This week, my grandfather, Dr. Ronald T. Abbott passed away. He earned his medical degree at the University of Glasgow, and his father, Dr. Sydney Gilchrist Abbott, earned his veterinary degree at Glasgow Veterinary College (which would later become part of the University). As a young man, Grandpa loved fast cars, his country, beautiful women, alcohol, bathroom and absurdist humour, and dogs. As an older man, he loved fast cars, his country, alcohol, bathroom and absurdist humour, his dogs, and a beautiful, tender and kind lady who cared for him until his last.
Grandpa was a rabble-rouser, an adventurer, and was always busy with a new object of his focus and affection, motorized or otherwise. At twelve, I heard about his adventures riding his motorcycle from Iowa to Tierra del Fuego, at fifteen, of his adventures to Alaska and close encounters with bears. At twenty, he sent a short story about the time he mistook a brothel somewhere in the wilds of Mexico for a hotel. And no, he did not speak Spanish. Throughout those years, he had a habit of showing up out of the blue (usually in a different car each time), waltzing in with a belch, a smile, and a “hi, Dearie!”, typically in that order. Seeing him was never boring and was frequently a delightful break from ordinary days.
He was, at times, an abrasive man, but was a man who thought clearly with an evident sense of charisma and confidence which carried him through life effortlessly — going through a reported approximated eighty sports cars in five years in addition to airplanes, dogs, and motorcycles. The impeccable Scottish brogue didn’t hurt either.
At the peak of his medical career, his personal choices, career, and life path often took him away from the responsibilities fathers often encounter at bedtime — checking for ghosts in the shadows, reading, and telling bedtime stories — but my own father was never less grateful for the happy times they did share despite. I would ask that he tell them, in all hilarious detail, over and over as I lay down to sleep on nights when my mother was teaching a late class at a local University. Dad would always repeat the same ones.
I would beg for more stories of this ultimate reckless adventurer-leader — camping in Yellowstone and hearing the dogs fighting with bears as the camper rocked my father and his brother, being stalked through the woods, fishing for dinner, and my Dad, riding motorcycles across the great plains with his .22, being chased by bulls — but would, more often than not, come up empty. There was a finite supply of stories to tell, and I had heard all of the ones my father wanted me to hear. I wanted desperately to have these adventures — the three of us — on our own. Grandpa was an easy character to idolise.
But Grandpa was still busy ticking things off the list of adventures to have, and I respected that. My father painted him as a character in a story book — Mr. Toad from the Wind in the Willows was a favorite parallel, always looking for another wild ride and always captivated by the sights, sounds, and smells of a clean engine. I came to admire and adore this feature of him — for his absence was in fact a distant presence as this character, off to seek more stories, and I learned early to appreciate this from a distance.
But where Grandpa was still busy with his adventures, others filled the void. A wonderful neighbour, Professor Kent Newmeyer, came into our lives, and is always there to listen and share stories (he will probably never know how much this means to me). My father gave up his own adventures (of which there were many) to check for ghosts in the shadows of my room, read bedtime stories, teach me to whittle, to work on cars, and take me fishing or to the flea market. I dreamt up adventures of my own. And Grandpa was still there, too — a character to admire and adore.
The night he passed away, the streets of Glasgow were eerily vacant as if bereft of the normally-lively spirit of the population. All the pubs were empty but one, appearing equally sombre from the outside, in which an impromptu, ten-piece fiddle and cello band enjoyed some drinks while playing a lively melody to what seemed the entire population of the city. I couldn’t have known, but as he passed, I sat in that Glaswegian Whisky bar and knocked a few scotches back with an elderly, politely-vulgar Glaswegian man (with certain disdain for the English) with whom I spoke for hours about politics, culture, and current events. I thanked him for his time. I explained that Grandpa was passing and how much a simple conversation meant. We talked and laughed until the bar spilled onto the streets and bequeathed back to Glasgow the fervor it had been missing.
I was his first-born grandchild, and I will forever respect him for the gifts he gave to the people I love and cherish: humour, adventure, and a love for the parts of life a Glaswegian cab driver named Stevie best described when he once told me “we’re here for a good time, not a long time”.
Whether right or wrong, we often pursue things in life to seek the pride of those we love, or to otherwise fill the spaces which are, to some extent, unfilled either due to our own flaws or the flaws of the characters in our lives. In seeking the adventures I have seen thus far, I hope only to have achieved the pride of my Father, for everything he has sacrificed, so that I may pursue my own ‘Miss Toad’s’ adventure.
So, if you partake, knock one back tonight for the man who in is part responsible for my globe-trodding — and if you don’t, picture my Grandfather staring at you, belching, and bluntly asking “Why not?” in perfect Scottish brogue.