Friday, May 06, 2011

Uncomfortably Intimate

Somewhat recently my grandfather passed away. It was some what expected because he had been experiencing progressively worsening health problems for the past 10 years . That being said you are never really ready for a death in the family. He also had this uncanny ability to be hospitalized, knocking at deaths door, and somehow persevere and come home again. It had happened so many times in the past 10 years that I never really believed he would die.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about my Grandfather because of some of his behaviours, particularly towards my Mother (his daughter in law) and us as children. We grew up next door so it was like we had an extra set of parents, and as you can imagine in a household of 5 active boys plus me it wasn't always an ideal scenario. I remember constantly ducking and hiding out from him on the farm with my brothers, so as not to get in trouble for doing something or other that he disapproved of. It was so bad that even my parents played the duck and run game on occasion when they didn't want to deal with him. He was a man with an omnipresent personality. He was the undisputed patriarch of the family and the village tin god amongst the wider clan. He had a presence and he could orate, which put him in good stead when he entered the political arena. It was this that carried him right to Ottawa as a backbencher Member of Parliament.

Once it became apparent that I was going to be a professional Historian he began to campaign for me to write his memoirs. As his oldest grand-daughter, and now a real historian, he thought it was justly appropriate and I could give his life story the gravitas and importance he felt it merited. For years I deftly evaded the question when it came up - being sufficiently vague and non-committal, but also not completely ruling out the possibility either. I wasn't sure about researching his life and finding the real truth to his tales. One thing I knew was certain, it was a project I wanted nothing to do with until after he had passed away. I didn't want to have to compromise my historical integrity and unbiased appraisal of his life by editing it to his satisfaction.

In the last few years, as part of the memoirs project, he started asking me to go through his office with him to sort out what papers and documents would be useful to me and what could be thrown out. It was a monumental task since his office was crammed full of books, Hansard reports, as well as a file cabinet's worth and then some of papers. It would be overwhelming in normal circumstances and nearly impossible if we were supposed to go through it together and I was to get the story of everything along the way. We would have been at it for months, if not years if I had agreed to his plan.

I finally got around to starting to clean out his office this past weekend. My Grandma thought she was ready for it to happen, which it turns out I don't think she was. I spent an afternoon packing files into boxes for me to go through at my own leisure at a later date. I got through the file cabinet, the Hansard reports and some miscellaneous stuff near his desk and it doesn't look like anything has been touched. I thought the softer, more gradual approach would help my Grandmother cope. I had such mixed feelings going through his personal files. Even touching his office felt like sacrilege, particularly since his office was completely off limits when we were kids and was his sole domain. There were things in there that I know not even my Grandma was aware of.

It was all so uncomfortably intimate going through his personal files and paperwork. Seeing what he saved, filed or collected revealed aspects of his personality that I wasn't aware of. As his granddaughter it felt slightly inappropriate for me to be the one going through his personal things and independently deciding what to do with it all. My Grandma didn't want to have to make any of those decisions or even know about it. I also don't think any of my Aunt's or Uncle's wanted the task. A large part of me thinks that the only reason why my Grandmother was ok with me doing this is because my Grandfather expressed this desire so many times before. If he had never mentioned it I doubt I would have gone anywhere near it.

One thing I have gleaned from the experience is that I don't really want any of my children and certainly not my grandchildren going through my personal papers after I'm gone. I'm extremely torn over my written journals. There is so much in them that is intensely personal and painful. It is one of the few ways I have learned to cope with my PTSD, through writing it all out on paper. A large part of me thinks I should burn them, but I'm not there yet. I don't know what I want done with them once I'm gone. The historian in me feels like there may be some value there to a researcher, but the private part of me balks at the idea of them being made public.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Jane. Interesting.