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A letter to a ’Grumpy’ grandfather: ’When you leave us you will be so terribly missed’

Before You Go: Madelaine Sumner watches her 90-year-old grandfather build a bird feeder for a hospital garden. It’s one of many acts that prove he doesn’t live up to his nickname.
Madelaine Sumner
Grumpy working on his shingles. (Madelaine Sumner)

The first time I sat with you in your workshop was right after the death of “Grammer,” your wife, Isabel, and my grandmother. While our family was busy with funeral preparations, you and I spent an afternoon together in your workshop. I sat on a stool and watched as you grabbed cuts of castaway wood from a pile and made me a charcuterie board. You talked, cried and laughed as you worked. You told me stories from your 65-year marriage. You were proud of Grammer and the life you had built together, relieved that her death had been peaceful, and struck by the magnitude of your grief in losing her.

Grammer’s nickname came from a childhood mispronunciation of “grandmother.” You got your own nickname after telling a sobbing infant grandchild to shut up. “Don’t be such a grumpy, Grumpy,” my aunt shot back. You are the least grumpy guy I know, but the name stuck and I can’t remember calling you anything else. Your home is tucked away on 60 acres of bush in Palgrave, an hour north of Toronto. When my cousins and I were little, you built us a playground and hung a tire swing from a nearby tree. When we were older, you built a propane-powered potato gun and we launched ballistic spuds hundreds of metres into the air. Time spent with you and Grammer was joyful, raucous—laughing cousins and scavenger hunts, clucking aunties and fancy parties, barking dogs and bonfires in the field.

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It’s quieter now, with Grammer gone and my cousins grown. I have visited you from my home in B.C. a few times in the two years since Grammer died, and we have spent many more days together in your workshop. I feel queasy whenever I hear the whir of a saw, so I’m not much help. But I love spending time with you down there. The workshop is a dark, cavernous room in your basement. There are two large drafting tables littered with tools. The walls are lined with shelving units and more tools brim from open drawers. You build everything from tables to pepper mills with cherry and maple you fell in the land behind your house. Your work is beautiful. The lines are clean and the details are elegant. Nothing in the craftsmanship betrays the unsteady gait or the tremulous hands of the 90-year-old craftsman.

On my last visit, I watched as you built a bird feeder for the garden of the local hospital. Grammer volunteered in the hospital garden for years. You used to joke about the injustice of having to pay for professional gardeners to tend to your own garden while Grammer was off pruning and planting at the hospital for free. When she died, you planted a sugar maple in her honour in the hospital garden and built two benches to flank her tree. Then, at the request of Grammer’s gardener colleagues, you set to work on the large pine bird feeder that now makes its home outside the windows of the pediatric unit. You still sharpen the garden ladies’ shovels and shears.

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You grumbled about how long it took to build the feeder. “The shingles have double compound angles,” you said. “It’s fiddly-ass work. The birds had better like it.” You worked sitting down, the bird feeder between your legs. I was perched on my stool daydreaming while you nailed the shingles to the roof. You noticed the angle on one of the shingles was off, and I saw you stand and lurch precariously toward a saw to trim the piece, grabbing onto table edges to steady yourself. I jumped up and offered you my arm, and when you didn’t take it, I put my hand on the small of your back, clutching your shirt as you shuffled forward. You pushed away my arm and told me not to treat you like an invalid. “If you fall and break a hip, you’ll be a goner,” I said.

You considered this and shrugged. “When it happens, it happens.”

You made your way back to your chair to nail the remaining shingles onto the bird feeder. With the shingles complete, the work started to go faster and it wasn’t long before you declared the bird feeder finished. I helped you carry it outside and we mounted it on a tall pine log. I asked if you would varnish it, and you told me that the birds prefer wood unvarnished. “Won’t it weather faster like that?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” you answered.

I flew home the day after you finished the bird feeder. As I readied to leave, you gave me a hug. “Don’t leave thinking you’ll be missed,” you said, your favourite line for goodbyes.

It’s not time for me to say goodbye to you yet. But before you go, before your work is done, I want you to know how much I love and admire you. And that watching you work has taught me about persistence, skill, work ethic and service. I want you to know that when you leave us you will be so terribly missed.

This article appears in print in the July 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear Grumpy…” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

This essay is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.