My grandparents’ farmhouse was a curious place for a young child in the late 1950s. The rickety, falling-down, two-storey shack was nestled at the bottom of a very steep hill, in a picturesque valley in the most beautiful part of Ontario.
Memories of that farm are overshadowed by my grandfather’s presence.
First recollections of him go back to age three. His first name was William. According to my dad, on a good day you could call him Sweet William, but on a bad day he was Poison Bill.
I only remember Poison Bill.
When he was present, Poison Bill could usually be found hunched over his tea cup at the end of the long, kitchen table.
On visits to the farm, my sister and I would sit at that kitchen table, covered in a greasy oilcloth, colouring with stubs and broken bits of crayons on the backs of old paper bags and scraps of paper. As I coloured, I kept a wary eye on the silent man, who was ever-present at his end of the table.
Those mismatched, fine bone-china tea cups, so thin you could almost see through them with dainty, miniscule handles. They seemed ridiculous in his large hands.
Their life was a hardscrabble existence, on a farm that years later we noted only grew rocks. Hardscrabble was a word that evoked Steinbeck’s dustbowl, migrant workers. But it applied just as well to my grandparents’ living conditions. I’ve romanticized Steinbeck’s characters as trying to improve their lot in life – unlike my grandfather, who preferred whiskey to work.
He looked just the way a grandfather should. Old. Thick, white hair, with a few days of grey stubble on his face. Whiskers that scratched my baby face when they placed me on his lap. Give him a hug I was told.
He would pour his tea from the teacup into the saucer and slurp it. Beside the tea cup was a full ashtray, an unfiltered Export cigarette burning. Yellowed fingers. He never spoke. Occasional grunts. I thought of him as a gnome. I dressed him with the ugliest traits I could think of to make it easier to hate him.
Laid out in the foundation of a long-forgotten barn, down a steep hill from the front of the farmhouse was the kitchen garden. Sitting on the top step of the porch in the blazing sun I would watch my grandmother, Florence, work haphazardly, weeding, watering and likely wondering how she ended up with a husband as miserable and mean as the one she married. Maybe he had been sweet for a day. Because what woman in her right mind would marry a tea-slurping, chain-smoking, grumpy man?
On those days when he was Poison Bill, he taunted. And teased. Was downright mean. That first time he took the hot teaspoon out of his teacup and placed it on my chubby little hand, my toddler’s mind was confused. That spoon burned my baby skin. He thought it was amusing.
Florence was a sad woman who brightened up a bit after her husband passed away in 1967. She laughed on occasion. Was kind when she needed to be. Sometimes she would let me help in the kitchen garden, pulling weeds that stung my fingers. She showed me how to slit open a pea pod and scoop out the sweet morsels inside. When we walked in the pasture behind the outhouse, she pointed out the weeds that abound in the rock-strewn fields, giving them names. Milkweed. Thistle. Fleabane.
Burning spoons on my hand escalated to sneaky hair pulling, pinching the back of my thighs, tripping me, and other spiteful things that amused him. His pettiness only increased my loathing and hatred.
Every time I find myself hating something, I think of my grandfather. My insides roil.
Is the ability to truly hate, genetic? Did I inherit that from Poison Bill?
I hate that he made me hate.
These days I’m heeding Anne Lamott’s advice in Almost Everything, Notes on Hope: If we refuse to give in to hate, we “deprive the haters of what they want.”
I choose refusing to give in to hate.