Greetings, Earthlings! My grandfather died last month. Bob Irwin was 96 years old and spent most of the 20th Century putting shoes on people’s feet, first in Saskatoon and later in North Battleford. He even spent some time during the Depression selling shoes in Regina.
“The city sure has changed,” he told me in 2008, when he made a return trip to the Queen City. He was there for my wedding. He was only 93 back then.
It was his idea to have a wedding. Nicole and I had certainly discussed it, and come to the general agreement that, yes, we were not entirely opposed to the tradition of marriage. But it wasn’t really something we felt compelled to take part in. But when I told my grandfather that Nicole was pregnant with our first child, he asked if we were going to get married. Probably at some point, I told him. “I’d sure like to be there,” he said.
If the old man wanted to be at my wedding, well, I finally had a reason to pop the question.
Grandpa Bob was the last of my parents’ parents. I was lucky to grow up around four sets of grandparents: my dad’s parents, my dad’s dad’s parents, my mother’s mother and her second husband, and my mother’s father and his second wife. Grandpa Bob and Doreen lived in Battleford, and we used to go up to see them every summer. My dad raced canoes recreationally back then. Mostly short races on the South Saskatchewan, like the Cranberry Punch. But he also a longer, all-day race on the Battle River, usually with one of my uncles, but at least once with my sister. We’d get into North Battleford just in time to have lunch at the McDonald’s, typically our only McD’s visit all year (we were more of an A&W family) and then we’d go downtown and hang out at Grandpa Bob’s shoe store for the afternoon. We would stay at my dad’s sister’s farm just outside of Delmas and then on our way back to Saskatoon we would visit with Grandpa and Doreen at their house. It would usually be a Sunday evening, and I remember watching Disney movies on the TV in Doreen’s kitchen. TV in the kitchen! We could hardly believe it. I remember watching Gus, about a mule who kicked field goals, and The World’s Greatest Athlete, starring Jan-Michael Vincent as a Tarzan-type who became a decathlete. I don’t know why there were always sports-themed movies on when we were at Grandpa Bob’s. When I got older, around 8 or 9, Grandpa taught me how to play cribbage and that would define our relationship from that point forward.
I wish I had some great, character defining story to tell about my Grandpa Bob, they way I did for his brother Jack. But I knew him both too well and not well enough to have that kind of monolithic vision of him. I can’t sum him up. There are things I’ve only learned since he died, from reading the wonderful comments in the “Guest Book” of his death notice, about his relationship with Doreen’s family. There are so many things I’ll never know. His hearing was terrible the last few years and what few conversations we had were characterized by the blunt expressions of affection endemic to phone calls to sweet old men too proud to wear their hearing aids.
Grandpa Bob, when I told him that Nicole was pregant, told me that there is no sweeter sound in the world than when your child calls you “dad” for the first time. As I write this my own daughter is in the full throes of her Terrible (abominable, hideous, cruel) Twos and I look back on Grandpa’s words as an old man’s romanticism. But there’s no doubt that he loved and cherished his kids and grandkids. His eyes lit up whenever we were around. Of course, I wasn’t there when we weren’t around, so maybe he just had really bright eyes, but whenever we left he grew just a touch melancholy. “Come back,” he’d say. “You will come back, won’t you? Come back soon.”
Emmet Matheson is a freelance writer who comes from a good family & hopes his kids will someday say that they came from a good family. He blogs intermittently at A Bulldozer With a Wrecking Ball Attached. You can e-mail him at: bulldozerDOTwreckingballATgmailDOTcom