windows aren’t glazed. Dishes are still washed by hand in a tub full of water heated on the wood stove.
Now that my grandfather has died, the farm will slowly die along with him. My grandmother is unable to run the place on her own and will move into a seniors’ apartment in town. The farm will eventually be sold, the house torn down.
It’s hard to capture the essence of my grandparents and the farm. In a way, I grew up there. I spent weekends and summers there. I may have lived in Toronto but my heart belonged on the farm. It was where I truly felt at home.
Now, the entire family has flown in from across Canada and the United States to be together to say goodbye to my grandfather and the farm.
After the funeral, all of the grandchildren spent one last night at the farm to drink beer, share memories and stoke the fire. The farmhouse is heated by a wood furnace so our night revolved around finding wood, chopping wood and burning wood. We had to stoke the furnace every two hours around the clock to keep the house warm.
It took 12 of us (ranging in age from 17 to 30) to stoke the fire, a job my grandfather did by himself every day, several times a day. And still we managed to screw it up. We filled the house with thick, black smoke and couldn’t quite get the temperature above cold and drafty.
Somehow my grandfather managed to get the temperature upstairs well into the 90s before we all went to bed. My mom would crack open the double hung windows even when it was minus 20 outside.
So all the cousins spent Friday night on the farm, huddled around the kitchen table in our winter jackets and toques. We talked and laughed well into the night. We listened to classic rock on the radio, which my grandfather used for the sole purpose of listening to the crop reports on AM radio. It was possibly the first time anyone listened to FM radio in the house. We also found a box of Kraft Dinner that was best before 1988 in the cupboard while looking for popcorn. We took turns peeing outside because the pipes were frozen and there was no water.
Stoking the fire became more fun, and more dangerous, the more beer we drank. We even started counting down the seconds to the next stoke as if we were counting down to New Year's Day. My cousin Bradley decided we should call ourselves the BTU club and said he'd make up t-shirts for Christmas.
Our grandfather always made us feel like we weren’t always the brightest grandchildren around. He was probably right.
One summer, my cousin Amy and I lassoed a runt. We babied that pig. We fed it and cuddled it and snuck it into the house. My grandfather humoured us for about three days and then killed the pig because in his world, pigs are not pets and the runt was going to die anyway. We were sad for about a minute and then went right back to playing in the barn and jumping in the hay.
My sisters and I liked to entertain the cows. Jane would lure the cows into the barn with hay and when there were enough of them standing around, I’d jump into the wooden feed trough and march up and down the length of the barn dancing and singing “There’s no business like cow business.”
They were a captive audience, staring at us with their big, bulbous eyes and mouths agape. One time I decided to reward them by giving them all 50 heads of cabbage my grandfather had stored in the barn for the winter. I was happy, the cows were happy. Then the cows weren’t so happy and neither was my grandfather. He wasn’t normally a man of many words, but he was that day. It took him a good year to forgive me. And all was well once again.
My dad always liked to take some of my grandfather’s firewood for the fireplace at our home in Toronto. We always ended up driving back home with our suitcases jammed under our feet because the trunk would be full of wood – beech, cherry, hard maple, oak, ash and even ironwood. I hope my dad lights a fire tonight. When the smoke wafts though the screen, a little piece of grandpa and the farm will be there with us.