To my knowledge, there is no photo in existence of my Grandpa Leahy and me. Despite our close relationship and the fact that we were together not only in the world but around the corner from each other for 24 years, the photographic evidence is lacking.
There’s an adorable shot of my younger brother Ed, a toddler standing with his head on Grandpa’s lap as he sat by the woodstove. Some of my cousins have lovely photos. But me? Nada.
Visits to see our Leahy grandparents couldn’t have been any more convenient: my parents severed a lot and built our family home on the farm in Douro, Ontario before we were even born. We could get to the farmhouse in 10 minutes walking by road, 30 minutes by a meandering path through the woods, or two minutes by car which yes, is the option I preferred for all winter visits. When I was a child we might go as a foursome or Dad with the two of us kids, but as I got older Dad encouraged me to visit by myself. “Someday you’ll be glad you had that time together.” And since I (almost) always did what my father told me, I began to pop in on my own, first to visit both grandparents and later just Grandpa.
After my visits I would go home and scribble notes in a lined notebook I had been given years earlier: pink with a photograph of teddy bears on the front of it. My favourite stories were from Grandpa’s (relatively) younger years, like the time he and his cousin Ferg were pulled over by the police on their way to the Norwood Fair. They were terrified that the cops would find the flask of whiskey in the glove compartment, but it turned out they were only looking for a convict who had escaped from Warkworth Prison.
It was through Ferg that Grandpa got to know my Grandma (Leona), as Ferg was dating and eventually married her sister, Vera. When Grandpa expressed his interest in Leona, Ferg warned him, “I think that one’s bound for the nunnery”. Decades later recounting this story, Grandpa explained to me in an uncharacteristically colourful manner (which I am rephrasing here) that he actually appreciated Grandma’s innocence when it came to romantic relationships.
The time eventually came one evening when Grandpa was dropping Grandma off at home after a date and she asked him, “If this is going somewhere, don’t you think we should get married?” and ever the romantic, Grandpa replied, “Yes, I guess we should.” A ring soon followed, and as Grandpa recalls, one evening after a family dinner Vera and Leona were doing the dishes together when Vera spotted the diamond, “and she just squealed!”
In later years as Grandma suffered from dementia, Grandpa certainly held his own as the loving husband, but I would never cast him as a martyr in that marriage; after the wedding my Grandma willingly moved into the family farmhouse with her husband’s parents and brother, who remained there for the rest of their lives, as my grandparents went on to raise eight children of their own (my Dad, Ed, being number three). Funnily enough, when I married in 2001 it would have actually been possible for me to repeat history and move into a different farmhouse in a different community with my husband’s parents and brother, but fortunately that idea was never floated. Despite my affection for my in-laws, it would have been shot down immediately with an adamant “Hell, no”.
My two Grandpas, Cooper and Leahy, at my parents’ wedding rehearsal dinner
After Grandma died in 1998 – I felt blessed to be with her children by her side in the hospital when that moment came – my trips to the farm picked up, along with my post-visit note-taking. Often I would bring baked goods – pies were a hit – though Grandpa always assured me, “You didn’t need to do that”. I like to think those assurances were a reflection of his manners and not the quality of the food.
A unique marker of our time together is that neither of us was concerned about lulls in the conversation, and would sit in companionable silence for minutes at a time before one or the other was ready to ask a question or share more information. Grandpa’s signature “tsk, tsk” and head shake would be the reply to any noteworthy news items, whether positive or negative. Whether I announced that I had won an award or suffered an ailment, the response would be the same. When he spoke, his hand-rolled cigarette hanging out of his mouth, you could often catch a glimmer of an Irish brogue, four generations later. I still laugh at some of his expressions, for example referring to the brother he lived with his entire life as “the other man” – particularly funny at the time it was said, as the Sloan song of the same name had just hit the radio.
Grandma and Grandpa
I was tempted to boast that I could remember exactly where we were each sitting when I explained the concept of email to him (not something he ever tried, but he did wonder at the idea of letters travelling through computers) but the memory of our positions isn’t exactly remarkable as we seemed to have “assigned seats” at opposite ends of the kitchen table. If only I’d had a cell phone to take in with me back then, perhaps I could have also taught him about selfies, with a photo to treasure the moment. (The concept of a selfie would most definitely have been greeted with a “tsk, tsk” and shake of the head.)
When I finished the Trent/Queen’s Concurrent Education program in 2000, my parents hosted a family party which Grandpa briefly attended. While there was no card or gift that I recall (and never hugs, kisses, or “I love you”s), as we said goodbye at the door he quickly brushed my cheek with a knuckle, which was evidently a meaningful enough gesture to still be at the forefront of my mind 20 years later.
Uncle Bernard drew this fantastic portrait of Grandpa
Grandpa was in attendance at my wedding, less than a year before he died. Unfortunately the July heat of the church was too much for him and he had to go home without being part of the reception or any photos – which of course I completely understood but which still makes me sad on occasion, as I long for that photographic proof of our relationship..
While fairly healthy for most of his life, Grandpa suffered some heart problems once he reached his 80s, and a fall in the basement in early 2002 led to hospitalization for broken bones. At that time, my husband and I were living in a Peterborough apartment not far from the hospital, and I was able to continue my visits there, hanging out in his hospital room on school nights, or popping in on the weekends. After the St. Patrick’s Day Parade my husband and I stopped in to share the details, but couldn’t quite make out a question Grandpa asked us. (To be honest, the slight accent I made reference to earlier was at times more of a deep mumble.) I asked him to repeat himself, but still no luck. “WHOSE TRUCKS?” he tried again loudly, making each word two syllables and his impatience clear. To this day we use that phrase as an inside joke when we didn’t quite catch what the other person said.
As many older (and some younger) people fear, what seemed like a straightforward reason to be hospitalized led to complications like pneumonia, and Grandpa’s stay was lengthened. When heavily medicated, it was fascinating to watch him lying in bed semi-conscious, instinctively rolling his own cigarettes out of thin air.
On April 1, 2002 (Easter Monday that year as well as April Fool’s Day) my cousin Kerry and I were part of the group holding vigil at the hospital, but were sent out at lunchtime to pick up some food. My Dad was in the parking lot to meet us when we returned: “Bring the pizzas back to our house. He’s gone.” While at the time I regretted having left, he was well taken care of as just like his wife, he died surrounded by his children, who, along with his grandchildren, keep his legacy alive to this day through faith, family and farming. (Two out of three is the best I can do, Grandpa.)
As for my special notebook, it disappeared several years ago. While those who know me well could very reasonably assume that my ruthless purging habits led me to unknowingly throw it out, I find that highly unlikely and actually believe it may have been accidentally stolen – but that’s a story for another time. That said, I do hope that instead it’s hidden in an unexpected place in my home and I – or someone – will have a beautiful surprise when one day it is unearthed. Regardless, the acts of writing and rereading those stories over the years appear to have been enough to sear the memories in my mind.
I need no notes to recall my favourite memory of being with my Grandpa Leahy. It was just a regular day in the farmhouse, standing by the large table-serving-as-counter under the window where my blueberry pie cooled. After I put my shoes on and said goodbye, Grandpa paused.
“You mean a lot to me, you know.”
Stunned,it took me a moment to respond. “You mean a lot to me too.”
“I wondered,” he replied, nodding.
Maybe I don’t need a photo after all.