My grandfather died in a plunge over a cliff. It happened before I was born. He was trying to make a curve, about ten miles north of Moncton, New Brunswick. In his Chrysler Royal, he was on a final errand to purchase fixtures for the restaurant he had constructed in Summerside, Prince Edward Island.
He died instantly, crushed by the steering wheel.
It was 1947 and he was 46 years old. My father had to take over the family restaurant.
“Leo Coyle. Widely-Known S’side Business Man Meets Untimely Death” read the July 3, 1947 headline in the Canadian newspaper whose name has not survived.
“The citizens of Summerside were shocked beyond measure on July 1st, Dominion Day, to learn that Mr. Leo Coyle, one of the town’s foremost young business men, and the well-known proprietor of the restaurant which bears his name, was instantly killed early on the morning of that day in a regrettable road accident.”
My parents had just met and they courted long distance. My mother lived near Boston. They married the following year at her parish church on Easter Sunday. She moved to Prince Edward Island and set up their first home on the second floor of my grandfather’s restaurant.
Leo Coyle’s had knotty pine walls, a small stage and a large dance floor. The tables and chairs were blonde wood, informal. They were not covered with cloths and the chairs did not have arms. However, the business did not survive its first season, which is short in the Canadian Maritimes. My parents moved to Boston.
The building still stands, though it is no longer a restaurant. A plaque, dedicating it to my grandfather, is embedded next to the front door. I have visited, just to stand in the gravel parking lot to look at it. I have never been inside.
Across the street, at the College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts, I have sat on a long, wooden picnic bench seat under a canvas dome. Listening to the bagpipes and the drums, I have thought of my grandfather.
The drum major of a bagpipe brigade, my grandfather is the star of an old home movie. He wears a tall, rounded, black, furry hat and a kilt. My grandfather carries the staff in his right hand, pumping it up and down with each step he takes. He wears white epaulets over his shoes and a stern look on his face under the tall, black hat. The chin strap moves with his steps as he angrily waves the person behind the movie camera – my father – out of the way.
There are thirteen of us; his grandchildren. We all know the story of our grandfather’s death. Twenty-eight years after his crash, I drove my brand new 1975 Fiat coupe off windy, leaf littered York Road, several miles north of Baltimore. I had just gotten my driver’s license. The breath-taking leaves in crimson, gold and rust lined my path. They also littered the asphalt.
On a curve, my car skidded on the leaves and I slowed down.
Another curve came up and the Fiat slid off the road.
I held onto the steering wheel, locking my elbows. My face stung with fear. The car bumped down the mound of earth, banging and crunching as it tumbled. Brown leaves from the trees that surrounded me covered my windshield before it smashed. Glass shattered, slicing my face, my hands.
It may have taken a minute to plunge over the embankment, but it seemed much longer. I howled as the Fiat slammed into a tree’s wide trunk.
Unable to open my door, I crawled out the driver’s side window. Covered in scratches and blood, I climbed up the embankment. I had broken my collar bone, but I did not feel pain.
My car was so far down, I couldn’t see it.
I stood in the road. Crying.
A utility truck stopped in front of me. The driver, who swung his legs out of the truck’s cab, was older, gray haired and bearded. He stood in the road and asked me if I was all right.
He guided me to the metal mesh step on the side of his truck where I sat, listening to him call an ambulance.
I thought of my grandfather, flying over an embankment just like I had done.
© Caryn Coyle
Caryn Coyle’s fiction and essays have been published in six previous issues of the Loch Raven Review. She resides in Baltimore.