16, Number 90, April/May 2013 The Significance Beyond by Jeremiah Thespy
The morning sun crested the horizon casting brilliance on the world below. A soft breeze brushed the maples, their large green masts shuddered high above, whispering. Dawn’s lingering chill stubbornly endured the increasing heat. The contrast of warmth and goosebumps only a summer morning could inspire.
I was ten years old and the day was like many previous. Recently, life had revealed its casual indifference, and as my developing consciousness opened to the world around me, my subsequent vulnerability. The false presumption of lasting contentment was no more. I was changing, as was the world around me.
Invoking my new-found perception of the life was my father’s abrupt departure. On a rainy morning, a few months previous, he left for work, leaving his tool belt, and hadn’t returned since. My mother, silencing my inquiries, was privy to secrets concerning his whereabouts that I was not. At twenty-eight, she assumed lead as sole parent, provider and teacher. This responsibility was stretched to the limits while I was freed from the grips of regimented learning during the summer months. Given my mother’s busy schedule at the town’s only factory, I would be spending significant time with my grandparents.
My grandparents’ house was situated on the edge of town, a small midcentury brick bungalow - the style so popular across Southern Ontario. The backyard, my favourite locale when visiting, was carpeted with thick green grass that stretched to the back fence. The yard was sizable. “One acre to the exact foot,” my grandpa would proclaim. Thick hedges enclosed the property with a pair of staggered maples in the centre, and in the very rear was a small shed.
This day in particular I was alone as I had become comfortably accustomed. I sat beneath a large maple which dropped swaying shadows on the lawn around me. Birds trilled, insects buzzed and a distant lawnmower belched a few yards over. With an open palm, I ran my hand over the grass and became lost in thoughts beyond the cascades of time and understanding. I was attracted to the fantasy of possibility which drew me to settings of adventure, excitement and prospect, transcending my youth, reality and the backyard of which currently confined me.
Deep in thought, I didn’t hear the light crunching of grass or the slow shuffle of shoes until my grandpa was just a few feet away. With his head down, he surged forward the last few steps, slow and deliberate, as if each one of his ancient fibres strained to impel him forward. He wore grey pants and white t-shirt, with the sleeves rolled up high on his frail, hair-matted arms. But what seized my attention, today, was the mystifying gleam in his cloudy blue eyes.
“Hi, Grandpa,” I said, looking up.
“Enjoying the weather?” he asked, scanning the yard around us. “Sure is a beautiful day. No wonder why you’ve been out here so long.”
“Yeah, it’s nice Grandpa ... kinda bored though,” I said, as I looked up from the grass.
“I was thinking,” he continued, “Now that you’re getting older, I think it’s time I share something with you.” He cleared his throat and coughed, “What do you say?”
“Yes, I’m definitely old enough,” I answered, flowing with confidence. As our eyes met, I felt an emotional bond unite us, and was immediately aware that something was different about him. I didn’t know it then but our connection was fashioned through the genetic parallels we shared, the devolvement of the former to the latter, shepherding enlightenment through the epochs, to the succeeding, to the new.
“Come over here,” he said, motioning to the fire pit near the shed.
I stood and followed.
“What I’m about to share with you is the product of my own experiences. I didn’t have anyone give me direction as I am to you now.” He released a laboured sigh and looked at me with burning passion. “All my life I’ve attempted to learn from my experiences, both the good and the bad. And believe me ... there’s always something to learn, whether about yourself or the world, you just have to know where to look.”
I wondered what he was seeing at that very moment to trigger such a strong emotional bearing.
“Give me a second,” he said, disappearing behind the shed. Returning a moment later with an arm full of wood, he stacked the pieces methodically in the fire pit. Although he was silent, it was understood that I was to follow his every move, which was reinforced by periodic eyecontact between teacher and pupil.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a battered matchbook. “See these here matches?” he asked, opening the cover with shaking fingers.
I nodded. There were four matches, spread unevenly like a hillbilly’s grin.
“These matches are the survivor’s most important tool. They should be appreciated and cherished, but more importantly you should never let their potential fire pass you by.” Finishing, he struck a match, lighting a fire in front of us.
I was confused by his seriousness concerning these matches, but continued listening, hoping to catch a word or subtle action and the significance of what was being communicated would fall into clarity.
“Jesse, I cannot express the importance of these matches. Many folks have failed due to their lack of respect and understanding towards these simple, but essential, instruments of survival.” He cleared his throat, “They failed to harness the power that these paper sticks represent and offer.”
I began to understand the significance of this lesson: Save your matches because you never know when you’ll be in a survival situation and need a fire.
Our attention shifted to the crackling flames in front of us. Looking to Grandpa, he stared, unblinking, into the flickering embers. Through the coiling smoke above, I noticed his eyes were filled with tears. One rolled down his wrinkled cheek and fell to the ground. Suddenly, the wind shifted and smoke filled my eyes, causing them, too, to fill with tears.
“Jesse, I just want the best for you. I want you to be a strong and honest man. A man of honour and respect,” he said, with strong conviction. “In life, there’re many lessons that can’t be taught. Instead, they must be learned through personal experience, oftentimes in the cold company of adversity. I hope you learn about these matches because it would be a shame to find out their importance the hard way.”
I felt uneasy because the conversation suggested an ominous and difficult future ahead. I just couldn’t foresee myself ever needing a fire and forgetting the matches needed to build it with. What kind of respected individual goes camping without matches?
“Just remember,” he continued. “Survival is more than withstanding the difficult ... it’s the key to capturing perspective, maturity and understanding. So guard those matches boy! Guard them like your life depends on it!”
Several minutes passed. My grandpa and I were silent and just enjoyed each other’s company and the ambiance of the leaping flames in front of us.
Standing up, with a wide smile, he appeared released from the earlier intensity that gripped him. “How about you and I get out of here for the day and go fishing?”
“Yeah,” I said, unable to contain my excitement, as the previous conversation vanished from my mind like an evaporating puddle.
“Get the rods out of the garage. I’ll be out in a second. I just have to go tell grandma we’ll be late for dinner.”
We left ten minutes later. The rest of this magical day was spent on the banks of Lake Erie, a grandpa and grandson, fishing until the curtains of dusk shrouded their tiny, shore-bound silhouettes, symbolizing far more than the end of the day.
Thinking back, that day spent with my grandpa is one of my most coveted memories. It’s also the last time I ever saw him alive. As fate would have it, he succumbed to cancer, of which he only knew, and following our evening out fishing, he slipped away, forever, into the perpetual darkness of eternity. Maybe it was the lesson he attempted to instil, maybe it was my first personal glimpse of human fragility, regardless, the day has never left me.
As for my grandpa’s lesson, I now understand its wisdom goes far beyond any matches or backyard survival. After enduring and maturing over the last several years, I now believe that those matches are a symbol of the few special opportunities that pass one throughout life, and the survival scenario a metaphor for life and its obstacles.
I now, too, realize that it wasn’t smoke that made my grandpa’s eyes tear up. They were tears of love and goodbye. Given his deteriorating condition, he was likely aware that it could be his last chance to reach his only grandson and share his wisdom.
The amazing thing is how did he know I’d be in a survival situation? Is it because it’s a place where all men eventually find themselves, or was it something about me that caused him to know? Nonetheless, thanks to his lesson, I still have one match left. It’s the match of redemption. The match that will give me the strength and courage to be the kind of man my grandpa wanted. The man of honour and respect. I guess some lessons are better received late than never. And this is definitely one of them. Thank you grandpa, I now appreciate the significance beyond.