The Grand­fa­ther DAHLIA

Arabella - - CLAUDE LANGEVIN - writ­ten by Gary Michael Dault

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,­a­bier­ back cover to Ara­bella, The Love of Flow­ers, www.ara­

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