Saturday, January 29, 2005

The end of an era

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.


Anonymous said...

Sarah, I am so sorry to hear of the sudden loss of your grandfather. He sounds like he was truely an incredible man. During this difficult time take comfort in your family, and your abundance of memories. Thank you for sharing some of them with me here. Thinking of you and sending you an e hug . K from PSTC

Anonymous said...


I share your loss. My grandmother died only about a week ago. She was 90 years old. Still, I wanted to believe she was going to live for another 50. She and my grandfather were married for over 60 years. He passed away suddenly a little over three years ago. Although I will miss them sorely, they’ve left behind a family legacy that will carry on to a new era.

My grandparents were also farmers, albeit from another country. They immigrated to Canada in the 1950s, just after the war. They came to Toronto to start a new life, raise their children and to live in peace. Over the next half-century, they lived to achieve those goals. They worked day and night and, sometimes, night and day. Like yours, my grandparents were hard-working. But work was always a means to an end. Family always came first.

From my first days to my young adulthood, nothing was more important to my grandparents than getting together for Sunday lunches at their place. Everyone was invited: uncles, aunts, cousins, second cousins, friends, etc. It was a weekly state-dinner.
There were so many of us. Despite our numbers, the food was always plentiful and quite simply the most satisfying I’ve ever tasted. That’s because most of it came straight from their backyard garden. When I was toddler, my grandfather would take me back there. He would turn the hose over to me and let me water the vegetables. I was so small and the garden seemed so big. I used to think it was a forest. I would get distracted and forget about the watering. I’m sure I drowned a few crops. If I went back there today, the garden would surely seem smaller.

My parents don’t have a backyard vegetable garden. But more important traditions continue. My wife and I go over to my parents place for Sunday dinner just about every week. The invitees form a smaller group: just me, my wife, my siblings and sometimes the odd friend. Actually, we’re not that small of a group. Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow. One day, it will be my parents turn to host the extended get-togethers. I look forward to that time, when I can bring my children and see them play, learn and, yes, eat with their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, as I did with my own.

Your blog tells many happy memories. “Cow-business” made me laugh out loud.

I hope you feel better.

You’re a great writer.

No doubt, your grandfather remains very proud of you and the rest of your family as you carry on to a new era.

Carrie said...

Sarah, I am so sorry for your loss. Your Grandfather would be happy knowing all of you have come together at this time.

You're not far from me right now actually. I've heard many relatives of ours are buried in Alvinston but haven't gone to check it out yet. You've reminded me so thank you for that. Even under these circumstances, you've helped someone else {hug}

My thoughts are with you and your family.

Anonymous said...

That was a wonderful tribute to your grandfather. Sympathies. -K

Jeff said...

I am so sorry to hear of the loss of your grandfather. After reading your fantastic post, he certainly sounded like an awesome guy! I wish you and your family all the best, and thanks for sharing your memories with us.

Cheers, and take care!

Sarah said...

Thanks everyone (some of you I know, some I don't) for the nice words. It's a lot harder on my mom but we're all good. It's funny how death can be so sad, yet so wonderful at the same time.


Anonymous said...

My condolences as well. He sounded like a textbook-perfect country grandpa. :)

Bill D.

Sarah said...

Thanks :) My grandpa and his farm truly embodied everything that's good about rural Canada.

-- Sarah

thestraightpoop said...

Sarah, I wish I could give you a big hug...I am so sad that your Grandpa died, and that the farm will also die with him. This resonates so deeply with me that I will send my parents a copy of this post.

The magic of a childhood growing up on the family farm is absolutely indescribable to most people, but you put it into real, magical perspective with just a few stories. I have some of my own too, and I am really looking forward to getting together with you and sharing them when we're both back in Vancouver.

So for now, a warm hug from San Francisco and I promise, see you before April!


P.S. Some people will do anything to get out of a retreat on Bowen Island.

Haaa not funny, sorry.


maple00leaf said...


These are very kind words about Grandpa and I am thinking how the whole experience is almost surreal. Instead of sadness,it truly was a celebration of his life, life on the farm and a great family bonding experience (especially for those cousins!). The land is a bond among us. It was good seeing you again, although I wish it had been under very different circumstances. Take care. Aunt DIG

Sarah said...

Hi Aunt Deb,

Yes, there were some really great moments over the weekend. It was so great to see all the Gray kids (everyone's so old now!) and you and Uncle John. It's been way too long. Perhaps we should have a family reunion, but under happier circumstances.

-- Sarah

Anonymous said...

Sarah, It was nice to meet you again. I thought your Dad did a wonderful job with the eulogy.

When I read about your Friday night with the cousins, it made me think of the times that the twelve Gray cousins(your Mom, and aunt and uncles; Uncle Ed and Aunt Ruth's kids; and me) got together in that
house - although we certainly were not allowed to drink beer! And of course your Grandpa and his sisters and brother had a huge raft of cousins too.

I work in a living history museum, and in a couple of weeks we will be starting our maple syrup program. My first maple experience was as a kid, in your Grandfather's bush, so I will be thinking of him as we tap our trees.

Your first cousin once removed,


Sarah said...

Hi Janet,

Thanks for that. I had forgotten about the maple syrup! I used to drink that stuff straight out of the taps on the trees, until grandpa busted me!

It was nice seeing everyone again.

-- Sarah

Anonymous said...

Sarah: We have been reading your account of grandpa's farm and grandchildrens' experiences. Brings back memories. I didn't hear all the stories and I am sure there is quite a few more that you wouldn't tell Grandma or Grandpa. When you get 15 grandchildren on their own, lots of stories will surface.

Thanks for all of your replies to Sarah's memories. I am going to try to be a grandmother to all our sons and daughters' family.

Til we see you again, Grandma Gray

Anonymous said...

add-on from Grandma:

Grandpa and I didn't realize we were living in the dark ages, we just carried on. He looked after the farm and I always prepared good meals for him and looked forward to the family coming to see us. We didn't think we were deprived of any comforts, we had hydro and TV and running water (if it didn't freeze). We were certainly proud of our family and their prodigy, which will be a living legacy to us.

and from Anne:
Nice entry Sarah, lots of good times and laughs at the farm. Grandma has found a very comfortable spot in Alvinston and she didn't have to bring the tennis racket under the bed to ward off the bats. Produce from last summer's garden is in the new pantry, including potatoes and onions, carrots, beets and lots of preserves and don't forget the maple syrup!

Sarah said...

Thanks Grandma (and Anne),

I didn't realize you knew how to use a computer, Grandma :) Or did Anne help you with that? I'm impressed.

Hope to see you at Christmas, if not sooner (ie. the spring or summer).

Love, Sarah

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone: It's Bonnie signing in from Edmonton. Thanks to Janet for the link. I too am going to miss knowing that "the farm" is still in business. I haven't had a chance to write to anyone although I sent Judith an email (to the wrong address so she doesn't have it yet). I just want you all to know that I shed some tears for Uncle Don all the way out here in the Great White North.

I'm with Janet..I somehow can't believe that all the grandchildren were drinking beer in the house!!! I still remember the first time my Grandpa Gray found out that Pierre (Perdu is what he called him..grandpa didn't speak French!) had brought beer into the house...there was grumbling that day.

I was thinking that it would be maple syrup time in the next month or so. I remember spending time in the bush and Uncle Don using Queen and Tom to pull the sledge. you remember the skunk cabbage? Also, the gourmet delicacy of cans of pork and beans cooked in the boiling seemed like Uncle Don used to practically live in the sugar shanty.

I just wanted to add a posting and say hi to you all. I was looking forward to seeing everyone later this year and will see whoever is in the area in May. Hang on to the memories.


Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah. We had beer in the watertrough at our wedding 30 years ago. So there have perhaps been a few more skeletons coming out of the Gray homestead closets. Speaking of closets, Bonnie...

Respectfully, Aunt Judith

Anonymous said...

Hey sarah thanks, thats very nice of you of you to write thoughs kind words about Gramdpa and the farm. It was good see everyone but bad under thoughts circumstances. Hope we can all get together some time soon, we have some BTUing to talk over for next year.

Thanks Bradley
Team BTU to the Max!!

Sarah said...

Bonnie, Aunt Judy, Brad...

Thanks for writing. My dad loves telling the story about how he brought a case of beer to the farm on his first trip home with my mom while they were dating. Don't forget to email me some of the pictures Amy took.