Wednesday, August 21, 2013

when Carrie met Charlie

This morning I was pondering why we have this understanding that the only 'successful' relationships are the ones that last forever. For some reason that thought brought to mind my grandparents, or at least my story of them and I'm still percolating on why that is.

Christmas 1969: such a 60's looking group
I never really knew my maternal grandparents - not the way I had a clear sense of the grandparents on my dad's side. I can see my maternal grandparents only dimly, through faded 'snaps' and memories that are distorted through time and other relationships. And yet, I have this sense of them - of the romance of their story.

It may be only a story - the romantic imaginings of someone who was too young to see the truth of it - but it still moves me. There's no high drama, no Romeo and Juliet, no Antony and Cleopatra, no Rose and Jack, but in many ways it's a romance that is so much deeper than any of those tragic narratives. 

My Grandfather is truly the stuff of legends in my life, by which I mean that I mostly just have stories of him to go by. Grandpa - Charlie - died when I was only 6, and I'm not sure if I actually remember him reciting poetry or have just heard stories of , and inherited, his love of language. For years my mom had a cassette tape of Grandpa reciting 'Winnipeg Station' (an early 20th century Canadian prose-poem of which Google has failed to find me any trace). Grandpa was, in my mythology, the first of us to co-opt our Irishness. My version of him invents limericks and recites Yeats and was one of the few people to really read, understand and enjoy Joyce. Although he was born in Prince Edward Island, in my version of him the green hills of home he cherished were across a broader sea. I also believe that he suggested my VERY Irish names (Shannon Coleen), although that too may be just part of my personal fiction. Grandpa made his living as a carpenter, but from all accounts he was what we'd now call a Renaissance man - good with his hands as well as his wit and his heart.

Grandma - when she was still Carrie Bell Campbell - left school in Grade 8 to help her parents on the farm. The youngest of a string of farm kids, as Carrie's siblings married off her help became indispensable. In her 20's, when other young women were meeting beaus and starting families of their own, Carrie was still at home caring for her aged parents. When she finally met Charlie, at a church meeting, she was able to be courted (in a proper and ancient manner we can only imagine today) only because of the death of her mother. I imagine that in Carrie's eyes Charlie was, comparatively, a man of the world. He was college educated and had worked in the United States. He'd held a variety of jobs - as a salesman, a labourer, and a carpenter. It was working with wood that he found his milieu. I'm not sure what Grandpa did for a living when they met in her small farming community, but I assume they wasted little time in the dating phase of things. She was in her 30's already; he was ten years older. 

A double first Christmas 1968: my cousin Troy and I, born 8
months apart, in the seat of honour.
I don't know much about those early years. Their first child died in childbirth, an event that Grandma still spoke about with tears in her eyes and anger in her voice (she blamed the doctor's incompetence) when she told me about it 60 years later. Two boys followed. Grandma was 41 when my mom was born and had another baby boy 5 years later.

By the time I was born, Grandpa had already retired. I never knew them not to live in what we then called an 'old folks' home,' though my mom has shown me the house they lived in in Kelowna when she was a young girl. Charlie always wore a fedora and a button down shirt, even to go to the beach. They were always old to me, yet I remember them holding hands; Carrie was a great hand-holder.

Although I had much more time to get to know Grandma, I still have a sense of mystery about her: what were her dreams? Did she resent those years on the farm? Did she long for the openness and stability of Gilbert Plains when they followed work from town to town in BC? Despite her limited formal education, Carrie too liked reading. I don't know if that was always the case or if it was the result of living her middle years with a reader. She took up bowling when she was 80, which was probably about the time she first wore 'trousers.' When she was 91 she suffered a stroke, then recovered so remarkably from that you'd have thought it never happened.

Grandma's last Christmas, and still so proper.
Grandma was 103 when she died, and by then few people alive still called her by name; she was mom or grandma or Mrs. Fuller. The girl Carrie had been subsumed. She had waited so long for Charlie, but they had only 40 years together bookended, for Grandma, by 30 years alone. When her Charlie died, Grandma bought two cemetery plots and bided her time. She told me, late in her 90's, that she was ready to go. She had outlived a son, her siblings, many of her friends, and her sweetheart. It was lonely to be a survivor.

Grandma never, as far as anyone knows, so much as looked at another man seriously. Oh, she could be a great flirt with waiters and store clerks, and there was that one time she bought a large cubic zirconia ring and tried to pass it off as an engagement ring at Christmas (did I mention her mischievous sense of humour?). But really, she had had her great love.

We are so addicted to grand gestures in our culture. We want over-whelming emotion and obstacles to over-come and John Cusack with his boom box. And yes, when I say 'we' I mostly mean I. But there's something to be said for that quiet sustaining love, a love that goes on for three decades after death. There's something to be said for a legacy of love. 

1 comment:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...