One of my clearest memories of visiting my Grandfather is from about 17 years ago, on a beach near his Nanaimo home. While the adults conversed above, I took my kid brother (I’m guessing he’d be about 5, which makes me 14) for a seaside adventure. Soon we were running along a narrow strip of intertidal shore, between the grey sea and the cliffs. Our dash ended in a shallow bay, where the sea reached right to the face of the rock, cutting us off ahead. I glanced up at the cliffs. The tide had filled a wide ditch in front of the wall, a through these waters lay a great bleached trunk, an old growth log cast loose from the wilds of Vancouver Island. One end was lodged on the sand in front of me, and like an arrow it pointed across that trough, directly at the cliffs. My heart began to pound, and I stepped to the log.
“What are you doing?” asked my awesome companion.
“Seeing if I can climb this,” I replied. Grandpa used to climb things, big things. Mountains and glaciers. Harrowing adventure. The log ended about two feet from the cliff. I would have to jump over the gap and grab the rock. If I failed, I’d fall and be drenched — in front of my little brother.
“Do you think I can make it?”
I ran lightly along the log. I couldn’t tarry long on the far side, else it might roll. The gap was a bit larger than I thought, but I jumped all right. One foot missed, the other landed and both hands grabbed hold. The rock was warm in the summer sun, a strange feeling of life-that-is-not-life that has never left me. Robin cheered and jumped up and down, which was very encouraging. His voice sounded thin against the waves. I looked up… waaaaay up… and could see flowers looking down at me from the top of the cliff, some 40 feet away. The going appeared to be steep. Perhaps this wasn’t a wise idea. Turning to the log, I saw that there was no way back. I’d need my running start to cross that gap again.
“Go back around,” I called to my brother. I was very responsible and didn’t want to see him swept out to sea. Actually, all kidding aside, I had enjoyed a rapport with Robin ever since he could walk. I knew what I could ask of him, and what he could be counted on to do. I have relied on this trust more than I probably should have, I know. It’s a brother thing.
Little Robin toddled out of sight, and I began to climb. The cliff walls were a bit sandy, which added an element of danger but also made for many footholds, pockmarks in the weathered surface. I only slipped once, it wasn’t my scariest climb. My hands slowly turned black from the rock dust. After a while I pulled myself over the lip and onto a grassy clearing. Grown-up voices sounded nearby, and I hurried up. My parents and grandparents where there. Robin burst from a side trail at the same moment, full of dignity from his solo quest. We were united above the sea.
“Grandpa, I climbed them! I climbed those cliffs!” I wasn’t interested in telling anyone else. Here was the man, the legend, the Climbing Grandpa. I believe I interrupted him in mid-sentence. He looked at me and my blackened hands, bits of grass clinging to my clothes, one knee scuffed where it met with unforgiving rock. There was an unmistakable twinkle in his eye.
“You did…? Good for you!”
And then he drew me aside. “See how dirty your hands are?” Uh oh. Was the Climbing Grandpa a clean freak, like some of my other relatives?
“Well, uh, yes…”
“That’s from coal dust! The last mine closed 40 years ago, but the dust around here still runs black. Isn’t that something?”
And that’s how Grandpa was. Encouragement and teaching, delivered with a smile. I didn’t see him often, but every time I did there was something important there, something that cheered me on. My mom has a picture of me with Grandpa and his wife Rene, back when I was younger than memory. They flank me on our crazy old red couch. I’m smiling like I won the lottery, like I’m sitting among heros. And in a way I am.
My Grandfather passed away on January 22, at the age of 90. Sitting here typing this, I wonder more than ever if I’m just a new version of him. Sure, Grandpa Gordon never quite mastered computers, just as I never learned to ride the rails like a crazy hobo. I’m sure we both wished we did. Like me he loved mountain climbing, easily naming summits on every horizon. What I feel when I take each rise, when I look out at the wide world around me, I know he felt. His numerous slides bear witness to exceptional photography skills, an obsession I share. His empathy for individuals, and his lifelong desire to teach — both are borne in my work, where I use computers not just for the sake of mastering the logic, but to help people understand.
Maybe I am Grandpa Gordon 3.0. So much of what made him that kind of man is in my blood. Of course, I know my story is different, and that the differences have his approval. Thus inspired, we carry on.
“Good for you!”
That was my Grandpa.