When my grandmother (we call her Annie because when we were first born she thought being called grandma or any variation thereof made her sound old) first met Adam, I was terrified. I think all of us were terrified, it was like introducing a bull and a china shop, Howard Stern and Emily Post.
Don’t let the name and the sweet smile fool you, Annie is STRICT. Especially when it comes to table manners, she once shamed me into tears because I passed the salad bowl in the wrong direction (I still don’t understand what I did wrong, all I know is that the rules involved taking into account numerous complicated and arbitrary factors like always passing it clockwise unless the person seated to my right was an older female – or was it a younger male?- while also keeping in mind the colour worn by the person at the head of the table in relation to the level of the tides and the cost of the roast beef contrasted with the hosts astrological sign- but only if Mercury isn’t in retrograde you IMBECILE!).
Wanting to help, my sisters and I grilled Adam as we drove down the long gravel driveway to our cottage in Ontario:
“Okay Adam, what side does the knife go on?”
“WRONG. Knife on the right! What do you do when you’re done eating?”
“What? Oh, uh, thank her for the meal…?”
“NO!” a chorus of frightened sisters answered, “You put your fork and knife together with the tines pointing to six o’clock and then you wait for everyone else to be done and then you say ‘I’m finished’ ALWAYS FINISHED never ‘done’! And you always ask to be excused before ever, EVER leaving the table”
“That’s bullshit, I’m not doing that”
“ADAM!” I pleaded, “You HAVE to!”
I was scared she wouldn’t like him. If Annie is strict with those she loves, she’s absolutely merciless to those she doesn’t care for. She called my dad, “That Man” for the first few years of my parents marriage. She once refused to attend my sisters christening because Lizzie wasn’t wearing the christening gown she had bought for the occasion – even though my sister didn’t fit into it!
My grandma is a straight up bitch y’all, a force to be reckoned with.
But if you’ve been reading this blog longer than a day and a half you know Adam, and you know that Adam doesn’t believe in authority, Adam thinks rules are made to be challenged and then eventually broken in a grand display preferably involving fireworks and someone’s naked cousin.
I began to think I needed to be way more drunk to witness what was about to go down.
When they were introduced, my Grandaddy gave Adam a hearty handshake and looked pleased as punch – they had already bonded over their shared birthday, September 1, exactly sixty years apart.
Annie however, cast him a cool appraising eye and asked what his last name was.
Adam told her.
“What kind of name is that?” she asked.
“It’s German” he replied happily. Oh god. OH GOD. I had forgotten about ZE GERMANS. He had no idea what he was in for.
“Hmf” she sniffed, after a pause, “I’ve never met a German I liked.”
This was awkward. She had thrown down a challenge, saying, essentially, that Adam had a lot of work to do JUST to overcome his heritage, never mind the fact that his family had immigrated to Canada at least three generations ago and other than a few generic words like schnitzel and bratwurst and a poorly executed Hitler impression, he was no more German than I was.
But, believe it or not, that was not the awkward part. The awkward part was that that my Aunt and Uncle had made their way over to the cottage from their neighbouring property to witness this meeting (when you’re not the target, watching my grandmother lambaste some unsuspecting innocent can be quite entertaining. It’s the only way anyone manages to put up with her). The thing is, my Uncle is also German.
BOOM. Bravo Annie! Two birds with one stone! Insulting your Granddaughters future husband AND your daughter’s husband of ten years all with one haughtily uttered sentence!
What a woman.
Adam, of course, didn’t care- are you kidding me? He thought all of us tiptoeing around on eggshells, kowtowing to this tiny, wizened dictator was ridiculous. He refused to play the game.
At dinner we looked on in horror as strikes mounted against him. He chewed with his mouth open. He forgot to use his napkin. He spoke out of turn.
(At this point for the sake of Adam’s dear mother I should interject and say that both Adam’s twin sister and his older sister are fantastically well-behaved, well-mannered and just generally normal individuals and as such the actions of my deranged husband should not be looked upon as a result of erstwhile parenting, but rather some innate character trait that renders him incapable of being tamed. Even Professor Henry Higgins himself would declare defeat if faced with this bearded demon.)
By the end of the meal my voice was hoarse and feet bruised from hissing instructions and kicking him under the table. He ignored my helpful advice at every turn – my sisters and I traded looks of abject terror as the night wore on – it was only a matter of time before she going to tear into him! Could it really happen? Could she really make a 27 year old man cry?
I had no doubt it was possible. I’d seen worse.
And then it happened.
After remaining remarkably quiet throughout the meal, my grandmother finally turned to Adam with a glare and gripped his forearm tightly in her wrinkled hand.
She whispered icily that if he was finished, he should put his fork and knife at 6 o’clock.
We held our breaths.
Adam grinned and patted her hand. Then he then picked up his knife and fork and turned them so that they formed the hands of a clock, one pointing at 12, one at 6.
There was a few seconds of silence. It felt like two years.
Lizzie and I stared at each other wide-eyed. This was it! I ran through break-up speeches in my mind, envisioned being cut out of the will because I married “That terrible German boy!”
And then, she LAUGHED!
Guys, it was the weirdest thing ever. He willingly defied her, made fun of her even, and she laughed. For a few moments she was chuckling by herself and then Adam joined in and it was like he had slayed the dragon or pulled out the sword or rescued the princess, he WON! Against Annie!
My mum leaned over to me and said in amazement, “He’s flirting with her!”.
As I watched, it became clear that my mum was right. Adam overcame his German heritage and atrocious table manners by flirting with my then 83-year old grandmother. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
(In all fairness I should also add that he bought her a 26 of Beefeater Gin, which is a whole other story and certainly didn’t hurt.)
Why am I telling this story? Well, any reason I can find to tell a story about my Grandmother is reason enough for me- she’s ridiculous!, but it’s also been a long-winded segue into a Remembrance day post, because although I can’t explain her general snobbery and iron-fisted adherence to outdated codes of etiquette, there is a very good explanation for why she doesn’t like ze Germans.
She doesn’t like the Germans because at one point she had four brothers. Do you see where this is going? All of her brothers enlisted in the Canadian military to fight in WWII.
Her brother Jack was captured and interned in a German POW camp.
Her brother Doug was shot down and rescued. Then his rescue boat was hit. Then, managing to survive that, the hospital he was taken to was bombed. He suffered from severe PTSD, shell shock they called it at the time, and he never fully recovered.
Her third brother Ken was shot down over Holland and buried there.
Her fourth brother Gordon also survived but also suffered extensive mental trauma from his experiences in battle and was never the same.
That’s a lot of loss. A lot of heartache.
As I’ve mentioned before, she too served in the Navy, stationed in Victoria, interpreting Morse code. Her husband (my Grandaddy) was a fighter pilot. My paternal Grandfather joined the Canadian Armed Forces, worked his way into the Canadian and U.S. Intelligence corps and eventually joined the US Army as part of the occupation force stationed in Japan.
All of which brings us to today, November 11.
We spend a dollar or two on a poppy and we bow our heads and we watch the waning group of old men and women in uniform shuffle up to the cenotaph, fewer and fewer every year.
It doesn’t seem enough, does it.
Five years ago in my old blog I wrote the following:
We gather to remember the thousands – and cumulatively millions – of our best and brightest men, (boys, really) who were made to crawl in the mud with rats and shit, whose bodies were whittled down to nothing on hard tack and army rations, memories reduced to rubble and nightmares, lovers at home traded for a strange woman on a strange bed who didn’t speak their language but would spread her legs for some American green.
How much we were willing to trade in the pursuit and defense of ideas, ideals.
In the grand scheme one can justify, and we do, one can say that there isn’t another way, that at some point it must come down to fists and guns. But we traded so many of our boys to an incredibly undignified end and nearly every war movie that has ever been made since, has tried to rewrite that. To make heroes out of boys who were most likely just scared shitless and trying their best not to die.
I keep thinking of all of our grandparents (and those who never lived to become grandparents, parents even), those millions made to crawl in the mud on the orders of some man they had never met, in the name of an idea, an ideal. Made to kill other boys in the same tragic situation and at the end one of the leader-men would pronounce themselves the winner and their ideas would win, maps would be re-drawn in their favour, and the boys, what was left of them, were allowed to go home.
I don’t think I have ever heard my Grandaddy speak about the war. And that right there should tell you just how glorious it was.
We remember and we thank you. We will continue telling your story long after you are unable to tell it yourselves.
Grandaddy, beside his Spitfire