Gordon LeBarre was born in 1913, and has spent almost every day since then in Hamilton, Ontario, straying only periodically to attend the various acclaimed theatre festivals of Ontario. His mother named him Truman, but died when he was so young that he can’t even remember what she looked like. And after she died, he went to live with his grandmother, who told him, “Truman is no name for a boy.” And so she called him Gordon instead.
Gord only has a few stories, now that he’s 94, and most of them can be found in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hamilton Spectator. They dedicated a whole page to Gord for living so long – December 18 was his 94th birthday. He’ll tell you, and I’m sure he told the friendly reporters, that he never asked to be born six days before Christmas; sometimes he wonders why he couldn’t have been born in June. Gord hates to be bothersome.
He’ll also tell you that when he was born, he was only knee-high to a grasshopper. You and I both know this to be impossible, and might not even find the comparison amusing, but these expressions keep him making sense, and it really is amazing how small the man is. He comes over for dinner, and all the guests laugh when he says he weighs 100 pounds.
“Soaking wet!” they say
“With stones in your pockets, maybe!”
“I’m two and a half of you!”
He amazes them. Gord chuckles proudly – he loves to amaze people. It’s not as difficult for old people or children to be impressive as it is for all of us.
“I walk so fast,” Gord tell us. “There are some people in the village,” – Gord lives in a gated community for old folks, which is not a nursing home, never a nursing home – “some of them in the village wonder how I walk so fast. At my age! You know, I’m so light that I can fall on the ice and I get right back up laughing!”
Gord is small because he was a child of the Depression, and when his father and grandmother realized that there wasn’t enough money to support a growing child, they sent him to an orphanage, where he didn’t grow much at all. This is one of Gord’s favourite stories: being forced to eat mutton and getting slapped on the wrist when he tried to write with his left hand. It usually starts: “You know, I was raised in an orphanage, and ohhh it was grim.” Although he’d never ask us not to, we don’t serve lamb when Gord comes for dinner.
Last time he was over, we sat together on the couch and told me to stop him if he’d already told me, but did I know that,
“My real name is Truman, but after my mother died, my grandmother…”
“Said that Truman was no name for a boy.”
“Oh,” he was disappointed, but not surprised, “you know that one already.”
“I’m afraid so, Gord.”
“I’m just so forgetful. When I was 49, you know, I never to used think about my past, but now I do think of it, and it’s so sharp it’s as if it were yesterday.”
The irony of Gord’s statement is that he likely had no memory of what had happened the day before. I heard noises, like a bird breaking open chestnuts and I looked down to see him picking at his fingernails. His hands looked so big on him.
“Some wag said, ‘You know you’re getting old when you start reminiscing.’ So I guess I’m there!” Gord likes these sayings. He smiles quite uncontrollably when he says them.
“And who’s the wag who said that Gord?”
“Oh…I don’t remember.” And then even the wag’s words made him uneasy and he tore frantically at his nails. He stared ahead, and his eyes watered because he had so few eyelashes left to protect his hazy eyeballs.
He forgot what he was worried about and smiled, and grabbed my hand and kissed it. The milky tears squeezed through the meandering pathways that lead from his eyes to his cheeks.
“You are very lucky,” he smiled, “you and your dear brother, to have such a wonderful mother.” He stared at my mother across the room. “I don’t remember my mother at all, she died giving birth to my sister. I was only two, so I went to live with my…”
“Oh, I told you that already. I’m so forgetful these days.” And the lines on his furrowed forehead met the ones curling around his eyes that met the ones on his cheeks.
And so it goes. Most visits, Gord will ask us if we’ve heard of Jane Austen (though it usually takes upwards of five minutes for him to think of her name), or if we’ve read his short story, “The Donut Hole” (he assures us it’s only a silly story, since he’s had to teach himself to read). My mother does Gord’s taxes, and she often finds three or four receipts from dryer repairmen, which read: “Checked dryer, no problem found, $50.00.” He hates rock music, he really hates rock music, even jazz, and if we put on something he likes he faces the speakers and conducts to an imaginary symphony. He still doesn’t know that John and Ken, who have been coming to Thanksgiving dinner for years, are gay.
So remember, all you have to do to be amazing is to live for 94 years. Though 94 years is a long time to live.