Every so often, I’ll read or hear or experience something and think, “Grampa would have loved that.” I said exactly that to my brother, Adam, today after Switzerland shocked France on penalty kicks to reach the quarter-finals of the European Championship. And he would have.
Grampa was born in 1929 in Willisau, a small town northwest of Lucerne. He immigrated to Canada with my Grama in 1951, settled in Toronto and became a proud Canadian, but no matter how good things were here and how tough life might have been growing up during the Second World War, for him, there was nothing quite like Switzerland.
He taught me so much, often just by his example: the importance of small acts of kindness, how to bake the most delicious bread, the sacrifices you sometimes have to make for family and a love for all things Swiss. For some reason, his passion for fishing never quite took hold, but not for his lack of trying.
I’ll always remember his excitement when Adam and I told him we loved fondue (I mean, who doesn’t?) and I don’t think we ever visited after that without sharing a pot and a bottle of Chasselas. He was equally delighted when we got him to teach us Jass, perhaps the ultimate Swiss shibboleth, although that may have just been because it gave Grama and him a couple more rubes to beat.
In 2009, my wife Caitlin and I went to Switzerland with him as part of our honeymoon. Although he was disappointed that we only had a week to spend in the country, he pulled out all the stops to make it a memorable trip, acting as tour guide in Lucerne, Locarno, on Mount Pilatus and, of course, in his hometown. He put us up in a beautiful, 500-year-old hotel outside the town gates where, one day, I noticed a flyer in the hallway with the schedule for the local soccer club, FC Willisau.
You have never seen two happier people at a fifth-division Swiss soccer game. Caitlin was pretty indifferent, but Grampa and I were in heaven. He must have said half-a-dozen times, mostly to himself, “Imagine that…you sitting here watching Willisau play soccer.” Forget the Matterhorn and Jungfraujoch, St. Moritz and Gstaad; there was nowhere else in the country or the world we would have rather been that night. So there we sat, just the three of us, on a hill overlooking the old town, in the shadow of Grampa’s elementary school, watching a group of players we had never heard of, but wearing our town’s colours. And loving every minute of it.
He was 80 that year, but he regularly left us trying to catch our breaths as he bounded up and down the Alpine foothills, completely at home back in the motherland. At the Swiss Museum of Transport, he jumped on a Segway and at the summit of Pilatus, he couldn’t resist pouring his own beer from a tap in the side of the mountain. Back in the Lucerne train station, he happily swiped an Eichhof glass for me that I’d admired while drinking from it. As we walked around Willisau, people would call out to him and he’d apologetically abandon us to catch up with old friends. No apologies were necessary.
“Don’t tell Grama,” he winked when a female friend from grade school recognized him and stopped for a chat.
Adam and I talked about going back to Switzerland with him, but we never did. There were lots of other great times over the last few years—a Leafs game with his sons and grandsons, visits with the great-grandkids and, of course, his annual Victoria Day fishing weekends, where we celebrated his 90th birthday in 2019 surrounded by friends and family—but it wasn’t quite the same as being back home, was it?
That year, at Christmas, we saw him for the last time. He had been sick for a while, but seemed to be doing well. Now I think he was putting on a brave face. But we got some last hugs, although we didn’t know it at the time—me, Caitlin and his great-grandchildren. He loved being a great-grandfather and was always so happy to see them. When he first held Michael, our oldest son, I didn’t think Grampa would let him go.
But last year, just as the pandemic was ramping up, I woke one morning to a text from Dad, sent in the middle of the night: “Grampa went into hospital last night and died peacefully in his sleep a few minutes ago.” At first I was upset that no one had warned us. But I don’t think anyone knew how close to the end he really was, except maybe him.
In his online condolence book, a family friend wrote of Grampa at his fishing weekends that, “he was deeply respected and love by his sons, grandsons, nephews. Taking care of Tony was their number 1 priority especially by his grandsons.”
I hope Grampa noticed, too, because I don’t remember the last time I said, “I love you,” to him. I must have when I was younger, but I’m not great at doing it as an adult. And I don’t remember him saying it, either, although he certainly showed it. I definitely felt it for him and tried to show it, too.
When I called Grama the next day, we talked for a while and I pretty well kept it together. But then, just before I hung up, she told me, “He loved you.”
With the lockdown in effect, we did not have a chance to gather together as a family until last September for the burial in Orillia, where Grama and Grampa had first lived when they emigrated from Switzerland. It helped to provide some closure, but it was also awkward, not knowing who you could hug or how close you could get. And I have trouble expressing my feelings properly in speech or action, anyway. I need to write them out.
And that’s why I’m here, still in a state of euphoria hours after the Swiss victory, writing through tears about grandparents and shared history and ties to a place and culture that can’t be broken no matter where you were born or where you end up living.