How My Grandfather Told Me He Loved Me through the Bill Evans Trio
I was never close to my grandfather, or Poppa, as we called him.
I spent most of my childhood strategically dodging past him in the kitchen while he carved the Christmas roast, making polite smiles when I received a card which bore his name in someone else’s handwriting. He always wore a Home Hardware pin in the shape of a Canadian flag on his suit-jacket when he went to church. It was almost like his life of quiet, dedicated hard work was part of his personal religion. Whenever I envision him, I see him sitting in the rocking chair in the corner of the living room, in a fleece flannel shirt with his hands folded neatly in his lap. Sometimes he’d smile at us children, drowning in the riches of Mattel and Phisher-Price.
As a girl, the basement lounge my grandfather had built to facilitate his once demanding business/social life was a dreamland of ruby lighting and adult play-pretend. My sisters and I practiced our bar tending skills making margaritas out of flat sprite and age-old beer nuts. I remember playing in this bar at an age where I was too small to see above the counter. We all developed somewhat impressive ping-pong skills from family matches that lasted hours long. The same can be said about bumper pool and crokinole. My sisters and I are virtually pool hall geishas.
Every once and a while, we’d all stir up a fuss and pressure my Poppa into playing the drums. He’d been playing jazz drums ever since he was thirteen, when he was in his first ensemble. He would be leisurely in the preceedings, building up suspense in all of us. He set up the kit like a sacrer ritual, organizing his various sticks and brushes into their ceremonial positions. He’d carefully place the thick, glossy vinyl onto the turntable and place the needle with as much caution as a priest lighting a flame. Once it’d fallen into a groove he was pleased with, he’d adjust the knobs of the old audio system the same way a palmreader lays her ornaments and cards upon a table. The result, of course, was nothing short of magical. A hush would billow above the room and fall upon us, like satin sheets being shook out and then falling softly to the bed. Even as a little girl, I was captivated by the sight of my usually humble grandfather as the centre of attention, his thick-rimmed glasses perched thoughtfully upon the end of his nose.
I didn’t know how to feel when my Poppa was sick. I know all elderly people get sick, but I never thought my grandfather would require aid from my grandmother, whom he had always taken care of. Most everyone said he would get better. First time we visited him in the hospital, he was mostly himself. He was embarassed that we saw him in his hospital gowns (he had one tied in the front, and one in the back for ultimate modesty). We smuggled him restaurant sized packets of pepper, which were practically like drugs to him. I could see in his eyes that he was grateful for this guesture. He spoke anxiously about the branches in the yard and his beloved boader-collie, Casey. I didn’t see it then, but I think my Poppa began to feel his sedimentary world fall into compromise. I think maybe he began to feel afraid.
One night, my family went to visit him. Almost all of us were there. In the hospital bed lay someone I barely recognized. He looked small, vulnerable. I had never before seen him without his hairpiece. I really looked into his eyes for the first time. I think maybe he knew. My sister played Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Krall on her phone. I sang the songs with the best of my ability. My Poppa moved his legs and opened his eyes. He tried to speak. I wondered with a sort of desperation what he was trying to say. Maybe he was trying to tell me he loved us. Maybe he wanted to say he was proud of who we’d all grown up to me. I won’t ever know.
I sang “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole acapella at his funeral. I felt like he was listening to me. I felt like he would be touched by this memorial to him. I also spoke about him, sort of how I am now. My mom was crying very passionately in the front row. That made me choke on my words.
We had to sell the St. Jacob’s home he built for my Momma and him to start a family. For the first time in my life, I entered his room past just peeking my head in to tell him dinner was ready. I felt like I was crossing a threshold. I learned a lot about my Poppa by sorting through his belongings. I felt a little ashamed, as I thought about how humiliated he would be by this invasion of his privacy. I learned he had five pairs of the exact same pants stocked in his closet, just in case. He had four harmonicas in various drawers. There was a jazz classics DVD set near his television. The bottle of Old Spice in his bathroom cabinet was so old-fashioned, I wondered if it was like a magical wellspring of cologne which never ran dry. I also saw his wide assortment of medication, carefully organized. I learned that my grandfather had over 100 mismatched shoelaces hanging on a hanger. He had a library of manuals dating back to 1956. He kept broken irons and toasters. I would make a modest estimate that 80% of his belongings had the Home Hardware logo on it. Now I wonder if this has something to do with why I hold onto old jewellery cases and little glass cosmetic bottles. He also had pictures of us within his belongings. I wonder if he ever looked at these.
I kept a few of these things. I gave my partner his jacket with sheepskin collars, which my Momma said he used to wear on their date nights. For myself, I kept his extensive jazz vinyl collection. I cleaned and sorted each record by hand. I felt a sort of responsibility came along with these records. I had a duty to treat them immaculately, to listen to them frequently, to lose myself in their rhythms the way he had, with his glasses resting on the end of his nose. I had always loved jazz, but I really began my love affair with it after he passed.
I began listening to his favourite station, Jazz 91.1 Toronto, every day. I learned more. My wealth of knowledge about jazz and its history continues to expand. I read all of the jazz biographies and encylopaedias he had in his collection. His love of jazz lives on deeply within me.
Families and relationships are hard. They’re complicated. People aren’t always what you want them to be, they’re just who they are. My grandfather wasn’t perfect, by any means. I feel like my relationship with my grandfather began just when his life was ending. In my mind, I see the hallway in their dim St. Jacob’s home, where his bedroom was to the right at the end of the hallway. The faint sound of jazz leaks out, the same way the light pours out from the space between the floor and the bottom of the door. I know he is in there, surrounded by light, with his beloved dog(s). He is in there with the music. He is in that room with those who have passed. He is in there with Julie. He is in there with God.
I stand at the end of the hallway, and turn back to my room.