The Grandfather DAHLIA
mother, recently divorced, had got a job with Bell Canada, and was always away at work. My grandfather, whom I adored, was an of the Prudential Insurance Company. The only evidence in the house of his working for Prudential was a very small glass dome displayed on a sideboard. It was about as big as a thimble, a chunk of beige stone about as big as a man’s thumb. A small engraved brass label on the base proclaimed it to be “a piece of the rock,” which is to say a small hacked-off chunk of the Rock of Gibraltar, which was the company’s logo. I used to wonder how much rock the Prudential Insurance Company had actually sawed off the Rock of Gibraltar to give to their employees. For me, the Prudential Insurance Company really only meant that my grandfather was gone all day and was back home again by dinnertime. Every night, an hour before dinner, he would repair to his workshop in the basement where he would tie on his shop-apron and move to his recently purchased lathe—a long, gun-metal blue machine of which he was extremely proud. He would clamp a length of 4 by 4 or 2 x out before him like a jousting knight entering
the lists, he would move carefully, inexorably, towards the long, rapidly spinning length of wood. Then he would touch the blur of the whirling wood with the rigid chisel, I was always transfixed by the chisel’s gradually biting into the wood, leaving behind roundnesses and smoothing curves until the clunky length of lumber gradually became as He so much enjoyed lathing that there were always lots of hand-turned objects in my everywhere, and a great many tables and wooden chairs—pretty much anything that required legs. I loved to watch my grandfather turn wood.
I loved how the shavings came coiling away like magic from under the chisel’s point and would drop into springy nests on the workshop rare and private and interior that had only now been released from its former captivity—some innerness in nature that only a magician of mechanism like my grandfather could release. My grandfather’s wood-turning has remained my favourite and abiding creation myth. The autumn I was four, my grandfather disappeared into his workshop for long, secret around the time of my birthday in December, carrying a large locomotive he had made out of wood, big enough to ride on. It was painted in glossy red paint, as if my grandfather had painted it over and over until the wood rang with a satiny sheen. I’d never seen anything so deeply red before. It was the reddest thing in the world. I loved this red steam engine—though even at four, it did bother me a little bit that real locomotives were black, not red like this one. The red was admittedly a jubilant red, not a demonic one, but it was for certain an inescapably committed red, and that seemed perilously toy-
like to me. It was also a bit worrisome that my engine’s wheels were solid discs of wood and not actually locomotive drivers with spokes. I realize this sounds a bit ungrateful, my loftily expecting the impossible from my grandfather’s basement locomotive works, but my vague restiveness about the chunky wheels and the maniacally cheerful paintjob was not so much disappointment with my stolid little engine per se, as it was a roundabout indication wished to, could do anything—including making a volcanic black engine with spoked drivers. In the spring and summer and fall, my grandfather worked in his garden, priding himself on his roses and his dahlias. I used to work beside him—or so I saw it anyhow—proudly digging up weeds with the small red-enamelled shovel he had bought me. The roses were delicate but firm like dinner plates. My grandfather was particularly proud of his dahlias—prodigious plants that grew, on occasion, taller than he was. got a dahlia idea. He decided that, having chosen one particularly hardy plant for his
experiment, he would gradually coax into being—with the encouragement of judicious pruning—the biggest, widest, richest dahlia bloom imaginable. As soon as new buds appeared on the towering plant, he would trim them off, explaining to me that with these upstart buds removed, the plant would surge “with all of its strength” into the topmost flower—force-feeding it into floral majesty. “It will be the largest dahlia flower anyone has ever grown,” he assured me. For the next few weeks, my grandfather leaving the way free, nutritionally speaking, for a skyrocket. This went on until the dahlia was about seven feet tall. Everything about the plant Despite my grandfather’s tender nurturing, the climactic flower, now anti-climactic, turned out to be about the size of a coat-button. Red, yes, but small and hard as a radish. I remember, with surprise, my grandfather’s unexpected glee at this anti-climactic development. I was amazed that he didn’t seem at all angry or even very disappointed. Only bemused. In the end, he came to see the whole failed experiment as really quite funny. I think now that he thought of the undertaking as hubristic, and saw his botanical comeuppance as no more than his just desserts. come, he assured me, each one bigger and more majestic than any that had ever grown before. And there were dahlia reveries that would never go away, featuring dahlias as tall as our apple tree and with blooms as big as sun umbrellas.
Rena Bierman, Spanish Dancer, www.renabierman.com back cover to Arabella, The Love of Flowers, www.arabelledesign.com