By: Gisèle Thériault
I could write about the time I stood on the upper deck of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, looking down to see Paris from a bird’s eye view; I could write about the time I swam in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland while snow lazily fell from the skies above me…but I won’t. Sure, those were all great events that constitute the great event I call my Life, but there is one memory that stands out, one memory that, no matter what, always brings a sincere smile to my face. My grandfather opening up his gifts at Christmas.
Why am I writing about this particular occasion? Well, the other day I was in a reflective mood. I was thinking about life in general, really. And about death, how really strange the whole concept is. Thoughts about family members that have passed away began to surface. This is when I realized that when I think of them, I usually remember just a few particular memories of them. Always the same ones. And that got me thinking, you know? Why is it always the same memory? What does this mean? Does this tell me something about myself? This is why I’m writing. Because I have too many questions and not enough answers. Let’s go.
When someone dies, we no doubt reflect upon their lives, but I think even more significantly, we rethink our own lives, our current situations. Am I doing what I love? Do I have a dream? Hmm… I really should get a dog before it’s too late…go to Las Vegas, even if I don’t gamble.
So, what then is the big deal about opening up a gift anyway? What does it have to do with anything? Personally, I hate it when everyone stares as I open up my gifts… I mean, what if I really don’t like the gift? If the gift-giver is present, do I pretend to like it? But that’s lying. Plus, some people seem to have an obsession with using rolls and rolls of scotch tape. It takes you twice as long to open up the gifts. And don’t get me started on wrapping paper. You can get all kinds of wrapping paper, if you want to pay. You can wrap up a pair of slippers in shiny red paper, you can wrap up a frying pan with Donald Duck paper. The madness of it all! Before I go absolutely crazy complaining about how materialistic our holidays have become, I’ll admit something. Sure - I like watching people opening up their gifts. Most of all, I love watching their expressions.
Why?? What’s this fascination about?
Every year, on Christmas Eve, my family would drive to Grandma’s house. It’s only a five minute drive. I always thought that it took forever. You know when you’re young, and you get in a car, you’d like to arrive at your destination right away? How many times did I wish that I had a time-travelling machine? A lot. I still do. I didn’t want to go back in time though. I always wanted to go into the future; I’d heard from my older cousins that when you reached a certain age, you could go out with your friends whenever you wanted…no curfew. I liked that idea, an idea of freedom. It’s ironic how I now want to go back in time. I’m afraid of growing old, afraid of not having lived enough. To have lived enough…does that make sense? I’m alive everyday, that I know of anyway. Therefore don’t I live enough by being simply alive? I guess what I meant was that I’m afraid to have gone through life by merely floating from one responsibility to the next, forgetting to appreciate the smell of a rose or the look on a birthday girl’s face when the cake is placed in front of her. That kind of living.
After slipping on my Sunday dress and my shiny black shoes, we’d drive up the road that took us deeper into the woods and further away from the cold ocean. The road was always rough, had been rough for years. The other day I saw they were finally fixing it, taking away the old and bringing in the new. But going back, I remember thinking that there’s always so much more snow in the woods. The salty air doesn’t get this far up and sadly melt away the snow. I always thought that Christmas was more present there, in the woods. For me, snow was essential to Christmas. The Image of Christmas, almost like a Hallmark card, really. The fireplace roaring, cookies baking, radio playing Christmas songs by Bing Crosby and Perry Como, people wearing festive sweaters, and fluffy snowflakes floating down, a special gift just for me.
On the drive up, I always sat in back with my sister. And, as on ordinary drives, I could never see outside, through the window. I was too short. I’d put my head back in hopes of stealing a peek at what was going on outside our moving car, but to no avail. Looking from the outside, most likely you would’ve seen a small nose peeking out at the lower edge of the window. A small fog-cloud forming on the surface of the window, a result of my warm breath against the glass. (Sometimes I’d draw little pictures in that mist, usually a heart). Nevertheless, I always knew when we were close to the house because of the two trees looming in the distance. These trees, maple trees maybe, standing on opposite sides of the road, towering over the road, almost like a bridge. Or like two lovers forever separated by the street. And, the limbs of these trees, entangled together in a big jumble of a mess, would create the outline of a goldfish. We were near when I saw my fish.
My grandmother always had a few Christmas gifts waiting for us at her house. I thought they were from Santa. My mother told me Santa would stop there early on Christmas Eve because they were old people and had to go to bed early. Boy was I ever a sucker. Now that I think of it, it’s as though my entire childhood was a big, fabricated lie; Santa, the Tooth Fairy…you know what I’m talking about. So we’d finally get to the house. Walking through their front door, I could usually smell lobster in the air. That’s what they ate every Christmas Eve. I personally didn’t like lobster at that time, I much preferred Kraft Dinner. And Kraft Dinner was cheaper too. Still is.
It’s strange how potent the sense of smell is, how it lives in your memory, makes a home sweet home there and usually stays until you die. Helen Keller said: “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” My grandmother’s house was very old, a century old at least. And I remember that it had that “old smell”…not old as in rotten, but old as in “lived in”. Years later, after both of my grandparents had passed away, we returned to the house to sift through their things, clean up (my grandmother was a serious, professional pack rat) … There was still an old smell but it wasn’t the same. And there was no smell of my grandma’s cooking anymore…only the smell of an old, empty house. No living souls in there anymore. No grandma knitting, no grandpa sitting in his chair, petting the lazy, purring cat. Empty.
Walking through the kitchen, whose walls were covered with badly framed pictures of Jesus and of Saints….oh, and of the Pope, towards the living room, I couldn’t wait to see Pierre, my grandfather. It was like a déjà-vue that wasn’t actually a déjà-vue, every time. He was always sitting in his chair. I’ll never forget that chair. It was an old chair, from before the whole Lazy Boy reclining chairs phenomena. Just a good, comfy chair. There was always a grey, wool cloth draped over it, probably to hide its real ugliness. So Pierre would be sitting there, his feet perched on his foot stool, an old leather one that had a few holes in it, the stuffing slowly escaping its cramped quarters. I would’ve thrown it away, but to him, it was still good. Did the job. He always had the same brown leather slippers on, and you could always see his socks peeking at the ankle; grey wool socks with a red and white stripe at the top. My grandmother had knitted them for him. No doubt he had a dozen pair of the same colors.
It was quite a sight to see my little Pierre sitting in that chair; he was a tiny, old man. He didn’t have much hair left, just a few little whitish hairs here and there, almost unnoticeable. Almost like a Homer Simpson hairdo. He had big glasses that seemed to take over his face; usually he would wear false teeth, but sometimes, on Christmas Eve, he wouldn’t wear them, take a break from them. Who needs teeth when you’re not eating anyway? So you can imagine that when he’d look at you and smile, that great big grin of his that would light up his eyes, it was a wonderful site to see. It was the most generous, warm smile. Genuine.
Better than any Hollywood made-up smile.
I didn’t know then that it was that smile that would help me mourn through his death quite a few years later.
Now, he also usually had a plaid shirt on, and his pants were always held up by suspenders. I thought that was the cutest thing ever. He was so thin that his clothes seemed to float on him.
I would watch him slowly unwrap his Christmas gifts; he always seemed to adore his gifts, as though they were the best things he’d ever received. You could hear the gratitude in his voice. I wouldn’t even be thinking of my gifts that I was supposed to open, not thinkin’ about it at all. The best gift of all that night? (Be prepared for a sappy answer) My grandfather’s happiness. His happiness was also mine. Perhaps I learned then, at such a young age, that the quote by Margaret Storm Jameson: "Happiness comes of the capacity to feel deeply, to enjoy simply, to think freely, to risk life, to be needed." was true… I always felt proud in his presence. I felt that he appreciated me, needed me. Fact is, I needed him.
I saw him, Pierre, not long before he passed away, literally just a few hours. Sometimes I regret having gone to the old folk’s home. I remember walking to his room, feeling absolutely helpless, like I was a little girl once more. I could feel my heart thumping. I’ll never forget what I saw when I walked into that room, the feeling that overwhelmed me. There he was, my grandfather, Pierre. But it wasn’t him, not really. He was barely conscious of the world around him. He didn’t look peaceful. I hated that. I wanted him to be at peace, yet I wasn’t ready to let him go. Perhaps I was selfish. Perhaps I didn’t want to face another day without seeing his smile, the way it lit up his eyes and made his face wrinkle up. I wanted to have just one more Christmas with him, to watch him unwrap his gift, sitting in his old, raggedy chair.
I should clear something up, before I continue. Pierre wasn’t really my real grandfather; he was my great-uncle, my grandmother’s brother. My real grandfather, Michel, was killed when my father was only 6 months old, therefore I never got to know him. When I was very young and didn’t quite understand the concept of death, I believed Pierre was indeed my grandfather. Naturally, because he did live in the same house as my grandmother. It made sense. After my real grandfather was killed, my grandmother never re-married, kept her wedding ring on until she passed away. Pierre never married once in his life, remained a bachelor. So they stayed in the same house. But in my heart he was my grandfather, even when I realized what the truth was.
Most of all I remember Pierre’s wrinkled face. Yeah, I realize that wrinkles = old age. But to me, it doesn’t signify that you’re less of a person. There’s a certain sweetness to them. Sure, I’ve seen pictures of him when he was my age, a handsome young fella. Youthful. Health. All his hair. But I remember the wrinkled, 100 year-old Pierre. Wise with age. Maybe what I want to believe in is wrinkled memories…I don’t want to be old but I want depth in my life. I want a handful of memories which will show that I have loved and been loved. The American poet Samuel Ullman said:
Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.
Now, isn’t it a little crazy how we value material objects? I love my clothes, my books, my cd’s. But none of them can ever give me the joy I get when I remember, so clearly, Pierre. When I actually have the time to sit and think, I always come to the realization that, when everything is said and done, all we have left is memories. Simple.
Simple is good.
I was thinking about all this last Christmas; and now, it’s not the same. Not the same kind of Christmas. Much of all that magic is gone, even if I want it all back. Christmas is no longer a spiritual holiday. It’s just a good time of the year for businesses. It does make me sad. But I can’t do anything about it. One day, I’ll have a family of my own, and I just hope that my kids will feel that magic, that feeling that makes you think that your entire lifetime will be full of joy. Eat candy when you want. Watch cartoons when you want. Have your grandparents around all your life. Have them hug you when you’re sad, when you’re big sister’s picking on you. Be able to feel complete joy at watching an old man open up a gift. Those are the simple things that make up life. Once you realize that the little things in life are indeed the finest, you will better understand who you are. Then you will lead a more complete life, and have the satisfaction that you’ve not missed out. Sure, through life we miss out on a lot. I haven’t seen Bob Dylan in concert yet, and I haven’t climbed Mount Everest, nor do I plan to. But my point is that I have people in my surroundings that I love, and because I take the time to absorb their memories means that they’ll stay with me as long as I live, which means, to me, that my life is, and will be, complete. The American pianist Oscar Levant said:
So true. I couldn’t have said it better. In fact, it’s taken me an entire essay to say this.
Memories. Not concrete. Yet so powerful. Memories are but thoughts. I have a million different thoughts, make decisions with those thoughts. Pierre still teaches me today, helps me to see what I should do. His memory keeps him alive, and keeps my spirit going.
Now Pierre’s tombstone lies stone-cold in the Meteghan cemetery, some moss finding a home at the base of the rock. The rock that spells out his name, birth date, and date of death.
Cycle of Life.
I visit occasionally. I bring flowers. That’s what you have to do, right? He lies next to my grandmother, next to his father, and next to my brother, who never lived long enough to know life’s many complications. Cemeteries don’t freak me out. It’s part of life. I crouch down in front of the tombstone and I can see Pierre, in his old chair, rocking back and forth.
I can hear his voice so clearly when I think of him, hear it perfectly. I can’t describe his voice to you. But his voice still exists with me. Why can I still hear him? Did he have that much of an impact? Yes. I’m not saying he was an angel on earth. When he was my age, I’m told he was known to be a drinker and had many a party. Is this why I relate? Imperfect yet good at heart.
Was I impressed by Pierre merely because of his age? I’ve always been fascinated with history; so was I fascinated by the fact that he’d seen a lot of things? He’d lived in a time much different than mine…could this explain anything? Maybe.
When it’s my time to go, I don’t want it to be totally sad. Sure, I secretly hope people might cry, and talk about how much I’ll be missed. We’re all selfish like that. But I hope that right before I die, I will have gleefully sat in my own rocking chair, being happy about the hundred years that I have lived and proud of every wrinkle on my face.
When I leave this world, I hope to leave my own legacy of smiling grandchildren who will find their very own goldfish trees in life.
Thank you, Pierre, for unknowingly sprinkling my life with your wisdom, your jokes, and your toothless grins.