When Polly Met Billy

(This piece was written for my grandchildren even though some are still too young to appreciate it. The oldest, now nine, was a toddler when her Great Grandma Vance died. Her Grandpa Vance had passed away some years earlier. A bit of family history told from a unique perspective shines a warm light on the past.)

My parents’ proper names were Pauline and William.

But, to each other, they were always Polly and Billy.

Crystal Beach, Canada from an undated postcard

More than eighty years ago, my mother Pauline, and her two closest sisters, Marie and Alice, left their home in rural Manitoba to explore eastern Canada. Mom never spoke much about the time before she met Dad. Even so, because I was an inquisitive child, that’s a nice way of saying nosy, I learned bits and pieces of her before-Dad life. One day, George, my older brother, decided to show off. He spoke to Mom using his best high school French. She surprised him by answering in the same language. With some coaxing, Mom said that once she had waitressed in a restaurant on Rue Sherbrooke in Montreal. I imagine that happened during the eastern adventure with her sisters.


The Dance Hall and Ferris Wheel at Crystal Beach

As the summer of 1939 approached, Mom and her siblings left Quebec and headed to Crystal Beach—a popular tourist destination in Ontario. The beach, on the north shore of Lake Erie was named for its crystal-clear swimming water. It drew up to twenty thousand visitors every day. Several ferries brought guests to the beach from Buffalo and other American cities. There was a dance pavilion that could hold up to three thousand people and a mammoth amusement park that included a state-of-the-art roller coaster. No wonder young people flocked there!

My father, Bill, had left the family farm in Saskatchewan a few years earlier and was working as an accountant in Galt Ontario. By the way, you won’t find Galt on a map. Long ago the city joined with two of its neighbours and the name for all three changed to Cambridge.

One weekend, Bill and two of his buddies headed east in search of sun and sand and pretty girls. An hour and a half later, they arrived at Crystal Beach. Food was their first priority. It just so happened that of all the restaurants there, they chose the one where Pauline worked. It also just so happened that they chose a table in Pauline’s section.

I don’t know if it was love at first sight. But, that December Polly and Billy got married. I asked Mom what attracted her to Dad. She said it was his handsome “Roman” nose. Another name for a Roman nose is aquiline…which means eagle-like. Here’s how one source describes such a nose:

A high, arched bridge characterizes the Roman nose. Its name is derived from Roman art, which depicted figures with long, high-bridged noses. They therefore were symbols of people with authority. They also have an aura of nobility and courage.

I’m glad Mom liked Dad’s nose. His other characteristics wouldn’t have appealed to me. In the fashion current at the time, his shock of bright red hair was slicked straight back from his high forehead. He owed his pale freckled skin to his Irish ancestry. His love of sunbathing meant that the exposed parts of his body were only a little less red than his hair. A thin man of average height, I thought he must have resembled a skinny lobster with a distinctive nose. It’s a wonderful thing that we fall in love with different aspects of people.

Mom was beautiful. Her brown hair glistened; the sun kissed her Ukrainian skin to a warm caramel colour; golden flecks sparkled in her blue-grey eyes; her stature was short but her figure shapely. Interestingly, Dad considered Mom’s calves to be her best feature. As I said, what we find attractive in another is entirely personal. Once, a boy in grade eight told me that he always looked first at a girl’s ears. Weird, I thought.

Pauline and Bill brought a farm just outside Galt. Mom managed the farm and Dad continued his accountant’s job. When Dad got home from work, he helped Mom with the chores. Their first child, my sister Connie, was born the next summer. Four years later my brother George arrived. Mom was doing fine with the farm and the two kids. Then two more of us showed up. A seven year-old, three children under three, and running a mixed farm exhausted Mom. She sent a photo of herself to her mother in Manitoba. Maria cried. She thought Mom was so skinny because she and Dad couldn’t afford proper food. Wives were supposed to be roly-poly and radiant.

When I was six months old, Mom and Dad sold the farm and moved into town. My only knowledge of my life in the country comes from a few tales my sister shared and some black and white photographs. When I was a child, I would pore through Mom’s albums looking for pictures of me. There were only a few. One photo showed a baby being bathed in a big metal tub set on the wooden kitchen table. I asked my sister if I was the baby. She didn’t know.

************

Postscript: I had a lot of fun researching the history of Crystal Beach. Wikipedia gives a respectable account. However, the Buffalo News article written in 2019 and recently updated, has lots of pictures and a more personal perspective.

https://buffalonews.com/news/local/history/remembering-crystal-beach-30-years-after-park-closed/article

Nature’s Wisdom: Learning from Trees

My first tree was a climbing tree. In the yard of the house of my early childhood. It was a perfect tree. A giant maple. Limbs stretched out parallel to the ground before turning upward to tickle the sky. The lowest bough hovered five feet above the lawn. Regular-sized kids could run, leap, catch its bulk then hoist themselves onto its sturdy breadth. Although six, I was puny. I would have needed a ladder to reach that branch. Or, a bigger person to hoist me up. But, kids can be mean. If the others ran away, how would I get down?

I don’t know why my brother scaled the tree. Maybe the others dared him. Gordon was only fifteen months my senior but he was a proper size. Up and up he climbed. No one had ever gone that high. Was he being taunted? Most early memories are fuzzy. Maybe it’s better that way. Too many details would be harder to erase.

At the time, I didn’t know how it happened. I gazed up into the branch-maze. Watched my brother disappear. First, an eerie silence. Then, the clatter of breaking things. The tearing of wood. The ripping of leaves. A hideous thud. My brother on the ground. Inert. The uncanny emptiness. The others ran away. I ran for our parents.

That afternoon, in the upper branches of the big maple, my brother had his first epileptic seizure. Is that why he did not scream? Is that why he escaped with only some scrapes and scratches and a broken arm? Did he know how lucky he was? Probably not. When young, we are immortal. Just like Bugs Bunny who crashed through walls or disappeared beneath a steamroller and emerged unscathed.

As for me, I learned respect for trees that day. When I grew big enough to climb them unassisted, I

stayed a safe distance above the ground. Left the loftiest branches to the birds.

*****

A year after Gordon’s accident, we moved across town to a new home. I played among the weeds and the wildflowers that crowded the empty lots next to our property. Two trees dominated that vast realm. A climbing tree very much like the one with bad memories that we had left behind. And, a toppled tree, broken but alive, just like my brother. The second, its limbs lush with leaves and bowed to the ground, furnished a perfect hideaway.

One summer afternoon, I crawled inside the ragged green dome. I was hidden. I was safe. Still, I trembled. How long would I have to wait, this time? This time had been the worst. I had run from my brother before. But now my words sparked vengeance. He came at me with a knife. A butcher knife yanked from the kitchen drawer. I had teased him. I was mean. From where did such cruelty come? From example, I suppose. Parents, siblings, peers.

In high school we read Lord of the Flies. I refused to believe that children, left on their own, ceased to be good. Embraced evil. But, who had provoked my brother? Some part of me that I didn’t want to believe was there?

He never found me. My brother. Inside my emerald igloo. One hour. Two hours. I thought it safe to emerge. It was. I never told my parents. I never again tormented my brother.

*****

A few decades later, a native teacher told me to go into the forest. Wander until a tree called my name. Sit at its base, back to its trunk. Observe my breath. Empty my mind. Wait for a message. How silly. Trees don’t talk. Not English anyway.

I am often not good at following rules. They get in the way. They slow me down. This time, however, I did as I was told. Perhaps because of the undisputed authority of the elder. Or, perhaps because it was a warm afternoon in June and I had nothing better to do.

I rambled. Followed no path. Allowed my intuition, and the trees, to lead me. Mossy ground moulded to the shape of my leather soles. The whistle of a warbler sweetened the air. Twigs snapped. Leaves kissed. After a small eternity—stillness. A solitary oak beckoned me forward. “Come. Sit

beneath my canopy. Lean against my rugged bark. Rest in my strength and in my wisdom.”

No, the tree never spoke those words. But, if the tree had been granted speech, that is what I imagined it would have said. As it turned out, my tree was far more eloquent and succinct than I was.

I sat. Bathed in leaf-dappled sunlight. Breathed and pondered. “What knowledge could a tree possibly give me?” Another eternity. I may have slept. The words came as they do in dreams. Not as language

but as a knowing. An absolute truth conveyed as a wordless thought. The words come later. There must be a special part of our brain designed to decode such truths.

Keep your consciousness in your feet.”

There was no possibility that I could have said that. I didn’t know what it meant. My surprise gave way to speculation. Just how was I supposed to “keep my consciousness in my feet?”

I never acted on the tree’s wisdom. How could I act on something I didn’t understand? But, neither did I forget the message.

Some years later, mindfulness found me in the guise of a book—Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are. At last I understood. I could not be present in the moment if I was always in my head—remembering, regretting, apologizing, planning, arranging, fantasizing, formulating, arguing, writing. If I focused on my feet, on the softness or solidity of the ground beneath them, or, going deeper, on the earth energy moving up and through me, or, on the fragrance of crushed grass or sun-

softened tar that enveloped me as I ambled, then, all worry, all troubles would fall away and my life would unfold in the most effortless fashion.

Now, when I walk my dog, or tend to the gardens, or vacuum the house, or scrub the dishes, I try to remember my feet. To put my attention there…on the ground. Connected to the earth. Connected to my self. It is not always easy. In fact, I am not especially good at it. Even so, every time I do remember, I think back to the elder who taught me to be still and to listen. I smile and thank that long ago tree.

The Fruit Cellar: A Place of Discovery

My mother preserved things. First and foremost was produce, chiefly from her garden: beets, corn, carrots, cucumbers, peaches, pears, cherries as well as applesauce and stewed rhubarb. Anything that could be “put up” in jars.

In the basement of my childhood home, beyond the furnace room, was a second large, dry, windowless space—the fruit cellar. But oh, so much more than fruit was there. The entire right-hand wall boasted a battalion of colourful glass jars. Row upon row, floor to ceiling, arranged by hue. What an artwork Andy Warhol could have made of that display! Certainly a more vibrant masterpiece than 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans.

Sometimes I sneaked into that storeroom, pulled down on the long string connected to the bright ceiling bulb, dragged a blanket from under the lowest shelf, and sat cross-legged on the cement floor in front of the wall of jars. I peered up in awe at the abundance. Our family would never, ever want for food. We would never be the starving children in a far-flung corner of the world to whom Mother threatened to send any uneaten morsels on our dinner plates. Albeit, a diet of pickled veggies and sugared fruit might become tedious after a week or two. Not to mention that our life expectancy might be somewhat abbreviated.

The fruit cellar housed other treasures. The many wooden shelves on the wall opposite the vivid Mason jars supported all manner of valuable articles that Mom’s I-grew-up-in-the-Great Depression mentality refused to discard.

Once, as I rummaged among the relics I unearthed a grade school scribbler. Like all teacher-supplied workbooks at the time, it sported a bright blue cover with heavy black lines for your name and subject. This one belonged to my brother. George was the name, Writing the subject. Each page had widely-spaced blue lines and a broad left hand margin demarcated with a hot pink line. The book housed only one story, “Blackie.” George’s fierce grip on the pencil etched the large printed letters into the page and dented the one below. The tale was short, only a few sentences; the story tragic, the death of his pet dog. The details scant. A car killed Blackie when he ran onto the road.

How odd. I never knew we had a dog. Did we have a dog? George was four years older than me. Did the dog die before I could remember it? Did George make up the story? Maybe there never was a dog. But, from the force of the printing, George must have felt a terrible loss. Why was there only one story? All those empty pages. Mom would have said it was wasteful. Yet, she preserved this book. This single story. Why?

So many questions. So many emotions. So much to take in. I replaced the notebook on the shelf and told no one about my discovery. I wonder, did I ever venture into that space again? More than six decades later, the questions remain unanswered. That bright blue scribbler is the only thing I recall from the left side of the cellar. I still can’t account for the intensity of the experience. Could it have been that my young heart could not grasp the contrast between the colourful life preserved in glass jars and the sudden, inexplicable death of a small black dog?