My grandfather taught me how to build a dam instead of islands

Copyright ImageLittle Victor and Andrew re-engineering the plane.




When we were kids, and we were lucky, it would rain. And the parking area of my grandfather’s mountain farm would fill up with streams and rivulets. The farm house was in a small valley, near the top of one of the mountains in the chain. So, after a hard rain, the water would pour through from the forest above us.

We knew my grandfather built dams for a living. Maybe we didn’t know, at the time, it was a job. Maybe to an eight-year old it was just something he did. But never talked about. It was always other people who talked about the massive hydroelectric projects he worked on as an engineer.

But my little brother and I would go out after the rain had stopped, sometimes while it was still coming down, and make little dams in the little streams. Pretending to be our grandfather.

We would squat, like only children can, out in the yard molding the wet dirt and clay into six-inch high blockades that were quickly overrun by the water.

They always failed — water over the top of our dam, water around our dam… mostly they collapsed, but always they eventually turned into islands.

I don’t know why he did it, I know he almost immediately regretted doing it, but one afternoon my grandfather stopped and watched my brother and I creating islands in his yard.

I can’t remember what he said, but basically it sounded like “…no. You’re doing it wrong.”. And he bent over to pick up a stick before walking towards us.

“First,” he said, “you need to find a better place to start.”

And he brought us to a spot where several of the rivulets came together to form a larger stream.

“Then,” he said, “you’ll need a reservoir.”

And he used the stick to sketch out an area we needed to dig out.

“And,” he said, “you’ll need to reinforce the dam.”

And he taught us how to weave sticks together to use like steel reinforcement bars.

Then he left us, walking to his machine shed to continue working.

So we dug a reservoir, as deep as we could before hitting the bare mountain. Then we made it as wide and long as the length of my arm. And, as the rivulets filled the reservoir, we found sticks and wove them together. And we used clay instead of dirt, and built the dam up around the sticks.

But we didn’t stop there. We built the dam long and high. We extended the reservoir. We built smaller dams further out to channel the water from other rivulets to the reservoir. Once we knew how, everything just made sense.

When we were done we stood up and looked at our dam, and were so proud to have flooded out a third of my grandfather’s parking area.

And then we realized we had flooded a third of our grandfather’s parking area. So we drilled holes at the base of our dam to let the water out. And then we built channels around the dam, and the engorged reservoir gradually emptied.

And then we left, as children do, to find something else to do.

And our clay, stick reinforced dam dried into a concrete, stick reinforced foot-high wall.

For us the hardest part wasn’t being forced to take the dam apart with hammers and a shovel. The hardest part was never being able to build another one.



When I was young my grandfather was as close to a father-figure I ever had. We only ever saw him a few weeks out of the year, mostly in the summer at his hobby farm in Avoca, Quebec, and then mostly at the kitchen table for lunch or dinner.

But I can remember trying to keep up with him — going to bed at night thinking of all the things we could do… unfortunately, because he was up and out working in the fields, or visiting, by the time I woke up, I mostly got stuck with my grandmother and slaving away in her vegetable garden.

But, when our schedules met he would take time to explain things to me — like power tools, or how to drive a bulldozer. Those days, inside those weeks, those moments of fathering would keep me going for the rest of the year.

In a weird way I think I use the same style of teaching with my girlfriend / partner’s oldest son, Andrew, that my grandfather used on me. I laugh more, I don’t remember my grandfather ever laughing when I was a kid. We do now, but not then.

But, when my grandfather was trying to explain something to me — like how to use the table saw — he did it slowly, calmly, repeated it once or twice, then turned the saw on and said something like “…don’t lose a finger.”.

I do have a lot more patience with Andrew than my grandfather had with me. Most of the time. I don’t remember my grandfather ever getting angry with me, but his patience had its limits. Once he found them, however, he mostly just shut down… I do remember that when he got quiet, it was time for me to be quiet.

One thing my grandfather never liked was noise… on Sunday, when church was done, he would take us out for an ice cream, and then we’d go visiting. I remember we stopped at someone’s home — to me they were ancient — and my brother and I got bored very fast, and we started playing carpet-hockey with a tennis ball in their hallway.

I really don’t think the couple minded, but my grandfather did. He was very quiet on the way back to his farm. When we got there we got yelled at. I can vaguely remember this being one of the very few occasions when my grandfather took us out to the woodshed. Literally.

He has always hated noise… maybe commotion would be a better word.

To be honest, I hate ‘commotion’ as well. Or I did. I don’t react with the same impatience as I used to, or that my grandfather did, and still does. When Andrew and Victor and Diane are… ‘expressing themselves’ around me, I can see it for what it is — kids being kids, and their mother reacting to it.

I’m not sure, but when we were all much younger I don’t think my grandfather could relate to me as being a child. I think he expected me to be either an adult, or to be the child he was… or the one he remembered being. But, I think, that’s how it is with most adults thrust into a position where their family role gets expanded.

But he took the time to teach me how to start a fire, how to properly cut down a tree, how to stack wood, how to bale hay, how to drive a tractor and a snowmobile and a truck, how to walk a fence line.

He’s in the hospital right now… has been there for a few days, will be there for a few days more. Normally it’d be nothing to worry about — it’s painful and embarrassing, but people recover from it — but he’s ninety, and the longer he’s in there the more depressed and despondent he gets.

Even as he gets better he feels as though he’s getting worse. I’ve been in to visit everyday, and he is getting better, even if he can’t see it. It’s very strange for me… to me, for me to be the cheerful, positive influence in someone’s life, but that’s what I have become for my grandfather.

It’s a very strange journey to end up where we are together, where it has become my role — at least for a little while — to convince my grandfather, my father-figure, life is still worth living.

Whether he’s willing to admit it or not, he will be out of the hospital soon. After that, it’s possible he’ll have to live in a nursing home. Or have someone taking care of him, professionally. And I know he hates both ideas.

At this point all he wants is to be able to eat a good steak and have a regular movement. He told me this afternoon, with a bit of a smile, that those are the two best things in the world.


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About Gabriel

I’ve lived in more than fifty places. I've been paid to pick stones out of fields, take backstage photos of Britney Spears, and report on Internet privacy issues. My photos have been published in several newspapers, and a couple of magazines.
This entry was posted in Bud, CSN:AFU Aboot Me, Depression, Family, Parenting, Quebec, Vankleek Hill, Victor, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to My grandfather taught me how to build a dam instead of islands

  1. diamondwalker says:

    That’s a human story … priceless … wonderful.. rich .. my best to you and your grandfather …

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