Richard Antoine Soetens, Feb. 13, 1890 – June 6, 1972

Today would have been my grandfather’s birthday, so I’m reposting something I wrote earlier. Since I posted this commemoration on June 6th, long-lost-to-us-relatives in Belgium have contacted me and inquired as to whether Elise was my mother. Now we are connected again, at least by email, with cousins (twice-removed?) whose grandmother was our grandfather’s younger sister. It just goes to show that you never know who is reading your blog posts or where these postings might lead …

On June 6th 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, making him promise he would never bet money on horses again. As far as I knew he kept that promise. When we were kids living in The Beach in Toronto, the original Woodbine Race Track was 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 haven’t 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 most definitely inherited had to do with cooking. When my grandparents and their daughter, my mother, Elisabeth Marie (but Grandpa always called her Elise) first immigrated to Canada in 1919 by ship with Grandma’s family, Grandma 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 our Uncle Moe moved to just west of Coxwell and reopened under the Seagrill name. 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, my sister and I would sit on his knees and he’d “read” the newspaper comics to us, making up the stories, adding his own sound effects and hand actions. He allowed us to have sips from his beer bottle, and also taught us how to swear in Flemish. Then he would send us home with, “Say that to your mother.” I had no idea what the words were I was repeating, but they garnered a cuff from my mother as soon as they came out of my mouth. When I cried, “Grandpa told me to say that!” she phoned and reprimanded him, but then they both had a good laugh about it in the end – at my expense. To this day, my total Flemish vocabulary consists of swear words.

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 Ryerson’s The White Wall Review, and have won prizes. There are a number of other grandparent stories in production, four in early draft stages, and some just a title at the moment, but probably about 14 altogether. I hope to eventually complete and publish them as a collection titled The Grandparent Stories.

“It’s been good to see you. Now give me a bezeka and get the hell out of here!”

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One response

  1. Sounds like a wonderful man!

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