I wasn’t always a curmudgeon.
I think most would agree that the blossoming of a curmudgeon comes with advancing years. You don’t hear about babies popping out of the womb with shaking fists, decrying the state of the medical system and yelling at the nurse to fetch them a cardigan before they catch a chill.
However, I have always been a bit moody (I will pause here to allow my wife time to roll her eyes at the words “a bit”). That moodiness grew through teenage-hood to my now advancing middle ages. When you have to get a job, keep a job, pay taxes, deal with bureaucracy and witness the moronic revolving door of politics – moodiness and cynicism seem kind of logical.
But maybe there is something in my DNA. I am not the first curmudgeon in the family, on either side. Case in point: I think my Grandpa Dell would fit the bill. Grandpa died in 2010, his demise hastened by Alzheimer’s disease.
Grandpa was a fixture in my life for darn near forty years. My grandparents cared for me a lot when I was very young. My teenage parents were wrapped up with college and work and trying to stay at least somewhat solvent.
In one of my photo albums there is a picture of me as a toddler, hanging out with Grandpa. Well, at least we are together in the same frame. I am looking quizzically at him as he reads the newspaper and “pretends” to ignore me. I think that kind of sums up a lot of the relationship during the early years.
Grandpa thought that Alistair was a terrible name. Who the hell names their kid “Alistair”? So for many years, Grandpa insisted on calling me “Clem”.
He was also very fond of the adjective “goddamn”. And like swapping my name out for the more sensible “Clem”, substituted “son of a bitch” for a host of nouns, proper and otherwise.
He chewed Copenhagen tobacco and the front pockets of his flannel shirts always had a worn circular patch from where he tucked the can and it chafed against his suspenders.
As long as I can remember, Grandpa did not have much hair. However, he had an amazing shock of dark hair when he was younger. One day when I was a kid, Grandma and I were looking at some old photo albums and there was a shot of Grandpa next to the corral on their farm, leaning on the fence with his full head of hair on prominent display. This was not the Grandpa I knew! I asked him what happened. “You see that horse there?” he said, jabbing a finger at the photo. “He chewed it right off.” Grandpa must have used a pretty serious tone because I believed him for a long time.
He was generally spare with his words. He was a master of a kind of low grumbly talk that caused you to pay attention. Grandpa wasn’t all stern, he could be quite funny and would punctuate his stories with long pauses and an infectious smile flecked with bits of tobacco.
Grandpa liked things a certain way. He and Grandma would go to town once a week for groceries and have lunch at China Moon. After a week of meat and potatoes it was time for something more exotic. For Grandpa that meant a hamburger and French fries, because that is what you order at a Chinese restaurant. I was never with them for lunch, but know that my Grandpa would have appreciated Fung, who owned the restaurant with her husband Sam. Fung would have anticipated their order each week as she saw them coming. Lunch special for Grandma, and “Hello, hamburger and fries for you, OK?” to Grandpa. Not even a grunt required.
I loved Grandpa dearly and should note that eventually he stopped calling me “Clem” and referred to me by my given name. I was a little sad. I had never taken it as a personal slight, but rather a term of endearment.
I am sure some folks are curmudgeons straight through. As for Grandpa, I think it would be too much to say that he had a nice cuddly soft side, but he was caring – in his own way.
As his Alzheimer’s progressed, we still had lovely conversations even though sometimes I was just a friendly stranger in his kitchen. On one of our last visits he started talking about World War II, something he had never done before. He talked about the “goddamn mud” and perpetually getting “some son of a bitch” unstuck, building corduroy roads and log stringer bridges for a convoy chasing the Germans on their retreat at the end of the war. But what stuck with me the most was his comment about the young recruits in camp. Some of them were worried that they wouldn’t be able to find their way to and from the latrines at night. “There was snow on the ground” he said, looking at the floor. “They just had to follow the footprints.” But Sergeant Dell Schroff still walked those scared recruits to the latrines.
My Grandma Eleanor followed him all over the Western half of North America, chasing work on farms and sawmills but mostly in the forest where Grandpa felled giant red cedar and Douglas-fir, white spruce and slender lodgepole pine, whatever tree species would bear the cost to support a growing family.
Often, for the whole family, this meant a life in the bush, living in tents, trailers and logging camps, or little houses in boom and bust towns. I recently asked my Grandma about it, did she find it hard? Did she do it to satisfy Grandpa’s wanderlust or was it a team effort? She said that she and Grandpa were a team, and there was so much of the life that she truly loved. But then again this is a woman who was known to strip off her shoes and socks to wade out into a fast flowing stream to fly fish for trout. And just shy of age 80 at that.
Some of my fondest memories are of camping with them in the bush, in an old travel trailer on the edge of the cutblock. Lying on the bed that transformed into the kitchen table and back again, I would pull the quilt up to my face and smell the mix of scents I can still summon from memory at a blink. Like Grandpa’s flannel shirts even after Grandma diligently laundered them, the quilt carried undertones of chain oil, saw gas, diesel fumes and Copenhagen tobacco.
I would drift off to sleep hearing their low talk through the thin wall of the bedroom. I couldn’t hear what they said, just Grandpa’s rumble, punctuated by my Grandma’s quiet nickering chuckle. It was clearly not just the talk of a curmudgeonly husband and tolerant wife, but dear old friends.