Sunday, August 05, 2007

Roots 3

Alfred, Lord Nemesis

My maternal grandfather, the one married to this beauty, his lifelong love, was an engineer. He loved engines and gadgets and tinkering and building. His hands were never grimy or oily unless they were actually handling the parts of something. The rest of the time they were soft and warm and square and dry, like folded brown paper in the sun. He had dark, iron-coloured hair side-parted like a cartesian axis and smelling so comfortingly and deliciously of his hair tonic. In my mother's family (and mine) Christmas stockings were hung for everyone, no matter how old. My mother and grandmother bemoaned, by tradition, the difficulty of stuffing one for my grandfather. He was temperamentally immune to the ribbon-and-trinket excitement of Christmas. He had crumply, alert blue eyes that could be liquid or pebbly, depending on what he was thinking. When I was about eight, we sat together on one of the dining room chairs. They each had a tapestry seat stitched by my grandmother with a petit-point eagle in the centre. The windows had long, moss-coloured velvet curtains, and the sun was shafting between them onto the table, illuminating the airborne dust. My grandfather was telling me about atoms. "Do you see these?" he said, casting a shadow through the motes and onto the french polish with the cuff of his coat. "If an atom was standing in front of one of these, it would be like the most enormous skyscraper the atom had ever seen!"

One Christmas, my mother put a tiny roll of very small-gauge copper wire into the toe of my grandfather's stocking. No eight-year-old with a new bicycle lit up that brightly. He coiled and uncoiled the little roll like miniature tinsel on his tree-hands. For months afterwards, each time we saw him he'd tell us where a part of it had been put to use. I imagined tiny coppery fragments glinting secretly everywhere. My mother still laughs that the best present she ever gave her father was an impulse buy for seventy-five cents.

Actually, he wasn't really an engineer, because poetry made no sense to him.

He started the degree. They'd made special allowance for him, because he'd failed English in his final year at school, and a pass was mandatory to attend university. But he had a giant geeky brain full of numbers and diagrams, so they told him he could start reading for his degree on the condition that he get a pass in English that year.

My grandmother tutored him. (She was also reading for a degree, in English, a very unusual happenstance down to my very unusual great-grandfather, more about whom in some other post). But he failed again that first year. But since he was an exhibitioner in physics, he was allowed to stay on for the second year.

It was the Tennyson, they said ever afterwards. Patiently, and every night (or so the family story goes), my grandmother would read from the dog-eared Everyman edition that's next to the line of Austen in my bookshelf. But ...

At this point in the story my grandfather would raise his spare, dark brows and purse his lips, like a negative reverse-out of the expression he made when he was working on a machine. He'd hold up his lined, soft palms with a matte gleam on them like a well-loved paperback, and he'd shrug theatrically. Or as theatrically as my grandfather ever got, which wasn't very at all, which just made it that much funnier.

We'd all laugh, and his eyes would go crinkly and pebbly and then liquid. They kicked him out after the second time he failed, so he never got his degree.

He was the first person to tell me that a light year was something about how far, not something about how long. And I still see atoms gobsmacked at the dust.

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