My grandfather passed away on May 6, 2013, three days before my birthday. I’ve been thinking of him more than usual, perhaps because he won’t be around for the release of my novel. He asked about it every time we spoke, always shocked that it was “taking so damn long!”
There is so much to say about this great man, and I will, one day, write about him. It’s hard, though, and while I know the hard stuff is the good stuff, I know myself well enough to know that it’s going to take time.
So instead, this:
At the end of April, I attended the Calgary launch for Jessica Kluthe’s book Rosina, the Midwife. It was a great evening and I came away from it with a great hug, a beautiful book and a new friend.
Two nights after hearing Jessica read, I spoke to my grandpa, who’d just been released from the hospital, and would shortly be re-admitted. I’d never heard him labour for breath as he did – always so strong, he sounded diminished. I knew I had to see him.
So I booked a flight, and headed to the airport. In my carry-on, was Rosina, the Midwife. I started reading on the plane, and will forever be grateful that this is the book I carried with me, both physically and emotionally, over the next few weeks.
Rosina, the Midwife possesses a lyrical structure and lush writing – the story rolling out through the present and the past, with Jessica telling her own story as well as that of her great-grandmother. Secrets are kept and shared, and love and loyalty shine through even the darkest and saddest moments of the book.
Over the next two weeks, I made more trips home to Regina. In the dim light from the console above my head, I read. As my own grandfather’s health faded, Jessica’s grandfather became more prominent in the book, travelling with Jessica to Italy, where he was born, to find the roots of her great-grandmother, of her family.
Rosina was steadfast – she stayed in Italy, watching all her children leave her for new lives in North America. My grandpa, too, was a rock – the guy who didn’t say much, but was a constant presence at the end of the dinner table, or on the couch in his jacket. “It’s cold in this damn shack!” was a common refrain, whether he was watching the Rider game at my mom’s or hockey at my aunt’s.
Jessica’s conversations with her grandparents, and her trip with her grandfather and the connections to the past really drove home how tenuous the ties are that hold us to this earth. And yet, how strong are the bonds that hold us together.
Rosina, the woman, was re-created through Jessica’s amassing of evidence and anecdotes, just as Rosina, the Midwife, the book itself, was created. Some tales were told by family, some by documents. Jessica had to put them together, to build as complete a picture as she could, even when the official documentation seemed wrong. As a reader, it was a beautiful process to bear witness to; the book is a testament to the worthiness of story.
And in the end, we are left with only stories – stories that are told to keep the memory of our loved ones alive, stories that contort and transform with every telling, until we create our own truth. Sitting with my grandfather, watching family come and go, I realized that we all have our own truth where he is concerned. But it’s together that our stories will remind us of, and ultimately re-create, the man he was. Yet none of us knows the whole story. His whole story. And none of us ever will.
I was reminded of this last night when I spoke to my grandma – who’d known my grandpa since she was fifteen.
“Your grandpa used to sing all the time,” she said, her voice strained. “In the garden, or when he was making supper. Doing dishes.” She was quiet for a bit. “I didn’t even know half of those songs. I wonder where he learned them.”
Maybe Grandpa’s mother taught him the songs on Sunday mornings. Maybe he learned them while harvesting crops for farmers as a young man, or working in his uncle’s mill. Maybe he learned them from a traveling musician at the hotel in Fort Qu’Appelle. Maybe he heard them on the radio in the eighteen wheeler he drove for years.
We’ll never know.
But there is a story there. And like Jessica did with Rosina, the Midwife, we just need to tell it.
(The song my grandma remembers my grandpa singing.)