Harry was quick with a dishtowel.
A gold standard for a man in my books.
I can see him. Drying dishes in the kitchen on Lyons Ave.
Dodging us as we shuttled dishes from the dining room to the sink. Talking to his grown children and their spouses. Teasing me and the other grandkids.
Theo with her feet up in the living room, smoking Peter Jacksons.
The only time he wasn't on the water was when it was frozen.
For ten or more months a year, he was away. Not accessible. His exact whereabouts unknown. Until he phoned.
I sometimes romanticize his work on the Great Lakes.
The reality is it was tough. He missed a lot.
Football wins. First dates. Squabbles at the dinner table. Canning bushels of tomatoes in the basement.
That's my uncle Peter and Harry. I think they're sailing a kite. Imagine the lift and wind out on the water. Theo looking on. The string connects them in a geometric pattern, like the outline drawn on a canvas before the underpainting.
I could look Harry squarely in the eye as a 5'5" tall teenager. I can't say the same about Theo, who was 5'11". A visual reference for them as a couple.
Theo was a hollyhock. Tall and attractive. She loved clothes and had great style. Sewed everything because of her height.
She raised six kids. The second oldest, my father, was a shit disturber royale. Trouble stuck to him. He had a lot of responsibility in Harry's absence.
In many respects, Theo was a single mother. It all happened on her watch.
The kids spent time with Harry on the boat in the summer. He would come through on short trips through the Welland Canal.
As a chief engineer, he was a good provider.
They had a nice house in Welland. My grandmother grew things in the border along the driveway. There was plenty.
Theo had a membership at the Lookout Country Club. She golfed most days in season.
I remember rolling down the grass hill behind the clubhouse as a kid. Picking watercress out of an icy stream in the spring—for lunch. Trudging along behind her while she shot nine holes—bored out of my gourd.
Time together for my grandparents was limited. They had ground to cover.
Once the kids were gone, the pattern of their life remained.
All Harry wanted was dry land. To stroll the neighbourhood with his Cairn Terrier, Angus. Catching up with the neighbours. Stopping at the bakery, always.
She travelled—to China, the Middle East, Greenland, Iceland, all of Europe.
They did what made them happy as individuals. Time apart was normal.
There was time together too. Every winter in Florida. Theo spent time on the boats.
The first book she gave me was James Michener's The Drifters. Published in 1971, broadly about young people travelling. Against a charged backdrop of the time. I was 12 or 13.
She was planting a seed.
I'm so much like her. I wonder if she knew.
Theo was bossy. Telling you what to do. Even when she didn't know.
She was also brilliant. You had to be on your toes.
She liked a Manhattan. A raucous conversation about Canadian politics or history. Family talking loud and laughing.
Harry loved her.
Peter sent me the video of the triple expansion steam engine. It's the stuff that passes between us now.
He remembers Harry working on one. All the moving parts. The noise of it.
People come up the stairs from the engine room at about the three-minute mark—feelings rolled through me the first time I watched it. Remembering the slatted metal floors and descending the stairs on the E.B. Barber. I liked being on the boat, but the engine room was meh as a kid. Now I marvel at having had the experience.
One more thing:
An engine room is like the kitchen in a restaurant. The place where everything is set in motion.
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