Just My Life
By Michael Fenske
As she rests her head Gwen Thomas, my Granny, ever a woman of grace, looks to me through the exhaustion, with eyes more alive than the whole of my being; those same eyes being held in a body without the life to match them.
“Dear boy” She says, “It’s amazing how it all happens so fast. I’ve had such a good life, and I’ve been very happy.”
We discuss Granddad and Jimmy, how she’ll see them soon. A smile grows on her face that rivals the enthusiasm of a child enamoured with the unknown, for this is a woman brought to peace by the certainty of what has yet to come.
Her only regret, if one could call it such a thing, is that she hasn’t finished documenting her life story, (a project she’s been in the process of collating) and this is the subject where our conversation lingers, and grows.
Stories are the currency of time upon which I was raised. While no single mentor, parent, or guardian necessarily sought to impart that ideology upon me, it is the one through-line of communication that holds true for every person dear to me, whether they know it or not. Great people with great minds have created wonders, and built empires, but it is the storytellers who shape lives. It’s storytellers who safeguard our history.
Granny was a storyteller, like the best of them.
She tells me that she has documented her life up until the advent of her grandchildren. Time has run out for her to tell the rest, but she offers that her story really became ours long ago anyway, and so then the time is now ours to tell it.
Of the stories she recounted with me, most I had heard a number of times, But there were a few I’d either not heard before, or knew of only as a series facts, devoid of emotional context. In my final conversations with her, Granny could barely muster the energy to talk. But it was when she started telling her stories that I saw her come back to life; saw her smile manifest into that radiant energy that she would betray unapologetically when she saw one of her grandchildren, or when granddad made her laugh as he did so effortlessly.
Gran didn’t know why these stories came to mind, and felt they weren’t really connected to any larger narrative, and yet they came to her nonetheless. “I don’t know why I remember them, They’re just my life. ”
“That” I said, “is the only reason that matters.”
And so she told me.
And so I will share with you now.
Story 1: The Tent Under the Tree
She was a child, very young, playing in her backyard. Her father, Mr. Smith, had built a tent for her and her siblings to play in. They would pretend that it was a house filled with furniture. And had brought from the house a pot filled with water; imagining (as children do) they were boiling potatoes, while munching on crackers and snacks that had been foraged from the pantry.
Their tent was placed under a tree that extended from the neighbour’s yard, and in it Freddie, the nasty little neighbour boy, would bark and jeer at little Gwen and her siblings. Freddie was a known trouble maker, goaded by his troubled mother who would encourage him to lash out. Typically it had been Gwen’s sister ‘Ruthie’ who would effectively stand up for her brother and fight, much to the frustration and embarrassment of Freddie and his mother, who would only goad him further.
“Get her Freddy, she’s Just a girl.”
On this particular day Freddie had once again taken his post in the tree, bravely jeering beyond the reach of ‘Ruthie’s’ right hook, when the weight of his frame became too much for his perch, and found himself, ass first, in the pot of water filled with imaginary potatoes. The embarrassment of a damp bottom, and the shock of the fall led to him running away crying. Although the implications that more hurtful words and feelings may have been exchanged than ought to have been, seems evident, as the understanding was that Mr. Smith would be home in a matter of hours bearing potentially ominous consequences upon his arrival.
But the evening came, and no punishments were doled out by Mr. Smith; Merely a trip over to the neighbours house, and conversation between him and Freddie’s father that led to ‘an understanding’ that Freddie would no longer be a problem to contend with. The tent, it would seem, was the only the casualty of war, as its days beneath the tree were brought to an end.
Story 2: The Fancy Bible
Granny was always keenly aware of her spiritual needs. And that desire for growth was never more true than when she really wanted something.
While at bible camp Young Gwen had come to discover an item for sale at the store. Specifically a king James Leather-bound bible with a textured cover, and gold trim.
[ Now I’m not sure if she misremembered the cost, But Gran recalls that this particular edition came with a price tag of $6. I personally did some rudimentary follow-up research, which has led me to understand that in the 1940’s $6 would have amounted to roughly $100 today.]
Regardless, it was more money than young Gwen had with her, and so took the liberty of writing to her father, informing him of the meticulously crafted printing of the scriptures which she’d happened upon, and expressing her convictions that it was something Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and by extension God, would probably want her to have.
The particulars of when or how young Gwen ever did get her dream bible remain a bit foggy. My conversation with Granny lead me to understand that she did not get that particular copy, but did eventually receive a similar one down the line. Whereas other accounts indicate that Granddad Smith found young Gwen’s argument undeniably compelling, and sent her the necessary funds.
I find the second version to be a more satisifying conclusion, and given Granddad Smith’s propensity for serving as a vessel of gift based answers-to-prayer (as per the much lauded “ice skates anecdote” that all in the family had doubtless heard at least once), I’m inclined to let my bias accept this as the truth.
Story 3: Political Convictions
The need to choose ones words carefully is never more important than when one discusses politics. Especially when one’s parents have company over for dinner, and all the more so when such words are not the sort used in polite society, except perhaps under the most grave of circumstances. In young Gwen’s mind, ‘Bugger’ was such a word, and so she did abstain from frivolous usage of such language for much of her life. It would seem, however, that she was decidedly open to the possibility that such a time may come when that word would not only be appropriate, but even necessary.
And so it was at dinner one evening that her parents had set upon a political discussion with their guests about one Adolf Hitler. Young Gwen had recently learned of this terrible man, likely from a combination of school and her parents, and had come to understand that he was every bit the maniac that people described. While listening to the discourse of the adults Young Gwen, resolved to make an impression, and feeling now was such a time to stand by her convictions did confidently proclaim “Hitler’s just a Bugger!”
Granny described to me the deafening silence that overtook the room, for her aspirations in making an impression had unmistakably succeeded. Equally successful was the early bed time she received, and a stern understanding that perhaps Hitler’s more distinguished qualities need not be spoken of further. Although, I personally can’t help but to feel that she had made a salient point.
Story 4: Christmas with Jimmy
Jimmy must have been only 2. Granddad had made from scratch a small toy tractor. He had painted it maroon, and given it silver highlights to help accentuate its authenticity. Additionally, he had made a small model of a barn, replete with a bull secured by chain, a feeding trough to nourish it, and the various farming amenities one might find therein. Love and craftsmanship were put into this small recreation.
Granny recalls as the small Toddler sat between them in the bed on Christmas morning, voraciously tearing chunks of parchment paper away to reveal the contents inside. She recalls as Jimmy’s small body shook with excitement and delight as he discovered the labours of Granddad’s handiwork. And most prominently, she recalls the look on her young husband’s face, as he beamed with joy at his own son’s delight.
I had never heard this account before, by all measures its one that seems perhaps unremarkable on the surface, but it struck me because it was a memory that came to Granny when Elena asked her “what is one of your favourite memories of Granddad.” And where one might expect her to tell of the first time they met, or some anecdote involving one of his pranks, her mind went to a seemingly innocuous moment. A moment with no living witnesses remaining, save for her, and it was ingrained in her enough that when asked to choose from a lifetime of moments, the image of her husband contented with the happiness of his child sprang to mind.
That same question also led her to a second memory of Granddad.
Story 5: “I Love you”
It was the last morning before Granddad passed away. By this time he had lost a majority of his motor control and was confined to the same adjustable bed where Granny had also spent her final days.
Every morning Granny would get up to move Granddad’s legs, shift his pillows, and adjust the bed to help alleviate any discomfort. As she went about her routine, Granddad turned and looked at her, raised his head from his pillow, and whispered intently “I love you.”
“And he did” Said Gran, “Every day. He made me so happy.”
Just Her Life: Odds & Ends
She talks longer than I had expect her to, always with one more story. Every time I offer to let her sleep, she’ll think of something else, and when Granny tells a story, you listen. Among other things she recollects the following…
- Granddad trying to teach her how to shoot a gun. Being a newly married teenager from the city, and being shook to her core at the realization that rifles are essentially explosive hand cannons. Suffice to say, Granddad took the lead on dealing with the rabbits.
- Granny’s short shorts. Because when a handsome man comes to paint your father’s house, you make certain that he notices when you casually hang out in the yard.
- At Granddad’s first job as a farm hand, the Boss’ wife indicated that they were not fond of the idea that she might be having children any time in the near future. Granny assured her that such a thing was not planned for a least several years. “It’s funny” Gran said, “I figured we’d wait for about five years, but I don’t believe I took any measures to ensure I DIDN’T have children. No one ever talked about things like that back then.” When I asked how long it was before she had Jimmy, she answered with a wry smile and a chuckle, “About a year and a half.”
“I don’t know why I remember them. They’re just my life.”
And what a life it was.
I Love you Gran.