Sunday, 15 June 2014

A Father's Youth

"After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world." -- Philip Pullman

I really enjoy my father's stories.  Too many people don't think to listen to what their elders have to say until it's too late, and wonderful memories can be forgotten.

Dad grew up in Cornwall, Ontario: a small city of about 46,000 and one of the first incorporated communities in Upper Canada.  Until the late 1990's the main industries were cotton processing and paper manufacturing.  He and his parents lived on a dead-end street in the east end; their house was the only one on the street with a telephone because the previous owner of the house had been a company executive and could afford to install a phone.  The residents of the street had a mixture of French and English names: Rowe, Boisvenue, Marlowe.

One of the clearest things that Dad remembers about his early childhood was staying with his 17-year-old sister Joy.  When he was five, his elder brother Billy was dying of leukemia (there was no treatment then). To enable his parents to better care for Billy, Dad went to stay with Joy at her house in Toronto and he attended Kindergarten there for most of the school year.  One of his favourite activities while in Toronto was buying a ticket for the streetcar and riding all around the city by himself - something unheard of today.  After his brother passed away he returned to Cornwall for the remainder of Kindergarten.

By then the Second World War had broken out and making a living became difficult for some.  Fortunately Dad's father had a good job at the Cortaulds chemical plant.  However Dad's uncle Alfred, who worked a farm in what is now Surrey, British Columbia, was having trouble getting help because all of the able young men were serving in the military.  Dad and his mother went to the farm for the summer, where they helped grow and harvest strawberries, beans, and various other crops.  One day they went to a local fair, where Alfred purchased as a present for Dad a tiny totem pole carved out of bone that was made by a Native American artisan.  That totem remains on Dad's bureau to this day.

My grandparents made a smart decision to enroll Dad in a French school for Grade One.  At the time, the laws governing education were still based upon those that had been set down in the BNA Act of 1867.  French-speaking people had been given many freedoms under the Act, but education was limited to Grades 1 to 12 only.  Plus French-speaking people were only permitted to attend French schools, and the English speakers could only attend English schools.  However, my grandmother happened to know someone high up in the French school - there was only one in Cornwall, known as College Classique and run by clergy - and arranged for him to go to the French school until Grade 12.  As a result he became perfectly bilingual.

The stories continue.

1 comment:

  1. Always interesting to know more about the family history.