55: Finding the House on Balfour Street

55: Finding the House on Balfour Street

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles

Finding the House on Balfour Street

More and more, when I single out the person who inspired me most, I go back to my grandfather.

~James Earl Jones

Tall, gaunt and not one to suffer fools, Grandpa Balfour was one of the cornerstones of my life. He had proudly served in both world wars, was an accomplished accordion player and played the big drum in the Ingersoll pipe band. He and my grandma lived in a little house on Union Street, and every spring he tilled the ground in the back yard and grew potatoes, green onions, beans, cucumbers and carrots. My grandmother wanted to grow daisies and daffodils, but he overruled her, saying, “You can’t eat flowers.”

The summer I turned five I accompanied Grandpa Balfour twice a week to the local bowling green where he had a job rolling out the lawn. We crossed the train tracks, then the river, and finally went up the big hill, my small legs doing double time to keep up with his long strides. While he trimmed, mowed and rolled out the lawn, he’d leave me to play at the Thompsons’ house. When he was finished, he’d stop for a cup of tea with Mrs. Thompson before taking my hand for the walk home. Sometimes we’d talk but mostly we were quiet. It was in those moments that I knew how much my Grandpa loved me.

He was a man of few words, except on the nights when he’d had a few whiskies. Then he went on a non-stop talking jag, his thick Scottish brogue making him sometimes difficult to understand. He’d tell us tales — of his mother and sister and how hard it was to leave Scotland, of his first love, Jess, and how he met my grandmother Maggie. I never heard him talk about the war.

My favourite story was about the budgies. During the depression, Grandpa Joe had made extra money by raising and selling the colourful little songbirds. He told me how people would come from miles around with pennies they had tucked away, eager to have a little bit of colour and song in their otherwise grey lives. And it was true. The singing of the brilliantly hued birds that lived in shiny cages in a corner of my grandparents’ living room could lift my spirits when little else could. Especially on dull winter days.

Grandpa Balfour died peacefully in his sleep at age seventy-two. I was sixteen and too preoccupied with teenage things to really let the pain of his loss sink in. My grandma no longer wanted to live in the little house on Union Street, and moved into an apartment. She gave me a few mementos of “my Joe” — his Bible, his accordion and a picture of him as a young man standing proudly with his big drum in full Scots regalia, a proud smile on his face.

Twenty-five years passed. I found myself a single mom teaching singing lessons — the love of music seeded in me by my grandpa. We lived in a small apartment and I dreamt of owning our own home. The year my daughter turned thirteen, I had enough money for a down payment and purchased a little bungalow in the east end of Toronto. After giving notice on our apartment, I began to pack in preparation for our move. We were both so excited until the call came from the real estate agent telling us that the deal on the bungalow had fallen through. Knowing I had two weeks to find a place for us to live, I went into a state of full-fledged panic.

My real estate agent pulled up every listing she had that fit the bill. The next week was a blur of driving through the city, looking at house after house. Nothing was right for us. Everything was too expensive, too small or falling apart at the seams. Seven days before we had to be out of our apartment, with no home in sight, I fell apart, thinking, “Even if we find a place, how many people would be willing to vacate their property in such a short period of time?”

Needing to distract myself from my pain, I decided to take my daughter out to the cinema to see Whale Rider. In the story, the primary relationship is between the grandfather and the granddaughter, which of course, got me thinking about Grandpa.

That night he came to me in a dream. He was striding purposefully in front of me and I was running to keep up, calling out his name.

“Grandpa! Help me! My girl and I have no place to live. You’ve got to help. Please, please!” I woke up crying, the prayer to Grandpa Balfour still on my lips.

That morning I set out with the real estate agent, my eyes still puffy from the crying fit of the previous night. As she handed me the listings she said, “There’s a new one that just came on the market this morning. It’s on Balfour Street.” The hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

The century-old townhouse was a bit ramshackle and needed a good coat of paint, but the bones were good, and the people were willing to move out within the week. I walked in the door and knew it was home.

As I reflect on this story, I realize that Grandpa Balfour was there for me in death as he had been in life, a quiet and constant presence. The house on Balfour Street was a safe haven for myself, and my daughter during a very difficult time. And the lesson I took from the experience has remained with me to this day, a reminder of the steady presence of the unseen hands that guide us.

~Elizabeth Copeland

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