My maternal grandfather, Jimmy Bearskin, was the only grandparent I ever knew. As a young child, I once thought he would be my grandfather forever. It came as a shock to me when he passed away at the age of 103 when I was 12 years old.

I was one of many students who had to leave home to go to school in the south. We were on our way out to school one late August I went to see my grandfather and told him we were leaving for school again. He told me I should learn all I can because one day I would use it. My grandfather told me to come to him and he said, “Come here my grandchild. I want to kiss you just in case if I don’t see you again.” Not knowing any better, I told him we would be back again in the summer after school. I never did get to see grandfather again. It was March of the following year that my beloved grandfather and younger brother both passed away. However, grandfather did send me a message in a cloud on the day he died but I did not know or realize this until much later.

I have often looked back from what I can remember of my grandfather. Many of the grandchildren like myself recall and use what we used to hear him say. We are still all learning from him.

I used to wonder how my grandfather could have possibly known anything about going to school. He himself never once set foot inside a school classroom and yet he told me my education was important and I would one day use it I did receive a good education and I know its rewards. Even if it meant leaving home to get this education was one thing I never thought my grandfather ever considered. Having to leave home at a very young age meant I grew up without my parents and family not to mention the loneliness I had to endure. However, when I look back, the distance I realized helped me strengthen the bonds of family ties, made me independent, forced me to look after and watch out for myself, made me look and be aware of the other society, made me proud of who I am because one day I realized nobody was any better or worse than I was.

A lot of times, I stop myself from thinking or saying certain things because I think my grandfather will turn over in his grave. Grandfather never wanted to hear anyone say they were lazy. He used to tell us not to be lazy because laziness is not a sickness and can be overcome. Grandfather always said we would not be happy if we were no longer able to do things ourselves. When we get lazy, this is when we become bored because we do not make good use of our time and talents and therefore do not find life worthwhile.

Grandfather always said a person who likes to work will always find something to do. When someone would say they don’t or didn’t have time to do something, grandfather would say we should do what we can for today for there is always tomorrow.

Grandfather always said we should be kind and helpful to one another. If someone asks you to help them, even if you cannot do it right away, say you will instead of “wait” We should always be happy that we are able to help someone and to do it gladly for life’s greatest reward is what we do for others. Everything we say and do should always be done out of love and respect. Making mistakes is good if we can learn from them. If we stumble, we should get up and go forward again. For each obstacle we are able to overcome will make it easier to go over the next one.

Grandfather also knew the changes that would take place in our society where it would alter our values, morals and beliefs. I am one witness to this as I lived, talked and imitated the society I was forced into when I went into the residential school system and left home to get to school. It took an awakening when I came back to live with my people to fully realize I could find a balance between where I had been and where I was.

When I finally did come back home, I was ashamed I was not able to understand all what was being said to me and I was not able to do the things I should have been able to as a Native person. I had learned to be proud of who I was but was finding it rather difficult when my own people laughed at me. I had no choice but to learn things in my culture because I never did get a chance before.

I had to learn to live without the so-called luxuries like electricity and running water I had known when I lived in the south for most of my childhood. Things which were taken for granted in our culture like plucking geese, chopping wood, skinning animals, walking on snowshoes, eating “bush” food, etc. were things that I had to learn. I also taught myself how to read and write syllabics. Other things, I am still learning and have yet to learn.

The balance I find in both societies I know comes as a result of my own willingness and determination based on the teachings of my grandfather and others after him. Today, as I sit at a computer typing this, I am using what my grandfather said I would. In the very near future, I will go out in the bush to hunt caribou and check my marten traps.

Grandfather need not have said all the other things which one could learn from to be a good and kind person or to find peace and happiness—it is with one’s journey through life that these things will be found and learned. Though this journey may be hard, even unbearable at times and for some it would seem easy, it is how we strive, look at life and live our lives that makes us the persons we are.

Today, many of his grandchildren like myself still talk about our grandfather. In our homes, whether in Chisasibi or Ottawa, we all have the same picture of him where he is standing kind of lopsided with his cane. He is still very much alive in our hearts, memories and many times in our dreams.

As for myself, I find happiness in that I am still able to look at the light of each new day. For even with hard times, our hope is looking to the future. Though I do not always find time to do all the things I would like to do (or wish there were a couple more hours to a day), like grandfather said, “There is always tomorrow.”

By Nellie Pashagumiskum, Chisasibi