Back in the day the Reader’s Digest regularly featured an article written by a luminary figure who recounted their memories of a very prominent, usually an American, icon. Examples of the ‘character’ might be the famous writer Ernest Hemingway, the legendary New York City tough-guy cop Johnny Broderick or the C.E.O. Bernard Gimbel of the famous Gimbels Department Stores.
My Most Unforgettable Character was not rich nor famous nor even an American and whose name never made the news except for his death notice in the Sherbrooke Record in December of 1983. But he had a profound influence on me whether he was recounting stories about unfaithful farm wives during the two world wars, showing me the best places to hook speckled trout in the nearby creeks or spitting an endless stream of tobacco juice into the empty milk carton that he used as a spittoon. He grew up on a rock-strewn farm in between Lachute and St. Jerome, Quebec, ten kilometres from Morin Heights. This farming hamlet, named Mille Isles, was so small that I’ve since met inhabitants owning cottages nearby who have never heard of it. The isolation of the vicinity, however, pleased him so much that after briefly working as a carpenter in Montreal as a young man he bought a farm in an even more obscure, remote area; another hamlet that was twenty five miles east of Sherbrooke deep in the hills of the Eastern Townships named Island Brook. No one has ever heard of it either, so I explain that it is about twenty-five miles from each of the Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire borders, and that same distance from the now well-known town of Lac Megantic. That’s about forty- one kilometres to you young-whippersnappers who might not know what I’m talking about. His grandfather sailed to Canada in the midst of the Irish Potato Famine and his uncle was born on board the ship. He always told me that the English who made the decisions in Quebec at that time didn’t like the Irish and so gave them the un-farmable land north of Montreal in the Laurentians. He comes from another time and place and belongs to a Canada that doesn’t exist anymore. That was a place of one hundred acre farms, men who hunted and fished on their own land, women who made every meal from scratch and also helped out in the hay fields and neighbours who not only knew each other but also visited every night, played cards and then laid out refreshments for the whole group. His name was William John Dawson but he was universally known as Jack, but I called him Grandpa.
It may be hard to believe for those of you that know me, but I was young once. I can never remember my grandfather as being anything other than what I considered to be an old man. After all, he was born in 1889 and was sixty-seven years old in 1956, the year of my birth. He had once been just a shade under six feet tall with hair so thick and dark that he had been nicknamed ‘Black Jack.’ (No offence intended !) But I remember him as slightly stooped and also bald, but he could pitch hay, and later on bales of hay, all day long. There had been no organized sports in the late 1800s when he had had been a youth, but he still had two pairs of boxing gloves filled with horsehair with which he, his brother and their friends regularly boxed. They were ripped and of course the horsehair was falling out, but my brothers and I used them to pound each other into what we hoped was oblivion. There were no Neighbourhood Watch groups or politically-correct, overly-protective neighbors to report us. In fact the nearest neighbor was almost a half-kilometer away. We were always too busy to notice.
Despite the fact that he had never lived regularly in any area that had more than a small number of locals, he wasn’t going to be content just marrying some local-yokel. A visiting schoolteacher from Hudson, Quebec, caught his eye when she took over the local educational institution and my grandfather dated her all that first year. He later went to visit her in the summer in her hometown and when he got off the train he asked the first bystander he saw how to get to the Wilson family’s farm. “Which one ?” asked the local. “There are two. One has a family with nine girls.”
“That’s the one I want to go to,” replied my grandfather.
The habit of marrying out of the local gene pool was passed onto his two children. His son married the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who had settled in Montreal and his daughter, my mother, married a French-Canadian raised in the slums of St. Henri in downtown Montreal. The man who became my father had lost both his parents by the age of six and had been raised both in an orphanage and by relatives. I asked my grandfather once what he thought when he found out that his only daughter was going to marry a Frenchman.
He reached down to the floor where he kept his milk carton/spittoon. “No comment,” he said, but he was smiling as he said it.
My grandmother wanted to move the family to Detroit in the Roaring Twenties, as so many of their hardscrabble neighbours were doing. But working in a factory never held any appeal, even if Henry Ford was paying an exorbitant five dollars a day. Being your own man and doing things your own way was the only way to live and although Grandpa had long since put his homemade still out of business by the time I reached adulthood he still kept its remnants in a place of honour.
When he was almost eighty he used the sizable creek behind his barn to fashion a huge pond which he always kept stocked with trout. We spent a lot of time down there together and I would always fry up our catch for dinner, followed by one of the three pies that he could get at the local grocer for the exorbitant price of one dollar. Neither one of us worried about our cholesterol.
A bad case of pneumonia seemed to knock the stuffing out of him in his ninety-fifth year. We would sit in his kitchen in two rocking chairs with his latest dog in between us, a faithful canine that I had found as a puppy wandering in the wounds and which bore an uncanny resemblance to a coyote. He would still be chewing his tobacco and I loved smoking those rum-flavoured little Colt cigars which were the style at the time. “I don’t want end up in an old folks’ home,” he would tell me. “Some call them an old folks’ home, but I call them an old folks’prison.”
He never had to. We buried him on December 5th, 1983 on a freezing cold day. I left early, before the casket was covered. I couldn’t stand watching what I felt was the end of two eras, his life here and my life with him. But I know he died happy.
He never had to spend one day of his life in either a factory or an “old folks home.”