by Neil Sampson
To some, this is going to come across as sour grapes.
Guess you’re free to think what you want, but I’ll tell you right now – it ain’t so. I’ve eaten no fruit from that creeping, sordid vine, though I will admit to sensing a slight aftertaste, the origin of which presently escapes me. Still, there’s nothing ill-willed in what I’m about to say. There’s no bitterness here. Maybe a little sadness, that’s all (though it may be of the sort, which, when sprinkled with a pinch of blue, quickly sours into loneliness). But, like a dog fighting fleas, chomping on all fronts, hopefully the whole exercise will make some sense when you get to the end of the tale.
So, if you’ll just hold on, hold back a bit, then perhaps you’ll understand (dare I say, “appreciate”) where I’m coming from.
I’ve settled on a very simple explanation to describe the way I’m feeling. Have you ever been knocked to the carpet, only to have the rug pulled out from under you? You have? Well then, there’s no need for me to say any more. The game of life has come down to the playing of its last few pieces, and, very soon, it will be time to fold the board.
Some wag once said that you can never lose what you never really had. Makes sense to me. I’ve called it to mind many times as I’ve considered the following listings. None of these properties were ever mine, never came close to being mine (with one possible exception; I’ll explain when we get there). So, in effect, I’ve actually lost nothing.
These thoughts then, have not surfaced as a result of underlying pressures. Nor have they drifted down from locations upstream; carried along in the course of the current, just to be captured below. No. My words are just that – my words – born (and borne) from thoughts alone; clear, cold considerations; verifiable facts, easily seen floating on the high side of the dam. And the last time I looked, emotion had yet to pass through the chew and the churn of the turbines.
In the southwest corner of our province, there lies a town to which I once belonged. It was a town where I was, and it was a town where I wanted to be. Though there came a point in time when I had to move away (what’s a kid to do when his dad needs a job?) the town was still my town; was still a place where I could go when I needed a place to call “home”. It remained the place which always gave me a sense of place. And it was my place. It was here where I could stand up, do a quick double-stamp of the feet, and say, “This is me. This is home. Right here; this place is mine. I belong here.”
I could do all of these things … once. I could do all of them … once. I no longer can. Strangers’ hands have long been reaching out: feeling … fingering … grasping … gripping … taking to themselves what was not theirs to have. You see, what are to some mere houses and land, are homes and roots to others. I’m not inferring thievery here – of course money changed hands – I’m only saying that most times, while bodies may change locations, souls do not get boxed up and packed away into moving vans. No. Souls feel obliged to stay behind. They want to remain where they are, and so they often do.
But now I must prepare for that one final tug of the rug. I know that one more tumble awaits me. Tumble may sound better than fall, better than crash, but I fear the end is the same.
There’s one more thing you should know. The houses that follow here have not always been situated at their present addresses. “Huh? What’s that?” you say. “Yeah”, I say (and only a little facetiously), “that’s right.” I’m just stating that the house numbers which are now on the buildings, did not appear until the early ‘60’s. But I’ll use the numbers for easy identification. They weren’t there when I was a kid.
So off we go. Just remember, every listing was at one time very much a part of my family circle.
Here’s where it started for me, the old dairy house; a duplex, really. Dad was the chief dairyman here, where my early years consisted of countless pint bottles of chocolate milk; of learning how to cast with my new fishing rod (into ditch puddles); of finding tiny plastic whistles under the side porch; and of licking cone after cone after cone of the best ice cream in the world. Here my brother Tom and I made Dad – in the dark of night – drag two just-bagged deer onto the kitchen floor in order that we might touch their eyes, of late turned to rubber. Mom was thrilled.
This was home for me, this house that Dad built. He was the carpenter, the roofer, the plumber, and the electrician. Well, I helped him, of course. I can see that iron pot in the basement, melting the lead which, when combined with oakum, was used to chink the connections in the drain pipes. I learned to ride my bicycle here – down the driveway, across the street, and straight into Doug Hartford’s front porch.
Aunt Lucy’s house; right on the corner, and thankfully so, since she was the one who sold Dad the land for our house. Price? One dollar: legal tender.
Gram’s place – my mom’s mom. A tiny little house that Gram moved into when she and her still-at-home daughters had to leave McAdam: where the kitchen was always filled with buns and bread (sold first from home; later from the bakery where she landed a job making real-cream chocolate éclairs, and her sweet ‘n tangy lemon tarts); where Tom and I would shake in fear from the telling of “The Creeping Hand”, and other literary classics; where Aunt Mary came down the stairs singing “Hound Dog”; where Aunt Elda showed us how to predict the weather by sliding a rusted padlock up a guy wire. If it came back spinning, you could expect a storm. If it slid back in a straight slide, it meant that we could all head to Katy’s Cove.
Right across the street, Aunt Doris’ house. Here we would gather in the front room for long hours of “Ring around the Rosies” and “London Bridge”. For whatever reason, I remember lovely patches of Lilies of the Valley in the back yard.
Cousin Wendy’s, a house with a high, high outside staircase on which a kid could climb to the clouds. This was across the corner from the outdoor rink, built after the old town arena went up in flames. After a late Saturday afternoon’s skate, we’d leave from here to walk to Nana and Pa’s.
Nana and Pa’s – the absolute centre of town as far as a young boy was concerned. The front room of their home enclosed the Barber Shop where Tom and I were paid 15 cents to have our hair cut. (Wasn’t a bad deal really. Funny thing, though; in the 50 years since, I’ve not been able to find a better price anywhere.) Over the winter months, the family would gather here every Saturday night for Nana’s baked beans, her mince pie, and a half hour of Bugs Bunny. Her old, black dog Nipper was around then.
Nana’s house was unique for two reasons. Though sitting on the shore, there wasn’t a single window facing the sea. I think that this particular architectural feature was known as the “non-aesthetic-eastern Canadian-just-trying-to-survive-the-winter-winds” design. And it served them well. Also, the property rights for this home were measured from the low-water mark, which, on the Bay of Fundy, made for a fair bit of underwater acreage.
Aunt Irma and Uncle Bob’s first house that I can remember, a side-by-side duplex over the top of the garage which held the town’s fire trucks. Every Sunday after church, we’d cross the corner from Greenock Presbyterian to go to lunch at Irma’s. We’d always play a round or two of something that I’ll call “Ugly Bug”, a game in which multi-coloured plastic insect parts were to be assembled. We never did pay much attention to the rules of the game; basically, we just built bugs.
Great-uncle Harry’s. After I worked all summer long mowing the largest lawn on Parr Street, I took three-quarters of that year’s earnings ($30), and laid it down on Uncle Harry’s kitchen table in exchange for his 3-speed bike.
Billie, Lloyd and Wendy’s. Two whole families lived here for a while. Dad had an opportunity to rent our house on Frederick Street for $80/month, so we packed up and headed for the far side of town. Tom and I got to live in a makeshift bedroom that had been thrown together in the furnace room – very cool; we loved it! From what I remember, we never paid any rent, but Dad bought all of the groceries. (I think that’s how it went. Wendy, you can correct me here.) Lloyd’s cat, Pretty Boy, was a great mouser. There would always be a green gall bladder or two lying out there, withering away on the front step. And, on at least one occasion, Pretty Boy came home with a partridge. I was the one charged with picking up the spray of feathers.
The Historic View Cabins. This was a stretched quarter-moon crescent of log cabins – one, two or three beds – which overlooked the St. Croix River and the island which it contains: Dochet’s Island, where Champlain and DeMonts first landed in 1604. It was here at Historic View where Nana, Pa, Tom and I would spend the summers. Pa would barber in town all day, returning to the cabins at supper time. Tom and I would spend the days in long, uninterrupted hours of exploration: picking carrots, building kites, counting bugs, or just running through the meadows. On rainy days, we would set traps for Pa (just what he wanted to face after being on his feet all day). The attic was haunted, and in one of the front rooms there lived an old lady who never got out of bed. We were certain that she was haunted, too.
We loved our summers here. We had the best of both worlds in that we were able (most days) to receive American TV signals – sometimes from Bangor; sometimes from Presque-Isle – always fuzzy. It was from these pirated signals that I first learned of Andy of Mayberry, Schwinn bicycles, and Dr. Pepper pop. (Pop? Soda? I told you the signals were fuzzy.) Did you know that Dr. Pepper gave away seven Dodge Chargers one year?
Some summers, Cindy, our big-city cousin, would drive all the way down from Ottawa. We’d climb the apple trees and take trips to the shore. I used to purposely mumble my words just to hear her say ‘Eh?’ This particular, uh … punctuation … was only an “Ontario thing” then; now you hear it everywhere.
I still have a few of the Historic View business cards. A whole cabin could be had for $4.
464 Glebe Road:
Moonglow Cabin. Pa and his oldest son, Uncle Eddy (Cindy’s dad), built this log cabin on the Glebe shore in the ‘50’s. Pa would take Tom and I out on the weekends. It was here that he taught us to hunt and how to row a dinghy. On the grass only, Mom, never in the water – honest! (That’s what Pa told us to say.) We learned how to light a campfire, and how to make a moose call from birch bark. Moonglow was the close-call that I mentioned earlier. Remember; about coming close to actually owning something? Here’s how it went.
I was seven or eight when I said, “Pa, when you die, can I have the camp?” Nice of me, eh? (I learned that from Cindy.) Pa said, “Sure you can. I’ll give it to both of you boys.” Tom smiled. (Don’t know why. He couldn’t have known anything of the soon-to-be-exploding value of real estate, could he?) Years later (35 of them) Dad called me and said, “Neil, I’ve got some good news for you. And, I’ve got some bad news.”
“What is it?”
“Pa left you and Tom the camp in his will.”
“Yup. But the bad news is … he sold it before he died.”
You did hear that, didn’t you, dear reader? Moonglow –
And now, finally …
3757 Bayside Rd:
The last homestead, located just down the hill and across the highway from Historic View.
The first thing Pa did when he retired was to grab Nana and head off into the woods. There they sawed and felled and dragged; and later milled and piled, the boards for the house which they were going to build. And they finished it too. It’s right here in front of me. Here, where I am right now; that same house, and the thirty-some acres of land upon which it sits. This house, this land, is all that remains of all of the family properties that I’ve listed here.
For a number of years, my grandparents had four large fields in production. Four fields which they would till, and then plant in veggies; tons and tons … and tons … of veggies. Most of them they grew in order to give away. Go figure! Of course the time came when advancing years forced them to trim things back a bit. “Three hundred squash should do us anyways,” Nana would say.
Despite the cutbacks, she always kept one special cupboard well stocked. She’d lead me over to it whenever I‘d drop in. “Here, Neil. I got these for you. I know that you like them.” She was right. And so she’d open another can of pears for me. Whether or not I was up to a bowl of fruit at the time didn’t matter at all. We’d sit at the table, she’d tell me stories of how life used to be, and, between slurps, I’d always have one more question to ask her.
Yeah, this place – the last homestead – is up for sale now. And I’m having a bit of a struggle with it.
Mom and Dad are in their 80’s now. Some very real physical restrictions have been gaining some ground of late. I know that something has to be done. And, I’m glad that my sister, Nurse Holly, has moved in to be with them. I really am. A great weight has been lifted from me. I’m glad for that. It’s just that … I don’t like any of this. That’s all I’m saying.
I’m here now; here at the house; at the last remaining piece of property in this 200 year long family chain; my last link with those hardy, desperate souls which sailed from Europe so many years ago.
Jack and I are out on the lawn at the back of the house. Jack’s our year-old Yorkie pup – the cutest three pounds of any dog that you’ll ever see. You should see him. Poor Jack: skipping; running a prance; leaping at the butterflies, just as if things will always be as they are right now.
Give me a second. I’ll see if I can straighten him out. Listen while I try to talk some sense into him. “Jack! Come here.” (He’s coming. He’s pretty smart for a pup.) He sits. “Listen, Jack. Got something to tell you; listen carefully, won’t you? Jack, things will not always be as they are right now.”
I don’t think he heard me. Look at him. Over there, still chasing after those stupid butterflies. Oh well, I’m sure there’s no need to worry about him. He’ll grow up someday. And maybe someday he’ll come to learn the most difficult lesson of life: what now is, cannot forever be.
Someday, he’ll come to accept it.
Don’t know that I ever will.
As the former speech writer for Teddy Roosevelt, Neil Sampson has been unemployed since that great man’s 1913 disappearance in the Amazonian hinterlands.
Recent buzz over alleged sightings have brought Neil again to the fore, but due to his poor hearing, the ball struck him in the forehead. Go ahead and read him anyway. It will take a very keen eye to discern when he’s wandering off.
Follow Neil on Twitter @neilsam567 for his running (slightly revisionist) commentary on the story of Canada, Britain and early pop culture.
And yes, it all does make perfect sense to those who read from the start.