The second post I wrote for the blog back on November 13, 2006 was a eulogy to one of my dearest friends in the world Ryan (Ron) Taylor. Ryan was not happy with the name Ron and those of us who met him in Ottawa at a certain time in his life knew him as Ryan; his family and earlier friends knew him as Ron. No matter what name you knew him under you knew a charming, erudite, maddening, learned, witty, irritating, gentle and loving person.
By that strange alignment of the stars that we call serendipity a post about books by Old Lurker reminded me of the last note I received from Ryan. It came in a neatly (being from him of course it was) wrapped parcel containing a book. The book was Boy’s Like Us – an anthology of short coming-out stories/essays – and the note simply said “Darling boy, I won’t need this anymore.” The next day I received a phone call telling me his body had been found in the Niagara River.
I was fortunate to be able to keep in touch with some of his family: his cousin Dayle, his niece and, again through serendipity, his brother who lived in the building we moved into when we returned from Italy in 2011.
On May 30th, a day after reading Luker’s post, I received an email from Dayle telling me that she had taken Ryan’s ashes to England and he had found his final resting place: the small village of Grasmere in the Lake District. In the nearby church yard is the grave of William Wordsworth, a poet who’s works he treasured.
And when the stream that overflows has passed, A consciousness remains upon the silent shore of memory; Images and precious thoughts that shall not be And cannot be destroyed.
William Wordsworth The Excursion
At the time of his death I said something that is as true today as it was thirteen years ago: If you had any faults – and like all of us you did – the greatest was that you did not love yourself enough to realize how much you were loved. You are greatly loved. “The lad” and I miss you. Your “darling boy”
Today I can add: I am joyful that you have found a place of peaceful rest.
Strangely June 4th is Tailors Day – granted a different spelling but it will do.
For more years than I care to own up to I spent Christmas Eve at Ottawa Airport. Oh I wasn’t going anywhere and in some cases I had to convey the same message to holiday travellers. It was never a good feeling to tell people that they weren’t going to get home for Christmas – yeah go figure I really didn’t like ruining their holiday plans. Yes I know I was personally responsible for the blowing snow/pea-soup fog/unsafe conditions that I thought up as a flimsy reason to cancel or delay their flights but honestly I didn’t go behind the counter and laugh and call them names. And you know what I never did enjoy was being verbally abused or threatened with violence – it just didn’t seem to fit in with the Joy to the World message being broadcast non-stop over the Airport muzak from Halloween onward. But I understood their frustration and my colleagues and I honestly tried to do our damnedest to make things better – with a pretty good success rate.
So what triggered this trip down a less than Holly Jolly Christmas memory lane you ask? I heard this little ditty on the radio this afternoon and the unbidden Ghosts of Christmases Past came flooding back. Apparently Nick Lowe is well-known in the pub-rock and new wave scene though he and his Christmas airport lament are new to me.
I think the worst thing I ever had to do on a Christmas Eve was to go on board a flight that went from Ottawa to Halifax and then on to St John’s Newfoundland. St John’s was fogged in and there were no hotels available in Halifax – where I swear the airport is closer to Ottawa than the city it purports to serve. So the job of telling people that they wouldn’t be going home to Newfoundland for Christmas fell to me. I asked them to deplane and advised that there would not be another flight until later on Christmas Day. To this day I remember that there were 28 passengers, including a few families with children, and I felt bad for ever darn one of them. But the ones I felt the most for were the single-types who were up here working and heading home to their families. But not one of those people complained. No one yelled or carried on abusing my birthright or blaming me. But a few did cry and made me wish they had let loose about my parent’s marital status. When it was over most thanked me and wished me a Merry Christmas. One older woman gave me a hug and said, “That’s all right love, you did what you could.” And that was the night I swore I’d never work Christmas Eve again.
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.
The downsizing I am currently experiencing means going through 60 years of “things” – knick-knacks, paintings, posters, books, CDs, household items, clothing and photographs. A few things have been put into the boxes for St Vincent de Paul or the consignment house without thought to where they fit in my life but more often unpacking something and simply turn it over in my hand has brought back memories of the many remarkable experiences and people that have crowded my life in the past six decades.
None more so than the photos that are neatly filed in albums or randomly piled in boxes or between book pages. Admittedly in a few cases I’m at a loss to identify one or two people, the occasion or even the location but as I look at most of them the memories, and I will admit the tears, have come flooding back.
This photo was taken during my time at St Thomas Anglican Church on Huron Street in my Toronto days.
It was a Sunday evening choral evensong in late May and Patrick Bergin was being welcomed into our parish family. Father Bull was officiating, the choir and acolytes guild were in full force and the church was full of family and friends of the Bergins. It was a joyous parish event but as I think of it, just one of many joyous celebrations that I recall from my days in a place that was for a time a source of comfort, friendship and love.
16 novembre/November – Santa Gertrude di Helfta detta La Grande
Every Easter I look back with growing nostalgia for the years I spent worshiping at St Thomas, Huron Street in Toronto. It was a place of incredible music, ritual, faith and friendship – particularly friendship. It was a congregation of people who cared. Yes the ritual was splendid – banners, smells and bells – but it was also a congregation that reached out into its neighborhood and worked to provide services for the students, working parents and elderly. Worship didn’t end at the communion rail of a Sunday.
During my time there the music was directed by Walter McNutt – an organist of incredible skill at improvisation and a remarkable service player. His wonderful choir – boys, women and men – sang a mixture of the traditional and the more adventuresome but you knew that certain hymns would be sung at certain times of the year.
Without fail the Easter vigil would always end with Francis Pott’s translation of the old Latin hymn Finita jam sunt praelia. And it would always be the setting called Victory – an adaptation by William H. Monk of Palestrina’s Magnificat Tertii Toni.
The strife is o’er, the battle done;
The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
As I was making this video memories of processing out of the sanctuary with the clergy and choir came to mind. Hearing individual voices in the congregation that I recognized as I walked past them exchanging smiles and nods: my darling Elizabeth with her bass voice gruffing away, Gail, her glasses slipping down as she bowed every so slightly in greeting, Winnie, a small Dresden china figure who had lived all her 80 years in the parish and still wore a hat with a veil and gloves to church; Don with his great booming CBC announcer voice; so many more dear loving and much loved friends.
I was asked recently if I missed the church and in many ways I do. Yes, for the ritual, for the music, for the comfort that faith brought but mostly for the friendship which brought both comfort and love.
For them all: Christ is Risen! Alleluia!
And in my heart and mind I can still hear them respond: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
04 aprile – Il resurrezione di nostro Signore
Telling the stories of the history of the port of Charlottetown and the marine heritage of Northumberland Strait on Canada's East Coast. Winner of the Heritage Award from the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation and a Heritage Preservation Award from the City of Charlottetown