My grandfather passed away one year ago today. Ernest Charles Ellis, or Baldy, as he was called for most of his life (it was a childhood nickname, not a commentary on his eventual hairless pate) was a simple guy who worked hard to support his family of six as a house painter and a factory worker. He lived in the same town for all of his 88 years, in the same small two-bedroom semi for the last 67. He was not what you would call a worldly man and yet became one of my greatest travel inspirations.
Baldy was only 41 when I was born – six years younger than I am right now. So my sister, Robin, and I grew up with the most fun and engaged grandfather. Whenever we had sleepovers he and Grandma would throw “parties”, which mostly consisted of making chocolate milkshakes, eating popcorn and watching TV. I know to my sons that sounds like a regular Tuesday, but for a couple of kids in the ‘70s that was the height of decadence. Our Grandad loved being with us and spoiled us like crazy. Every year as Robin and I climbed in the back of the car for the two-day drive home from our annual Christmas vacation in Florida, he’d slip us each a multipack of Reese’s peanut butter cups and sleeve of Pringles and whisper, “Don’t tell your mother.”
When my sister’s and my kids were born, he showed the same kind of love and attention to the next generation. Their favourite thing to do at Grandma Gigi and Grandad’s house was to zoom down the carpeted stairs, yelling and laughing the whole way. The best approach they discovered was to go feet first on their stomachs. Robin and I would shout at them to quit, to quiet down, to be careful. But Grandad just egged them on, laughing as much as they did, until the rug burns on their little bellies brought the game to its inevitable end. Then it was ice cream cones all round.
Grandad had many wonderful qualities – he was loving, kind, generous and fun. But the thing I admired most about him was his innate curiosity. He was not an educated man in the traditional sense (like many of his generation he quit school after Grade 8 to work) but he was an avid reader and a student of people and places. He had a subscription to National Geographic and actually read all the articles. He prefaced a million conversations with, “I read in the morning paper…” and constantly shared fun facts he gleaned from the day’s news.
He was fascinated by history, especially the U.S. Civil War. He loved reading about the space program and was always thrilled when he got to see rockets launched from Cape Canaveral. Mom says he was the kind of dad who would wake his kids up in the middle of the night to see an eclipse or to look at the stars. When my Uncle David was 14, Grandad bought him a shortwave radio and introduced him to an expansive world outside their small Ontario town. Grandad’s kids went on to become avid travellers, largely thanks to the spark of adventure he imbued in them.
When his kids grew up they returned the favour by joining him on trips and touring him around different parts of he world. Grandma and Grandad travelled with my parents to South Carolina and spent every winter together in Florida. They visited Aunt Cindy at her homes in Banff, Alberta and in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Uncle David welcomed them to his homes in Bermuda and France. Grandad immersed himself in every experience, enjoying, appreciating and cherishing each travel opportunity he received.
It wasn’t just history and places that intrigued him. He was genuinely interested in people. I remember walking along the beach with him in Florida. He would stop and talk to all the fisherman asking: What are you catching? Where do you sell your fish? Do you make money at it? Is it hard to do? When we’d dine out he would know the life story of every waiter by the end of the meal. He would chat with anybody, anywhere. I remember one time at a restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake, he came back from the mens’ room and launched in to a story that began, “I was talking to this guy at the urinal…”
I was never comfortable with chitchat. As a teenager I died of embarrassment each time Grandad approached someone with his queries. Even as an adult I shied away from engaging with strangers and acquaintances alike. God forbid I run into someone I knew at the grocery store. “Look and avert” was my motto. But something has shifted in me in recent years. The older I get the more curious I am about the people with whom I share this planet. After Grandad died I decided to honour his memory by pushing myself to do the thing that came so naturally to him – reaching out by asking questions. I call it, “Channelling Baldy.” It seems to be working. I don’t want to brag or anything but last week I started chatting up some folks in line at Costco.
Baldy would be so proud.
As I think of my Grandad today, I say a prayer of gratitude for his gifts of love and attention. And I thank that curious, inquisitive, interesting and interested man for inspiring us – his kids and his grandkids – to explore the world with a sense of wonder and a desire to connect.
I love you, Grandad, and I miss you everyday.
Is there someone special who influenced your travels or made you think differently about the world?