Tuesday, December 30, 2008

War Brides Part 2

The dark waters of the mid Atlantic were heavy, cold and eerily calm. Stories of icebergs had circulated and memories of the Titanic were still fresh. A light fog lay wrath-like on the waters.

It was a day out of Liverpool, in late May 1946, on the North Atlantic run and the huge grey ghost sliced the waters with calm assurance. The Queen Mary was still painted her wartime colors, was still stripped of most of her finery but her decks held a precious cargo.

For years now she had carried men, grim soldiers in battle gear, over 8,000,000 of them, 16,000 at a time, many going to their deaths on the bloody battlefields of Europe. But today she was on a return journey, her decks alive with women and their very young children. War brides on their way to a new future on a new continent. Hope and joy replaced fear and determination as emotional cargo.

My mother and I were among them. I was three years old and had just had my first train ride, from Mitcham to Southhampton, and was now settling into life on board the second largest ship in the world.

There were children everywhere and every woman had a story of romance to tell, swept off their feet by brave young men in uniform on their way to an uncertain fate. The men these women had chosen had survived the nightmare of battle and had returned to North American to prepare homes for them in a new world.

For every woman on board, this was the adventure of a life time and no small testimony to their own courage.

It came out of the fog, a towering island of ice far to starboard. Women grabbed their children and ran, anxious not to miss seeing the fleeting drama of an iceberg at sea. My mother lifted me onto the rail for a better glimpse as other mothers were doing, her strong arms holding me tight.

Many of these young women had been children themselves when a berg such as this had sent the Titanic to bottom of the ocean and the memory sent a delicious chill through the crowd.

Suddenly, the ships fog horn sent an ear-splitting blast of noise into the air.

Women screamed and lost their tight clutches on their children and we tottered on the rail three stores over the icy waters of the North Atlantic. There was an instant of panic before grips were reestablished and terrified women hauled their children off the ships rails.

And then everyone laughed with relief.

Someone noticed the iceberg had already drifted out of sight as the great engines of the Queen Mary drove the ship toward the distant shore.

My closest encounters with death were all before I was three years of age. The first when illness led the doctors to contemplate an abortion to save my mother's life, the second when shrapnel from an exploding V1 rocket ripped the hood of my carriage apart. The third when I was almost dropped into the dark frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

Life has been pretty good since then.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

War Brides--Part 1

Consider, for a minute, the unbelievable statistics:

The total estimated human loss of life caused by World War II was roughly 72 million people. The civilian toll was around 47 million, including 20 million deaths due to war related famine and disease. The military toll was about 25 million, including the deaths of about 4 million prisoners of war in captivity. The Allies lost approximately 61 million people, and the Axis powers lost 11 million.

Let those numbers sink in for a moment. Europe had virtually destroyed itself.

And yet, against this backdrop of devastation, love had bloomed and hope for a better future.

In pubs and restaurants, in lawyer's offices and churches, on streets and in parks, Canadian and American and Australian boys and British girls had found one another. Some boldly, some with awkward shyness, some out of a desperate loneliness, some not even knowing love had taken place until others told them.

In many ways my parent's story was typical of the time. My mother was an English Nanny looking after the children of a Major in the British army. My father was a staff Sargent in the Canadian army stationed at Aldershot. On his days off he would walk in the park where my mother would take the children to play. Because they would always run into each other, they eventually spoke and eventually my father worked up the courage to ask her out.

She said no.

The little girl my mother cared for was heart broken, her imagination captivated by the shy and fragile flirtation that had been unfolding before her.

"Why do you treat Staff Sargent like that, why won't you go out with him?" she asked.

My mother was heart broken as well, "Because he's married and it's not right to go out with married men, sweety."

Unlike the teenagers who make up the bulk of those in war time armies, my father was already in his late thirties. My mother had assumed from his age, that he was already married. But the Major's precocious daughter knew better.

"No he isn't," she said. "Staff Sargent isn't married. I asked father to check his service records."

"You never!!!" My mother cried, turning red with embarrassment.

And so, out maneuvered by an 8 year old, my mother finally agreed and my future parents began dating. They were married within the year. One month short of their first wedding anniversary, I was born.

A week later my father was gone. His entire division was deployed to North Africa and then into Italy and eventually marched all the way to Denmark. I was already three before I saw him again.

During that three year period my father saw death on an unprecedented scale. My mother saw much of her village reduced to rubble and lived with the constant threat of death through bomb and rocket attack. It changed them both.

In 1946 my mother and I joined 46,000 other women and their children in immigrating to Canada. She was a different woman than the one my father had married and he was a very different man.

In ship load after ship load they came, women devastated by war and privation and grief to meet men they hadn't seen in years but who had been exposed to a brutality beyond belief.

As the Queen Mary, in her drab gray military uniform, pulled out of Southhampton to take these women to a country they had only dreamed of and to a life with men who were also more dream than reality, the crowds of well wishers lined the dock and a military band played, "Will Ye No Come Home Again".

20June1945NewYorkGreyGhost Pictures, Images and Photos

My grandparents stood in the vast crowd and watched as the second largest passenger ship in the world pulled out of sight.

It was only then that my grandmother wept.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Lindsay Has Her Say

I'm taking a break from blogging over Christmas, so I have asked Lindsay to write today's blog. Any complaints about the contents of the blog will have to be taken up with her.
Lindsay barking

I am quivering with excitement but stand still despite the overwhelming urge to run. I feel Barry's hands on my collar and hear the click of my leash being removed.


I leap forward into a wondrous world of exotic smells and tiny scurrying creatures. For a while I just run for the sheer pleasure of it. But within moments I feel the prideful leash of the pack and return to my pack leader who lumbers down the path toward me.

He is a strange pack leader, huge in size and with a quiet bark. He seldom runs, although lately he has been racing for short distances. His running thrills me. I am so happy for him and excited to be running beside him. But it doesn't last long before he returns to his slow gait.

I come to a fork in the path ahead of us. To the right takes us along the top of the bluffs, to the left the beach at the bottom. I head left, loving the water, drawn by the seductive sound of the waves.

Looking back to check with the pack leader that I have made the correct choice, I see from a wave of Barry's hand that we are going right today. So I spin about and fly up the path that leads to the meadow at the top of the bluffs.

I love hand gestures, they are so much easier to understand than the various barks Barry prefers for communication. "Sit", "lie down" and "roll over" were child's play of my youth, useful only as keys to recognizing that our pack uses barking as speech. Why we don't just use body language is beyond me and has made life in the pack difficult.

I am a dog in a human pack and have to learn its ways. So I listen. Laying on the floor of the livingroom, I listen to all that is being said. I have learned all their names and the names of each area of the house. An obedient pack member, I will go to sleep if asked. No matter how excited I am, if told to be patient, I will go away and give them ten minutes. I know the word "No".

My pack leader often boasts to friends about how much he has taught me, but he stopped teaching me with "sit". The rest I have learned on my own. I have not just learned a foreign language, I have learned the language of a foreign species. But he gets all the praise which, as pack leader, he should.

I catch the faint scent of mouse in passing and wheel back to investigate. Barry passes me by. He seldom chases the spoor of animals, preferring a steady gait down the trail. I head off the pathway into the deep brush, nose to the ground, following the scent.

Eventually I loose the spoor. It was hours old anyway, and I return to the path and find Barry sitting on a log overlooking the bluffs, taking in the view and thinking.

I seldom think. Using language is hard work and I don't really see the benefit. For example, I'm puzzled that whenever we come here to hunt, we never catch anything. Yet Barry is a great provider, as a pack leader has to be. He hunts on his own and comes home laden with foods of all kinds. But where's the benefit to my worrying about it?

A squirrel darts across the path and I am off after it, barking furiously. It reaches a tree, its tail inches from my jaws. Frustrated I dance around the base of the tree, barking and barking with frustration.

The sound of my name being called eventually penetrates my rage and I look up to find Barry already moving off back down the trail. I give a few parting barks and then run to catch up.

I know we're heading home but I love it here and don't know why we can't just live here, find a den that's closer. it would be much more fun.

Ah well, I'm not the pack leader and, although this is a very small and strange pack, its a good life.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


o holy night Pictures, Images and Photos

The trip into work was peaceful with only half the normal number of commuters. I got a seat on the train. Read a book. Watched black storm clouds gathering over the lake in the distance.

Work was annoying because I arrived to find complaints from a couple of customers and it took up most of the day resolving those.

At noon I ran out and brought Linda's Christmas present, a bottle of Oscar de la Renta perfume. It's getting harder and harder to find. I used to be able to buy it at our local mall, but they no longer sell the perfume. It is the only thing Linda wants and, fortunately, the big downtown Sears still sells it.

Walking back to my office, Linda's bottle of perfume neatly wrapped by the woman at the store, was a battle against the wind and snow kicked up by the third major storm to hit this area this week.

By the end of the day I was anxious to be home but when I arrived at Union station I found my train had been canceled.

The storm was playing havoc with the switches. The train message board was lit up with cancellation and delay notices. The waiting area began to fill up with disgruntled passengers longing to be home.

The next train was canceled as well. The crowd at the station got even larger and nastier. I was getting tired but any seating had been taken an hour ago.

I phoned home to tell Linda I would be late, but she was out. I left her a voice message and wondered where she had gone in the storm.

A man tapped me on the shoulder to ask for change. He wasn't a street person, he wanted me to know. He was fresh out of prison and even had his release papers to prove it. He needed the money to get home to his family. It was Christmas, even for criminals, so I gave him some change. He thanked me and moved on, likely to another sucker.

By now I was nearly two hours late but the next train actually arrived crawling tiredly along the platform crowded with weary commuters. I climbed wearily onto the train with no hope for a seat. But at least I would be on the way.

We jammed in and the great green beast pulled out of the station, only an additional half hour late. We jerked and swayed and by the second station the crowded had thinned out enough I got a seat.

Outside Eglinton there was another switch problem that kept us waiting for an additional ten minutes, but finally we pulled into Guildwood and I climbed off into the raging storm.

The car had to be cleaned off and the traffic barely moved on the slippery streets; but I didn't have far to go. It was my last day of work before New Years.

At home Linda was there. Her sister had driven in from Burlington for a Christmas visit with their mother and they had gone out to dinner together.

It was half way through the evening, watching Linda wrap the last of the presents that I realized it.

Somewhere along the way I had lost her Christmas present. Either on the subway going to the train station, in the lobby of the station or among the jostling crowd on the packed train. Somewhere I had put the bright red bag down. And forgotten it.

Linda was generous and made no last minute shopping jabs. I'm not sure if I can replace her gift before Christmas but I will do my best. I won't open my present until I can replace hers.

We are blessed, Linda tells me. The gifts are the cranberry on the turkey, not the feast.

Somewhere out there is a very nice smelling woman who is feeling very blessed this Christmas as well. And maybe she is.


Monday, December 22, 2008

A Parable

In the beginning came the snow. It fell upon the earth in great fluffy flakes and settled soft upon the land until the land was filled unto the horizon, several feet in depth.

And it was good.

Then came an explorer. See his great six foot frame drive massive winter boots deep into the snowy banks, his faithful black spaniel prancing through the depths with tail wagging glee. He trod a trail he knows to be there but can no longer be seen.

And it was also good.

Behind him, over the passing days, come others. The great and the small, the young and the old, the female and the male, the races of man untold. And their dogs. Each leaving upon the virgin snows the imprint of their passing.

And God cast upon the land a deep and abiding cold, freezing the imprint of the passing multitudes, like memories of the past encased in cement.

And now comes an explorer once more, his dog flying across the slippery uneven pathway like a breeze across the water. But the explorer trudges on, eyes forever locked at his feet, seeking safe refuge for the next step in his progress. He looks not up at the glory that surrounds him. The sky is a brilliant blue, the great lake washes the shore the sun dancing upon its waters, graceful birds glide and swoop over head. He sees it not. He sees, instead, a three foot section of frozen pathway and the ruts left therein by the passing multitude. That is all that he sees.

And it is good.

He will not break a leg this day. His body will benefit from the exertion and his dog will love him the more. His soul, however, will be left to seek its nourishment some other day.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Clash Of Titans


Every year at this time we meet in mortal combat. Titans clashing and there will be blood lost, almost always my own.

He is devilishly clever and has an array of fiendish devices at his disposal. He seeks my weakest points with the unerring accuracy of Lindsay hunting squirrels.

Within minutes he has me naked and at his mercy, fingers probing deep within body cavities where no other man would dare to go. He has neither compassion nor modesty nor shame.

Oh, but he does have rare power, this one. He has the power over life and death itself. He seeks my vulnerability, probing, prodding with a terrifyingly calm dispassion, seeking for that one defenseless area that will mean my death.

Not an inch of my body misses his evil probing, including stabbing deep within me until I bleed.

I bleed, my very life's blood leaving my body.

But I have prepared for this battle for days. I have put aside my generally negligent lifestyle and have eaten my vegetables and have taken my daily multivitamin and have consumed my water. I have put aside Tim Horton's coffee (sob) for healthier beverages that will strengthen me for this life and death competition. I have exercised. I am prepared. I am The Man.

Do your best you swine, but I am ready and sweet victory will be mine.

I can see the defeat in his eyes as he rips off this gloves and tosses them angrily into the garbage. He knows I have won and his shoulders tremble with defeat. Or are they trembling with fiendish glee?

For he has saved something in reserve, this foul cad, this monster, this disgrace to humanity.

"Barry, you are ten pounds heavier than last year and your blood pressure is up. I'm going to place you on a diet and I'd like you to make it your goal to loose 20 pounds before I see you again next year."

I am stunned. I am speechless. No, these are not words I want to hear. I look at the diet. It is filled with recommendations for all the foods I have been eating in preparation for todays contest. It is one thing to eat this way for a week, but to do it for a year!


He isn't smiling, there is not the least trace of glee in his eyes. But I know, deep in his evil heart he dances the Irish jig. This time he has won.

"And the test results from your blood and urine samples should be back next week. Please book an appointment with the receptionist for us to review the results."

Having defeated me in physical combat, he is now looking forward to crushing me with his science.

I leave, a humbler man.

With a diet in his hand.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

In Which I Survive My First Babyshower

baby shower

It is two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. I am stretched out on the couch, innocently reading a book, when a phone call disturbs my tranquility. I frown, having no Karmic debt to repay, that I know of.

My first instinct is to ignore the phone. I am reading White Shell Woman by James D Doss, set on the Ute reservation in Colorado and Daisy Perika, the irritable and cantankerous old shaman has just hatched another wild plot that her long suffering nephew Charlie Moon will not find out about until it's too late. I would rather stay in Colorado, but I pick up the phone in Toronto.

Big mistake.

My wife is at a baby shower for the afternoon so the last person I expect to hear from is her. But it is Linda's voice. She is explaining that the shower is a Jack n' Jill and I was expected to come as well.

A very wise and pregnant lady at my work had just been offering her opinion on Jack n Jill baby showers last week. No way she wanted one, she said, because it meant twice the number of people and half the presents. Maybe I could get her to explain the folly of this plan to Irene, the hostess. Perhaps Irene would then ask all the men to go home?

Alas, my wife was deep into a list of the men who were present and anxious for me to be there. It sounded suspicious, but they were guys I like and haven't seen in a while. And after all, how bad could a baby shower be?

I reluctantly put Doss' book aside and head out. It is a beautiful afternoon. Warm and sunny. The snow has now melted from all but the deepest shadowy places and I make good time driving, hitting nearly all green lights as if the very fates themselves are anxious to get me to the shower.

The room is decorated in delicate blues and pinks. A chair in the corner has been turned into a kind of throne, surrounded by pink and blue streamers. A pregnant woman I have never met before is awaiting my arrival before beginning to open presents. She embraces me awkwardly, her large and apparently active protuberance coming between us.

It seems my arrival has stirred her enormous belly to a life of its own. She is delighted and insists I feel the movement. I sense a room full of women watching me as I reach out to touch the belly of this woman I have never met before. My hand extends, there is an intake of breath as if everyone in the room had decided at that moment to suck every molecule of oxygen out of the place.

The woman grabs my hand and places on the desired spot. And I feel the sudden kicking and thrashing of new life. It is amazing. And then everyone is suddenly talking at once and I am moved out of the way by a dozen or so women anxious to have their turn.

I have passed the hand on the belly test.

Sadly, it turns out, I have missed the poopy diaper game but there is wine to drink.

"You should have been here for the poopy diaper game," Charlie says.

"Geez, you missed the highlight of the whole afternoon." Brian tells me.

I drink more wine and suddenly discover that I am saying funny things. Witty observations are rolling off my tongue, especially as we get to the gift opening portion of the afternoon.

I am learning about Carter and how most of the women would die for a chance to go to the States to the Carter store. It seems rather extreme to me, so I say a witty thing and people laugh.

Almost all of the gifts have a Lambs & Ivy jungle animal theme so I make another witty observation about naming the child to be Tarzan or Jane and people laugh. And I am suddenly the centre of attention. I drink more wine.

And my wife steers me over to meet Uncle Bob, who sits in a distant corner and he begins telling me about his multiple operations and explains the difference between medicine in Canada and the States. I try saying a few witty things to him, but he lacks a sense of humour and nothing I do or say can stem the tide of the medical nightmares he has survived.

Somehow, the remaining gifts get opened without me. People are starting to put on their coats. Coffee is served in delicate china tea cups, each one unique and none with a handle large enough to get a finger through. A small group are talking about holding another family reunion, like the one we hosted nine years ago. 2009 will be the tenth anniversary, perfect timing for another reunion.

The pregnant lady and her husband are thanking me for my gift and I suddenly realize I have no idea what that gift was. But I modestly accept their thanks anyway. They tell me they are delighted I came and I sense this is true. But I also sense my wife steered me toward Uncle Bob just in the nick of time.

I have survived my first shower.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Monty Python Excites the Granny Hordes

Natasha Plays her Violin

They are not meant to be encountered in their hundreds. Nature intended them to be parceled out among us, secure in the bosom of their family, playing their appointed role in the running of the home and the raising of the children.

They are the keepers of the family history, the family traditions, the family's darkest secrets.

They are the menders of the torn clothes and bumped heads, the solace for wounded souls and the moral check on our wilder intentions. They are the embodiment of the previous generation against whom we test our metal and our ideas. Against whom we rebel. And love.

The encounter with them is intended to be personal and individual. Meaningful in other words.

But today winter has returned and Linda and I are spending the day at our respective parent's retirement home. Just us and a hundred or two other people's grandparents. With their decayed bodies, their wrinkled faces, their limited senses, their diapers and wheel chairs and walkers. All telling each other the same stale stores over and over again on an endless loop, when they can talk at all.

At one time the impact was overwhelming on me. I would encounter them in their vast hordes as if viewing creatures from some other planet, with its unusual smells, slurred talk, limited mobility, restricted communication, unpredictable requests. Its ugliness. Its landscape foreign and more than a little threatening.

But I'm used to it now. Comfortable with it, in fact. Although still able to be surprised. Today the dining room only half filled because so many families have remembered and taken their grandparents and great-grandparents out for the day, the Home has arranged its usual Sunday afternoon entertainment.

Today its Martin Wall and I am expecting wave after wave of song from World Wars one and two. The great hall of the retirement home is only half filled and its a tough gig to play. Many of the audience are asleep, heavily medicated or distracted by pain or lack of hearing or sight.

But Wall proves not to be a singer. Instead he is an unusually talented musician. He blends Tchaikovsky with Gershwin, Beatles with Simon and Garfunkel, bounces from electronic key board to grand piano. He doesn't play down to them. Instead he raises them up.

He launches into the theme from Monty Python and the crowd is clapping in time. No one is sleeping now. No one is in pain. No one is elderly or infirm. Suddenly they are young again. And happy.

It is nearly Christmas. They have all survived another year, this crowd of tough survivors, these wounded heroes in the battle against age, that implacable enemy.

For an hour the world is set right and the future holds promise of joy. Or at least just promise.

There is magic in music and we felt its power today.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen--The O'Connor Sisters

3 O'Connor Sisters




Is Proud to Present

Canada's Own

Gift to the World of Musical Entertainment


Vaudeville Stars from 1910 to 1937

Having devoted five postings to the Scots Paternal side of my father's family, it seems only fair that I post something about the Irish Maternal side as well. My grandmother's cousins, the O'Connor Sisters, were the daughters of John O'Connor and Ellen O'Leary (no relation to the owner of the cow that burned down Chicago). Born on their parents pioneering farm in southern Etobicoke, they made their 1910 singing debut at Shea's in Buffalo.

Now largely forgotten, they appeared with the likes of Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Jimmy Durante, Buster Keaton, Sophie Tucker, Red Skelton, George Burns and Gracie Allen. The Sisters played the major vaudville houses throughout the North East United States and Canada.

Among the theatres where they appeared were Shea's Hippadrome in Toronto, Fox Theatre in Detroit, Majestic in Chicago and Fifth Avenue in New York.

When sisters left the group to marry, three of the sisters continued as a trio, working into the 1930's. The members of the group had always been fluid, beginning as a quartet, it became a sextet when their manager decided that would be original. They were the subject of a major CBC special in 1973 with music arranged by Moe Koffman and Peter Appleyard.

Billed as the "Greatest Singing Voices in Vaudeville", some of their earliest numbers were arranged by a young composer just beginning his career, George Gershwin. Comedians as well as singers, their 12 minute act featured much playful comedy, especially when one of the sisters discovered she could sing baritone. The Sisters were also natural atheletes, with Mary holding the World record for running the half mile. Their costumes were almost always mentioned in reviews of their act, some of their gowns costing up to $1,000.--an amazing sum for 1920.

The Sisters never let the world of show business erode their deep religious faith. They often sang on Sunday mornings at major churches as they travelled the country, "Leonard's Mass" being their favourite.

O'Connor Sisters
Mary, Anna, Ada, Kathleen, Vera & Nellie

Here are two songs that were a staple in their act. Ave Maria and Danny Boy, here performed by Celtic Women.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Finding Myself In Scotland--part 5 (Conclusion)

July 2002

Spiderman is just discovering his superpowers on the Airbus 310’s monitors.

We are at 31,000 feet and passing just south of Greenland. Scotland is several thousand miles and a couple of time zones away. This time I have comfortable seats and far more leg room, so my thoughts are free to roam over the events of the past few weeks.

My wife and I have traveled thousands of miles and have retraced the movements of our respective families across hundreds of years of time. We have stood where they stood, seen where they lived, learned how they pronounced the names of their homes and villages. We have also seen where a great deal of Scottish history was made and have learned about the modern country Scotland is. We have miles of video tape and stacks of photos.

In the process of accomplishing all of this I have learned something much more personal. I have learned something of the forces that went into forging the people who were the parents of my parents and their parents before them.

And through them, I have come to understand more clearly the forces that went into creating me.

I see my father in a whole new light. Nearly 15 years after his death, I am finally close to understanding him. For all his shortcomings, he lived a heroic life. Not a Newspaper headline, rescuing children from a burning house, type of heroics. Heroics that are lived everyday and on a more human scale.

When sacrifices needed to be made, he made them and never complained. In fact, never talked about them. He lived through the Great Depression and World War II. His unit fought in North Africa, up the length of Italy, across France and into Belgium before being demobbed. Despite only having a grade 4 education, he attained the rank of staff sergeant.

His lack of education restricted him to the lowest paying of jobs in civilian life, but he was never without work and continued working until he was 80 and already dying of emphysema. At 70 and legally blind, he obtained the unlikely position of sheriff of Toronto, serving at the bench of the Ontario Supreme Court. He sat at a desk and was the last line of defense between an intruder and the judges’ chambers. Today he has been replaced by armed guards, bullet proof glass and metal detectors. But this is now and that was then, a more civilized time.

Among his possessions, found after his death, was the picture at the top of this blog. He had carried it in his wallet for most of his 84 years. For him it must have been the heartbreaking dream of a life that might have been. On the back, in his cramped handwriting, it says simply "mommy, daddy and me".

Understanding better the forces that helped make him the man he was, I have not only come to terms with him, but with myself as well. My wife has noticed the difference. I’m more relaxed, less judgmental. I'm more outgoing and willing to be transparent. It's not that I was hiding before, but I'm much more comfortable being be noticed. I’ve owned some of my father’s sense of humour and I’m cautiously willing to explore the spiritual side of things I once derided.

I still don’t like mournful country music he once loved, but you can’t have everything,

And as for Scotland, it was definitely a trip worth the taking

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Finding My Self In Scotland--part 4

William Family

July 2002

Over the next few days we met with several people I'd been corresponding with over the past few years.

From Dr. Reid, who wrote the history of Portgordon, I learned Dryburn is pronounced “Dra’burn” and refers to a now dry burn or brook which once ran beside the property. He referred me to Grant House in Elgin in search of news stories of the fire.

Local historian, Anne Burgess, treated us to lunch in her home and told us of the current state of Gordon Castle in Fochabers and described for us what a typical Rent Day would have been like at the Castle while my family still lived in Dryburn as tenants on the Duke of Gordon's estate.

In Elgin we had dinner with the Bishops who had been assisting with much of the genealogical information we'd gained on our family and contracted with them for some further research.

Finally at Grant House, Graeme Wilson looked up the newspaper account of the fire at Dryburn. It was a large article filled with wonderful detail. But most wondrous of all was the discovery that the fire had been contained to the brye (the barn) and shed.

It was the barn that had burned in 1902, not the house.

The Dryburn we had toured the previous evening was our ancestor’s home! Over three hundred years old and still standing.

My family had laid the stone, the walls I touched had been built by them, the six inch thick flagstones on which I had stood were placed there by my family. My heart was thumping with the discovery. Had Grant Lodge not been such a dignified place, I might have let out a “Whoop!” of joy.

I contained myself. And if my hands were trembling, no one seemed to notice.

But that wasn't the last, or even biggest, surprise of the day. When we got back to our Bed and Breakfast, there was a phone call for us from Anne Burgess.

"Are ye sittn' doon naw, Laddie?" she asked. "I've soom surprisin' news fer ye."

I sat down.

"Its no sech a big thing these days, I'm sure. Na one seems ta gi it a second thought. But in 1839 I assure ye it was a big deal. Are yer ready, laddie?"

As I would ever be.

"Yer Great Grandfather William was born outa wedlock." She said. "Aye, an' its warse than that. His mother was a papist and his father was from good Church o' Scotland stock. It would ha' been quite the scandal in a wee place like Portgordon was in those days, yer great, great James bein' the Harbour master n' all."

I was glad I was sitting down. William, the Patriarch of the family whose deep religious values would result in two sons becoming Priests, two daughters becoming nuns and a grandson who would go on to become a Bishop, had been born out of wedlock.

"Yer great great grandfather James acknowledged fatherin' the bairn and was ordered by the Church ta pay for his care. Its all in the Kirk records. Yer William was raised by the Greens, na yer family. That's how he got to be a Catholic, ye see?"

And suddenly, I did.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Finding Myself In Scotland--part 3

It was Sunday and the village slept. Few people were about. Our beautiful bed and breakfast sat up on the terrace overlooking the village of Portgordon with a great picture window giving us an unobstructed view of the North Sea.

“Is it everything you dreamed?” Linda asked


It had been a long road, from Toronto to Portgordon and an even further distance back into my family’s history. My father had never talked about his past, but years of research had led me to more information about him and his family than even he likely knew.

His father Charles, wrestling with alcohol abuse, had deserted the family when my father had been ten years old forcing my father to leave school and take on the adult burden of support for his mother and two sisters. He took on two jobs to provide for his family.

And then his mother, Catherine, died of a perforated gall bladder.

My grandfather, Charles, I had learned, was the youngest son of a large and highly religious family. He had two sisters who were nuns, a brother who was a priest, another who was a Monsignor and a sister who was to become the mother of a Bishop. But none of them seemed to reach out to help. And for Charles, well, he had fled to Chicago and it was a different type of spirit that moved him.

Now I understood some things about my father that changed dramatically the way I thought of him. Now I understood his deep religious commitment, his near illiteracy, his lack of simple car and home repair skills, his lack of interest in playing with his children.

His drinking.

His searing hatred of my grandfather.

He had never had a childhood. He had been a man from the age of ten.

“What are you thinking,” Linda asked.

I shook my head. “My great grandfather. When Charles took off, why didn’t he step in to help? I've really come to admire William. He did extraordinary things. Moved his family to a new country, became an architect, a teacher, raised some amazingly talented children. What Charles did must have been terrible shock. A terrible disappointment. Why didn't he step in to help?”

But Linda had no answer,

When I went to the post office to buy a local map the next morning, the woman in line behind me heard my accent and asked, “Aye, you must be the Canadians staying wi’ Mrs. Crawford?” And when I went to the grocery to buy a soft drink the woman at the checkout told me I had to be the one staying at Katie Crawford’s. While there were few signs of people in town, news travelled fast.

My great grandfather left Portgordon 140 years ago and to the best of my knowledge, I am the first family member to return. Looking at the clean and prosperous village and the great expanse of sandy beaches, I wondered why he had left. But his were very different economic times and I don’t doubt the spirit of adventure was strong in his young man’s heart. Somewhere in town William’s father had been an Innkeeper and grocer (and harbour master and fish curer and grain merchant etc). But we have yet to discover which of the buildings were his.

But we did know Dryburn, the farm his family had built on the Duke of Gordon's estate, around 1720, and in which they lived until 1902. Years of research had led to the discovery of the names of every generation of the family. I knew something of their struggles and their toil.

Walk to the western edge of Portgordon and look up and Dryburn sits on the distant hill. But sadly, we had learned it wasn’t the Dryburn my family had known. A month before leaving for Scotland, the current residents of Dryburn had visited us in Toronto, bearing pictures and some devastating news. There had been a great fire in 1902 and Dryburn had burned to the ground. We were assured the house had been immediately rebuilt, but the current home was not one in which any member of my family had ever lived.

We were invited for dinner at Dryburn and graciously welcomed and fed. We were given a tour of the home and were shown photos of the neglected ruin the current owners had revived. I wondered if at least the great stone-walls had survived the fire, but the family had no idea.

So I paid more attention to the grounds and the view that must have remained in tact over the centuries. Five generations of my family must have stepped out the back door of the house and been greeted by the view of the land sloping down to the North Sea and the huge breakers that ran onto the beach. I stood alone and drank in the view not wanting to use either the camera or video to capture it.

This was my connection and I wanted to experience it directly.

The next day I was meeting with two local historians who would have some remarkable things to tell me that would change my understanding of William as dramatically as my view of my father had been changed.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Finding Myself InScotland--part 2

July 2002

My Great Grandfather, William, had taken his family from Scotland to Canada in 1873, and our plan was to retrace the route he had taken across the width of Scotland.

Researching our family history had led me to discover a very ugly truth about my grandfather Charles whose actions had had terrible impact on my father. And behind Charles was William, a very powerful and dynamic man I would never have known about without extensive research, but whose influence impacts my life even today.

In order to understand Charles I had to understand William, in order to understand my father I had to understand Charles, in order to understand me, I had to understand my father. It gets complicated, but ultimately it straightens a lot of things out.

William had been born in the little fishing village of Portgrodon in Banff, on the north east coast of Scotland. There he had grown and learned his trade as a carpenter. At 26 he had left home and moved to Inverness where he advertised himself as a builder. In Inverness he met and married my Great Grandmother, Johanna.

They lived at 20 Haugh St in one of three buildings owned by Alexander Fraser, a grocer, (and possible relation) and it was here they started their large family. Mary Ann, their oldest daughter was born, followed by William and Isobella.

The offer of work then took the family to the distant and treeless Isle of Lewis, on Scotland's West coast, where their son James Green was born. But it was here that tragedy first struck the family when little James died soon after birth, far from the comfort of extended family and friends.

William then moved his saddened family further south to Portree on the Isle of Skye (pictured above) where they lived for three years and he became a Contractor on County Buildings and a Cattle Dealer. They seem to have done well in Portree, living in an attractive rooming house at 2 Bosville Terrace, overlooking the harbour, and having a servant to assist them. Their children Geraldine and Alex were born during their stay on Skye and it was from Skye that they immigrated to Canada.

As an example of the amazing world we live in, before leaving Toronto I had discovered that their home at that time, 2 Bosville Terrace, not only still exists but has, of all things, its own web site (it's the pink triple gabled house on the hillside in the video above). It is now an attractive bed and breakfast in the very heart of Portree.

We spent three days on the Isle of Skye, walking the ancient and narrow streets of the small village, getting contact information on the Skye Historical Society, finding books on Scottish and Skye history not available in Canada, watching a frightening storm boil up over a huge ben and roar down into the valley where we parked, and listening through the night to that same great storm tearing at our bed and breakfast and hammering on our roof.

Just as William and Johanna must have done.

Our last night there we had dinner at the Isle of Skye Pub and Linda, my wife, noticed a history of the building on the menu stating it had been built in 1850 and we imagined William dropping in for a pint after a heavy day’s labour. We gave him a toast.

The next day we retraced the family’s cross country route back to Inverness. Our little blue Vauxhall Astra made the trip in two hours, but it must have taken William days, with horse and cart and little family in tow.

For all its fame (or because of it) Inverness was a disappointment. It has grown so much since my last visit back in 1962 and has become a very crowded and busy city. The Haugh lies behind Inverness Castle away from the bustle of the downtown core. We walked the street with no exact knowledge of the location of Alexander Fraser’s grocery, where William rented rooms for under £4.

We got a better feel for history by visiting nearby Culloden, Beauly, and the standing stones at the Clava Cairns. But maybe I’m being unfair to Inverness. I had waited so long to visit Portgordon and the little 40 acre farm of Dryburn in Moray, which my family had built, and where they had been tenants on the Duke of Gordon’s estate for nearly 200 years. Now it was a mere hours drive from Inverness and I could hear it calling all the time we were there. Inverness, darkened by constant drizzle, had little hope of holding my attention.

As we finally left Inverness behind, the rain stopped and when we reached Fochabers (Moray) the clouds began to part and when we finally reached Portgordon (Banff) the sun shone for the first time on our trip. I couldn’t have paid a hollywood director for a more dramatic moment. We crested a hill and the little fishing village was nestled quietly along a great expanse of golden beach, great breakers from the North Sea rolling gently in toward the land.

“Who needs Hawaii,” said Linda.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Discovering Myself In Scotland Part 1

July 2002

I was in agony. My legs had been cramped in the confined space of the Airbus 310 for over six hours. The seats were barely wide enough to sit in and lowering the food tray was an exercise in confinement. Over ten years of research into my family’s earliest roots had brought me here, and while the search had sometimes been frustrating, this was the first time it was proving physically painful.

On top of it all, Scotland was flirting with us. The captain had announced the plane was on its final descent and we had plunged eagerly into the cloud cover. Ignoring layers of physical discomfort, I was wondering what it would feel like to walk the fields and enter the homes where my ancestors had lived. Would there be a sense of coming home? A feeling of recognition, of belonging?

Of course, at that moment, I would settle for a simple release from the confinement of my seat. But we emerged from the cloud cover to find ourselves above still another layer of cloud. Scotland was not eager to reveal herself.

The plane descended through successive veils of cloud until the very moment before we landed at Glasgow Airport, when orderly fields of lush green suddenly stretched below us. Then the runway appeared and we were down, if not on Scottish soil, at least on Scottish tarmac.

I had spent ten years slowly and painstakingly unraveling the mystery that was my father. A mystery I hadn't even known existed until my wife began her own genealogical research and I suddenly realized I knew nothing about my father's family. I hadn't known that coming to understand the forces that had created my father would be the key to freeing me from bonds I didn't even know were strangling me.

My dad was not secretive and certainly was no monster. He was a warm and open man who lived completely in the now and never regaled us with tales of his past. He wasn't hiding his past from us, it just wasn't the place where he lived. He didn't think it mattered.

What I could have learned in a couple of hours of conversation while he was alive, had taken me months in libraries, Mormon Church Family Research Centers, cemeteries, on-line genealogy sites and visits with strange and unnerving relatives to piece together.

What I had found had blown me away and changed completely almost everything I thought I knew about him. For most of my life I had just assumed we had different personalities and that was why we weren't especially close. What I didn't realize then was that much of my personality had grown in opposition to his, had been determined by his, was bound to his. It wasn't just by shear chance that we were different. But I knew better now and what I'd learned about him had allowed me to change the very way I viewed myself.

Here are some of the major differences between us:

He smoked. I didn't.
He drank, sometimes to excess. I didn't.
He was profoundly religious. I wasn't.
He was passionately patriotic. I'm not.
He always worked steadily but changed jobs regularly. I've worked for the same company for 30 years.
He was maudlinly sentimental. I'm not.
He had a grade 4 education and could barely read a newspaper. I have a Masters degree.
He loved country music, especially the weepy songs. It made me cringe.
He was the life of a party and loved to throw lavish events where he was the center of attention. I was much happier off to the side in quiet conversation pretending I didn't know him.
When I was a child he never played with us. I always played with my children.
When I was a child he never taught us how to fix anything or do any home repair. I involved my daughters in everything I did.
His main recreation was watching TV. I'm deeply involved with my community.

I was embarrassed by him. He was proud of me.

Before we began researching our family histories it never occurred to me to ask, what made him that way? Like a force of nature, I assumed that fathers just sprang into existence, fully formed and unchanging. Discovering there were forces that had shaped him, was life altering.

My wife had noticed something about me. "Doing this research has changed you," she said as we deplane at Glasgow Airport. "It's made you a better person."

Little did we know what Scotland herself had to reveal in the coming days ahead.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Charles, A Visit With A very Dangerous Artist

She told us her secret during a visit with Charles. My daughter knew Charles personally, having worked with him for several years while she was attending Ryerson University.

He was temperamental, but what artist isn't? He was used to throwing his considerable weight around, but never with her. He always treated her with great respect.

As an artist, Charles has a world wide reputation. His paintings are in great demand but sell for a modest price between $400 to $1000 dollars. Charles may be intimidating, but he isn't greedy and his needs are simple. An abstract artist he is noted for his use of colour, and the violence of course.

With Charles the potential for violence is always there, just below the surface. And when you weight over 400 pounds, all of it solid muscle, that makes you very dangerous indeed.

Except with Kathy, whom he always treated kindly and with grave courteously. Part of her job was to clean his windows while he sat and watched her with intense fascination. Sometimes they sent a guy along to help her, but that always made Charles fly into a violent rage. Any male coming close to the windows of his cage would rouse him to a ferocious anger and he would charge the window throwing his full weight at the bullet proof glass. Over and over again.

The resounding impacts would reverberate through the African Pavilion at the Toronto Zoo, frightening many of the patrons. Parents would have to explain that Male Silver Back gorillas were very protective of their children and didn't take well to male intruders. And Charles has over ten children.

Today there is no protective glass between us and Charles. The Mountain Gorilla exhibit has been moved to a new enclosure, the worlds largest indoor gorilla exhibit. It is height that protects us now, not bullet proof glass.

Kathy likes the new display. It is much larger than the old one and she always worried about Charles hurting himself with those frightening charges at the glass.

She's feeling a little protective of children these days herself, she tells us, now that she is pregnant again.

My wife stops. Her heart skips a beat. There's the need for a wrenching adjustment in thinking from gorillas to babies. What? Pregnant again? Kathy?

My daughter has a huge grin on her face and suddenly there are hugs and tears all around. I shake her husband's hand while their son dances around us with a big "we gotcha" smile on his face. It had been seven years since her first and only child, so we are very surprised and pleased by the news.

This will make four living grandchildren for us. There was a fifth, my youngest daughter's first son, but that was over nine years ago now and is not a story for this happy time.

In the distance, Charles takes the news in his stride, lying comfortably on his back beside a log, arms akimbo, one leg pointed straight toward the sky,giving himself an occasional lazy scratch.