When my parents moved into Alderwood in the early 1930s it wasn’t even a neighbourhood – more like a few random houses on a grid of streets named after letters of the Greek alphabet. The nearest store was almost a mile away and the Toronto Civic Railway street car stop was a good two miles away. At the time our house, on Beta Street, was surrounded by fields and a few of the apple orchards that had once been part of the Horner family estate. Ashfield, their stately home with its carriage house and garden still dominated the landscape as it was to do until the late 1970s. We didn’t exactly doff our caps when Miss Horner passed by in her motor car but the place was still held in a certain awe, particularly by local children. The closest I ever got to seeing inside the “Horner Mansion” was when my friend Cora’s family rented the old farm manager’s cottage that was attached to the house.
Before the Second World War Alderwood had been a scattered predominately working class WASP community though several African-Canada families had moved into the neighbourhood in the mid-40s. After the war three Japanese-Canadian families, recently freed from the internment camps, moved into the area. And with the wave of returning service men and immigrants from a war-ravaged Europe lots were being bought up and new houses were going up to fill in the empty spaces. Many of the new arrivals, like the Michalski’s and the MacGregor’s, built their own homes, often with help from the community. It was becoming a diverse neighbourhood – socially, ethnically and politically. By my high school years Alderwood had become part of Toronto, lower middle class and that “cultural mosaic” which was so dear to the hearts of of vote-seeking politicians of the time.
Looking back over my years at Alderwood Collegiate Institute (ACI) – I won’t give dates but lets just say that during that time John Deifenbaker and Lester Pearson both served as Prime Ministers of Canada and for part of it John F. Kennedy was President of the United States – I realize that we could be a pretty radical bunch and with social change in the air there were no lack of causes to be radical about. I say “we” acknowledging the fact that I was always a follower never a leader when it came to things political.
In 1963 Alderecho, our school newspaper became front page news in Toronto when Pat, our Trotskyite reporter, wrote an article on the civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama – she had gone there to take part in the demonstrations. The principal removed the paper from circulation and Pat was then quoted on the national news as saying: I can write about coloured stockings* but not coloured people. She was expelled for that remark and the entire staff of the newspaper put on notice when a flag with a swastika was run up the school flag pole one night. All pretty heady stuff for a bunch of kids from a lower middle-class neighbourhood.
Yes we supported “causes” and there were groups of students who always seemed to be raising money for some worthwhile project other than school sports equipment. My friend Elizabeth (Bibbis) was one of those firebrands that would take up a worthy cause and brandished it before her like flaming sword.
So why this trip down memory lane you ask? Why the rambling on about a time so long past?
I was doing a clean up of what we laughingly call the “office” and came across a gift that Bibbis gave me for the opening night of my triumph as Mr. Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster in 1964. And as always if she gave a gift it was bound to have social significance. And in this case it was a “charm” from Freedom from Hunger, a non-profit agency which was founded in 1946 and continues its work to this day. Their focus was/is on education and in teaching self-sufficiency. The folder that enclosed Bibbis’s gift bore that oft repeated adage: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.
The white cardboard packet unfolds to reveal her greeting, the outline of an elephant with a bright red eye and the story behind that eye. The eye is a seed from the Adenanthera pavonina or Manchadi tree from the Kerala Province in Southern India. Raw the meat of the seed is poisonous but cooked it is used for its nutritional and medicinal properties. In this case the empty seed husk is being used as a tiny container with a small ivory** plug to keep the contents in place.
When the plug is removed a tiny elephant carved from a shard of ivory is released. Its only a thin sliver but somehow someone has carved a crude but in many ways subtle outline of an elephant. What tools were used I don’t know but the carver must have had a steady hand.
According to the story on the folder:
This handicraft is done by farmers during the monsoons. Many farms are only 1/4 acre to 2 acres. when the Manchadi seeds fall, the farmer gathers them and dries them, cuts off the top and digs out the inner part. Money is scarce, so he must borrow from a “bunyah” – a money lender – at a high interest, to buy scraps of ivory from the professional carvers. Now he is ready for the hardest part of the work – ivory is very hard to carve. He carves the elephant and plug for the top. It takes many hours. Then he must wait for the buyer – YOU. The “charm” of owning a Manchadi is that the farmer finds a sale for his work – in many cases his only “cash” crop.
I was aware that ACI had gone through several changes since I sat in
the detention room a classroom but was sadden to hear back in 2006 that it had permanently closed its doors. The building sat empty until it was levelled in 2014 to make way for a residential complex. Just before it was demolished Jerm IX, a blogger who is fascinated by derelict structures, published a photo-journal of a clandestine visit to the abandoned building. Looking at those pictures brought back memories – a few bad, most good – of the five years I spent in that building. Memories of old friends, teachers, plays, events, things learned, things forgotten, causes – memories that like Bibbis’s little elephant I thought I had lost but once again found.
*Coloured patterned stockings had just become all the rage and there was some concern amongst teaching staff about an article that had appeared the month before about the fashion phenomena.
**Keep in mind this was 1964 a good decade or more before the movement to ban, or at least control the export, of Asian ivory was being considered.
On this day in 1292: John Balliol becomes King of Scotland.