November 27, 1943
…..I’ve sent the watch. Feel free to open it before Christmas. I bought the best one I could afford considering, of course, that you’d probably lose it right away. (When you do, let me know and I’ll send another. And until you get it….for god’s sake, keep your head and your voice down!)
…..You didn’t get the socks! I guess you didn’t get the cigarettes either…I’m sorry! Keep on the lookout for someone with comfortable feet and smoker’s cough. That’ll be your culprit.
…..It must be hard to focus on Christmas in the desert heat. Although, on second thought, you get the whole wise men and camels atmosphere there, don’t you?
…..The Santa Claus Parade was last Saturday. I work Saturday mornings, but our office is at the front of the building with windows overlooking Queen Street, so we had a convenient bird’s eye view. Warm, comfortable…a far cry from watching from the street—although it seems like cheating if you don’t freeze some body parts in order to see it. As always, there were dozens of floats, led this year by your 48th Highlanders band…about twice its usual size and marching smartly. They did you credit. There were a lot of servicemen watching, and every one of them had a child from the crowd perched on his shoulder to get a better view.
…..I topped up the day by stopping by all of the animated Christmas windows at both Simpson’s and Eaton’s stores on my way home: glitter and tinsel and toys dancing around a Christmas tree, fluffy animals skating on a pond…oh, and an adorable puppy yawning and stretching by a fireplace…you’d swear it was alive if you didn’t stand and watch for a really long time. There seemed to be just as many adults gazing as children. I think everybody was thinking, as I was: I wish Tommy was here to see this with me.
…..Okay, they probably weren’t all wishing that you were there…they probably have their own people they would want to share it with. But you get my point!
…..It seems like the parade unleashes a flood of Christmas spirit, and some people imbibe more of it than is, strictly speaking, good for them. The streetcar was crowded when I was riding home, and I saw an old guy struggle on, carrying an obscenely naked plucked chicken by the neck. He stood drunkenly swaying while he bought two tickets from the conductor…one for himself and one for the chicken! He made his way to a double seat that had just been vacated, and parked himself by the window, with the chicken slumped beside him.
…..As more people poured on at each stop, he began to get dirty looks from tired shoppers who coveted the seat on which the chicken was ensconced. Finally, one particularly imperious old woman reached over and tapped the drunk on the shoulder. (He was slumping a little himself, and appeared to have nodded off.)
…..“I’ll thank you to move that chicken, sir, so the rest of us can sit down!”
…..The fellow straightened up, and opened his bleary eyes. He patted the chicken, fondly.
…..“Lady, this here’s my pal,” he slurred. “I bought him a seat, and he’s gonna sit in it…and I’ll thank youse to go find a seat of your own!” And he fell back asleep.
…..It sometimes seems as if the TTC must hire comedians to play their cars…there always seems to be some entertainment laid on so there’ll never be a dull moment. Last month, during a warm spell, a dishevelled drunk of indeterminate age parked himself in an aisle seat beside a young man who clearly wanted to enjoy the fresh air at the open window in peace. The drunk launched into a rambling and incomprehensible conversation, which the young captive completely ignored. This, of course, never works. The drunk continued to aim his monologue at his seat-mate, wanting his agreement on some obscure point or other. And the young man continued to gaze meekly out the window in silence.
…..After some time, the drunk muttered, “S’my shtop,” and stumbled to the exit door and out.
…..As he passed by the young man’s window, he reached up and slapped him right across the face. He uttered his first clearly understandable words:
…..“…and that’s for talking too much!”
…..This probably didn’t seem quite as comical to the young man as it did to the rest of us.
…..A couple of weeks ago I got a phone call from Great-aunt Bella, inviting me over for Sunday dinner. I didn’t understand why she and Great-aunt Gertie took a whim to invite me alone, but I’m glad I accepted.
…..You know, the wedding-cake tin ceilings and the false plaster fireplace at their house are pretty much the same as at ours and every other shabby old place…why do they seem so much quainter when they surround that old pair? Maybe it’s because they have so many things. I’m always surprised when I can find a place to sit down. And I can’t help feeling that there are treasures hidden in all that stuff. They never let you leave without taking something away with you, and it’s never anything of real value…but the family stories! Oh, they’re precious!
…..We spent the afternoon thumbing through albums, pawing over photographs of familiar people I didn’t recognize and total strangers who meant something to somebody else. Then, after trying not to make a pig of myself over their incomparable chicken casserole (I would die a happy person if I had the secret of those cheese biscuits), we settled down to the down-and-dirty gossip I’d obviously been summoned there to hear. I felt like I was being given the keys to the closet where the family skeletons are stacked. It was wonderful. And I am generously willing to share. So pull up a chair (with your good arm, of course) and sit down.
…..“Have you seen the new twins yet?” Aunt Bella asked.
…..“You young people!” Aunt Gertie had to slip in her complaint. “You’re always too busy for the family.”
…..It’s true. I don’t see a lot of the family. I find most of them more charming from a distance. But I had seen Uncle Ralph’s twins, Helen and Pauline. They’re not so very new, actually—about three years old now—and they’re unusually appealing, for small children. Especially Pauline. She’s a sweet little thing with red hair and freckles…you’d like her. I did.
…..“They were born just before Christmas,” Aunt Bella went on. “Ralph felt like he was entitled to celebrate double for twins, and once he’d gotten a skin full—Ralph was a bootlegger during the depression, you know, and I guess he developed a weakness for liquor—well, he got a notion that his girls needed a Christmas tree. It was late and the tree lots were all closed, but in that state…well, he just wouldn’t wait. He tracked down an axe somewhere, and went searching for a tree as if he was in the north woods or something. When he finally found the one he wanted (and it was a nice one) it was on Lionel Conacher’s front lawn…but he cut it down anyway and dragged it home.”
…..“Do you know who Lionel Conacher is, dear?” Aunt Gertie asked. “He was an All-Star athlete during the twenties and thirties: baseball, boxing, hockey (he played for the Black Hawks and some other big American team, I think)…and football…the Argos. He’s in politics now, I’ve heard. It’s probably a good thing he didn’t catch Ralph cutting down his tree. I’m sure he would have tried to stop him, and Ralph can be scrappy when he’s drunk.”
…..“Ralph is our sister Helen’s son, you know,” continued Aunt Bella, “and he was always a handful. Not much to brag about, I’m afraid…and Helen always puts on such airs….”
…..“Well, she didn’t have much better luck with her daughter.” Aunt Gertie seemed to be relishing Helen’s woes. “Jean married a Catholic priest. Of course, he left the priesthood first. (I mean before they were married, that is…he was probably sampling the goods while he was still wearing the cassock.) It caused a scandal, at the time, because Helen’s husband was an Orangeman, you know, and so is Ralph. They weren’t likely to welcome a Catholic into the family…even a disgraced one.”
…..“Fran had the largest family; she was always greedy—that’s your Grandma Marshall, dear…you won’t tell her I said so, will you?” said Aunt Bella. “There’s Jack…he was the oldest. Do you remember your Uncle Jack, dear?”
…..“Stocky, dark moustache, loud voice…I believe he was on crutches….”
…..“She remembers him,” said Aunt Gertie.
…..“Yes, he was always too bold for the city. Come to think of it, he’s a hard-drinker, too,” added Bella.
…..“Seems to me he was just as much of a handful to raise as Ralph was, any day.” Aunt Gertie clearly wanted to get her word in. She must have felt Aunt Bella was hogging the floor. “Why didn’t you mention that Jack was a handful, Bella?”
…..“With Ralph, I was making a point. Helen thought she was better than everybody else. Fran never claimed to be a lady. We expected her lot to be difficult. I think it was Jack who got Ralph into bootlegging. Jack was involved with some very shady characters. I think it finally got too hot for him in Toronto He took a whim one day to buy land up north—a lot of land…it was dirt cheap in those days—and he’s lived up there ever since.
…..He built himself a cabin up there in the woods north of Cochrane, and lived alone while he cleared the land. I really think he was hiding. God only knows what he’d been involved in down here….
…..“It must have been brutal in the wintertime. I think he did some trapping to fill his time, and one day when he was checking his traps, he found an Indian, half frozen in the snow. He carried him back to the cabin and tended his frost-bitten feet. He let the guy stay until he could walk again—I guess Jack enjoyed the company, though the Indian didn’t speak a word of English. Then, one day in the early spring, he just disappeared.
…..“Jack never saw him again. But from time to time, he’d come home to find fresh game left on his doorstep. I suppose the Indian was showing his gratitude in the only way he could.
…..“Eventually Jack got married and started some kind of business in Cochrane. They had a slew of kids who grew up quite wild. I remember hearing that the oldest boy stole a car for a joy-ride once.”
…..“What happened?” I asked.
…..“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. By that time, Jack had been made sheriff…can you believe it? A solid citizen. Small towns, you know….”
…..“But what about his leg?”
…..“Oh, that! Well, he was escorting a prisoner down to Kingston Penitentiary by train, and the man escaped. I think Jack was a bit lax with the prisoners. He stopped off here to visit with me for a couple of hours once with one in tow, handcuffs and all. It was very unsettling. I suppose Jack thought it was funny.
…..“Anyway, the guy jumped off the train as it left a station. Jack jumped after him—he always tended to be a bit flashy—but the train had sped up by then. Jack slipped and fell under the wheels. They had to amputate what was left of his leg.”
…..That sort of put a damper on the conversation for a minute or two, but the two old girls seemed to think that Jack would get over it, and soon Aunt Bella remembered another juicy tidbit she was itching to share with me.
…..“Now, your Aunt Bea was the prettiest of Fran’s girls; your mother would be furious if she heard me saying so, but it’s true. Bea’s a couple of years younger, and she was always much closer to your Aunt Bess than to Pearl. Those two used to be thick as thieves—there was only a year’s difference in their ages. They shared everything: toys…clothes…it was so cute. And when they got older, they even went courting together.
…..“But really, dear…you know, some things are just too much! When they were eighteen or nineteen years old, both girls announced that they were going to be married. But each was marrying the boy the other had been courting! It was a surprise to us all, but there was no point questioning them…they were that headstrong. “
…..“Oh, but that’s not all,” prodded Aunt Gertie, impatiently. “Tell her the rest,” she insisted.
…..“Well, something less than nine months after the weddings,” Bella continued, lowering her voice just a little, for dramatic effect, “Bea had twin sons. ‘Premature’, they called them. ‘Premature’ happened as conveniently often back then…as it does now.
…..“And the boys…as they grew, it was plain to anyone with eyes: Clayton was short and dark. Handsome…like Bea’s husband Bill. And Clinton…well, he was tall and blonde…the image of May’s husband! Have you never noticed, dear?”
…..Both Aunts watched me for a reaction. Their eyes positively glittered.
…..Well, Tommy, you remember Clinton and Clayton…there’s no denying that they are very different, for twins. Of course, we don’t often see Aunt May’s husband and Aunt Bea has been separated from Uncle Bill for years, so I suppose we couldn’t expect to have noticed resemblances even if it were true.
…..“Maybe it was just a coincidence,” I suggested, hopefully. I really didn’t want to address the mechanics necessary to achieve the outcome they were suggesting.
…..“Maybe,” said Aunt Bella.
…..“I suppose,” said Aunt Gertie.
…..But they didn’t believe it for a minute. They had considered the implications long ago (I’m sure they were considering them again, enthusiastically, as I sat there…) and they weren’t going to be cheated out of a perfectly good story.
…..“Why did Aunt Bea leave Uncle Bill?” I wondered.
…..“Oh,” Aunt Bella assured me, “He turned out to be a real miserable bastard. A skinflint.”
…..“He used to lock up the food in the cupboard when he left for work,” added Aunt Gertie, “so she and the boys couldn’t help themselves without his permission.”
…..“That’s terrible!” I blurted.
…..“Yes,” agreed Aunt Bella. “That’s what we thought.”
…..“I sometimes wonder, though,” suggested Aunt Gertie, “whether it might have been a kind of punishment for…you know…if he suspected….”
…..“I doubt it,” shrugged Aunt Bella. “He was just a cheap bastard, is all.”
…..“No question about it. That brood of Fran’s was a handful,” Aunt Bella went on. “It wasn’t always easy for her. Her husband died when she was in her thirties, and the kids grew up unruly. Then, when she was about thirty-six, I think it was, she took up with one of Pearl’s discarded beaux…I think he was only about nineteen at the time.”
…..“One of my mother’s boyfriends?” I couldn’t even pretend not to be shocked. “Gran?”
…..“Yes…I thought you knew….”
…..“What did my mother do?” I tried to keep the squeak out of my voice.
…..“Oh, she didn’t care. She was quite finished with him by then.”
…..“So….” I struggled to stay calm. “What happened?”
“Why, Fran married him, of course! That was Lorne Marshall…your ‘Grandpa’ Marshall. Didn’t you ever notice that he’s a lot younger than your Gran?”
…..“Yes…of course…I knew that Grandma Marshall had been married before,” I stammered. “But I didn’t know….”
…..“That Lorne had been Pearl’s fellow first? Well he was. I told you Fran was greedy.” She went out to the kitchen to make tea.
…..Aunt Gertie leaned over toward me and whispered, “Don’t mind Bella. She’s a bit bitter toward your Grandma Marshall, dear…even after all these years.
…..“You see, Pearl’s wasn’t the first beau Fran took a fancy to. She stole Bella’s fiancée away, too, when they were young. And Bella wasn’t done with him yet. Fran got tired of him eventually. But Bella could hardly take him back, could she? She never married….”
…..“That’s a shame.”
…..“Oh, I don’t know…she’s had a pretty good life. And who’s to say she hasn’t avoided some heartache after all? But she never really forgave Fran.”
…..“It was Lorne Marshall who introduced Pearl to your father, you know,” Bella told me when she came back. “Fred was a charmer, and loved a good time…happy-go-lucky. He was a bit too fond of his liquor, even back then, but Pearl wasn’t likely to object to that…she’d sown her own brand of wild oats, I’m sure. They hit it off right away.
…..“Did you know Lorne was stage manager at Shea’s Hippodrome in the 1920’s? It was a vaudeville theatre back then—one of Toronto’s largest. All the big names appeared there. Bob Hope played there.
…..“Fred picked up extra cash sometimes helping Lorne out. One night they were presenting one of those English stage plays…you know…all Lord this and The Honourable that with their ever-so-devoted servants and nobody in between. Well, one of the actors didn’t show up at the last minute, and they needed a replacement butler in a hurry. Fred was there and he had the right accent…so they stuffed him into a swallowtail coat and sent him onstage.”
…..“Oh, Fred was a good-looking man!” said Aunt Gertie. “He still is. He looked perfect for the part.”
…..“He had only one line,” continued Aunt Bella. “He was to enter…very dignified, you see…and say, ‘Milord, the carriage awaits without.’
…..“Well, it was Saturday evening, and nobody had noticed that Fred was already three sheets to the wind. He veered out onto the stage, politely stifled a belch, and drawled, ‘My God…the hack’s outside!’
…..“Nobody ever knew whether it was just drunken stupidity or whether Fred had decided to improve on a shop-worn script, but it brought down the house! Red Skelton was in the audience that night. The line was so successful that he asked Fred if he could use it in one of his skits.”
…..Makes you feel kind of proud, doesn’t it, Tommy? Our dad is getting a slice of fame as inspiration for a ‘drunk’ skit. Well, why not? It’s more than most get, after all.
…..“When you come back, dear,” Aunt Bella said, as I was leaving, “try to bring Tommy with you. We haven’t seen him in ages!”
…..“But I told you, Aunt Bella. Tommy has been overseas for over three years…he’s fighting in Italy.”
…..“Oh, really? Well, tell him to take care of himself…we wouldn’t want him to get hurt.’
…..Too late. “I will.” I wonder how much of what she remembers is actually true
…..You may have already heard some of these jewels, but I figured since you have a lot of time on your hands right now, they’d bear repeating. Some fragments of family history you just can’t hear often enough!
…..Wait! There’s one more!
…..Until about ten years ago, Great Aunt Gertie, that wizened little sparrow of a creature, was married to a one-eyed sailor named Jake, who died of natural causes. (I only mention it because in this family…well, you never know.)
…..Jake was a fun-loving fellow and, like all sailors who touch land in Toronto, Jake loved the CNE. One day, after a particularly vigorous ride on the Ferris wheel (god only knows what he was doing up there) Jake disembarked without his glass eye. Being a no-nonsense kind of guy, Jake bellowed an offer of ten cents to anyone who could to find something closely resembling an eyeball…made of glass. In no time at all, one of the urchins who are always hanging around the Midway claimed the prize. (Only one dime was paid out, as no more than one glass eye was ever located. In case you wondered.) Jake carefully wiped it off with his pocket handkerchief and popped it back in where it belonged.
…..The Ferris wheel operator puked.
…..I don’t know whether this is where Gertie met Jake. He had attracted quite a crowd.
…..And what about Great Aunt Bella? Well, until she came to live with Gertie a few years ago, she worked as housekeeper to some of the wealthier families in Toronto. There must be some good stories there, too, but they’ll have to wait until I get a chance to talk to Grandma Marshall. I’m sure she’ll be eager to resurrect any skeletons that may be hidden in Bella’s closet.
…..Thanks for (finally) filling in some of the huge gaps left by the disgracefully brief little notes (they were barely postcards) that you sent me while you were in England. But didn’t you visit any family at all while you were there? What aren’t you telling me?
Your faithful family historian,