Literary Orphans

Murdoch John MacKenzie: A Legacy by Lily Iona MacKenzie

Grandpa—dead now for over 50 years—visited me last night in a dream. I had wanted to call him, but I didn’t have his phone number. So I was thrilled when he appeared wherever I was staying, and he seemed happy to see me, too. He looked heavier than the man I remembered, and that surprised me since apparently he had lost his appetite and wasn’t eating much. I didn’t say this to him, but not having an appetite makes sense if one is dead.

It was wonderful to have him in my life again.


Sixty years ago, I couldn’t have said that. My mother’s father, a former Scottish schoolmaster, and the strongest male presence in my childhood, he rarely smiled. Sternness seemed his second name, though his actual one was Murdoch John MacKenzie. Fires simmered in him just beneath the surface and easily could be ignited, his red-veined eyes bulging out of his head if he didn’t like something. He glared at my older sister Marina and me (this was before my brothers Bob and John were born), not hiding his disapproval.

Slang made him angry. He insisted I not use contractions like “can’t” for “cannot.” He’d say, “There is no such word as ‘can’t’, Lily.” At the time, I didn’t know what he meant, and I didn’t much give a damn. If he wasn’t in earshot, I used what he called slang as much as I wanted. Everything he stood for—conformity, formality, antiquated rules—I resisted.

Though he hadn’t taught for a number of years, he couldn’t stop being the strict Scots’ schoolmaster. Only when he had a glass or two of port did he loosen up and become sociable. Otherwise, he wore a perpetual scowl, and his mustache made him look a little like Hitler. That wasn’t the kind of grandfather I wanted.

Reading was the one thing that made him seem happier. And he read a lot—the classics, in the original Greek and Latin, having had a classical education. (When he died, he was carrying a copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield in his hip pocket.) Grandpa also looked content when he worked crossword puzzles. I watched him sit at our kitchen table, smoothing out the oilcloth table covering, and opening the newspaper to the crossword page. Eyes intent on those empty squares, he used a fountain pen to resolutely set down words in black ink, never crossing out any of them. That degree of certainty amazed me.

So did his ability to concentrate on any activity that absorbed him. When he played chess, he had the same sharp focus that carried over during our checkers’ games. I never could beat him. He knew every move before I even thought of what to do next.

Winning made him smile.

Grandpa’s formality also appeared in his wardrobe. Since he bought most of his clothes at rummage sales, they often didn’t fit well, the trousers too short, or the jackets too wide at the shoulders. Still, he always dressed with care, wearing a suit, tie, and Fedora every day, even when he was hanging out at home.

I loved to watch him groom himself. He stood in front of the bathroom mirror, razor strap hanging from the wall, sharpening his blade. Then he dipped his brush into water and lathered soap onto it, covering his cheeks, chin, and neck, puffing out one cheek before drawing the blade over his skin. He scraped away soap and whiskers with one slick motion, his face ruddy underneath, wiping the razor on a towel, flecks of beard buried in the nap. After, he trimmed his mustache, finishing off with a touch of talcum powder to his cheeks and nose. Finally, he attached the removable collar to his shirt and put on a tie, vest, and jacket, trousers held up with suspenders, tufts of greying hair receding from a high forehead.


I’m trying to find the grandpa that wasn’t grandpa, the one who showed up in my dream and wants to visit. I’m trying to dream again the heavier man, the man I never knew whom I wanted to know, the one who didn’t know himself.


* * *
On January 25, 1914, Murdoch John MacKenzie, left his post as schoolmaster in Achiltibuie, a village in the Highlands of Scotland, seeking his fortune, seduced by Canada’s call for immigrants (the government promised land and wealth). The school log from that day still has these words he wrote, his final entry: “Miss Matheson entered upon her duties in this school today and the headmaster takes his farewell of pupils and staff as from today.” Hoping to better himself, he took a boat to the new world, Canada—the Promised Land.

Though in an isolated location, at that time, Achiltibuie was a sizable town. Now it’s a miniscule village an hour’s drive north of Ullapool, the charming port where Grandpa grew up. In Achiltibuie, remains of stone houses grow out of the earth, a constant reminder of the Highland Clearances and how the lords betrayed the crofters. Sheep, which brought in more income, replaced the humans. These remnants are constant visual reminders of those other highlanders who also moved on, forced to seek their fortunes in a new land.

The village provided a handsome two-story house where Grandpa, Grannie, Mum and her four brothers lived. It still stands next to the school, overlooking the Summer Isles, a cluster of islands off shore. The original school was just two rooms, and the current schoolmaster lives in the same house as Grandpa did. He’s a man of about my grandfather’s age when he lived there. According to a log from the early nineteen hundreds, Grandpa also was responsible for several “side” schools, satellite locations in nearby villages that he oversaw.

In Achiltibuie, he had a solid place in the community. The schoolmaster shared leadership responsibilities with the minister and doctor. In Canada, he never found the same acceptance.


When Grandpa left Scotland, my grandmother Isabella stayed behind with their five children (four sons and a daughter; Mum was just seven or eight at the time), planning to join her husband as soon as he was settled and could send the money. But World War I intervened, and it wasn’t safe to cross the Atlantic—a passenger ship had been torpedoed, creating panic. I don’t think my grandmother minded the delay. From what Mum and other relatives say, she wasn’t keen on leaving her homeland, her many relatives, or her long-time friends.

There may have been another hitch. Grandpa wasn’t Grandmother’s first choice; it wasn’t a marriage of passion. She had fallen for a friend of her father’s, a married man with children. The feelings were reciprocated. Her father stepped in and insisted she marry Murdoch, who had been courting her, but he must have seemed very dour. He lacked the humor and zest for society that Grandmother had grown up with, but he was steady and would make a good husband.

Or so her father thought.

Seven years later, the war over and her father pressing her to take up her wifely duty and join her husband, she finally sailed for Canada with four of her five children. The second oldest, Alisdair, stayed with his grannie, refusing to make the voyage.


Canada was very different from Skye. No close community existed as there did on the Island. The land was vast and could be extremely bleak, especially in the winter, buried beneath snow. The adjustment everyone had to make was great. Mum says she cried for three years, missing her grannie and grandpa, her uncles and aunts and cousins, her friends.

Seven years had changed both my grandfather and grandmother. They had trouble picking up their relationship again, assuming they ever had one. Mum says her dad had let everyone down: “We thought he had an office job with the Railroad, you know, an administrator. But when we arrived, he was doing common labor for the CNR. That was a slap in the face.”

His temperament didn’t help him find the work he was trained to do. According to Mum, “Grandpa always was bad-tempered. Strong-headed. He wanted his way. That’s why he couldn’t keep a teaching job in Canada. He wanted to teach the Scottish way. Differently. Not according to the Canadian Education Authorities’ schedule.”

Mum claims he also was bad-tempered with her mother: “He was awfully mean to her. He hit her in front of us kids.” That treatment must have been a shock to my grandmother, who had become accustomed to considerable independence in the intervening years. No wonder she left him after only a year and went to work as a maid for a family in Mount Royal, a wealthy area of the city, leaving the children under his care, the youngest eleven. Maybe she felt it was his turn to look after them; she’d had the full responsibility long enough. But more likely, she just couldn’t live with this man.

A year or so later, she traveled to Mexico City with her employer. Mum, who met him once, says he was good looking, tall and well built. The two of them wanted Mum to go with them, but she couldn’t bear to leave her father. She said, “I’d already been separated from Dad for eight years. I couldn’t part with him again.”

My grandmother settled in Mexico City. When I asked Mum what happened to the man, she said, “Mother ditched him.”

“How did she get by then?”

“Oh, she taught English to children.”

Of course, no one knows for sure what she did or how she lived. Maybe the man ditched her. We do know that she took ill, seriously, after a few years, but again no one knows exactly what happened. Mum says, “It could have been kidney failure. She had a kidney removed when she was thirty-five and was only supposed to live fifteen years after that.”

When he heard she was ill, Grandpa sent my grandmother the money to return to Canada. But she died before she could leave Mexico and was buried somewhere in Mexico City, leaving lots of unanswered questions—many mysteries. A priest wrote and told the family the news.


* * *

From the beginning, Grandpa got along better with Mum than he did with his sons, probably because she worshipped him. They didn’t. When she married for the first time at nineteen and moved to the village of Youngstown in southern Alberta, Grandpa also relocated there and taught school for a while. He was with her when George Van Brunt, her first husband, died. My sister Marina was six, and he helped Mum through my illegitimate birth not long after.

Though he had been one of those who suggested she give me up, he was surprisingly loyal after she made her decision to keep me and cared for me himself at times while mother worked, washing my bare bottom under the tap, changing diapers, carrying me around in the crook of his arm.

Grandpa gave me my structure. It was his face I gazed at as a baby and his hand I clung to when I made my first tentative steps out into the world. Mother represented promise and possibility—something mysterious and always out of reach. But Grandpa was the earth, solid, dependable, a strong arm and hand that didn’t waver: no uncertainties; no deviations.

When mother eventually remarried, I was four years old and willing to share her with another man, mainly, I think, because Grandpa came to live with us. Knowing he was there, whether in the background or foreground, comforted me. We moved to my stepfather’s farm in Langdon, 25 miles south of Calgary. Fortunately, my stepfather was not the sort of man who had to dominate. He was willing to share his wife and new family with another man. After being a bachelor for many years and unmarried until he was 48, having a family was enough.

But Grandpa made our nightly dinners unpleasant. He’d glare at Marina or me if our table manners weren’t correct. We couldn’t put our elbows on the tabletop, and there was a proper way to hold the knife and fork. We also had to chew with our mouth closed, and we couldn’t get food on our hands.

Yet he came to the table wearing his undershirt. He’d take out his false teeth and set the dentures beside his plate, the choppers appearing ready to bite us if we misbehaved. It puzzled me why he took out his teeth to eat. Wasn’t that what he had them for? Then he sat there glaring and clearing his throat, chewing and swallowing silently. Even during the brief times when he wasn’t living with us, we still felt his presence, his authoritarian personality filling the house and often determining our behavior.


* * *

Grandpa died long before he died physically, but he didn’t know it. That’s the hardest part of this story because he thought he was alive and had gone to school so he could be a schoolmaster. But what did he master in that school? The students were afraid of him and he also must have been afraid of himself, and maybe that’s why he died when he didn’t think he had died, and why I laughed and partied so hard the night he actually did die because I was finally free of the notion that my grandpa was alive when I knew he had been dead all those years. I could properly bury him, but the man wouldn’t stay dead. He still needed to visit his kin, and I was the grandchild he thought would turn into a tart, but someone put me in an oven and baked me until I turned into a teacher too like him.


* * *

Grandpa gave my new stepfather a hand with chores. He also bought me a chalkboard and taught me the alphabet when I was four. I preferred drawing pictures—portraits of family members, the dogs, whatever crossed my path. As easy as breathing, my fingers knew how to draw. And it was pictures I wanted, not letters—not numbers. But Grandpa taught me to count in English and French (this was before Canada was officially a bilingual country). Though I was only four, he believed I was ready to enter first grade (no kindergarten then). I started school when I was five, turning six in October, a little ahead of schedule.

The first day of class, I was so nervous I leaned over the back porch and threw up the eggs I had for breakfast. I didn’t want to leave the safe cocoon of our house, the sound of coffee percolating on the stove all day familiar and comforting. I helped Mum bake bread, yeast smell filling the place, and I played with my new dog when I wanted to. I had all I needed. School seemed a foreign world, one I wasn’t ready for.

Crying, begging to stay home, I resisted leaving that safe contained world. But Grandpa took my hand firmly, dragging me along, and we tromped across the pasture. I sniffled, nose running, cheeks streaked with tears. When we reached the school, he pulled me up the stairs past the snickering older kids hanging around outside.

Soon we reached my classroom, and Grandpa said, “Ah, Miss Hall, this is Lily. She’s starting school today.”

My new teacher smiled sympathetically and pulled me to her, telling Grandpa he could go. I could smell camphor and violets in her skirt. She nudged me gently towards a desk in the first graders’ row, smaller than the ones the older children used, the bigger desks at the back of the rows in this one-room schoolhouse. I sat stiffly in the straight wooden seat, feeling I was being sentenced to prison. Gone were my carefree days of rolling down haystacks, exploring the town, waiting for the train each day.

I was a student now, a new identity. No wonder I was afraid. I had no understanding then of how we cling to the familiar and resist change. All I knew was my life was going to be different.

And I liked it.

At least I did with Miss Hall as a teacher. She made me feel important and put magic into writing, spelling, reading, and math. I hated to see the day end, detested holidays, cursed weekends. I loved the smell of plastercene, of shaping images, of having projects, of knowing the answers—of being valued. And she delighted in all of our successes, cheering us on. She wasn’t like Grandpa, frowning when I made a mistake. I’m sure it was Miss Hall’s early encouragement that caused me to skip the third grade, that and having six grades in one room so I could listen to the older students’ lessons, learning from them too.

I couldn’t have had a clearer contrast to Grandpa than with Miss Hall. Where she generated enthusiasm for learning in me as well as in her other students, Grandpa created fear and negativity. He didn’t know that play could open our minds to new things and that a lighter touch is more effective than a heavier one. Nor did he understand the role art has in awakening a young mind. The stern Scottish authority had shut down his own pleasure principle—or severely limited it. Therefore, he couldn’t give joy to others or accept it for himself. His knowledge resided in a grim jail, surrounded by bars that effectively kept anyone out.


* * *

At Christmas, my imagination worked overtime, conjuring up images of Santa Claus, even though Grandpa had told me there was no such thing as St. Nicholas. I didn’t believe him. My senses told me he existed. Every Christmas Eve, I heard his reindeer clattering across our roof and Santa himself shouting, “Ho, ho, ho.”

Grandpa also claimed there was no Jack Frost, but in the winter I could see Jack Frost’s extensive artwork on our windows, crisp white celestial designs that only he could conjure up. Much of the time, I inhabited a magical world, its parameters as boundless as the prairie skies.

Grandpa didn’t.

In retrospect, I can see that he wanted me to be grounded firmly in reality. For him, that must have meant not being carried away by one’s fantasies, making me wonder now how much he was afraid of the dreamer in himself. It was his dreamer that believed a move to Canada would bring him a better life than he had in Scotland, something that never happened. Was he protecting me from a similar destiny?

Instead, his admonitions drove me further into a fantasy world because it was preferable to the uninviting truth he tried to convey, the unappealing realm he inhabited. In contrast, the closet above my bed held a whole fairyland that buzzed with activity. A king and a queen and a fairy kingdom thrived there. And The Books of Knowledge that Grandpa bought for us in 1945 had wonderful folk and fairy tales that supported my view of life. From the beginning, we were destined to clash. And we did.


Knowing I was too swift for him, I loved to tease him till he took off after me, threatening me with his razor strap. One day when I was around twelve (we were all living in Calgary by then), he stormed into the house, veins in his neck sticking out, tufts of gray hair flaring up like horns. “Lily,” he shouted, holding up a carton of Black Cats I’d hidden in the garage. He held them over the sink, lighting a match to the carton. We both watched them smolder, their smell lingering in the house for hours afterward.

He may have told Mum I was smoking, and she may have felt it necessary to say something to me that went in one ear and out the other. My stepfather Chester had taught me to smoke on the farm when I was six; farm kids were given lots of latitude then with tobacco. Chester showed me how to roll cigarettes myself, giving a final twist of the delicate paper so the tobacco wouldn’t fall out the lit end. (The habit stayed with me till I was 27.)

It didn’t take me long to replenish my supply of Black Cats and find a better hiding place.

But even as I write about this incident, Grandpa’s opposite side surfaces. I remember staying with him when I was around 10. He was working as a farmhand for my best friend’s grandparents in Black Diamond, a small town about 20 miles from Calgary. We had moved to the city by then, and I camped out with Grandpa for a couple of weeks in the small shack he lived in. It had a wood stove for cooking, and I tried my hand at preparing meals for him. He seemed appreciative of my attempts to bring a feminine presence to his place. I swept and polished, washed clothes and dishes, things I’d learned at the Langdon farm.

He didn’t say much, but my memory of that interval is a positive one. He even smiled at times, especially when he showed me the newborn pigs and lambs and calves. A similar smile hovers on his face in the black and white photo I have of him and myself, Mum and my sister Marina, when I was about a year old. He’s standing over me, holding each of my hands as I balance on my feet. I’m ready to step off on my own.


* * *

I wonder what those 84 years were about when he wandered the earth like the Flying Dutchman whose ghost ship never reached port and was doomed to sail the oceans forever. It seems odd that he’s finally coming home, arriving at the only port I have, which is my dreams, and he takes advantage of the welcome mat I put out. Now I’m left with this man who left his own family to follow his own flying Dutchman because he knew deep inside himself that it was the only course he could take. Now I have to get to know this man who has been away for so long though he left deep imprints on all of us. I even chose his surname for my own. In some odd and depraved way I married my grandpa.


* * *

Grandpa drifted in and out of our lives, sometimes staying with one of my uncles—his sons. For all of his conservatism, he had a rebellious streak that manifested in odd ways. When we moved to the city and he was living with us, he often peed outside the house. In the winter, the urine stained the snow yellow, making his tracks visible. I never could understand why he would expose himself in such frigid weather when we had a perfectly good bathroom inside. But there was much about him that I didn’t fathom.

When he was downtown shopping, he loaded his pockets, but he didn’t pay for anything. He came home, wearing his overcoat, pulling out shirts and shorts and socks from beneath it, still in their cellophane wrap. Mum would poke Chester, and they’d try hard to keep a straight face. Grandpa never said a word. He just tore off the packaging and put the garments in his drawer, acting as if nothing had happened. He didn’t try to hide his kleptomania; nor did he broadcast it. It was a fact. No shame. No guilt. By then he was an old-age pensioner, so maybe he thought he had it coming. Mum claims he didn’t steal when he was younger.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have money, though, in reality, he didn’t have much, dependent on a pension or odd jobs he could pick up. But when he slipped his brown leather wallet out of his hip pocket, he always had a wad of bills in it two inches thick that he’d flash at me, tauntingly. He took out the bills and counted them, wetting his fingers so they’d separate more easily. I watched, hoping he would give me some, but he rarely gave money away unless someone was in need. (When Chester was short of cash and ran out of medicine for his asthma, Grandpa always gave him what he could.) This made Grandpa appear loaded when, in fact, he was far from it, adding to the illusion of him being successful and financially independent. He wasn’t.


* * *

The last time I saw Grandpa he lay in a hospital bed looking wan and shrunken. He still had the mustache. The cancer nibbled on his throat, taking him away. My son, his great grandson who was four then, climbed onto a chair to say goodbye, and I remember him saying I love you Grandpa. I never coached him. It was a natural thing to say to someone who was dying.

A few weeks earlier, in the midst of Calgary’s bus drivers’ strike that went on for a month, I had written Grandpa a letter, wanting to know how he was doing because he had no public transportation. Nor did he have a phone in the cheap room he rented. By mail, he answered back in his elegant Scottish script that when circumstances are beyond one’s control, even monarchs must obey.

O Typekey Divider

A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in my early years, I supported myself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored me into the States). I also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (and almost got my legs broken), founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, co-created THE STORY SHOPPE, a weekly radio program for children that aired on KTIM in Marin County, CA, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in creative writing and one in the humanities). I have published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 150 American and Canadian venues. My novel Fling! was published this past summer. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2017. My poetry collection All This was published in 2011. I blog at


O Typekey Divider

First background photo “Achiltibuie” by Strevo

Second background photo “Snowy Kelvinside, Glasgow” by Neil H

Third background photo, of Alberta farm, is untitled by Graham Ruttan

Fourth background photo “Calgary Bay Building on 1st Street” by Wilson Hui

First foreground photo “Blackboards Still in Style” by Alan Levine

Second foreground photo “House & Barn” by Jimmy Brown

Third foreground photo “Black Cat Cigarettes” by David Holt

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