My Grandfather’s Lexicon


Put the guard up, Willie!

Put the guard up, Willie!

I’ve always liked the word lexicon, defined as the vocabulary of a language, an individual speaker or group of speakers, or a subject. I wonder if the words and terms used by denizens of Guadalajara make up a Mexicon? Or if those witty utterances of the wee lucky green people from Ireland constitute a Lexichaun? If it involved six languages would it be a Hexicon? Or if it’s local to El Paso would it be a Texi … OK, you get the idea.

My maternal grandfather was an interesting man, with his own interesting lexicon. Not to imply my paternal grandfather was any less interesting, but getting to know him would have been tricky as he passed away four years prior to my being born.

Why his alleged quorum-surpassing convening of urban inebriates would cause anyone to change their plans has never been  clear, but in his mind this was something to be avoided at all costs.

Like many of his vintage, that’s to say those born in the mid-1890s, my grandfather volunteered to go “overseas” and fight for King and Country in the First World War. So in September of 1914, at the age of twenty, he trekked down to Bleury Street in Montreal and enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force with the Black Watch of Canada and off he went to war. During his four years overseas he was diagnosed with shell-shock in Ypres, was gassed, suffered gun-shot wounds to his eyes and legs during the Second Battle of Arras, eventually resulting in the loss of the sight in one eye, and contracted numerous other afflictions common to trench warfare, including pleurisy, influenza, boils and septic sores.

Oh yes, he also managed to meet and marry my grandmother. On November 22, 1918 he was granted leave to get married “at public expense”.

Mid-1940's looking like James Joyce

Mid-1940’s looking like James Joyce

Whether as a result of his time in the trenches, or his time with my grandmother, he was always a very nervous and terribly negative man. Nothing good could ever happen and apocalyptic occurrences were always just around the corner. He had a number of expressions to illustrate the impending doom that enveloped him that are still talked about within our family.

Every drunk in the city will be there

As far as he was concerned everyone should just stay put; going places, doing things, would surely end in disaster. If there was an event, anything from a parade to an outdoor concert, in an attempt to discourage his family members from attending what would, in his mind, certainly be an invitation to catastrophe, he would say “Every drunk in the city will be there”. Not one or two, but every drunk. Why his alleged quorum-surpassing convening of urban inebriates would cause anyone to change their plans has never been  clear, but in his mind this was something to be avoided at all costs.

I can recall as a young lad of eight or nine, one New Year’s Eve my aunt, his daughter, was going to take me to a display of ice sculptures in a park located on the other side of downtown Montreal from where we lived. He was not at all keen on this plan and, sure enough, employed his every drunk logic. Given it was New Year’s Eve it may have had some credibility on this occasion, but all I can remember is thinking what a great spectacle it would be. To hell with the chiseled frozen chipmunks and swans, bring on the piss tanks!

Way the hell up and gone
… he would describe the destination as “Way the hell up and gone” – as if it were located in the tundra above the tree line.

Sixty or seventy years ago Montreal, as is probably true of most cities, had yet to creep outwards to the surrounding areas. Urban sprawl was still in its infancy. Locations that are now reached easily by expressways and expanded modern public transit systems, were then, for the most part, undeveloped. Further to my grandfather’s desire to keep folks near at hand, should anyone have need to venture to one of these outlying areas he would describe the destination as “Way the hell up and gone” – as if it were located deep in the tundra above the tree line. Of course no one in their right mind would ever choose to go way the hell up and gone, that was unthinkable to him.

His wife’s name was always a bit of a mystery. Various documents, from birth certificates to baptism and marriage records had her listed as Margaret, Madge, or Madeline. This never posed a problem for him, as he chose to refer to her as Willie. Why? No one has ever figured that out.

Put the guard up Willie
Mid-1970's having a beer on the balcony.

Mid-1970’s having a beer on the balcony.

Sunday dinners were often hosted by my grandparents, who lived down the street from us. These were always large, very filling and delicious meals. My grandmother would stand at one end of the table and carve the inevitable huge roast while others distributed the umpteen vegetables, Yorkshire puddings and gravy. The fork my grandmother used in conjunction with a wickedly sharp carving knife had a guard that could be flipped up to protect the user’s fingers should the knife slip. She never remembered to flip up the guard which led to my grandfather, at virtually every Sunday dinner, saying “Put the guard up Willie”! To this day members of my family can’t see a carving knife and fork set without someone saying that.

A blind man running won’t notice
His benchmark for success was if a blind man running by wouldn’t be able to notice his mistakes, that was good enough for him.

Perhaps the oddest of his axioms was “A blind man running won’t notice”. This he would say in reference to having done his best on any project, be it painting a kitchen, the installation of a balcony awing or the fitting of stovepipes (this last endeavor ended in his ripping down the piping and jumping on it, or so I’m told). The outcome may not be perfect, but it was the best he could do, and more to the point, it was all he was going to do. Any imperfections were, in his opinion,  minor and were going to stay put. His benchmark for success was if a blind man running by wouldn’t be able to notice his mistakes, that was good enough for him.

One of these days I’ll let you know about some of his superstitions. Things like never trim your fingernails on a Sunday, or if you returned home to retrieve something you had originally forgotten, you had to sit down before going out again.

Today’s Daily Post is about lexicons

Me DCMontreal is a Montreal writer born and raised who likes to establish balance and juxtapositions; a bit of this and a bit of that, a dash of Yin and a soupçon of Yang, some Peaks and Freans and maybe a bit of a sting in the tail! Please follow DC on Twitter @DCMontreal and on Facebook, and add him on Google+

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6 thoughts on “My Grandfather’s Lexicon

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