My grandfather, the one who had the sweepstakes luck in the coal mine, and who commandeered me as his piano-chording sidekick when he played the fiddle, lived alone for many years after being divorced twice and having all the kids grow up and leave home. While he enjoyed a good debate on politics or religion with anyone who happened to show up at his door, he was happy to be alone most of the time. He pursued many solitary pastimes, among them the already mentioned fiddle-playing, board games like checkers and Scrabble (playing against himself, and always simultaneously winning and losing), and reading. The reading sometimes led to memorizing, either a favourite line in a book, or, more often, a piece of poetry that interested him.
He especially liked Robert Service's poems, and of those, he had a particular fondness for The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. If you're ever run into these poems you will probably recall that they are long and wordy and darn good stories with excellent rhyming. Grampy liked to break into a verse or two whenever the conversation flagged, and it was definitely easy for us, his audience -- all we had to do was listen, try not to choke on the blue haze that filled his little home from his constant cigarette smoking, and smile when he finished.
At the time we didn't see it that way at all. Grampy was not an adult who understood kids very well. Instead of trying to understand what was going on in our minds and lives, he tried to involve us in his interests, by offering to play checkers with us (he did not believe in letting anyone win, no matter what their age), or by talking of his days in the coal mine, especially the part where he was the local head of the union, or by reciting poetry. I understand why ... now. And I understand that I gained a lot of interesting memories by not being the coddled centre of attention. And I never doubted that he loved us. He was just a different kind of grandfather from the ones in the books I read.
Looking back, that's just fine with me.
On to the two poems I mentioned above (in bold type). Because they are SO LONG, I'm going to reproduce only the first verse of each -- those are the verses I remember best anyway, and they're the ones that bring Grampy into clear focus. I remember him reciting them in his quiet, clear voice, and I picture him, warm brown eyes and slightly inclined head, cigarette dangling from one hand with an inch of ash trembling on the end, trying to establish contact with his fidgeting grandchildren with only the use of his voice and his amazing memory.
The Shooting of Dan McGrew
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up
In the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box
Was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game,
Sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love,
The lady that's known as Lou.
(The rest is HERE if you're interested -- you may notice that at this link, in the title, Dan McGrew's name is mis-spelled. I looked for another source but couldn't find one in the time allotted to write this post!)
The Cremation of Sam McGee
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
(The rest is HERE if you're interested -- and if you have time to read just one of these two poems, I'd recommend this one. First, it's shorter; second, it's funnier; third, it's got a surprise ending. Case closed!)
Note: If you'd like to read more about Robert Service, go here for the long version or here for the short version.
Don't forget to visit Diane at On the Alberta/Montana Border (who had the idea for Poetry Monday in the first place) and Delores at Mumblings (who knew a good thing when she saw it and joined in).
I also want to mention that neither Diane nor Delores are anywhere near as long-winded as I am, so there's that.
You can join in too -- read a poem, write a poem, copy/paste a poem, talk about something completely different that comes to mind -- it's all good! If you write a poem on your blog, leave us a link so we can find you. Or you can put it in the comments at Diane's, Delores', or right here.
Thanks for reading!
Grampy's cigarette smoke? Sam McGee's cremation smoke? Who knows?