When my grandfather died, of a stroke at age 88, I was obsessed with this song and the album it came from, Carnavas. It was Silversun Pickups’ full-length debut and it rocked my world. I remember discussing it with my cousin as we sat in the hospital, mournfully waiting all day for an unconscious Gramps to finally succumb. It was a long, painful day. It was the first death of a close family member I ever experienced. But it was a profound bonding day for the family as we all stood side by side, using our senses of humour to make the best of it. It was a proud family time, the way we all came together that day, and it reflected the love and values that Gramps quietly gave and portrayed every day of his life.
My grandfather was a profound specimen of a man. Did he have Herculean strength? No. Was he famous? No. Was he a great leader of industry? No. Did he have magical powers? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, but I’ll get to that.
My point is, unless you were among his family or friends, you probably didn’t know Louis David Atkins. But if you were among those people, you were lucky.
My point is also this: he had simple hopes and dreams, but he was far from a simple man.
Born of Russian Jewish immigrants in Toronto, as a boy he quickly came to spot a lovely older girl on his street, five years his senior. Five years is a lot when you’re young. But he was smitten with Angelina Carriero and when they were old enough, they went a-courtin’.
And that’s when life became not quite so simple.
You see, Angelina was also born in Toronto, but of Italian Catholic immigrants. Back then (as is often still the case), if you were Jewish, you married a Jew; if you were Catholic, you married a Catholic. It’s just the way it was. Eventually, they decided to get married. And, despite Lou’s parents’ affection for Angelina, they decided they could not attend the wedding. They could not watch their boy marry a Catholic. They were good people, their faith just wouldn’t allow them to be there.
Lou would eventually convert to Catholicism, as would his brother and sister, as they all married Catholics. Can you imagine poor Mr. and Mrs. Atkins watching all their kids find Jesus?
World War II came along. Not so simple. Fortunately, Lou never had to face fire. He was enlisted to work on propellers for the Air Force in Trenton, Ontario, a couple hours away from Toronto. It was a tough, long-distance time for the young couple, but they made it work.
After the war came two daughters. Not so simple. I kid. They were good kids, never got into major trouble, and loved their parents immensely.
Everything was okay until Angelina’s allergies got so severe that her doctor recommended that they move to a warmer climate. So, with their 10- and 12-year-old daughters in tow, off they moved to Florida. Not so simple. This was 1957. Lou had employment troubles down there. He worked for a while filling vending machines – anything to help make ends meet. Meanwhile, I imagine my mom’s teenage years as a constant Beach Blanket Bingo movie, but that’s a whole other blog post.
They moved back (minus my mom, who couldn’t get enough of the beach movie lifestyle, I guess, and stayed back for a bit) in the late ’60s and Lou caught on with Angelina’s brother’s shoe company, where he stayed for the rest of his working days. Meanwhile, along came a couple of son-in-laws, followed by a grandson (this guy!), granddaughter and two more grandsons (and, later, he even got to see a great-grandson).
Since this is where I came in, this is where I start to see his influence on me shining through. Like many parents, once his children were out of the house and married, I think he was able to relax a bit and just enjoy his family. And, wow, did he and my grandmother enjoy their family. (And, to be clear, I could write all the same glowing things about Grandma.)
Like I’ve said, it was simple, but profound. It was as simple as having us over for spaghetti and meatballs every Sunday. It was as simple as the pretzels you could always count on being on their coffee table. It was as simple as sleeping over on a Friday night and them letting me stay up late enough to watch some of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for the first time. It was as simple as the $10 they would give the four cousins to split at Alpine’s (the local variety store) every Sunday. It was as simple as the hello and goodbye hugs we’d share, talking baseball, and spoiling his grandchildren at Christmas.
It was as simple as being responsible in all aspects of his life, in his heart, in his actions and with his money; as a husband, father, grandfather, brother and son. That may be the best single word to describe him: responsible. And that is not so simple.
I know there’s a lot of him in me, and I treasure that. There are certainly quiet, unassuming men on both sides of my family, but he would be the most senior. I don’t know of anyone else in previous generations, on either side, who had any kind of artistic tendencies. But Gramps liked to draw, he liked to play songs on keyboards by ear and he did some really nice paint-by-numbers pieces. As a result, my two cousins and I all play guitar. I love to write – I do it professionally – and I used to draw a lot. I try my best to be as responsible a man as he was. “Try” being the operative word.
So, to answer that last question off the top: Did he have magical powers? I have two answers to that.
1) Yes. As a kid, he made ping pong balls disappear and come out my ear. I still have no idea how he did it and as I got older he refused to do it anymore because he thought I’d see through it. But all that really did was reinforce the idea that, yes, he was magic.
2) Yes. If love is magic, then yes.