In Memoriam


Me sitting with my Grampa after his ski accident, circa 1968

“I’m off to buy some fil-um!” He would smile slightly as he said it.

“Grampa! It’s “film,” not “fil-um!”

“That’s what I said. Fil-um.”

We were never sure if he really didn’t hear the difference, or if he just did it because he knew it drove his entire family crazy. He had a devilish sense of humour. He could make any small child cry with his violently loud sneezes, another of his affectations that seemed to bring him no end of amusement. He was also a mad bomber of a skier, routinely leaving us kids lagging far behind, impatient to get to the bottom in record time where we may or may not find him waiting.

When my family begins to go through his things, some of which accompanied him through his 98 years, they will find a plethora of coffee cans labeled in his erratic handwriting, or jar lids nailed to the ceiling, their glass pods full of picture hooks or nails of various sizes, and crumpled tubes of epoxy. They will find gallon sized tins of rust coloured wood stain, the kind that he used to routinely  stain the dock, ruining the bottoms of our bathing suits as we sat on the edge of the dock to dangle our feet into the water.

My grandfather was an industrious man, one who could never sit still. There was always a faucet washer that needed fixing, or a hole in a screen that needed patching. He had a way of flitting in and out of our lives, an omnipresence that was happy to stage manage from the wings while my grandmother took center stage with the grandkids. But we all knew where his secret candy drawer was. We all knew how he watched us when we skied, sensed his quiet pride in us. Even until the very last few months of his life, he knew most of the details of our lives, that my cousin taught surfing in Tofino, that my brother lived in Seoul, the names of his six great grandchildren. His precise engineer mind remained intact for an impressive 98 years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when my grandmother died, my grandfather began to fill the center stage role that my grandmother had left behind. We all began to get more phone calls from him, the kind that ended in “I love you.” After Arron died, I felt as if I had a special bond with my grandfather, in our mutual widowhood, and I began to know him in a way I never had before. I once asked him if he missed my grandmother, and his reply was “every day.” He called me more frequently in those weeks and months after Arron died, and we would talk about the weather or what one of my cousins was doing, but really I knew he was calling because he knew what I was going through. Or maybe it was because he missed Arron too. They had a similar inability to sit still, always doing things, always moving. My last memory of them together was at the cottage in Ste. Lucie, Quebec, when they decided to build a new dock. The kids and I walked down the path with some refreshments, following a long snake of old, frayed extension cords, each one plugged into the next, looping across shrubbery, around trees, across the tiny bridge over the stream. I heard Arron stomping up the path towards us, telling me to keep Carter away from the cords.

“Oh my god,” I said. “This is so dangerous!”

“I know,” Arron responded, shaking his head. “But don’t say anything. You know your grandfather. It’s just easier this way.” Amazingly no one was electrocuted that weekend, and the dock was built. Ten days later, the dock became Arron’s legacy and my family added a plaque to it, memorializing him. Although my grandfather never said so in words, I knew how much he missed Arron.

During the first anniversary of 9/11, my mother and grandfather came to Ottawa to attend a ceremony there, and we were treated to dinner the night before the event. For some reason this night sticks in my mind, my grandfather looking so dignified in his yellow cardigan, his white hair and blue eyes, alert, alive. That night I remember marveling at the fact that my grandfather was nearing 90 and still spry.

“How do you do it?” I asked him. “How do you manage to stay so young?”

“You just have to keep moving,” was his answer and I smiled, thinking how true this statement was for him, a whirling dervish in a perpetual state of motion.

When I heard of my grandfather’s death on Thursday morning, I was fighting with my niece’s ski boot, about to take 3 of his 6 grandkids out for a day of skiing at Whistler. The news came as a shock, despite knowing that my last phone call with him was likely my last. I had to smile at this tiny irony, that for a man who bombed down ski hills until he was 86 years old, there was no more fitting tribute to him than a day of skiing. I didn’t bomb down quite as fast as my grandfather would have, but I kept us all moving.

Goodbye Grampa (Granddad, Bumpa), you will be missed. I love you.

Robert E. Smallwood, February 28th, 1913 - April 21st, 2011






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  1. Boo Mayhew April 25, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Abby, I’m so sorry that you have lost such a wonderful grandfather. What a lovely tribute you have written. Boo xx

  2. BethinNC April 25, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    A beautiful tribute to your grandfather ~ a special relationship you had with him. I am very sorry for you loss.

  3. BAM April 25, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Beautiful story Abby, sorry for your loss.

  4. Abigail - Site Author April 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Thank you all. He was indeed a fine man.

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