My grandfather turned eighty-seven on Saturday. On Friday we took a tour of Eastern Ontario, then a ferry across to Quebec where we split the pizza special at a roadside place where they cook on an open fire. Afterwards we took the mountain road back to his hobby farm.
He bought it in the early 1960’s. At the time he worked in Montreal as an engineer at a large construction firm, but he took some college level agricultural courses and set out to be a gentleman farmer.
As an engineer he worked on some of the largest construction sites in Canada, including Churchill Falls, one of the largest dams in the world.
So, spending his summers a hundred miles from anything urban, and listening to the stories his neighbour’s had to tell about hunting, fishing, what time of year was best to plant which crop and not thinking about procurement schedules, or unions, or how to manage hundred-million dollar budgets, the farm became special for him.
It became someplace special to most of us. It was a meeting place for the family. My grandfather’s closest friends would bring their families up for a week or two. My mother and her art friends would come up for picnics. My brother and I would spend weeks there during the summer working with my grandfather, swimming in the cold mountain river and visiting with kids our age who lived relatively close.
When he was still a young dude my uncle would tear around with his buddies on their motorcycles, or race their cars on the narrow mountain roads. When my mom, brother and I were still living with my father we had twelve foster kids, all from one family. And we brought them to the farm for a few weeks. It was the first time they’d ever been out of the city.
My grandfather taught them how to use power tools, and the older of them learned how to drive. When I was nine he taught me how to drive the tractor. In the early 80’s he had a bulldozer and a front-end loader delivered to the farm from his firm for the summer. So he taught me how to work them as well.
My relationship with my grandfather has always been complicated by outside forces. When my mother finally left home she did so mostly because her own mother was abusive and not a little psychotic. If my grandmother had no reason to punish people, she had no problem creating one out thin air.
The nature of my grandfather’s work meant he was either away from home, or a home was created on the job site. So he was no help against the abuses against my mom. Then, when my mother and father and their friends started the cult / political collective we were to live in for the next ten years, my mother pushed further away from her parents because of the whole Communist v. Bourgeoisie class war.
So contact between my grandparents and myself was pretty limited for the first ten years of my life.
When we finally did escape, the farm was where we went to be safe while we searched for a place to live. For the next few years my relationship with my grandfather was defined by the relationship I had with my grandmother, who was using me as my mom’s substitute. At least once per visit my grandmother would manufacture an opportunity to have me — or sometimes my brother — punished.
Because the farm was so different than anywhere else I had lived — I was a city kid — and because there were so many interesting things to do there, it quickly became my favourite place on Earth, even with my grandmother’s mind games. My grandfather never really wanted the job, but in our short times together there he became the father figure I had never had before.
When I was ten I was in the deep Quebec mountains, carrying my grandfather’s chainsaw. Or carrying his axe. And helping him clean the logs, and dragging them back to the house to cut them up for firewood. When I was eleven I was driving his snowmobile up and down the long driveway. When I was twelve I was helping him bale hay, and driving his truck and the tractor.
When I was eleven or twelve he took my brother and I to the neighbour’s farm where they were slaughtering a cow. And I watched with him as they killed it in the field, tied it to the front-end loader, brought it back to the house and cut it open with a chainsaw.
The first time I fell in love was with the neighbour’s granddaughter. Every summer, when my mom announced we were going to the farm, I’d always ask if Leanne would be there. I still do. She built a house on the property right next to my grandfather’s farm.
My grandfather loved his farm, and he loved the people around it — when the mines closed down in the 1970’s he even made sure the men had a place on his job sites.
The only person who never liked being there was his wife. My grandmother hated the farm. Too many bugs, not enough stores. In 1982 my grandfather started to build a cottage further back into the mountains, but it was on a lake surrounded my upper-middle class cottages. So my grandmother was at least… happier.
So in 1985, or 1986, the cottage became the goto place for the family and their friends. I hated it at first. It took me years to get used to the idea we weren’t having Christmas at the farm anymore. Around that time my grandfather rented the farm out to a mountain family. He charges them $300 / month, which is barely enough to cover the bills and taxes.
The same family lives there now, their five kids all grew up on the farm and have moved away. The father raises and trains work horses, raises some cows but rents the fields out as pasture for the neighbour’s animals.
Since my grandfather rented the farm out it has been pretty rare for me to get a chance to visit. Back in 1990 (give or take) my grandfather, uncle and myself spent a couple of days there and planted more than 60,000 trees. But my grandfather, again at my grandmother’s insistence, sold his cottage and moved to a condo in Ottawa… which made my grandmother happy at last. But living in Ottawa, without having the cottage as an excuse for “dropping by” the farm, also limited my grandfather’s visits.
To me, my grandfather used the farm as a place to go to. He has always had a need to do something. He can’t just take time to walk around the downtown of a city. He gets bored quickly if there’s no purpose to what he’s doing. He’s been to almost every major city in the world, and hated them all. He can’t be bothered to look at architecture because he has built mega-projects all over the world.
To this day he can’t be involved in a conversation longer than ten minutes. Most of the men he knew who lived near his farm were quiet, spoke only about what they knew and hardly ever bullshitted. And they only met on Sunday after church.
But they’ve mostly passed on now, and my grandfather lives in an assisted living home. Which actually gives him access to the farm again, because the home is only an hour away.
Since I moved back to the area we’ve gone a few times together. But not often. My grandfather has run out of people to talk to, so since I came back we’ve been getting together more and more frequently. Like I said, our relationship is confusing. We’ve essentially bonded over our mutual understanding of suicide and depression, and our lack of anyone else to be with.
Of course, as he has gotten older, he has thought more and more about dying… both naturally and suicide. He doesn’t have much left in terms of things he can do, and places he can go. I asked him if there was anywhere in the world he’d like to go, or someplace he wanted to see before he pass on, and he said he’d seen it all and there was no point to travel anymore.
But he does go to his farm. He goes up to talk to the father of the family living there for a few minutes, he goes up to walk around the huge yard and to see the places where he felt most comfortable. He goes up there to see the barn he built, the hydraulic wood splitter he built, the extension he put on the farm house, he always stops by the cemetery where his friends are buried, and where he wants to be buried.
My problem has always been a lack of access to the farm. My mother feels the same way because her parents have never trusted her with a key to the place, even though my uncle has always had one. But that speaks to her relationship with her parents.
My larger problem, however, has been a lack of access to my grandfather, and that also speaks to my mother’s relationship with her parents.