A Two-Car Funeral
Updated: Apr 15
When my Grandfather Harper passed away, it’s like I boxed up my emotions, and put them in a storage locker. I wish I could say I felt the same grief for my Grandfather Harper that I felt for my Grandfather Grogan, who passed from bladder cancer when I was thirteen years old, but that would be a lie. The death of my Grandfather Grogan left me shattered, but Grandfather Harper’s passing left me feeling numb: we just didn’t have much history together, other than the summer of 1986, when I slept on his couch for eight weeks.
My Grandfather Harper was the type of guy, if his wife had passed away first, he would have brought a date to the funeral. Because he passed away at Christmas, we couldn’t bury him until summer. The funeral was held in Ottawa, Ontario, the day after New Year’s, but the family re-gathered for the burial months later, in Manawiki, Manitoba, the place of his birth. It wasn’t a very elaborate ceremony. Basically, a two-car funeral. Only my Grandmother Harper, my uncles, my mom, and myself were in attendance for the service. Grandma Joanna never showed up. She already had his pension; she’d grabbed it in the divorce settlement, after a six-month marriage. It didn’t seem fair, but she’d played her cards well, I have to give her that.
Late June, 1986, my stepfather took away the door to my bedroom (as punishment for playing my music too loud) so I tore a page out of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and ran a Kobayashi Maru. Kobayashi Maru is the training exercise where Captain Kirk cheated death by changing the rules of a no-win scenario so that he could beat an unbeatable enemy. Inspired by Kirk’s response to the Kobayashi Maru training exercise, I stole a foot-long pink dildo from the back room of the local sex shop, then waited until my stepfather’s Aunt Rowena was scheduled to visit for lunch. As Aunt Rowena walked past my bedroom, I began slapping the dildo against my doorframe, muttering “Oh, this is GREAT! Oh, this is WONDERFUL! This is fucking great! This is UNBELIEVABLE! I always wanted to BEAT IT OFF THE DOORJAMB!”
Well, I didn’t get back the door to my bedroom (he took away my fucking door! I mean, who does shit like that?): my stepfather sent me away to live with my Grandfather Harper for the summer. (I was in Ottawa within 48 hours; to get rid of me as quickly as possible, my stepfather even paid for a first-class one-way airline ticket to Ottawa International Airport.)
My Grandfather Harper wasn’t too thrilled to see me. Grandma Joanna had just left him for the third (and final) time, so he was busy feeling sorry for himself. My mom had the idea that he needed me as much as I needed him, but she was wrong on both counts. I never heard him say more than a dozen words to me all summer; he was a stubborn alcoholic, drunk from pretty much 8:00 AM until midnight every day, even though the booze was making him miserable.
He drank so much beer, it would have been easy to smuggle a few bottles out the door each morning. The problem was he didn’t keep any food in the house, not even a stash of cookies underneath his bed. I half-expected the guy to live off breakfast cereal and canned ravioli, but his pantry was empty. His refrigerator didn’t even have soy sauce, let alone a carton of milk.
When I was a baby (too young to remember the details of this story first-hand, so this is based on what my father told me), my Grandfather Harper came to Northwestern Ontario to live with my dad for a few weeks while my mom (pregnant with my sister) stayed with Grandmother Harper in Southern Ontario. The idea was, Grandfather Harper could dry out for a few weeks in Nipigon, then return to Ottawa after my sister (or baby brother) had been born.
As soon as my Grandfather Harper got off the train, he asked my dad to take him to the beer store. For the next month, the guy sat around getting hammered, shit-faced, from 8:00 AM until midnight. He ate all the food in the house, cleaning out the fridge, the cupboards, then even the freezer, thawing out whatever he could find, and tossing it in a skillet. So my father stopped bringing food into the house. Each afternoon my grandfather walked up to the beer store, but he never managed to find the supermarket. (Hint: Kochan’s Grocery was right across the street from the beer store. He literally had to walk through the parking lot of Kochan’s Grocery, to get to the beer store before it closed at 5:00 PM.) After my mother returned from Ottawa, my father figured the only way they’d be able to get rid of my Grandfather Harper was to starve him out.
Once or twice Grandfather Harper commented on the lack of food in the house, but my father began taking his meals at the Nipigon Cafe, and sent my mother for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with my Grandfather and Grandmother Grogan, on the other side of town.
My sister and I were fortunate to spend so much time with my father’s parents. They had an oversized influence on the people we would become. As I remember him, Grandfather Harper was an emotional vampire, sitting in the shadows, hissing and fizzing obscenities, getting loaded on Labatt 50 and chain-smoking Player’s Navy, behind glasses heavily stained with nicotine; by contrast, my Grandfather Grogan could have been President of the United States in the 1980s, all sunshine optimism, good humour, broad smile, and great hair; the Man Who Sold the World, that was my Grandfather Grogan, sales executive for the Great Lakes Pulp & Paper Company.
My Grandfather Grogan worked hard to make his own luck in the world.
My Grandfather Harper eventually took the hint (rather than bring any food into the home himself!) and pushed on to stay with my Uncle Blair for the rest of the winter. Why Grandmother Harper let him return in the spring, I’ll never know. The fucker never quit boozing it up, not until the day he died. And when my grandmother finally left him, she lost the house in the divorce, but at least she kept the cottage, her car, her costume jewellery, and her dog Rusty. (Rusty the poodle lived almost as long as my Grandfather Harper did, after the divorce.)
I’ve debated more than once if my Grandfather Harper didn’t keep any food in the house, the summer I lived with him, as retribution for the holiday my father starved him out of the home in Nipigon. In the end, I’ve decided it wasn’t a deliberate strategy of neglect; the old man didn’t even look after himself, so how could he be expected to look after me as well? He lived off beer and takeaway food, and as far as he was concerned, I was old enough to feed myself; my mother certainly gave me enough pocket money to get by, $150 a week allowance, until I could return to Northwestern Ontario in September, perhaps with some new clothes for school.
That summer, I was supposed to attend grief counselling, anger management counselling, sex addiction counselling, and swimming lessons at one of the city-run recreation centres. I blew off my counselling sessions, and spent most afternoons doing laps. I swam for at least six hours a day, channelling all my energy into not drowning. Nothing relaxes my mind like swimming as if my life depends on it; even today, I like to pretend I could swim all the way home, if I was stuck in suburban Connecticut, clear across the county along an unbroken curve, from backyard pool to backyard pool, stopping only for drinks. The loneliness of the long-distance swimmer.
Which is funny, because I failed swimming lessons when I was a boy. My father enrolled me in swimming lessons the spring I turned eight years old, for ten weeks, and I hated it. We had to take a school bus up to Thunder Bay early each Saturday morning, a bunch of kids, and on the tenth Saturday, I was the only kid on the school bus because Darth Vader was signing autographs at Zellers, so I missed out on that formative experience. Nineteen seventy-nine was a little late in the day for Darth Vader to be putting in a public appearance to promote Star Wars, but that’s just how popular the first movie was, before Return of the Jedi came out in 1983: the third movie was a huge letdown, after The Empire Strikes Back hit theatres in 1980. I may have been twelve years old when Return of the Jedi came out, but I wasn’t a child. Not for much longer, anyway.
That summer I lived with my Grandfather Harper, I never once saw him without a beer in his hand. I was out of the house from pretty much mid-morning to midnight, but the old man had no curiosity about what kind of trouble I was getting up to. I could have been stealing cigarettes from Shoppers Drug Mart, but my Grandfather Harper was too drunk to notice.
I could have been attending the model United Nations hosted by Carleton University on Parliament Hill; I could have been going to summer school; I could have even been working in a gas station: none of it would have mattered. I was on my own until the end of August.
So I swam, and read comic books, and walked the streets from dusk until bedtime. I slept on the couch at my Grandfather Harper’s house when tired, and learned how to drink coffee from Tim Hortons (double-double, with milk). I found a good breakfast spot, but an even better buffet restaurant for dinners. I grew an inch, and gained fifteen pounds of muscle from all that walking around Ottawa each night, and swimming at the recreation centre, six days a week.
Then Labour Day came, and I was on a bus back to Northwestern Ontario. School started late that year, so I didn’t miss the first day of grade ten, even when the Greyhound broke down in Sault Ste. Marie for 24 hours, stranding us at the bus terminal overnight.
In the movies, as we parted ways, my Grandfather Harper would have said something like, you think you’re better than me? And I would have shot back, well, at least I have my grade nine education…but he was actually cordial. We shook hands, then hugged, and he slipped $100 (five twenties!) into the front pocket of my jeans; an inexplicable moment which has haunted me ever since. The first time I heard the voice of James Dean, it reminded me, up until the moment I said goodbye to my Grandfather Harper, I had never heard his full speaking voice, either.
I never made it back to Ottawa before he died, and he never returned to Nipigon after my mother left my father; perhaps he felt no wife should leave her husband, based on his experience with Grandma Joanna taking all his money during their divorce. Grandfather Harper passed away December 28, 1991, the day after the worst snowstorm in Ottawa in over a decade.
When you live in Northwestern Ontario, everything east of Sudbury is Southern Ontario, but Ottawa is technically considered to be Eastern Ontario, closer to Montreal than Toronto. And so I helped my mother make the arrangements for my grandfather’s funeral, driving up to Ottawa from Toronto, ferrying my mother between Peterborough and the nation’s capital. She offered to pay for gas, but I wouldn’t take even two pennies from her. We left her dogs with a neighbour in Peterborough; she had three black labs, sisters from the same litter, who were always getting into the garbage, and I didn’t have a song to lull them to sleep, in the back seat of the car.
We had to hire a group of neighbourhood children on their Christmas break to shovel out my Grandfather Harper’s driveway. My mother told the boys, if you clear the driveway, you can have the beer bottles in the living room. There must have been 250 cases of empties, stacked up around the radiator. So I thought of Duker, Decicco, Malinowski, the Kochan brothers; even that fucker, Turk Morgan; as kids, we would have killed to get our hands on those beer bottles.
At least I had an answer to the age-old argument, was it worse to have a grandfather who was an alcoholic, or a grandfather who was dead: for the record, the absolute worst was to have a dead alcoholic to mourn. Give me a still-alive alcoholic over a dead grandfather, any day.
The funeral was January 2, 1992, but the internment was June 20. The whole family had to travel from Southern Ontario (my mother had relocated to Ottawa by this point, looking after Grandmother Harper at the old house) to Manawiki, Manitoba, for the burial. I drove to Ottawa, then my mom and I flew with Grandmother Harper to Winnipeg. Grandmother Harper was pretty far gone by that point, suffering from dementia, but we took care of her alright.
At the cemetery, the service was scheduled for 12:00 PM on the dot. There were only two cars on the grass, both rentals: my mom, my Uncle Blair, his common-law wife, and myself were in one car; my Uncle Emmett, my Uncle Keith, my Uncle Steven, and Grandmother Harper were in the other car. My Grandmother Harper had her name and address pinned on her coat sleeve, in case she got lost. The only other people at the cemetery were the elderly groundskeeper hovering in the background, kicking dandelions with the heel of his boot, and the minister.
The minister asked if we were ready to begin, as soon as my mother guided Grandmother Harper to a chair. It was noon, but my sister Jackie and her boyfriend Brad hadn’t arrived yet for the service, so I spoke up, said we should wait for them before we started the ceremony.
My Uncle Emmett said we should go ahead with the ceremony, the family didn’t want to keep the minister waiting, the minister was a very busy man; he had other duties to attend to that Saturday afternoon; Jackie knew the service was scheduled for 12:00 PM.
I’m sure Jackie and Brad will be here shortly, I insisted. They camped outside Winnipeg Friday night, but still had to travel three hours this morning to get here. We can wait ten minutes, I argued. Ten minutes for a three-hour journey. It’s just family for Grandfather Harper.
But Grandmother Harper had the last word: “I had to travel almost fifty years to get here. We can’t wait any longer to say goodbye to your father. Let’s go ahead with the service.”
As we were getting ready to leave (it must have been no later than 12:10 PM!) a third car came rolling up through the cemetery: my sister Jackie, and her boyfriend Brad, in their camping clothes. They were both wearing shorts, and sandals, but you could have knocked them over with a feather, shocked that they had missed the burial service by ten minutes. My sister was shocked, and hurt. She was usually better scheduled than that; never late for a gathering. Jackie had driven three hours for a ten-minute memorial service, and messed it up, arriving too late.
She could have sold snow to an Eskimo, but she couldn’t organize a two-car funeral, and I’ve never forgiven myself for not standing up more aggressively to protect her from missing the burial of my Grandfather Harper that morning in June, almost 2400 kilometres from Ottawa.