Sat 22 Jan 2011
we were rushing our way through the half-abandoned mall to Oscar’s speech appointment upstairs. he was fifty feet away at the coffee shop table, his white shock of hair sticking straight up.
everyone has a visual imprint, a way of walking or sitting, the cock of a head, the way a hand punctuates speech.
my grandfather, even at ninety-one and shrunken and far less mobile than he’d like to be, still lords over his lunchtime newspaper, shaking a paw at the ridiculousness of the world.
the boy and i ran up and greeted him. hail fellow well met and smiles, gentle hugs.
my grandfather manages lunch on his own these days, mostly at this coffee shop at the old mall. it is just down the hill from his house. his hands are shaky, the driving worries me, but he manages.
i seized the moment. do you have any dinner plans?
i do not see him enough. he has a nurse – a crew of nurses, really, headlined by a stunner whom he adores – and my father and stepmother drop in nearly daily. but not me.
well, now, he began, and this is an old deliberate routine between us, dating back to the years after my grandmother died when i’d come home from college and call him up. were you looking to ask me out, young lady?
he and Oscar and i made plans for all of us to meet at one of his usual dinner haunts that evening. lately his short-term memory’s been poor, and phone calls to make dinner plans haven’t worked out so well. but i figured that evening? was only a few hours away. i hugged him, and Oscar and i dashed away to our appointment.
love you, Grandpa! i threw over my shoulder.
from the open stairs leading up to the speech therapy clinic, i watched him rise and fumble for his cane, sunlight glinting off the white crew cut grown shaggier than he’d once have tolerated.
my grandfather’s ancestors down the Stewart line sailed here two hundred years ago or so, when their Highland glens were cleared for sheep and politics.
they came with the Selkirk settlers, three boatloads in the summer of 1803. hardy and self-reliant, destitute but proud and canny, the lot of them are said to have landed in the virgin forests of PEI barely knowing how to wield an axe. today, this island is as green and bare as their Isle of Skye, and far more tamed. waste not, want not, ran the strain of steel through their mantra. they wasted not an inch or a branch of the place, the lot of them.
apparently the stewardship my clan were named for did not necessarily extend to environmentalism. rather, they expanded, prospered; became respectable, if still a wee bit fey.
my grandfather had an Uncle Dan who was apparently legendary in local horse-trading circles for two things: his fits of temper, and his punctuality. you could set your watch, legend has it, by when he’d start shouting.
and my grandfather’s Great Aunt Mae, at the end of her days, was given a room of her own in the nursing home for throwing her cane at her roommate. her roommate happened to be Great Aunt Maud, my grandmother’s equally cantankerous relation. the fact that Mae & Maud’s young family members had married apparently did little to assuage a lifelong bloodfeud.
the cane my grandfather uses these days? is Mae’s.
my whole life, my grandfather has been five minutes early for everything. he can be touchy, yes, if his particular code of propriety is breached. yet with his dirty jokes and his upright resilience and his fierce loyalty, he has been, for me, a sort of rock, a stability in a family tree long cleaved by separations and silences.
my mother came from a different line of Scots from a different island in the Hebrides, who landed here on this small isle within twenty years of the Stewarts, give or take. McNevins who somewhere became MacNevins, to hide their Jacobite roots and grow more staunchly, dourly, acceptably Protestant, i assume. my mother was the last of that line to carry the name. we gave it to Finn, his second middle name. it died again, with him, and i did not have the heart to try again.
and so Oscar is Oscar Charles Stewart Cormier, with the nod to Bonnie Prince Charlie hidden there in between his Acadian-sounding proper name. on one side and the other, his heritage falls almost entirely on the losing side of England’s burgeoning eighteenth-century imperialism. Culloden and clearances and expulsion, with a stray Irish Catholic thrown in now and then in the line for good measure.
and his mother tongue is English. och aye, o ye winners of history.
but last night, as i drove him home sleepy from his first Robbie Burns night concert, i told him the Stewarts were once kings. i told him of the Charles Stewart who lost his head to Cromwell, and of Bonnie Prince Charlie the hapless, and i sang speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing, like i have since he was a baby.
if you are going to identify with people who have lost, then you’d better know how to make beauty out of sorrow. waiting for the once-and-future king only sounds romantic in songs.
he stood us up the other night.
i bundled the kids from school and we picked up Dave and rushed to the restaurant because it is not right to keep a 91-year-old man waiting. and there was a bit of a line and so we bounced the kids and sent Oscar on a scouting mission and even before we got a seat i had a sinking feeling and i called. i got his message machine.
and so the four of us sat at our table for six and ate, all the while keeping an eye on the door for a white head and an heirloom cane.
we drove up the hill after, just to make sure he was okay. and i was relieved. his nurse’s car was there and the lights on, and i assume they went elsewhere for supper, as they do sometimes.
we didn’t go in. there is no need to remind a person of failings he can no longer control.
it isn’t the first time, but the fourth or the fifth in these months or so since he came home from the heart attack and his long hospitalization. that he is home at all is a victory. that i keep making this mistake is my own damn fault: my failure, not his.
i need to change my strategies, start calling immediately before, or making our dinner dates through his nurse and not through him.
i know this. i accept it, and i will do it. because then there will be dinners with all of us present, and that is what i want.
but every time i see him, and his eyes light up, and he says were you looking to ask me out? i am sure, entirely sure, that he will be sitting there at the table five minutes before our agreed-upon time.
and i wish there were a song that i could sing to Oscar, to explain.