Grandpa’s Bedtime Poems


There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold

-Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee

These are the words that would bury deep within my soul from an early age. It’s the first line of Robert Service’s poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee, and by the time I was ten years old, I would be reciting the poem by heart for anyone willing to listen.

I come from a long line of storytellers. Well, I don’t know how long the line is. I’ve never been very good at looking into my family tree. What I do know is that my mom and, by extension, her father were the best storytellers that I’ve ever known.

From the time I was old enough to talk, I would ask my mom to tell me her stories. I’d always have a great gushing smile on my face because I knew that this request would never be denied. To say my mother is theatrical would be an understatement. When reciting her favourite poetry, she acts out the scenes with full-body language. She rummages up stories from her childhood with ease and always has her listeners on the edge of their seats. I can’t tell you how many people have said that my mom is the best conversationalist they’ve ever met.

She gets this storytelling gene from her father. Grandpa Bert was famous for his tales of wonder.

This all worked out to my benefit because it allowed me to learn the ancient art of storytelling while also receiving the best bedtime stories ever from Mom and, when I was fortunate enough, Grandpa Bert as well.

While visiting my grandparents in Kenton, Manitoba, I would sit in the shady backyard of my Grandma’s garden during the daylight hours. There was a red wooden bench that I liked to park myself on while reading my picture books and watching the adults putter away with the rose bushes and tomato plants.

In my memory, the sprinkler is always on. There’s never a moment when I can’t hop up and run through to cool off from the dry summer’s heat.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.

Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows.

He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;

Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

-Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee

We visited my grandparents every summer in Manitoba, and it wasn’t until I was 12 going on 20 that I stopped enjoying those summer road trips. I think that’s because, by that time, Grandpa Bert had passed away. The bedtime stories had changed. His voice was no longer drifting through the air at dusk, spinning tales that would blow me away. And that made me undeniably sad.

I wish I had gotten to know my maternal grandparents better. They were artsy and craftsy and folksy (well, maybe not folksy, so much, I just wanted another “sy” word). However, with them living two provinces away, we simply didn’t have that many opportunities to spend time with them.

The memories I do have, I cherish. And I will never forget the gift that my Grandpa Bert gave to me. The magical discovery of Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee.

He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;

And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

-Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee

There isn’t much to look at when travelling the flatlands of the Canadian prairies, but the long drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s never seemed that arduous because I knew what I had to look forward to once arriving-my bedtime stories from Grandpa Bert.

Much like Mom, Grandpa Bert was a dramatic man. He was forever telling gripping stories about his days as a trapper in northern Manitoba. He’d happily entertain roomfuls of people and keep them hanging on his every word. There was just something about the man that made you want to listen.

There I’d be, tucked neatly into bed; Grandpa propped up beside me, no book in hand but instead using his still-sharp-as-a-whip memory to concoct a few tales of wonder.

“Tell me about the olden day’s Grandpa,” I’d say, and my wish was his command. He’d recall stories about life on the farm, with my mom and aunties and uncle-yarns about their family pets and how life was so different back in those days. Back in the olden days.

He’d sometimes make me laugh so hard with his antics that I would pee my pants. I’d feel a momentary shame creep up my neck because what kind of a ten-year-old still pees their pants? I’d be thinking. The tears might start welling in my eyes, but just before they began to fall down my cheeks, Grandpa would look at me and wink. He’d brush off the humiliation I felt and carry on with the story as though nothing had happened.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,

With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;

It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,

But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

-Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee

Eventually, after an undetermined amount of time, Grandpa would deem it bedtime. And that’s when he’d say, “How about we check in on Sam McGee?”

I’d reply, “Yes!” And Grandpa would recite the poem that came to be such an enormous part of my life.

When I was 7 or 8 or 9 years old, my grandfather and I were an odd pair. Because even back then, he was an old man. He had Familial Tremors, and his hands shook something awful when doing even the simplest of tasks, like drinking his morning tea.

When I was there, though, in my grandparent’s tiny apartment in the hamlet of Kenton, Manitoba, he and I were inseparable. His voice not wavering once when reciting the poetry he knew I loved so dearly.

I never knew my grandparents on an adult level. They passed away long before I was old enough for that sort of a relationship with them. Grandpa Bert was and will forever remain in my memory as the one who made me laugh until I peed my pants and gifted me with the most remarkable stories in the world.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;

And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.

It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm-

Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

-Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee

25 years later and I am still reciting The Cremation of Sam McGee for anyone who will listen. And each time I say the words, I think of Grandpa Bert and I smile.

It takes one hell of a brazen man to teach a 7-year-old kid a poem about shoving some dead guy in a furnace to cremate him in the middle of a frozen hellscape, and my Gramps took on that task beautifully.

For that, I am so grateful.

. . .

For the poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee in full, feel free to check out this link. You will not be disappointed in this fantastic piece of poetry.

This post was previously published on Lindsay Rae Brown.


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Photo credit: Lindsay Brown


The post Grandpa’s Bedtime Poems appeared first on The Good Men Project.

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