On this day in 1972 my grandfather died. He was being treated for cancer, during which time the doctors wouldn’t let him smoke his Players Navy Cut or drink Labatt’s IPA – in those days available in brown stubby bottles. I think that’s actually what killed him, not the cancer. Being denied the two things he enjoyed in life would have put him over the edge. That and Grandma’s constant nagging. I’m positive he just gave up.
Grandpa was born in a small Flemish Belgian town and made it through WWI, the war which pretty much devastated most of Belgium. He worked as a stable boy at a race track, but had aspirations to become a jockey one day, since he was slight. But when he met my grandmother, she had other ambitions for him, making him promise he would never bet money on horses again. As far as I knew he kept that promise. When we were kids in The Beach in Toronto, the Woodbine Race Track was still in operation at Woodbine Ave. and Queen St. Later it became the Greenwood Race Track, but the real live ponies still ran there every day at that time. Our grandparents lived on Bellefair Ave., only about 6 blocks from the track. Grandpa would take my younger sister and me for a walk along Queen to the track where we just watched the horses run. To this day, I still love watching horses. I’ve never learned how to ride, but I’ve never felt the need to, as long as I can admire horses in motion.
I also seemed to inherit his love for opera. Grandpa had a collection of 78s, mostly recordings of Mario Lanza, that he enjoyed, even though he couldn’t understand Italian. He’d sit in his armchair in the living room, drinking a beer and smoking, and the music made him cry. I don’t react in quite the same way to opera, but I do appreciate the music.
The gene I definitely did inherit had to do with cooking. When my grandparents and their daughter, my mother, first immigrated to Canada in 1919 by ship with Grandma’s family, she managed to get grandpa a job as a cook in the Chateau Frontenac. When they moved to Toronto the next year, he worked in the kitchen of the Prince George Hotel. Later, after they’d moved to The Beach, they owned and ran the Seagrill Fish & Chips at Queen & Leuty, which moved to the next block east where it became Nova Fish & Chips. Our Uncle Mo took the Seagrill name and opened another shop just west of Coxwell. Grandpa made perfect Belgian frites, something my mother also made well, and now I too can make perfect chips. And I love to cook, and eat good food. Grandpa did all the cooking in the house; Grandma made all the money.
He was a good man – quiet, kind and unassuming, always ready with a smile, a joke and a laugh. Even though he never learned to read, he would sit my sister and I on either knee and “read” us the newspaper comics, making up the stories, adding his own sound effects.
I borrowed heavily from my family’s history, and especially from my grandparents’ lives and personalities, to write a couple of short stories that have been published. Both Hockey Night on Bellefair Avenue and 50 Ways to Lose Your Liver have appeared in The White Wall Review, and won prizes. I have a number of other grandparent stories in production, some just a title at the moment, but probably about 11 more.