Last weekend, I gave Son a task. A job to do. It was one of those bogus jobs you give to your kids so that they’d stop listening to mindless Minecraft parody songs while building Harry Potter scenes out of Lego, come out of their room and say hello to the sun. You know what I’m talking about.
So, I asked him to hammer all the nails on our porch stairs, and the deck, and make sure none of them stick out. (This, obviously, turned into a power struggle between Son and Daughter.) Just as obviously, Son was fast, and even more obviously, once the feeling of the honour of being chosen by Father wore off, he got bored.
He decided he needed a bigger hammer, so he ran back inside, and rummaged through the toolbox we have. One look at the toolbox would tell you that I’m not much of a handyman – if the fact that I told Son to “ask Mom” when he couldn’t find a hammer wasn’t already a dead giveaway.
Son lifted the two wrenches, and the old screwdrivers I got from my father in 1988, and the Allen keys you need to put together IKEA furniture – and then he found a treasure. He walked out with a big smile on his face, carrying two big knives, one in each hand.
“What are these?” he asked me. “Cool knives.”
“Actually, Son,” I said, “they’re not knives…”
I did pause for emphasis, but I wasn’t going to go with the Crocodile Dundee line.
“… they are your great-grandfather’s bayonets from the war,” I added.
And then I told him about his great-grandfather, who fought in four wars, and who had a store, and who drove a taxi, and who died of a heart attack.
I wouldn’t have brought up the heart attack part, but when we were in the basement going through some stuff my father had given me – in an attempt to clear his basement – a doctor’s note of his cause death that was neatly folded inside my grandfather’s military discharge papers.
I was four years old when my grandfather died so most of the stories I told Son about him are built around tidbits I’ve heard from my father over the years. How Grandpa drove his car to the church, and then died there; how he fought in all those wars “against communists”; and how he rode his bike around the village with a suitcase hanging from the handlebar, selling insurances.
I don’t remember many things about him, and even the ones I do remember may just be something my mind has created based on photos I’ve seen. I think I remember his funeral, though, and I think I remember him walking slowly in his house.
But what I do remember, for sure, are his toenails. My great-grandfather was seventy when I was born, so he would have been in his early seventies when I was big enough to truly appreciate his physique.
His toenails were the kind that look like they could cut through glass, they were big and white and thick. They were the first thing you’d notice when you met him – if you were two years old, closer to the ground than his shoulders, and if he was barefooted.
His toenails were man’s nails. His nails looked so much tougher than anybody else’s nails I had ever seen. Tougher than Tarzan’s, tougher than Dad’s.
Son was mostly interested in the bayonets, though, so we got back upstairs, and he put on a belt, stuffed the bayonets under it, and strutted around the neighbourhood. I heard him tell our next door neighbour about his great-grandfather who was a soldier, “and came home alive four times.”
I smiled and looked away. I looked at my feet. My toenails.