The Winter of My Life (Part IV)

The Winter of My Life (Part IV)
by Joan Cripps, March 2005

Early Years at Benson House

Joan Cripps

Years at the Benson House were very happy years. This was a large Victorian house belonging at one time to a Dr. Benson. The house had many beautiful big rooms. My Duplessis grandparents had rooms upstairs. Their kitchen was at the end of a long hall where the servant’s quarters used to be. They also had a bedroom and parlour in the main house. Many families lived in this house over the years. Four families could be here at one time.

While my grandparents were here, my friend Dolores Deredine  got married and she and her husband had an upstairs apartment. Dolores’s mother had the main downstairs apartment. Another friend also married and they had a downstairs apartment. I could go to any of these apartments and always feel welcome. Christmas was a joyous time as my friend’s mother would play the piano and we would sing. The place would be decorated lovely, and the fireplace would be lit.

Upstairs there was a closet filled with old coloured nylons, clothes and other belongings of Dr. Benson’s sister. We had many happy days trying these on. The people were long gone, but things had stayed in the house. Downstairs one large room was filled with cupboards and large bins. We would play hide and seek in here. The house had all the modern conveniences-electricity, running water, a beautiful marble tiled room with a bathtub, and a separate room with a toilet. The house has since been torn down and the fire hall was built on the site.

I always looked forward to the weekends while living there. Friday night Papa always took me to a movie. He got me popcorn and on the way home a hamburger at Jack’s. Saturday we would take a trip uptown to get a colouring book or cut-outs. Sunday we went to mass. In the winter, by the time we got to church, Papa’s ears had always froze, at least that’s what it looked like to me. His ears would be white. After mass Papa would get me a book called “The Treasure Chest.” When we got home he read it to me and said, “Someday you will be able to read it for Papa.” That day did come.

Papa was a very clean man. Even after a hard days work he would fill a galvanized tub to take his bath. He was a mason and would be pretty dusty and dirty after working all day. (He helped with building St. Michael’s Basilica, as did his father.) After his bath, he would put on a clean white shirt and tie. Every night we said the rosary. After this he would sit and look out the window till his bedtime. Nana loved her cards and bingo so he would walk the floor worrying and saying, “That woman could be lying in a ditch somewhere.” When he would see her coming he would get in bed. She never knew he worried about her.

Papa loved to tease. After a meal he would take his spoon and taste everything on the table-butter, sugar, mustard etc. Then he’d look at me and wink.

Papa had two sisters, Barb and Jen, who lived on Hill Street. ( My granddaughter Ronda and her husband Kevin live there now.) Every Sunday he and I would visit them. We always stopped in at Grant’s store to get them an ice cream. After we visited we would stop at a house on the corner and Papa would have a bottle of beer. When I got older I realized this was a bootlegger’s house. The people who lived there were always so kind to me. This was our regular Sunday routine for years. Nana never came with us.

Papa died while cutting down a tree in the field by the Benson house. He was 66 years old. I remember my grandmother coming to tell me he was lying outside on the ground. I ran out to him and called him, but he wasn’t moving. He looked very peaceful. I ran to the road and got some men to carry him in the house. They told me to get a mirror. They put this by his mouth. There was no vapour, so they knew he was dead. Papa was waked at home. I slept on the couch. The head of the couch touched the foot of his coffin. I loved him. There was no fear. After people left at night I would straighten his glasses and fix his hair.

Nana was a Quinn from St. Margarets. There is a story of her father that was told to me. Seems he used to bring the Bishop for a drive in the evening. (The Bishop used to be in Chatham at one time.) Often times the Bishop would fall asleep and Nana’s father would tip the bottle. He would say to the Bishop, “Lovely evening your Honour,” and if he didn’t get a response he would tip the bottle. One night after a pause and no answer from the Bishop he took a drink, and then the Bishop said, “Yes, it is a lovely evening.” The Bishop knew what he was up to.

Papa and Nana were two lovely people in my life.

The girls of St. Michael's

School years from the Benson House

There was no bus to take us to school. It was a long walk from the Benson house on the corner of Princess and now Chatham Street. We would leave home and go up Chatham Street until we came to the Post Office. Then we’d always go up the steps through the Post Office and down the steps on the other side, cross the road and up Cunard Street. I often wondered why we walked through the Post Office; maybe in winter it was to get warm.

I always walked with friends I called for on the way to school, and friends who called for me. We would pick up girls all along the way.

School was nice at St. Michael’s. I liked the nuns. They were good to me, although some girls had a hard time. They always celebrated Saints’ days with a shrine in the basement. Also there was a nice May Pole. In the fall they would have a fair. The school would be filled with the aroma of fir and spruce that were used to decorate the booths. We really enjoyed the fishpond.

I wasn’t a very smart student, but always made 100% on Religion. This is probably why I got along well with the nuns.

One nice thing about high school was that we were all dressed the same. We had uniforms, black pleated dresses with white collars. They were nice and neat.

The Sisters would have a skating party for us with a little gathering after. I took Dad to one of these parties and introduced him to Sister Harriman. She was very nice to him.

Father McKinnon would come to teach us Religion. He was a very kind man.  We  girls gave him a hard time when he would take us on bowling trips. We would wander everywhere and he would have a hard time rounding us up to go home.

You had to know the answers to religion questions word for word. It didn’t matter that you didn’t understand what you were saying, but it had to be said just right. We had the Baltimore Catechism, and it was all questions and answers. The Protestant girls had nice little books with pictures. I envied them.

The college boys were on the end of our corridor from our class. They were lots of fun. We would all meet up after school and play records and have little talent shows. You would walk up to school in a group, boys and girls. A lot of girls married the college boys.

Poor Nana Duplessis probably found my teen years hard while I found them a lot of fun. There were many young people around Farrah Corner when I was in my teens.

Our favourite pastime was swimming at the wharf, and the day always came when you were thrown over the wharf. You’d go down, down and think you would never come back up. Throwing the girls over the wharf was a favourite pastime for the boys.

In winter we would skate on the boom.we would go out early and when we came back in we had to cuff the ice flow, as the tide would have come in while we were skating and break up the ice. Skating on the lake was also fun, as some would make a bonfire and roast wieners.

These were great days!

Joan Cripps has been married 55 years. She and her husband, Ray, have 13 children, 40 grandchildren, and 17 great grandchildren. Joan is a “Domestic Engineer” living in Chatham, NB, who loves to entertain and write. She is the founder of the Purple Hat Ladies Tea Society, a group she formed in 2001.