Sunday, 16 December 2012
Sunday, 9 December 2012
You know the place. It can inspire primal fears and loathing, and almost every house has one. Un-insulated and away from any source of heat, they are well named as cold cellars. They are a place of faintly heard scuttling sounds, spider webs and items left on shelves until some time of need. My grandparent’s cold cellar was a classic. It was long and narrow and pitch black until you could somehow reach the string that was tied to the chain that controlled the single light bulb that hung in the middle of the ceiling.
It was Christmas day at my mom’s parent’s place so the whole extended family that was forced to try and get along for a few hours was crowded into the rather modest sized living room. We were stacked in levels. We occupied the floor, the couches, the chairs and their armrests. Some kids got relegated to laps. Safe topics like the weather for the entire previous year were bandied about. My father got along with his in-laws, but just. In the old family photos of these gatherings my dad’s face exudes brooding boredom. My parents would have liked to enjoy a smoke and a drink but it wasn’t on the agenda for these gatherings. Here the focus was on restraint, religion, and temperance.
I was about six years old and looking for a diversion from the obvious family tensions and the ongoing weather chronology so I escaped into the kitchen. Grandma was busy with the supper preparations and I was happy to oblige when she asked me to go downstairs and fetch a jar of preserves.
The basement was a wonderland for a young lad. You could say that my grandfather was way ahead of his time when it came to notions of recycling or you might say that he had mastered the art of collecting. Grandma just said that he never threw anything out and that he could never just walk by an auction or a garage sale. He would even get in a foot race with the neighbours, shovel in hand, to be the first to collect the fresh horse manure as it hit the road from the horse drawn milk cart.
The basement was made of un-insulated cinder block. The main area was bordered with multiple levels of shelving and the rest of the space was divided into rows of free standing fixtures like you would find in a hardware store. Each shelf contained some sort of treasure. Some had neatly stacked collections of coins that were mostly silver but I do remember a few gold ones. There were stacks and stacks of National Geographic magazines going all the way back to issue No 1. Some shelves contained old wooden games that were as often as not missing a few pieces. There was a stereoscope and a shoe box filled with the pictures that went with it. On what little wall space remained were hung reminders of a more rugged way of life - a pair of great big wooden snow shoes, animal traps and a very long ancient looking gun.
My task at hand though, involved the dreaded cold cellar which was located under the stairs that led to the basement. I cautiously opened the planked wooden door and peered into its dim depths. I could just make out the string hanging down beside the bulb. The trick would be get to that string, reach up and pull on it before the door closed and left me in the dark with a legion of spiders. I opened the door as far back as I could and then charged in. The light quickly began to fade by marked degrees. The room went black but my hand was already pulling down on the string. Somewhat breathlessly I looked around me. On my left were shelves of pickles, preserves, jams and jellies - enough to last that winter and maybe a few more. I grabbed the jar and was just working out the problem of how to turn off the light and still be able to find the door when I glanced to my right.
At just about eye level, on its own shelf, lay the bones of a human being. They were all nicely organized from skull to toe pieces. I had some plastic toys and I could tell that these pieces weren’t plastic or anything else but the real deal. On the surrounding shelves were things that I hadn’t noticed downstairs before - native rattles, drums, and a war club. I already knew what a war club was, a shaped rock, attached to a stick that was used in battle to smash the skull of an enemy.
Preserve jar in hand, I burst through the cold cellar door, dashed up the old wooden staircase (that despite its steepness had neither risers nor railing), placed the jar on the counter as I tore through the kitchen, then plunked myself on the safety of my father’s knee. Moms have laps. Dads have knees. In panted whispers I confided about my findings in the cold cellar. Dad nodded and in hushed tones filled me in. “You know that your grandfather is part Indian.” (We didn’t have the term First Nations in 1953.) He said it as a statement but it was news to me. “Well, during the last of the Indian Wars your grandfather killed that guy and brought him back as a war trophy. He’s been in the basement ever since.” While part of me was now frozen in terror another smaller part was starting to think that this was the most exciting Christmas ever.
Like most children, by the time the presents started to be opened I had gone on to new interests. In subsequent visits however, I braved the cold cellar to more carefully inspect the skeleton and its related items. I began to consider all of the basement’s objects as pieces of a puzzle which if carefully stitched together would tell the story of my grandfather’s bloody past. Surely the clues were all there; a long barrelled gun, a war club, and a skeleton, all hidden away in the most remote part of the house. You didn’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes to reach the right conclusion. Over time I accepted the obvious truth about my grandfather and comforted myself with the idea that what happened in the past stayed in the past. I did, however, make a point of trying to never anger him.
At one point my parents sold our home in Hamilton and moved to Scarborough, leaving me to live with my grandparents so that I could finish my grade10 year. One evening, after supper, we were sitting around the kitchen table and my grandfather started going on about old relatives in Ireland and Scotland, and his apprenticeships as a youth. Something struck me as being out of whack. I asked how he could have done all of these things and still have been able to fight in the Indian Wars. I was met with wide eyed stares from both grandparents. I broke the silence. “You know. The dead guy in the cellar. The one that you killed. The skeleton. It’s still there.”
My grandfather laughed so hard he darn near guffawed himself out of his chair. Grandmother’s reaction was a good deal more on the shocked and stoic side.
It seems that although there were a good many Celtic Metis in this land, my grandfather wasn’t one of them. He was, however, a man with the innate Scottish/Irish bent to waste not, want not, and to hold on to things “just in case”. Living through the depression just amplified this tendency. It seems that my grandparents had bought their house from the original owner who had been an Anthropology professor at Hamilton’s Mc Master University. The professor had used the various artifacts including the skeleton as part of his courses in Native Studies. When he moved out he left a lot of teaching materials behind. My grandfather, being the consummate collector that he was, just hung on to them.
Friday, 7 December 2012
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Sunday, 2 December 2012
I love the new fedoras that the kids wear. They are short brimmed and can be wildly colourful. You need to be a certain age to get away with it. That’s okay because music and clothes are part of what defines a generation.
For me, the real fedora was the one that my father wore. A grey full brim model that sported a black band and a small blue feather. Worn at a jaunty angle on a rather large head, it wasn’t always easy for him to find his hat size. It went along with his business suit, trench coat, and sample case. He sold greeting cards to the headquarter stores like Eaton’s and Simpson’s in downtown Toronto. Sometimes he would take shortcuts by using the alleys. In the old days the city was known as Toronto the Good, however on this dreary early winter’s day that was questionable.
He was getting older then. I was still living at home but not for much longer. Maybe his age made him look like a good mark. Personally I wouldn’t have chosen anyone with a 6 foot one height and a 34 inch waist to pick on. The assailant must have been a bit of a monster himself for when he approached from behind and left, he was able to lean his right elbow into my dad’s neck while his girlfriend grabbed at his shoulder with both of her hands. While the ultimatum was being delivered the sample case got shifted from right hand to left. A sample case is like a leather brief case on steroids. It carries your promotional products and your order books. You keep it clean and shiny like your shoes. It doesn’t get set down on anything but carpet.
While the attackers probably hadn’t considered was that their target might have been trained in what is known as “black hand” techniques due to a brief stint in the special forces as part of a project that involved being dropped behind enemy lines via gliders and creating pre D-Day havoc. The invasion day got moved up and the project got scrapped, but not before certain motor pathways got ingrained. My guess would be that if you blinked you would have missed the two fingers of the right hand being thrust up just under the solar plexus of the attacker. The result of this sort of blow leaves you trying to throw up violently while trying to breathe at the same time. (By the way, do this wrong by even so much as an inch and you will spend the rest of your life in jail.) The case switched back.
So there he was. His left hand holding his puking and gasping assailant up by the back of his neck while his right hand held both the sample case and female accomplice. Now what do you do? Why you rob them of course. He took every cent that they had, which wasn’t much of course, because otherwise they wouldn’t be trying to steal from him now would they? When he told me this (don’t tell your mother) over a beer at the end of the work day, I was horrified.
“You robbed them!!!”
“Yeah, there’s a Sally Ann’s right on Queen Street.”
My, but my father loved to donate to the Salvation Army. I’ll bet he gave one of his little half smiles as he pushed the money into the glass bowl.
I don’t think they make a fedora, or the man who wore it, like this anymore. Different times, I guess.