I wrote the following in the spring of 1996…
I see it in something as simple as how we eat an apple. I go down to the core, biting at the flesh until all that is left are the seeds. He – he takes a bite here, there, leisurely enjoying the taste, leaving a core an inch or two thick. I gnaw at bones, sucking marrow & fat from them. He cuts away the fat. Why this difference? Is it class based? Does my body feel a hunger my mind does not remember? I take a workman’s lunch to school – a piece of bread, a hunk of pepperoni, an apple. He brings sandwiches, yogurt, and an apple.
I slowly process my life through observation and thought.
My grandfather (my mother’s father) was a traditional man.
In his opinion, there were certain things that men did and certain things that women did.
Men would cut grass, sharpen knifes, and work outside the home.
Women keep house, raise the children, and tend to the farm animals.
When my grandfather immigrated to Canada, one of the most humiliating incidents in his new life as a farm labourer was needing to have my grandmother show him how to milk a cow. In the old country, this was women’s work.
I also think that there were class differences between my grandparents.
My grandmother was a peasant farmer’s daughter, and one of many children. Her father married three times because of various tragedies – one wife died in a fire. I imagine a lifestyle not unlike Tevye’s farm existence in Fiddler on the Roof; though my grandmother’s family was Polish Lutherans not Russian Jews.
My grandfather came (I think) from a classier background. Was his father a store keeper or a tradesman? I don’t know. My grandfather, besides making his living as a farmer, was also a skilled carpenter and furniture maker. Where did he learn these trades?
I think he learned farming, from his brother-in-law, after he immigrated to Canada not before. Canada, at that time, wanted farmers and after getting sponsored to work as a farm labourer eventually my grandfather was able to afford land of his own. He kept farming but also spent time helping to build churches.
From the stories I remember him telling about the old country, he was a learned man and a traveler. He knew four languages (German, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian) before he learned English and could read German before reading English. I know this because his childhood bible was written in German. During WW1, he fought for the Russians – not his choice. He told me he was conscripted. He told my eldest sister that he decided to leave the old country (we assume Poland as this is where his children were born) because he saw a man shot to death on the street in front of him. By who, the police, the state, I do not know. My mother’s parents did not tell a lot of stories or maybe I was too self involved to listen and hear.
What I remember is that he would not let me cut the grass. I spent my days at his house helping my grandmother in the kitchen and picking raspberries.
What I remember is that he was always brisk and annoyed with me. I had to sit in the front of the car because I got car-sick and this annoyed him.
What I remember is the rocking cradle he crafted and painted for my baby doll. I still have it. It still rocks. He also made us a child’s table and chair. I only remember the one chair. I sat on it, when I was thirteen, and broke it.
What I remember is a tall, strong, brisk man who seldom smiled but always did his duty.
What I remember is a man who sharpened his own knifes but would not teach me how because I was a girl. My knives need sharpening and I wish I knew how to. I wish that my grandfather had seen that I was confident and capable enough to teach how to sharpen knives.
Girls do not, girls did not; things were changing to quick for him when I was a feminist teenager in the 1970s. I wonder what he would think of his great-granddaughters having and being able to use their own tools. My eldest sister gave all of her children – girls & boys – a toolbox of their own when they became teenagers.
What I remember is watching my grandfather eat an apple. His favourite apple was the McIntosh.
He would use the penknife, he carried with him everywhere, to peel the apple. He would start at the top of the apple, close to the stem, and work his way down and around. I remember the peel coming off in one long curl but it couldn’t have always. I have experience now peeling apples and know how impossible this is to do.
Once the apple was peeled, he would cut out a section and eat it, piece by piece, until the apple was gone. It seemed so elegant to eat an apple this way rather than biting at it tearing out chunks with your teeth as we children did.
I know now that, for him, this was also a practical way to eat an apple. He had false teeth and biting a whole apple would have been risky. I know this now because I am older and prefer to eat my apples in pieces as I worry about my teeth (not false yet) thinning out and cracking apart. Oh, the perils of getting older. The perils you don’t see until you are right there, still wanting to enjoy apples and wondering about the folly of toffee sticking to your cavities.
Is that a birthday? ’tis, alas! too clear;
‘Tis but the funeral of the former year.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
We thought we were running away from the grown-ups, and now we’re the grown-ups.
You know, when I first went into the movies Lionel Barrymore played my grandfather. Later he played my father and finally he played my husband. If he had lived I’m sure I would have played his mother. That’s the way it is in Hollywood. The men get younger and the women get older.
Watching my Grandfather I learned many things. I learned about gender roles. I learned about yearning.
I should have listened better. I should have asked more questions. I should have asked him to teach me how to sharpen knives.
I remember watching my grandfather eat an apple and offering me a piece/offering me peace.
We are too soon gone no matter how long we are actually here.