Copyright 2010 – Stephen Redgwell
It’s hard to believe that over twenty years have gone by since the last time I visited Gramps’ farm. It’s located in Prince Edward County (eastern Ontario) on the road between Picton and Cherry Valley. Gramps had 150 acres that was used for mixed farming – primarily hay and dairy cattle.
He bought the place in 1919 for $150. It was a lot of money back then. He got a special government loan after returning home from France at the end of World War One. The money had to be paid back at one dollar a month, and he never defaulted. He was a hard worker and his dairy cattle produced a steady supply of milk that was easily sold. By the summer of 1931, Gramps was a paid in full member of the local farming community.
It must have been tough coming home after the war, and I think it affected him more deeply than he ever admitted. Like many of his generation, he wanted to forget. Everyone used to say that he had aged far beyond his years because of the fighting.
When I was in my twenties, I got a rare look into Gramps’ past. I had just joined the army and he told me about what the service was like when he was in. He never talked about the war, so this was a private moment between us. He spoke about the noise and the dead lying around on the battlefield. He described the musty, dirty smells of the trenches. Did I know that there were rats? They fed on anything – army horses, farm animals and human corpses.
One memory that’s always stuck with me was when Gramps described seeing a man cry for the first time. He was embarrassed and ashamed. Gramps felt that he was intruding on another person’s privacy, but where could he go? You couldn’t leave the trenches. Grown men would just sit by themselves, weeping openly. No one said anything. He finished off by saying that the trip back to Canada was a lonely time. Every day he sat on the deck of the ship, staring into space, re-living the memories of what would become ‘the war to end all wars’.
“No one learned a lesson from that.” was all he said.
He was actually one of three boys that went overseas to fight the Hun. Gramps was the only one that returned. His two brothers – Edward and Terry – died within hours of each other at Vimy Ridge, on the morning of April 9th, 1917. The fighting, the loss of his siblings and worrying about family took its toll.
Dad said that Gramps never talked to anyone about the days before 1919. Every Remembrance Day however, Gramps would dutifully go to the service at the local cenotaph. He never cried, but always seemed to drift away for a few minutes, staring into the distance – looking in vain for his two lost brothers perhaps.
Gramps died in 1986, but the farm is well cared for by a property agency. The fields are rented out to neighbours to cover the agency fees and taxes.
The 1870s era farmhouse looks much the same as it did when it was built. With the single addition of an indoor toilet in 1961, it stands as a snapshot of a bygone era. I’ll always remember it that way.
My first memories of the place were visits in the early 1960s. Unlike our farm, Gramps had no electricity or running water. There was a small pump in the kitchen and a larger one outside, a few feet from the front porch. A large wood stove provided heat. It also provided the hot water for baths, dishes and the laundry.
Whenever I went for a visit, Grandma used to chase Gramps and me out the door. He loved to go bird hunting but didn’t do enough of it, so Grandma said,
“Go out and get me a nice pheasant, Grampa,” she’d say. “And some rabbits too. I’m sick of chicken!”
Summer and early fall were my favourite times to go hunting. As a child, I enjoyed the simple pleasure of exploring the farm, oblivious to possession limits or the need to bring something home. Being outdoors was enough and Gramps helped instill that feeling by being one of my early hunting companions.
We’d spend our Saturdays walking around the hay fields or stalking the hardwood thickets that hid our supper. I think that Gramps secretly liked to play hooky from his farm chores and be a kid again. I carried an old single shot Cooey. Gramps had his 12 gauge side by side.
I was always leading the way, my 22 ready for anything. Gramps was a real good spotter. Whenever he saw a rabbit or a bird that he figured I could hit, he’d tap me on the shoulder, point and whisper.
“Look over there, Steve. About twenty yards away, under that maple.”
My rifle would bark, and if I was lucky, there would be game for the pot. Those were the memories that I treasure the most.
In 1986, I went to visit Gramps while on leave from the army. Ten years earlier, I had joined the Canadian Forces. I was unsure of how the family would take it back then, but I needn’t have worried. Both Dad and Gramps were proud that I had chosen to serve, but sad that I would be away from home. Nonetheless, they supported my decision and wrote me often, wherever in the world I went.
When I got to the farmhouse, Grandma met me at the door, gave me a big hug and said to come inside.
“I know it’s been about six months since you last visited us, Steve. I wanted to tell you that Gramps isn’t feeling well. He’s lost some weight and has trouble walking. Come on, he’s looking forward to seeing you.”
I went into the living room and saw Gramps sitting by the window, staring outside at the fields. He wasn’t the man I talked to last spring. He turned and smiled at me, looking very tired and frail. Gramps must have seen the reaction in my face because he said, “Come over and sit beside this old man, son. I won’t bite.” Then he looked at Grandma and said, “Why don’t you get us some tea, mother?”
Gramps waited for Grandma to go into the kitchen before speaking.
“Don’t look so sad, Steve. No one lives forever. A few years ago, the doctor told me that I had a cancer. It’s finally caught up to me. Oh, don’t worry. You know that poem about not going gently into the good night? Well, I ran ahead of it as long as I could.”
My eyes filled with tears. I tried, but couldn’t say anything. Then Gramps said,
“Last night I dreamed about my brothers, you know. I haven’t done that in years. Ed – he was the oldest – he used to tell me that I’d be the traveller in the family. Well, I proved him wrong. Except for going to France in the First War, the farthest I’ve never been is Toronto. I’ll rub that in his face when I see him.”
Gramps was saying goodbye.
“When you retire from the service, make sure that you come back here to live. You can settle down and take over this old place. It’s in good shape. I’ll leave my 12 gauge for you to use. You never did get a shotgun of your own. Take your 22 out of retirement and give it to your kids.”
We spent the afternoon chatting about all sorts of things. We reminisced about the farm, growing up, and later on, when I first joined the military. We laughed about Grandma, how the crows used to follow us when we went rabbit hunting and that, even after sixty years, army boots fit no better than when Gramps was in.
Just before supper, Gramps told me to go to my dad’s place and have something to eat. I could come back later. He gave me a picture of him taken in 1917, standing proudly in his uniform. He also handed over a box with his medals inside. He said to put them away for safekeeping. He said that future generations of our family mustn’t forget their relatives or anyone in uniform. He wanted his great-grandkids to see his picture and be able to touch his medals.
A little before 5:00 PM on Nov 10, 1986, I left for dad’s house. Gramps passed away less than an hour later.