It was the best story of the day. And there were many.
My 94-year-old grandfather was a notorious storyteller. So the weekend of his funeral has been filled with memories, stories, laughs and tears. Just as a full life should be honoured…
But the story that turned out to be my favourite was quite unexpected.
My Mum, also an amazing storyteller, asked me last week to read over the notes for her talk and I fell in love all over again with one of my favourite stories from childhood.
As the story goes, my grandfather, at age 11, discovered bird watching, which was to become one of his lifelong passions. One Saturday, he was rambling around the neighbourhood with his friends when they came upon 2 saw whet owlets, which he caught, stuffed in his coat and took back to the family home on the Queen streetcar. They put the owlets on a ledge in the ceiling of the family dining room and promptly forgot about them.
The next day, his father (a Canon in the Anglican church) had important guests from the church for Sunday dinner. Moments after everyone sat down, one of the owlets, hooting loudly and in a flurry of feathers, swooped over the table and pooped on the bowl of potatoes.
He remembers his mother locking eyes with him, long and hard. She stood up and said calmly to the guests “Perhaps we should step into the parlour for a minute.” My grandfather was left to deal with the owlets and the potatoes before the guests returned. He would laugh his most mischievous laugh when he ended the story with “And my mother never said a word about it. Ever.”
I loved that story. I loved it when he told us. I loved the way he locked eyes with us when he talked about how his mother locked eyes with him. He looked both stern and pious, as I can imagine my great-grandma Sadie did when she looked at him that day, so many years ago. And I love it when my Mum tells that story too.
I expected that to be my favourite story. Because it was his love of nature that I found most endearing about my grandfather. He knew everything about ferns and birds and beasts of all manner, and I always felt most connected to him when we were walking in the woods, or sharing stories about adventures in nature. And it fills me with joy to know that he donated the woods and property he loved so much to the Nature Conservancy, so that now it belongs to all Canadians. You can read more about his beautiful dedication to nature here.
So, it was much to my surprise that my favourite story was not about nature at all. It was about his medical career. It surprised me because I am conflicted in how I feel about his devotion to medicine. As you can read here, his pioneering and brilliant work continues to save countless lives. I admire his scientific curiosity. Genius, really. But, as his grandchild, what I remember most about his career was that sometimes, when we found a salamander or saw a bird we couldn’t identify and desperately needed to ask him, he was not available because “he’s not to be disturbed when he’s working on his papers”. When you’re a kid and you just want your family to be present, plugged in and connected to you, it doesn’t matter what thing is so important, you only feel that it is more important than you.
I was prepared to mostly tune out, hug my kids and touch my Mum on the shoulder when we got to the accolades for his career. But, it was at this point that my cousin shared the story that ended up being my favourite.
As the story goes, he was doing rounds with a young resident. My grandfather was instructing the resident as to the specifics of a particular patient. The resident suggested, politely, that he had read something in one of his textbooks that contradicted what my grandfather was telling him. “You’re wrong”, my grandfather, the great man proclaimed. Sheepishly, the resident shut his mouth and they moved on.
The next day, my grandfather arrived at the hospital to find this young resident, with the textbook in his hands, eager to show my grandfather the evidence to back up his point, so they could further discuss the particulars of their patient. My grandfather looked at the resident, took the textbook out of his hands and took out a pen. He glanced at the text, clicked the pen and began to write. The resident watched as he wrote in capital letters, right on the paragraph in question, just one word: BALLS.