It's late winter, a few months before I am to retire, and we're about to go for a walk along the still-frozen shoreline of Lake Erie. The pack ice has retreated, but there are overlapping thin plates, perhaps a quarter of an inch thick and a couple of feet wide, that we can see nudging up to land.
“Listen,” says The Redhead. “Do you hear it?”
I do, and even through the tinnitus, it's a mystical sound -- high, trilling, almost keening – and I'm mesmerised by something I've only ever read about.
I hear the ice singing....
My grandfather came to Canada before the First World War, started working as a mechanic for a gold mine owner and wound up running the entire operation, until the ore petered out in the early 30s.
As far as I know, he only went back to England once, for his brother's wedding. It was there he met the bride's red-haired sister, an early registered nurse, whom he persuaded to give up what would have been a comfortable middleclass life in London for the wilds of Northern Ontario.
And I guess that's what I want to talk about: a family inheritance, of sorts (besides the obvious predilection for redheads).
The afternoon we took that walk, I was feeling about as low as I would feel until the day I could leave the newsroom for good. Although I was looking forward to – could hardly wait for – that moment, something was also ending. I would no longer wear the mantle of “newspaperman” as I had for 40 years.
We were hoping that the open air, the lake, the trees, would again work their magic, lighten the mood, as these treks had many times since the boss stuck me back on the desk the previous fall.
Over those months, I often thought of my parents and grandparents – three of them British-born, the fourth the descendant of a coffin-ship survivor – and what they overcame to thrive in this forbidding country just after the turn of the last century.
Because overcome they did. After the mine closed, my grandfather opened a hardware store, only to see it founder in the Great Depression. He then took his auto-didact skills to a huge power-generating utility, where he designed transformers and other electrical devices into his 70s.
My other grandfather, a Great War veteran, worked in a foundry until he was 70, scarcely ever missing a day, even when they tried to force him out by giving him the worst jobs in the place.
My parents founded a company in the mid-50s, but it went under in the recession later in the decade. They worked until all the creditors were paid off, then started up again. My mother died in the 1990s, but my father continued to run the firm until he was well into his 70s. It's still going strong under my brother's stewardship, and he, too, will probably keep working for years yet.
Here I was only 60, and washed up. Done. Couldn't hack it any more. Career dead-ended more than a decade before, I was dismissed as “Mr. Grumpy”, among other things. Perhaps not undeserved, but I was frustrated by what was going on in the job, the wrong directions, the continuing erosion of credibility, the effect on my health.
Still ... was this what I was? A quitter? Wasn't I letting the family ethic down? That's certainly the way it felt that day as we started out; but by the time we headed back, something was changing.
Sure, there would be other gloomy days until I came home to The Redhead for good that summer, but I was formulating a resolve that I am now carrying out.
I volunteer – using the expertise that once netted me a healthy paycheque – for two or three organizations and even a couple of individuals. I contribute to food drives and help with public events. I co-wrote biographies of the area's war dead for the local paper. I even occasionally post something on Open Salon. I'll do those things -- and maybe more -- into my 70s, if I can.
And I'll be listening all the while for the ice to sing again.
Lake Erie's frozen shore in mid-winter