Day Five of Tim’s 12 Days of Writing Challenge

As incredible as it is to consider, December 27th, 2022 marked what would have been my Grandfather Norton’s 106th birthday.  There has not been a year since 1993 that I had found myself pained with the echoed sense of loss I felt on that sad day when I received a call from my father that started with that dreadful question…

“Are you sitting down?”.

To this day, those words still haunt me, and even though the rending touch of time has caused that question to be asked far too many times this was likely the one I felt the hardest.  I had experienced the tragic passing of a friend only a few years before, an event which taught me a crushing lesson in the fleetingness of life and how we should value every moment.  However, my brain was still compartmentalising – giving me the illusion that family were immortal.  That they would always be there.

As we all know, life can be beautiful.  But it can also be cruel.

I had just shy of nineteen years with him.  And twenty-nine years later, I still sporadically stop to imagine and remember and go with the thoughts and images spiralling in my head of this man and to consider what a huge impact he had on my character.  Whether it be when I teach manners to my children, go out into the community to help others or even to just get up on stage and dance, I can still picture so many moments; so many feelings.  His spirit looking down at me from that place he refused to believe in, even though many a minister called him the most Christian man they’d ever met.  A mantel I set for myself, to always try to do him proud. 

To hold a door randomly for strangers.

To talk to a child at their level rather than down to.

To accept your wins with humility.

To learn from mistakes and run with them rather than away.

That a small joke at just the right moment can crack tension, but to not be too crass in mixed company.  Just have your buddies there?  Go ahead, go blue…it’s all good.

That a tape deck and a lonely, imaginative child can be best friends.

That a bedtime story told to a young child is the greatest power on earth.

That even the toughest scars can heal. 

Lysle Alfred Norton, known to everyone as Bill, was born in Bolton, Ontario in 1916.  I remember asking him multiple times about his childhood and he didn’t like to talk that much about it.  I do know that he and his brother James David Norton (known as Jim) were born from their widower father’s second marriage, and that there had been some tension in the family because after their mother passed the family did not want both wives to be buried in the same plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Bill and James fought for this though, and it did cause some irreparable harm to their relationship with the other Nortons from the Bolton and surrounding area.

Beyond this, I know he played semi-professional hockey and lacrosse as a young man, met the woman of his dreams, Elizabeth (Beth) Florence Robertson, and would go on to marry her, though certainly leaving her anxious as he served his country overseas during World War II in the Armored Tank division.
Fortunately, he returned from the war, while not necessarily unscathed. He had sustained injuries to both knees, and for quite some time fought the ghosts of his enemies in a bottle, as I’m certain many of his comrades did.

I know there were lots of stories that Grandpa had from the war, but they were not for me.  He was very careful to not discuss them when he thought I was present.  Whether it be from the horrors experienced or crassness of drunken adventures they had to pass the time I’m not sure.  I remember him regaling an elder cousin with a story that involved a knife and an enemy soldier when he thought I was out of earshot, but then stopped abruptly when he saw me coming down the stairs.  I caught enough to know it’s not something that should be shared for sensitivity reasons, and I’m certain I’d get the context wrong.

Together with Beth, they settled down in Woodbridge. Unable to have children of their own, they chose to raise my father David after adopting him at a young age.  As that would my father’s tale to tell, I won’t go into too many details here, but I do know that occasionally Bill’s demons didn’t make things easy for either Beth or my father, and I can feel that the colours that I often paint the memories of this man in my childhood are perhaps a bit different than the ones dad would use.

Closing towards the mid-1970’s, the one thing that Bill and Beth did not expect was to become grandparents when their son was still a teenager.  However, when this in fact actually happened, they stepped up to the task admirably.  Fortunately, by that point, Bill had finally kicked the demons of the bottle, though a gold and white package of Export A Lights continued to be a companion for the rest of his life.  My grandparents doted on me, gave me what would always be seen as a second (or third) home and stepped up to perform many of the tasks that my parents tried hard to perform but didn’t always have the emotional maturity yet to complete.  Hard enforcement on manners, civility, and compassion towards others.  I can’t remember it ever being harsh though.  There was always a kindness, and encouragement to do better.

I can remember waking up early and crawling into bed between my grandparents, and never feeling like a trespasser.  Or curling up on grandpa’s lap while he and my grandmother watched the Golden Girls, sharing a box of smarties, a ritual that I tried to keep going until I was getting to be too heavy for his repaired legs to endure.  Being sent upstairs for my bath and then afterwards running across the hallway in my birthday suit to claim my pajamas and squealing when he would always seem to say, “I saw that!”.

Then afterwards, all snug and dressed for bed, having that most important ritual of all.  First, I’d hide under the covers with that belief that if you can’t see them then they can’t see you.    Which grandpa would play up…every…single…time.  Then he would finally “find me”, and story time would begin.  Whether it would be a well-worn and loved copy of a Golden book or maybe a Dr. Seuss he would lovingly read it, just as animated and endearing as the time before.  It never grew old.  Or if it did for him, he never showed it.

To this day, whenever I read a story to a child, whether it being the bedtime routines for my family or to a classroom full of children I picture his style and structure.

As this ritual slowly aged out by my own insatiable reading ability, it was slowly replaced by moments where I would join him in his den to watch one of those shows that Grandma didn’t care for.  Benny Hill hitting on all the ladies or staccato slapping the top of a bald man’s head.  Laughing so hard together, sharing grins as Yakety Sax led the cast on a sped up chase sequence. I could tell he was happy to have something different that we shared in.   Rarer moments were sitting in the same room to watch the Maple Leaf’s game together until I would walk away disinterested (though I was watching with him when the famous Borje Salming face slash incident occurred live on tv). 

We had many adventures together. We travelled far and near, creating rituals of brunch at Golden Griddle and dinners at Swiss Chalet in Rexdale, but also going on larger trips, like Disney World in Florida by car and Moosonee on the Polar Bear Express from Cochrane.

Walking together, hand in hand along the sidewalk on Highway 7 to get my hair cut at the local barber and then sitting together in the restaurant next door together for awhile.  Or walking together to the Woodbridge Memorial Arena for swimming lessons.  I remember always being so proud to look up at the observation deck to see him watching me swim.  Even if I could never quite get that backcrawl it didn’t matter.

Both Grandparents had established a long love of Ballroom Dancing from when I was very young, and I remember them taking me along to different dance studios in Humber Summit where they would either be taking lessons or teaching. They always tried to get me up to dance, but I politely declined again and again and again. Sounds ridiculous if you saw me on stage today, but I was horribly shy when put on the spot, especially around girls.  Fortunately for me, I never felt that they were really pushing the matter. Though, I did eventually agree to learn the Cha-Cha, and they convinced the young girl across the road to join in, as she and I had become good friends.

Grandpa used to love entertaining the kids in the neighbourhood. He would pull out his large tape deck, and along with my grandmother they would encourage all the local kids to join in on the front lawn and learn Der Ententanz, which most know as the Chicken Dance.
(You know the song. C’mon, you hear the first strains of the Accordion in your head now, don’t you?).

That tape deck inspired me in different ways.  Bill always had a set of blank tapes around that he would use to create a mix for dance routines and when I expressed an interest in performing some songs I had learned in public school French class or from Sparks and Awanas (a Christian organization similar to scouts) he’d set up the recorder and allowed me to record myself.  I still have those recordings, safely digitized, and when I relistened to one recently I realized that you could hear him briefly encouraging me onwards at one point. I had a catch in my throat.

He loved to listen to swing and orchestral music, but had also developed a soft spot for more modern styles that could be danced to, such as ABBA and Bonny M. What he was NOT a fan of was a fan at all of rock and roll and actually seemed to detest songs that involved lyrical repetition, which is common in standard song structure today. (Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, etc;)
I remember playing a Eurythmics tape that I had proudly picked up and he mocked the one song I played him because the refrain was repeated about six times.
Don’t even ask what he thought when a friend convinced me to buy Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction on cassette.

Around this time, both grandparents decided that Woodbridge was beginning to feel a little too crowded, so they packed up and moved to a home in Sandy Cove Acres, Innisfil.  The destination was different but the same feelings were there.  I myself was developing new traits, and new interests, not all of which found favour in my grandfather’s eyes and as a result had some interesting arguments (some of which I have with my youngest son today).  But it never felt mean.  There was always love and I never felt unwelcome in their home. 

Unfortunately, his smoking habit, along with the likely consequences of working in asbestos-based facilities (before that was figured out to be a no-no), began to catch up with him. He had begun to show more and more signs of skin-cancer and then they discovered something unsettling in his lungs.  I remember talking to them about the date, I knew it was coming, but I felt no concern.

Bill survived the surgery, but unfortunately during post-op, while casually chatting with one of the nurses, he suffered what could only be called a widow maker.  One second, he was there, the next he was just…gone.

I was crushed. And the regret sets in.

Why hadn’t I been there?

I didn’t get to say goodbye.

But soon, I came to the realization that wasn’t true.  I had a lifetime of goodbyes to choose from.  On the phone, always starting warmly and then ending the conversation with “I love you.” At their home, happily being greeted at the door.  Watching them in the window as we drove away, smiling and waving.  I never needed a new goodbye.  It was always there.  That knowledge that every time we had with each other meant something. 

It was finite.  It was closing. 

I didn’t need to feel guilty about the day of his passing because it wasn’t mine to feel guilty about.

Time is fleeting.  Loss is a badge of honour.  The memories, feelings, and moments we experience from the lives of those that are no longer with us are powerful tools.

For some, it’s faith.

Others, it’s resiliency.

For me, it’s growth.  I will never forget where I’ve been because I’ve been given the seeds that I continue to nurture, love and grow.  Passing them on to my family and to others.

This is 106, Grandpa.  These moments.  These feelings.  This joy in the consideration of who you were.  Who you still are to many of us.  This will continue as long as I can hold breath.

And hopefully I will one day have the honour to be remembered in the same way that I remember you.

Love you always.