While my great-grandson was being born I was sitting on a bench by the canal.
The Rideau Canal is an historic waterway. It’s the reason Ottawa is where it is. Without the canal, the capital of Canada would be someplace else. So the pathway beside the canal and the benches and the gardens surrounding are all kept up by the government. The benches are quite comfortable and in the cool sun of the September afternoon I said thanks, to whom I know not, for the new great-grandchild in the family.
Great. You can really feel the generational pull with great. With your own children you don’t share the same music. With your grandkids you hardly share the same language. With great-grandchildren, who knows? This great will see the twenty second century. Who knows what he’ll find out there? Or who he’ll become?
I knew my great-grandmother rather well. Catharine was her name, though she was known in the family as Kate. She lived to be 99, died when I was 20. She was born eight years before Canada became a country, in 1859, in a hamlet called Chaffey’s beside the canal. Her grandfather Pammy was lockmaster there. He was born in England in 1803 and Kate was close to him. They lived together at Chaffey’s and it was only after Pammy died there, when she was 28 and already the mother of six, including my grandmother Hannah, that Kate left for the big city, where she would have seven more and where I got to know her years later, first as a child playing pick-up-sticks with cousins and siblings on her parlour floor.
I never met Pammy of course but from Kate I had some vibes. She touched me as she had touched him, who had been born well before the world we know. Before the steamship or locomotive. In a time when horsepower meant the power of horses or oxen or men to move mud or mountains. To get ahead in life he had learned to read and write, one of the few who could. It made the difference that got him the lockmaster’s job.
Pammy and I are connected through Kate, a bridge across centuries. My new great-grandchild, whose name will be Rory, will carry the connection much further. Surely he’ll see three hundred years from Pammy’s birth (2103). It’s not inconceivable his own greats will carry Pammy’s line near a half millennium from its start in Canada. A great stretch indeed. It’s surprising how just a few great leaps can cover the distance.
Sitting by the canal, thinking of Rory, I think of Pammy too, without whom I wouldn’t be, nor Kate, nor Rory. But that’s not all. As surely as I’m sitting here I know that while Kate and her seven siblings were being born at Chaffey’s, or the first half dozen of Kate’s kids, who were his great-grandchildren, Pammy would have been more than once sitting by the canal, contemplating the mystery of life and the wonders of family. I almost can reach him from here.