Eric Foley has completed a memoir, I Was Young When I Left Home
My grandfather calls an ambulance a take-’em-away. He calls a cemetery a dead feet. He calls his cottage the fishbone, as in: “Have you driven up all the way to the … fishbone, before?” To which I answer, “Yes.”
The backs of his hands are hard and dark purple from the blood thinners he’s been on for 40 years, ever since his angina. His arms and legs bruise easily. Sores on his face take a long time to heal.
There’s a pill he takes with lunch, and a pill he takes with dinner. They are not the same. My grandmother puts the one for lunch in a small circular silver case. She puts the one for dinner on his plate. Often he forgets whether he’s taken the dinner pill, and then, laughing, the three of us search for it amidst his food.
“Oh well,” my grandfather sighs. “Lots of things happen in life, some good some bad.”
Earlier today I cleaned out his electric razor and helped him shave. “Look up,” I said. As I moved the machine in little circles over his furrowed jowls, eliminating the short dark hairs and the long light hairs, I thought of how once, years ago, when I was living in Morocco—days of dusty joy and paranoia—he handwrote me a letter that ended with the words: “I hope you’re working hard and not drinking too much.”
He was born in 1929 in a gas station in Whitby, Ontario. His father was a gambler, a drinker, a semi-pro hockey player, and a bootlegger who died young, so my grandfather left school at 14 and went to work. He used to brag that he’d only ever read two books in his life: Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. He preferred the former. “Chest back, shoulders out,” he’d tell my brother and me. When we fell and scraped our knees, his advice was: “Just spit on it.”
Now, at the Hong Kong House, the cheapest luncheon in Oshawa, he tells us: “What gets me these days is, everywhere I go, I seem to be the ol—… old … oldest one.”
I’ve spent a considerable portion my life worried about how others see me; my grandfather has always appeared free from this obsession. The gap between who he is and who he wants to be often seems imperceptible. Until recently, he was able to say what he wanted to say, do what he wanted to do, and that was that. One of the few things he felt ambivalent about was that he had been too young to serve during World War II. This manifested itself in his interest in black and white films about the war on television, and in telling my father, when he was four years old and had just fallen down the cellar stairs and broken his arm, to think of how much worse the soldiers had had it in the trenches.
The gap between who he is and who he wants to be often seems imperceptible.
I only saw him really cry three times. Once, as a kid, when for Christmas I gave him a birdhouse I’d made. Once when my baby brother’s coffin was set into the ground. The third time was last week at Wimpy’s Diner. He was telling me about the plumbing company he built up from himself and one truck into an operation that employed hundreds of people. Suddenly his lips started to tremble: “When I think of how I used to do all that work across the province and away out in Winnipeg and Montreal, I can’t … I can’t even imagine how I did it all.”
I remember a story he used to tell, always at mealtimes, about two tough plumbers he worked with: brothers who were digging for a pipe on opposite sides of a fence. They only had one shovel, and would throw it back and forth to each other. The younger brother tossed the shovel over to the older one, who wasn’t expecting it, and the blade landed on the bridge of the older brother’s nose. The older brother’s nose flapped down onto his upper lip. He went home and his mom pushed it back up, put a piece of tape over it, and then he went back to work.
Half of my grandfather’s teeth are gone. The rest are wearing thin. The dentist, a Moldavian Jew who emigrated from his hometown of Piatra Neamt as a boy and still pines for those gentle hills, shoots an X-ray and calls me into his back office to show me the deep gauges from 75 years of toothpicking. “There’s not much we can do,” the dentist says. “If he starts complaining about pain, the next step will be to pull them all out and make a complete set of dentures.”
“Yep,” my grandfather says as we walk out to the parking lot afterwards, “I guess you only live about 200 years.”
He’s always favoured large suit jackets, but now they sit huge on his shrunken shoulders. He has a body, and that body has changed. He also likes to comment on the bodies of others. He used to say:
“You looks like you lost some weight since I last saw you. You look pretty good now.”
Or: “You look all right now, but the last time I saw you, you looked better.”
I learned that it was best to send him a picture in which I looked particularly fat; that way, when he saw me in person, he was bound to be complimentary.
Now he’s mellowed; the comments are less personal. As I drive him in his red Cadillac to his favourite store, Walmart (which he calls George’s), he’ll say in a soft, hoarse voice:
“Jeepers, there’s a long tall guy there.”
Or: “Wowy, that girl’s got a nice big … bundle of hair.”
“Until recently, he was able to say what he wanted to say, do what he wanted to do, and that was that.”
We’re driving around trying to find some plots of land he wants to look at, but he can’t remember what street they’re on. I start to feel like my blood sugar is going low, so we stop at Tim Horton’s on Simcoe North. An older guy sits by the gas fireplace inside, dressed in a bright crossing guard jacket. He starts talking to my grandfather. I eat a donut, check my insulin pump, stay silent. When the guy finds out my grandfather’s name, he perks up:
“John Foley, of Foley Heating and Plumbing? You’re not the one who took me to the hospital, are you?”
“I don’t know,” my grandfather says.
“Back in ’93 I jumped the fence in your yard and tore my sac open, had to go to the hospital.”
“Do you know McGrath?”
“Yeah, I know him. I used to work with him.”
“He’s my neighbour. I was riding around with one of the Stevens boys. You remember them? There were eleven of them. We were collecting scrap metal and he wanted to go all the way into Toronto, and I said I’m not going, so he let me off at the side of the 401 there by your office, and I hopped your fence. Sliced my sac right open on the top of it. Someone there took me to the hospital. I got a cyst on it now the size of a softball. I gotta see a doctor about that.”
My grandfather looks at him blankly, and then interest grows in his eyes. “Do you have a crack in your tooth? Let me see that.”
“Yeah, it broke,” the guy in the crossing guard jacket says.
“Mine broke too. It fell out onto the floor yesterday.”
These last couple of years, he’s started to forget: words, dates, names, places. Most days now he can’t remember what he had for lunch. But when we drive past a new subdivision, he tells me about when it was a field and he and his best friend were paid to pick raspberries there.
Scrawled in black ink, in his own handwriting, are the words: “Fear no man.”
He keeps a laminated yellow card in his wallet that reads: “I am a Catholic. In case of emergencies, please call a priest.” Next to this is a piece of white paper, thinner, faded, and almost worn to pieces from folding and refolding. His veiny hands shake a little more each time he takes it out and shows it to me. Scrawled in black ink, in his own handwriting, are the words: “Fear no man.”
I read the message with a silent thrill, followed by an ache of something like regret: the words spring from a life so different from my own. I admire my grandfather’s credo, like I admire the stubborn will of the man himself, but if I told you I’ve tried to live the way he has for even an hour, this would be fiction.
One more thing about my grandfather: in the spring of 1944, as the Red Army was gradually beating back the Germans on the Eastern Front, he held a pigeon close to his lean torso, tucked in under his coat. He stood at the bus stop across from St. Gregory’s Church in Oshawa and felt the pigeon’s heart beat against his fingertips, the warmth of that smaller body against his own. The sun shone down on his big nose and his dark cropped hair. When the bus arrived and the doors opened, he tossed the bird inside, then turned and ran, his head thrown back, laughing.
Eric Foley has been a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award, the Hart House Literary Contest, and the winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. His work can be found online at Numéro Cinq. Foley has completed a memoir, I Was Young When I Left Home, and is currently working on a novel. He divides his time between Ontario and Eastern Europe.
This essay is part of a month long series on writing the body.