This portrait is a photograph of my maternal grandfather:
While it is a lovely portrait of him, it does not say anything about who he is to me. You see, my Grandpa was a seed cleaning plant manager. He moved a lot and it was never near us. I saw my Grandpa twice a year, once in January when he came to Edmonton for the annual convention, and once in July, when he and my Grandma would come to the farm for a visit. In the span of a childhood, eight days every year is not very much. How do you carve a relationship out of that? I have vague memories of going to Edmonton to see him, of spying them in the hotel and being so excited to see them, but my stronger memory of those visits is walking through the pedway system to have lunch with all of my Aunts, Uncles and cousins as well. I’m a small town girl, it always befuddled me that we could walk through a tunnel and turn up somewhere else in the city.
My paternal grandparents on the other hand, I saw every single day growing up. I have thousands of memories of them, doing all sorts of things. But I have very few of this Grandpa. The memories of him that I do have, are all very distinct to me because there is something amazing about this man. He grew up in a family with 13 siblings, his family was very poor, and he only made it to about grade eight he figures. He stumbled onto the job for the grain co-op, he got lucky he says, but then he says he was smart enough to know a good thing when he saw it. He got married, had five children of his own and has 14 grandchildren, a whole mess of great grandchildren that he is immensely proud of, and two great great grandchildren! When I told him I was pregnant with our fifth baby, he patted my hand and said “it’s about time someone in this family matched Grandma and I”. He doesn’t need fancy things in his life, and has never had them, but to me, what is most amazing about him, is his natural gift with music.
You see, my grandfather can play any instrument you hand him, he’s built his own instruments, he’s played in countless bands and every Saturday night saw him up on the stage playing for a crowd. But, he knows not one note of music. He can’t read music. He can play any old time song, can pick up the tune of a new song within seconds, but he doesn’t know a single note. His music sheets are simply the title in my Grandmother’s hand writing, with the key the song is played in. Pages and pages of titles, and he only has to look at them, sit back and play it from his heart. My strongest memories of my grandfather from childhood, is of sitting down on the grass in front of him, listening to him play – usually the saxophone, but also the accordion, among others. Once he found a guitar, he brought it down and gave it to me. He held it in his arms and taught me how to play a few strands of Free Falling, when I repeated exactly what he did, he just grinned at me and declared “that girls got music too”.
I wanted to photograph my Grandpa, but I didn’t want just a portrait of him. I wanted to photograph him as he is in all my memories of him. I wanted to tell the story of how I see him, of what he is to me. For the first time in my life, I live near my Grandpa. I can go see him whenever I want, and I bring over to the studio just so he can sit and visit with me while I work. He especially likes it when I bring him over on “fish day”, and he enjoys his hot dog and “chips” (french fries) without any ketchup. He talks about life when he was growing up, and never in a bad way. He is wise, and I learn a lot from him. But my favorite time with him is still when he brings out his saxophone and plays for me. I always ask for the Log Rollers Waltz, it’s hands down my favorite and I sing along with him.
It was all this, that I wanted represented in his portrait. I wanted to tell the story of him, and what it means to have his music in my life. When I showed him this portrait, he said to me “that just about does it Kim”. Then he laughed and said “we did a good job, me and you, making that picture”.
This then, is my 91 year old Grandfather, a musician like none other that I know. His music fills every memory of him that I have and right beside him, is his music, titles only, written out by my Grandmother. This is his story.