Grandpa’s Splashes of Red


I was washing dishes yesterday when I noticed a flash of colour. A bright red cardinal fluttered down from the sky and landed on the rose bush in front of the kitchen window. It sat briefly on a grey-green branch, like an errant spot of brilliant red paint amid the dirty brown, late-winter landscape. It made me smile and gave me a little surge of hopefulness that colour will soon return to this corner of Ontario as the snow melts and spring makes her elegant return. I’ve always loved cardinals. Maybe I feel a special affinity because we share a defining colour.

The cardinal on the rose bush also made me think of my Grandpa Johnson. He loved cardinals, so perhaps I inherited my love of them from him. He had a cardinal feeder in the front yard of his house in Beamsville and I remember standing in the big living room window watching his cardinals fight over seeds. I always thought of them as Grandpa’s cardinals and suspected he had some magical power over them.

Grandpa must have really loved those splashes of brilliant red because he also kept red rose bushes — spectacular ones that grew along one side of the house. He took meticulous care of them, trimming and tending so that they grew into bushy, dark green plants dotted with perfect red roses. In the summertime, there was always a round crystal vase filled with water and a floating rose in the centre of Grandma and Grandpa’s dining room table, and my mom picked big rose bouquets to take home whenever we left. As a child, I learned to be wary of those rose bushes, since they grew in the narrow corridor that separated my grandparents’ property from the neighbour’s fence. There wasn’t much extra space to squeeze by and I always seemed to get caught and poked by a couple of thorns on my way to the backyard.

Celebrating my grandparents' 40th wedding anniversary when I was 6 years old (a few months before Grandpa's death)
Celebrating my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary when I was 6 years old (a few months before Grandpa’s death). Photo: Birgit Johnson

Grandpa died of a heart attack when I was seven years old. He was working outside at the time and Grandma found his body lying beside his beloved rose bushes. I suppose it was fitting for him to be there, since it was a place that certainly brought him much happiness. After he died, though, the rose bushes were left to grow wildly and the cardinal feeder didn’t get refilled nearly as often as before. Eventually I stopped seeing cardinals, since there aren’t any around my parents’ home in Muskoka, but I never stopped associating both cardinals and roses with my grandpa.

Now I live in a house that has both a spectacular wall of rose bushes that the former owner planted and a continual presence of cardinals. The rose bushes are extremely scraggly and reach as high as the second storey dormer. They also reach out dangerously and snag my wary children as they wander past; in fact, A. screams in terror if he feels a rose bush attach itself to his sleeve, as if it’s some kind of alien. I come running to see what’s attacking him and try not to laugh. Then, like a responsible mother, I get out the trimmers, but it’s a never-ending battle.

I love that I’m surrounded by memories of my grandfather, after so many years of never seeing bright red cardinals or ever owning a rose bush. Each time I see a cardinal flit around, I think of Grandpa and wonder if he has sent that cardinal to scout out what’s going on in his oldest granddaughter’s life because, if he were ever to be reincarnated as an animal, I’m sure he’d be a bright red cardinal hanging out amid the rose bushes.


3 thoughts on “Grandpa’s Splashes of Red

  1. A beautiful post. It gave me a bit of lump in my throat as you write of those long by-gone days and people. I am so glad you have good memories of your grandfather. He adored you.

  2. i remember also. He did love his roses It was a sad time of his passing. I am glad you remember him whenever you see a cardinal. It would be interesting when the boys read this blog, what they remember. I know your grandfather loved all of his grandchildren.

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