(Grandpa Slim reading me a story, circa 2009-2010)
I don’t remember much about my great-grandfather, Grandpa Slim. What I do is random and unspecific: the old-fashioned wooden calendar that hung in his apartment, the balcony there that I loved but he never used, and he, my mom and I watching a tv show about a black-and-white dog I’ve been led to believe was The Littlest Hobo. I can remember his gravelly voice calling me “sweetheart”, his tattoo-covered arms, and the McDonalds apple slices he gave me at the hospital after his hip replacement. Beyond that, my memories of him start to become fuzzy and uncertain. I wasn’t even 9 years old when he passed away, so I can’t be expected to remember much more than that anyway. I really wish I did, though. The stories he could tell…
I’m sure that if I knew more about Grandpa Slim, I wouldn’t be as invested in learning all I can about his life. Unfortunately, though, I know very little, so here I am. Yes, I’ve heard stories told about him by my grandparents, and I can make a rough timeline of his life story in my mind. But there’s so much more to him than that. He served in England during World War 2, and worked for a period in Germany afterwards. He remained in the Canadian Armed Forces for many years following the war, even spending a year stationed in Churchill, Manitoba. He saved his children from a house fire, and wrote loving, jokey poems to my great-grandmother. Yet the thing I find most interesting about his life, and the reason I’m writing this post today, is the part of his life I know the least about.
When I was younger, I went through a phase where I was obsessed with learning about Ancient Egypt. I’d spend hours reading about the various Ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, the proper way to make a mummy, and the various pharaohs who ruled Ancient Egypt during the kingdom’s existence. One of my favourite subjects in that category was the Pyramids of Giza. So did I ever receive the surprise of my life when I was shown a photograph of my own Grandpa Slim, sitting on a camel, posing in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza itself!
(Grandpa Slim at the Great Pyramid of Giza, circa 1960-1961.)
Being young, I didn’t spend too much time wondering why Grandpa Slim would have been in Egypt at any point during his life, and instead marvelled over the fact that he’d been lucky enough to get to see the Pyramids in person. Slowly, the novelty of the photo wore off and I resumed my normal childhood activities. It would take several more years, a global pandemic, and a strange type of photograph called a slide before I revisited the idea again. Once I did, my life would never be the same.
When my parents and grandparents were growing up, a common method of preserving photographs was transferring them to something called a slide. Using a special machine, families could view these slides one after the other- a precursor to the modern slideshow. Changing technology in the 1980s and 1990s put slides on the back burner, and eventually they fell out of fashion. Boxes containing hundreds of individual slides wound up in attics, basements, and storage areas, forgotten until the world went into lockdown in the year 2020. With nothing else to do, these storage areas were cleaned and sorted through, and the slides rediscovered to be viewed by new and old audiences alike.
During a socially-distant visit in the early spring of 2020, I was given a gift I never could have expected- the chance to view slides that had belonged to my Poppa’s family. Through these, I got to “meet” my great-grandmother and my two great-uncles, “re-meet” my great-aunt Sis and Grandpa Slim, and, of course, look at childhood pictures of my Poppa himself. Once I finished looking through the container holding photos of Poppa and his family in Churchill, I moved on to an older-looking container. This, I was told, contained photographs of the year Grandpa Slim had spent in Egypt during the Suez Crisis.
What? I thought in surprise. Grandpa Slim had been involved in the Suez Crisis? While I had no idea what that was really about (and only have a basic understanding of now), it sounded important, and I was intrigued by the fact that I’d never heard of the Canadian military having any involvement with it. Then the second truth bomb dropped: Grandpa Slim hadn’t served with the Canadian military in Egypt- he’d served for a year there as part of the United Nations Emergency Force! In other words, he had been an honest-to-goodness United Nations Peacekeeper.
Okay, now I was really surprised. My own blood relative had been a peacekeeper? With the United Nations, an international organization I hold so much respect for that I’d walked for three hours in the heat in hopes of getting to visit the UN building in New York City? This was unbelievable. If it wasn’t for his UNEF service medals sitting in front of me, or the slides showing scenes of UNEF supply boats being unloaded, a welcome gate to the UNEF encampment, and Grandpa Slim smoking a cigarette on a jeep bearing the initials UNEF, I don’t think I would believe it! A picture of him wearing nothing but a speedo at the same unloading beach was more proof than I wanted or needed, though.
(Grandpa Slim’s service medals. The second and third from the right are medals he received for his service in Egypt.)
(Grandpa Slim off-duty in Egypt in 1961. Notice the initials UNEF near the bumper.)
After this all came to settle in my brain, I was left with a lot of questions. What exactly was the United Nations Emergency Force, and why hadn’t I heard about it before? How had Grandpa Slim become involved with the UNEF? Had a lot of Canadians served in the UNEF, or was he one of a small number to have been chosen to go overseas? Some questions I was able to answer through relatives, and the magic that is Google. Others, however, were things only Grandpa Slim would know the answers to. Seeing as dead-rising isn’t something that exists in real life, I don’t think I’ll ever truly know the answers to those questions during my lifetime.
Over the past few months, I’ve sought to understand both the Grandpa Slim I knew, and the man he was before I was born. I’ve stretched my memory hoping to remember him having said something while I was around about Egypt, or his childhood, or even reminiscences of my mother when she was my age. Yet I’ve found nothing of that sort which might have stuck somewhere in 9-year -old Leah’s brain. So, after coming to the realization that I will never be able to know him the way I seek to, I’ve decided to do the next best thing. During the winter holidays, and the days, weeks, months, and years that follow, I’m going to ask to hear stories about him from the people who knew him best. I’ll lay flowers on his grave, and re-visit some of the places he visited frequently during his lifetime. Eventually, I’ll have to be satisfied with what I’ve learned. It will never be enough, but at the same time, it needs to be.
The quest to know one’s own relatives and relations is one that has been going on for centuries. We all want to know who we are, where we come from, and to hear cute stories about our ancestors as young children. Yet like I said in my last blog post, we can’t dwell on and live in the past forever. We need to live life in the present moment, and make the most of the time we have with the ones who are still with us. Time and life are precious things- neither last forever. So while I desperately wish I could travel back in time and sit down and talk with Grandpa Slim, or find my great-great-grandfather Frank and give him a big hug (he looks like a very huggable guy!), I am choosing to let them go. Rest in peace, guys, and thanks for the memories. Whether I knew you during your lifetime or not, I will never forget you or your stories.
(Grandpa Slim having his UNEF service medal pinned on his chest at Camp Rafah, 1962.)