My parents' wedding 1959

My parents’ wedding 1959










I never knew my grandparents. Now, that’s not entirely true because I did meet my paternal grandfather a few months before he died when I was eleven or so. At the time I thought, wow, he is a smaller version of my dad with a bigger nose and who is that lady he lives with?

Like I said, I was about 11 or so. He died not long after. What I really regretted about that is that I grew up thinking he was dead like my other grandparents. I found out he wasn’t when my dad was told he was dying and it was now or never in terms of reconciliation. The first time I saw him was at his small apartment somewhere in downtown Ottawa; he was okay I thought and my sister and I were there and I was totally intrigued by this smaller version of my dad, he seemed so…well, nice. Why didn’t we know he was there? I still don’t know and I’m 53 now.  Some secrets live longer than the people that kept them.  My dad died in 1995, before my son was born.  To this day, I miss my dad.

When I grew older dad was my very best friend.  This was after the big split between mom and dad, and after he and I had that blow up where I gave him the teenaged choice of being a friend or nothing at all since I considered him a not so great father.  He chose friend.  I am eternally grateful for that choice, and I wish there had been such a successful choice between him and his dad.  Maybe I would have known my grandpa Harris.

I do remember there was this biggish lady around. I don’t know who she was but I guess she was his girlfriend. Whatever she was, I don’t really care. My grandmother died sometime after she held me in her arms as an infant shortly after my family arrived back from a posting in Europe. I was a baby, she was 50 and she didn’t live long after that. I do know she was happy she got to see me, especially because apparently I look exactly like her. I wish I knew. I have one photo of her and she’s looking at the floor. She was adopted and there were a whack of weird possible parentages for her, including an American actor from Vaudeville and something about part French or Indian or possibly Italian and her adopted mother was even weirder with her very loud parrot in the living room that scared the bejesus out of my dad and all anyone knew was something about a visit to Cornwall and that great-grandmother was married several times but there was no denying how Irish she was, given her accent and superstitions.  There was even speculation she was really the mom.  Regardless –

I am Irish, that much I know. From my mother’s side and my dad’s side the most of it is Irish. Yes, I’m Irish, I’m the best of the Orange and Green coming from both Protestant (Anglican) and Roman Catholic lineage. My dad was Roman Catholic, my mom is high Anglican which in reality is as close to Catholic as you can get without the Pope. My own upbringing involved a bunch of both, though I was baptized Anglican I did attend a Catholic school once and went to church depending on which way the ecclesiastical wind blew on whatever Sunday. Church for me meant choir (which I admit I loved, I love singing) and I abandoned the lot after I was denied being a soloist after I was asked to be by the choir master because their usual soloist complained vociferously once she found out. It was my first lesson on artistic ego and the last of those church battles I was interested in fighting.

Regardless, church has nothing to do with my grandparents except that I attended my grandfather’s funeral in St. Patrick’s cathedral in Ottawa when I was something like 12. My grandfather was a trolley driver who lived in lowertown Ottawa until that whole area was expropriated by the government and wound up in some small apartment near Dalhousie and…I really wish I had known him.  When he died, the OTC (Ottawa Transit Commission, now OC Transpo) sent him a really nice floral arrangement that probably cost the equivalent of his first few months salary. He died at aged 70 or so, long after the trolley tracks had been dug up and the very old houses of Lebreton Flats, home of the Catholic Irish, French, Italians, Indians and mixtures thereof had been bulldozed.

I spent a couple of years on  bus routes that run through empty grass filled lots with indentations where foundations were and strips of broken down weed-laden road going nowhere reminisced a different world and every day I wondered: dad is this where you grew up?  He did, but I have no idea what overgrown street was what, and no pictures at all of before he was my dad, except for an odd photo album that resided in a desk I cleaned out after he died.  Nothing showed his life in the Ottawa that is barely remembered now.

My other grandparents are somewhat simpler to fathom.  My mom’s dad was an Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) of Customs during WWII.  His brother was an editor for Hansard.  That grandfather never got a university degree, which limited his progress in the civil service but, that’s the highest you can go in the civil service without being obviously political so maybe that’s as high as he wanted to go. Great-grandfather was a school teacher in PEI who died in his mid-nineties.  He is still remembered for whacking cars with his walking stick when they turned in front of him.   My mother’s father died 3 years before I born.  His wife, my maternal grandmother died young of a brain tumor on VE day.

There’s a few interesting mysteries in our family history that has led me to explore it more, including whether my grandmother really was adopted (she was) and if possible who her mother was (I may have found that but I’m not sure); there’s another mystery of one of my great-grandparents who went to the US and never came back – that one is sweet in that she remarried and stayed married for nearly thirty years and lied about her age when married.  I’m finding all sorts of tidbits farther back that are fascinating – one fellow was a judge in New York who survived the Cherry Hill massacre as a child.  He settled in Cherry Hill PEI (now part of Charlottetown I think).  My guess is that’s where Cherry Hill got its name.

So that’s it for grandparents for me.  In effect, I had none that were a real presence in my life.  So when you’re raised without them it is easy to imagine what grandparents are like.  You know – the cottage owning good time Charlies who take their grandchildren on fun outings and keep them for short and long periods of time and are an endless source of cookies and hugs.  The reality is probably a lot less exciting, though I do know children who have grandparents like that.  Nowadays grandparents are often still working, still as busy as they were before they were grandparents.  Which makes me think:  how much are we losing by our constant work and activities filling every single hour of every single day?  It seems we all do it, parents, kids, grandparents.  The problem is that time passes us by so quickly these days, in the blink of an eye those ever-waking babies turn into teenagers then adults themselves.  I know this because that’s exactly what has happened to my children, and there are many days I’d like to turn back the clock and have more time with them.  And I wonder what kind of grandmother I’ll eventually be, because we’re a lot poorer than when we were children, and to be the fun grandmom I’d need money I just don’t have.

My children thankfully were much more fortunate.  When my daughter was born, she was the only grandchild on my husband’s side, and the only granddaughter for my parents.  My father was still alive when she small, as was her great-grandmother.  Grammie-great as she was called, just adored her little great-granddaughter.  Grandpa regaled her with stories in his lovely voice and I have video of them having a bit of a tea party.  When he died, daughter said, “we’ve only got old ladies now!” which was funny and heart-breakingly true.  Grammie-great passed away a year or so later, and one night after I had settled our tiny new son into his crib and checked in on daughter as she slept, I heard a voice clearly say to me, “My how she’s grown!” in a New England accent.  Husband was out of town that night, and all I could do was say to the voice, “Why yes, she has.”  He, and I, were convinced that Grammie-great was paying a visit.

Son wasn’t here yet when his grandpa died, and not quite born when grammie-great left us.  He didn’t suffer for grandmothers though, because he did have those and eventually a step-grandma too.  I wish he’d have known my father; I see shades of dad in him, and in some pictures he looks like him too.  I love that.

Not having grandparents in the same city for one, and province for the other meant that the usual day-to-day grandma times couldn’t happen for my children.  That dad traveled extensively and worked long hours when he wasn’t, and mom worked full time and traveled sometimes too made childcare a nightmare to contemplate.  If I had to do it over, I would have put my foot down when after having son I realized after expenses I’d be working for $100 a month but husband thought it better I go back anyway.  Had I really thought it through the savings on taxes would have more than covered that.  So, live and learn, and I hope people reading this who may be in that position themselves really do the full calculations.  As I said before, time passes so quickly, before you know it they are grown.  And it’s occurred to me that as much as I thought I was making a difference in my work, at the end of the day I don’t think I did.  I was just another cog in the wheel.

After a couple of not quite perfect babysitters for daughter, we happened across a woman and her family who did babysitting in our building.  What started out as a nice arrangement turned into as close to family as you can get, and in many ways that family stood in for the far flung grandparents my children missed.  It was the beginning of a relationship that started with daughter and continued with son also.  They were made a part of their lives and I will be forever grateful for the overnight babysitting when I was traveling and the emotional support I got when I took the step to be on my own.  They helped find me a place and with the move, and most importantly with the picking up of the pieces.  They were the daily family we just didn’t have, and I am very happy we still keep in the touch and that daughter has been able to see them once in a while.  I believe that people closest to us are part of a soul family that travels through lifetimes, and you know, I’d say Sandra and her family would fit that.  So too does Cyndi and her family; they fit the bill for aunt and uncle and cousins and again, so much a part of our lives with our backyard parties, visits to their family cottage, and later, as nearby mom when Ottawa called and I answered.

Now, not having blood relatives on our doorstep doesn’t mean that my children grew up without them.  Quite the opposite.  Grandma would visit, sometimes alone, most often with my sister and her family.  So would grammie and Ann, her best friend.  When the children got old enough they traveled to New Brunswick to spend the summers with grammie at the cottage.  Son later moved in with dad at Grammie’s when her health became a 24 hour a day issue and son wanted a change of scene.

For my family we travelled to Ottawa when we could as a family until I actually was there.  If there was one thing I realized it’s that when you are working and dealing with day to day stuff, it’s almost easier to stay close when you live far away because you have to make time to visit.  Thank heavens for telephones and now email and other fun ways to stay in touch.  In many ways the world is so much smaller than when I was growing up, and for that I am grateful.

The strangest thing in all of this is that now I realize that at my age I could be a grandmother and if fortune and good health smiles on me, I’ll not only be around and maybe, just maybe be a great-grandmother too.  Who knows, my own mother who is a grandmother six times over is in her 90s now and while not a great-grandmother yet some day she may be.  Regardless, my mother was so glad she had us then lived to see grandchildren that anything beyond that for her is icing on the cake.

My family is like many others, where people lose touch and rifts happen, people say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing and what do you know, it’s thirty years later and you don’t know if so and so is even still alive.  It’s sad when that happens and I will admit I’m not an angel myself when it comes to keeping my distance but one thing I always will do is make sure that they are in my thoughts and keep the door a crack open, if only to say hi once in a while.

Catherine M. Harris, (c) 2015


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