When 2010 began I had three living grandparents; by the year’s end I had none.
My mom’s parents were Walter (Waddy) and Beth Robertson, both born in 1917, both raised in the lower mainland of British Columbia, both quintessential children of the depression.
Shortly after Waddy’s return from the European Theatre in 1945, they bought a modest suburban home in Burnaby where they raised my mom and her sister and continued to live for the remainder of their lives. They never ate at restaurants, enjoyed shoestring downhill skiing vacations, and took a thrifty, risk-adverse approach to personal economics.
But they were generous.
When my parents arrived in the Yukon in 1980, Beth and Waddy helped them buy a steel duplex in the back of Hillcrest. They also helped with my university education.
Beth was an early feminist of sorts — strong and strongly opinionated about everything from sushi to NAFTA. In her early years she was a basketball star at UBC, in her later years she was a New York Times crossword ace, but in her final years she all but disappeared to the corrosive invasion of dementia.
Waddy was quieter, but possessed a sly humour. Once, in preparation for a Christmas gift exchange game, he disappeared briefly, wrapped someone’s shoe and added it to the pile of presents. He was the last of his friends and siblings to hold a valid driver’s license, so he spent his waning years piloting his white Volvo around Vancouver, doing favours for others. A saint, my mother called him.
Within months of Beth passing, he followed.
Like June and Johnny.
My father’s father, Jarvis Jickling, was born in rural Saskatchewan in 1926 and raised in Winnipeg, where he played hockey with Terry Sawchuck and developed the blue collar work ethic that would hold-fast throughout his life.
At 17, he joined the Navy and was shipped off to Europe in time for the denouement of World War II. Upon his return he set up camp in Duncan, B.C. with my grandmother Kathleen. He worked first as a carpenter and then as a supervisor at the local pulp mill.
Shortly before Kathleen passed in ‘78, he and my grandmother took a trip to Italy with my parents. In his final years there was rarely a visit where he didn’t recount stories from that adventure.
Jarvis never had too much extra, but once or twice in my twenties, when I found myself on the skinny side of both the poverty line and the mental health spectrum, I got a letter from him that contained a timely cheque: “A bit of spending money,” he wrote.
I have wonderful memories of all three: baseball in the backyard, plastic animals in my bed, fresh cherries, hockey rivalries, Expo ’86, pitch n’ putt, homemade toys, Fruit Loops, cousins in a wheelbarrow, long-range slingshots, and cable TV.
But as we all aged, I felt increasingly awkward around them. Maybe I didn’t like to see my own mortality reflected from their faces onto mine, or maybe I was just shortsighted and selfish. Regardless, by the end of 2010 the awkwardness was gone, replaced by loss.
Grandparents keep us tethered to our heritage, but inevitably we must forge on without them. The best we can do is refuse to take them for granted while they are with us.
It’s a lesson I understood well in 2011.