One day in the late 80s, I was back at my parents’ house, between semesters at University. “I think you look like my father,” my mother said, rather matter-of-factly, and somewhat out of the blue. She went off to another room of the house and came back with a cardboard stationery box that I had never seen before. Inside the box, she produced a large head shot photo of her father, Walter Dynes, for comparison purposes.
I’m pretty sure that I was in my early twenties. Until that moment, I had never her say a word about her father. I don’t think that she ever mentioned him again.
At some point in my life, I’d come to understand that her father had died quite a long time ago, and that the person I considered to be my grandfather was, in fact, her step-father. Certainly, by the time of the great grade 7 family tree homework assignment, the details provided by my grandfather clearly spelled out the three maternal grandparents. But my bio-grandad’s figure seemed to cast no shadow over my family: he wasn’t talked about, no photos were out, and no stories about him were ever told. When I refer to him, I often call him my “biological grandfather” — a term that feels distant and removed. But it also feels apt because he seems distant and removed.
My father’s father, Vidal Holmes, was also dead. He died shortly before I turned two. But I was aware of his absence in a way that I was never aware of Walter’s absence.
Here’s a story that I seldom share because people think it’s weird. Before my grandfather Holmes died, I called him “Papa”, rather than “Grandpa” and I apparently enjoyed spending time at Papa Holmes’ farm. After he died, I apparently declared that my grandmother must now be Papa, using my very best two-year-old toddler logic. The name stuck, although she’d spell it “Poppa” on birthday and Christmas cards. I also convinced several of my cousins to call her Poppa as well. There’s a weird split in my cousins: the ones near my age all call her Poppa and the younger ones call her Grandma.
I didn’t have usual forms of address for any of my surviving grandparents. My father’s mother was Poppa. My mother’s mother was Nanny. And my mother’s step-father was just Don.
But back to bio-granddad. I know the broad outlines of his life. He was a travelling salesman, selling combine harvesters to farmers (as in “I’ve got a brand new combine harvester and I’ll give you the key”). In 1952, when my mother was young, he suffered a paralytic stroke, leaving him a “partial invalid” as it says in his obituary. He had to quit his job as a travelling salesman, but two years later, Walter and his wife (my grandmother) moved the family to Petrolia with a plan to open a diner. They figured that between the two of them they could make the business work. Unfortunately, less than a month after moving to Petrolia, Walter had another attack which hospitalized him for about two weeks before he passed. My mother was six years old; her older brother was 8.
I know some other details about his life. Walter had an older brother, Lloyd Norman Dynes. Lloyd also suffered a stroke, three years after the death of Walter. His stroke left him hospitalized for two years, until he finally succumbed in 1959. I know that he met my grandmother at a dance in Wallaceburg; my grandmother said that he’d never had a steady girlfriend before meeting her. He was 24 and she was 17 when they married. She also once remarked that Walter had never been sick a day in his life prior to the stroke.
One of the ways that I continue to find Walter elusive is that he’s one of the family members of whom I don’t really have a good photo. My grandfather, who had carefully compiled photos of many of the family members, has only a few, poor-resolution pictures of Walter. As I said, above, my mother has a photo of him, but I’ve only seen it once and I don’t have a copy.
The other day, I was Googling his name and stumbled upon a blog written by a fellow from Dresden, Ontario, where Walter grew up. The blogger, Dick Wright, had some pictures of some of the Dynes family. There’s a terribly low-quality school photo with my bio-granddad, 14 years old, among his classmates. If the names of the students weren’t provided, I wouldn’t be able to recognize him.
There are other photos labelled with “Walter Dynes” — in these two cases, they’re photos of Walter’s uncle, Walter Samuel Dynes, after whom he was named. One of the two photos is a fairly good quality photo, and I recognize Walter Samuel’s face. The photo is also dated 1915, five years before bio-granddad was born.