Grandpère

Janet Romain

Anzel, a widow in her sixties, lives quietly on her small farm with her ninety-eight-year-old grandfather, a Carrier elder from Northern BC. Grandpère and Anzel pass the time playing fierce cribbage games, cutting firewood and tending the vegetable garden.

As the days pass Grandpère tells Anzel his life story, sharing heartbreaking memories: the death of his family in a devastating epidemic, growing up alone within a white community, his son’s murder at the hands of a horse thief, and his battle with and eventual triumph over alcoholism. When their extended family comes to visit on holidays and weekends, Grandpère, with the tenderness of an elder, tells the children of the Carrier traditions and values. Their days together are simple and happy, and when Anzel meets Jim, a caretaker at the local pensioners’ home, life seems complete.

But one day a taxi arrives from town. Its passenger is Angel, a frightened thirteen-year-old stranger who claims to be Anzel’s granddaughter. Her father, she says, was Anzel’s youngest son Ben, who was killed in a car crash fourteen years prior. Angel’s mother, alone and pregnant with Ben’s child, ran away to the city to raise the child far from the disapproving eyes of her family. But after years of poverty and loneliness, she succumbed to the streets of Vancouver. Angel, neglected and abused at the hands of her mother’s new boyfriend, followed the trail to her father’s family. When Anzel takes in this unknown granddaughter, she and her family must act quickly to protect her.

Romain’s first novel, Grandpère is a tender story of determination, loss and family love.

I have my pen and pad on my lap, ready. I smile at my Grandpére. He is so old and smaller than me now, his once brawny muscles shrunken away, but his wits are about him as clear as day. His dark eyes still twinkle. He sits in his favourite chair framed by sunlight streaming in through the window. His ever-present cane, which he always calls a walking stick, leans on the side of the chair. It’s covered with carvings of every animal in the bush. He is dressed in denim jeans held up by a flat-braided rope with its ends tasselled and beaded. His plaid bush jacket is tattered on the cuffs and looks as though it has seen better days, but he hasn’t worn the new one I bought for him and says this one is still good enough for now. It’s just like him, getting a little frayed on the edges.

I have promised to write some things down for him.

“Tell them,” he says. “Tell them, Anzel. Start with the people.” He pauses for a long time, closes his eyes and continues. “My childhood name was SiMon Wakim. It means Little Salt Brother. In English they named me Simon Walker. I still have that name.” He opens his eyes, smiles and nods.

“My people were a family of three brothers living in a village with their wives and children. We had four elders, three of them women and one man. The old people were still strong, but we all looked after them, making sure they had wood in the winter and food. We were happy.”

Grandpére is in storytelling mode, sitting up straight-backed in the chair, swaying gently back and forth with that look of detachment that tells me he is reaching somewhere for his words. His sentences are not coming out with the usual smooth flow that characterizes most of his stories. He loves to tell the old stories.

“We were living in the land of plenty,” he goes on. “Sometimes we were hungry but we never starved, and we always trusted a higher power would end our hunger. When it did, we always gave thanks, and the skinny times taught us to rejoice in the fat times.

“The people were safer then. There were no jails, but there was justice. There were no drunks. There was rarely any sickness. Everybody was good at something, and everyone fit in.

“At our gatherings we had speeches and dancing. It all was important.

“The families and the tribes knew their place in the world, but things changed very fast when white people and their God came into our land. Contact with white men made us grow up fast. Do or die. Many died. No one survived unchanged.

“My life has been witness to many changes. Some are good, some are bad.

“There are so many things to tell, Granddaughter.” He looks at me with faraway eyes. “I have to think for a while.” He smiles and closes his eyes. He was out with me early this morning in the garden and will probably sleep in the summer sun for a couple of hours, till lunch at least. I have such love for this old man. He looms through my life in all its seasons, his presence always so much larger than his frame, now that it’s shrunken in his late nineties, and very much still alive.

I leave him stretched out in his recliner in the breeze through the screen door, his hand on his walking stick, and go outside. The weeds in the garden are growing as fast as the young vegetables, and for the last two days I’ve been pulling them. There’s only one end of a row left to do, and I decide to finish it. The soil is warm, and the weeds come out easily. It is enjoyable to be out in the sun, and weeding feels more like play than work.

I come in a bit late to make a lunch of fried eggs and toast; it’s just going to take a minute. Grandpére is up already, sitting at the table. He mustn’t have slept long, since it takes him a while to walk from the living room to the table. Once I offered to get him one of those motorized wheelchairs, but he answered me with a look of utter scorn and told me that if he couldn’t walk from the window to the table, he would just as soon be dead. No arguing with that logic. No even mentioning it again.

He eats well, although lately he seems to do everything so slowly that I have a hard time adjusting. By the time I’ve cleaned the frying pan and counter, he’s done with his plate. “Thank you,” he says. “That was very good.” It doesn’t matter what kind of crazy meal I serve, he always says that. It always makes me feel good.

I take the eggshells and bread crusts out to the chickens. They scramble to grab the scraps, running with their snatched beakfuls to some quiet corner where they can eat without competition. Grandpére always leaves his crusts now. He says old men and babies don’t need to eat crusts. I don’t care. The chickens have never eaten as well as they have since he came here to live. I bring in the eggs, seven today from just eleven chickens. It pleases me that these old hens are laying well. They have the run of the place, and out here in the country they are welcome companions, protected from the wild by the two guard dogs. A lot of coyotes and foxes in the bush are fond of chicken dinner, so Duke and Blue make it their business to patrol the yard. Duke is old, a husky-collie cross, and may be the best dog we’ve ever lived with. Blue is only three years old, a Pyrenees-heeler cross, and is the most peculiar looking dog. His coat is almost blue, his expression is comical and his energy is boundless. Duke and Blue are good company. We’re friends, these two giant dogs and I.

Going back to the house by the long path, I pass the garden. It’s glorious in its summer array. Over the years we filled it with perennial flowers from around the world, all blooming here in the centre of BC. The vegetables now take up the open places: spinach and young salad greens, radishes and green onions, all ready for the evening meal. Picking enough for a salad for me and Grandpère doesn’t take long, but I see a few more weeds to pull and flowers for a bouquet, so when I get back to the house, I’ve been gone over an hour. I put the greens in cold water in the sink, set the flowers in a vase and go to visit with him.

He is back in the easy chair. He beckons me over and points at the notepad, smiling. “I am going to tell you the things I want you to write,” he says. I grab my notebook and pen, and he begins.

Grandpère is a marvel to read and woven with such beauty and tenderness. Romain’s writing is a tribute to the power of family, love’s blessings and time’s healing ways. I never wanted it to end … An instant classic.”

— Richard Van Camp
author of The Lesser Blessed and The Moon of Letting Go