Or, “what does a story about a verandah in the1930’s have to do with COVID19 social distancing?”
(*free giveaway at the end – stick with me kids!)
I have Tums in my medicine cabinet, I miss Blockbuster and I may have uttered a sentence the other day that began with “well, when I was growing up…” I can’t fight it anymore; I have officially become a real-live grown-up. And now that I am an official real-live grown-up, I find myself longing to ask questions of the real-live grown-ups in my life who are no longer here.
I’d like to ask my dad about his love affair with the law. I’d like to know if he was drawn to defend people because he believed, like I do, that our systems often fail the most vulnerable in our society. I want to know how he discovered that his favourite breakfast was ketchup and toast, and why he liked Star Trek so much, and if he’d lived to retirement, would he have bought an RV or gone to Arizona or done something more “Marty-ish”, like learned to cod fish in Newfoundland. I’d like to ask my mom when she went through menopause and if it sucked, and how she handled extrovert burn-out, and the name of the guy she went out with on the same night she agreed to marry my dad. I’d like to ask her how often she felt like she was failing as a mom and how she handled that feeling of losing oneself into a role. I’d like to know why she couldn’t cook a moist roast beef, and find out if she really did like the taste of canned beets, and ask when she last went skinny dipping. When I think about all the people I miss, it’s not the big stuff I long for. It’s not the holidays or notable vacations, or other camera-worthy events that make me nostalgic, it’s the everyday, quirky, simple, perfect moments that I crave. Warm, seemingly insignificant details, the human minutiae that you can sink your metaphorical teeth into.
In these last few weeks of self-isolation, after having consumed every Netflix show worth watching, (or at least every show I’ll admit to having watched), just as the algorithms were about to suggest I try “Best of Rob Schneider”, I hauled myself from the divot I’d formed in my couch and found myself standing in front of my bookcase. I scanned the spines to see “what was trending next” and there on the top shelf in my local writers section, were my Uncle Clare’s books; “My Town, My Memories” and “The Days of My Years”. I plucked them down and have now become properly entranced in his witty and romantic tales of yesteryear.
My great uncle, Clare Galvin, (he liked to emphasize the “great” part), was a well-known man about Peterborough during his lifetime. He owned a men’s clothiers called ‘The Barclay’, on George Street, the main downtown strip, now the home of Hi-Ho Silver Jewellery. He opened his shutters on May 16, 1952 and sold the business some forty years later. He was a classic, like a 1957 Cadillac convertible, he was elegant and rare. They don’t make them like that anymore. He was tall and slender, with a full head of thick, silver, perfectly coifed hair. He was always impeccably dressed, ironed pleats in his slacks and a pocket square in his double breasted suit jacket. He could usually be found with an amber-colored highball in his left hand and smoke gracefully curling heavenward from the lit Marlboro in his right. He was the epitome of mischievous sophistication.
He was a teller of tall tales, set to the soundtrack of clinking ice against Waterford Crystal, delivering Churchill-esque one-liners that left you wide-eyed and envious of his wit and mastery of the English language. Word play and banter were his favourite sports. For years, he wrote a column in the Peterborough Examiner, back when nearly every household subscribed to the daily rag. He wrote his observations and memories of his beloved hometown. He was an archivist, a Seanchai (an Irish storyteller), documenting the daily lives of his townsfolk from the 1930’s to his death in 1997.
He wrote detailed accounts of shopkeepers, notable citizens and places of interest. Like did you know that the lower half of Hopkins Avenue was called Elm Street? And that Elm Street was home to many of this city’s Italian immigrants, and the renaming effort was predominantly motivated by prejudice? Did you know that in 1934, a Mr. Robert Meharry was murdered on Gordon Avenue, near Queen Mary School, and the culprit was never apprehended? And did you know that the first nightclub in Peterborough was called Club Aragon, (present day home of Trentwinds), and that Del Crary’s band would play there regularly, or that a house on Murray Street cost $2200 in 1920 or that Mrs. Marshall lived 3 doors down from Monaghan Road on Weller Ave, and that she was a kind and gentle woman with a club foot? I didn’t know any of that, and I’m glad that I do now. Human minutiae, I love it.
I’ve been reading these stories and then taking myself on walks past these various sites. I find that if I squint hard enough, I can see the ghosts of my former fellow townspeople. I’m falling in love with this city all over again, becoming wistful for people and places that I did not have the pleasure of acquainting.
Every great writer requires an inspiring muse. Enter, The Chatelaine. Elizabeth Grace McNeill, even her name sounds glamorous! Aunt Bette and Uncle Clare married in the chapel of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto on February 14th, 1950. It was a small, understated affair, as it was, in Clare’s words, “a mixed marriage”, meaning he was catholic and Bette was protestant. At the time, this was a religious recipe that was sure to raise eyebrows, elicit gossip and the odd ‘tsk tsk’ at cocktail parties. Bette was soft-spoken and intelligent, a writer herself, she had the patience of Job and the elegance of Grace Kelly. She wasn’t a pushover, but she did stand by her man. In fact, before she and Clare married, she embarked on a six-month course on Catholicism, to appease the Galvin clan. But alas, she stayed true to her own beliefs, sticking with her United Church affiliations, giving up Catholicism permanently, for Lent. Clare dedicated a book to his Chatelaine, he credits her for “nattering” at him enough to actually compile his articles into consumable form. Aunt Bette passed away this past March 2020. I’m grateful that she nattered at Clare, as I’m getting to know her better through these stories.
In “My Town, My Memories”, Uncle Clare wrote a story called ‘Verandah Society’. Born in 1925, Uncle Clare was 4 years younger than my grandmother, Cleta. Their parents, (my great-grandparents), Katie and Joe Galvin, raised their 7 children in a humble two-storey frame house near St. Peter’s Cathedral, (which made for easy access to regular confession of course). In this particular story, Uncle Clare described growing up in the 1930’s surrounded by plenty of neighbourhood kids playing pickup softball and fishing for chub in Jackson Creek, riding bikes and hopping fences, and sitting at the feet of grownups on summer evenings on their well-trod verandah.
In the 1930’s everyone had a verandah. Houses were built close to the sidewalk and neighbours would stroll by, stopping for a visit, a cup of tea, and a chewy hermit cookie. Without the distractions of telephones and televisions, people spent more time outside, entertaining themselves in the company of others. Clare wrote stories of the life that took place on these verandahs. There were visits from the priest, and awkward first dates, family gatherings and neighbourhood gossip sessions. Sacred moments housed between the lattice and the banister.
In present day 2020, as the new social norm dictates, I’ve taken to visiting a few of my family members from a safe distance – a respectable and paranoid 12 feet. I’ve set groceries down, rung the bell, and made my way to the sidewalk, excited to catch up with my much older and greyer sister. We engage in a socially-distanced front porch chat. It’s the modern day equivalent of the “Verandah Society”.
As our culture has evolved, as we’ve generationally become more affluent, we’ve taken to building bigger homes, in larger suburbs, with longer driveways and higher fences. Large verandahs near the sidewalk are a thing of the past. Back decks with privacy screens are the new norm. Why is that I wonder? Is it because so little of our lives are private now that we need our homes to be fortresses of solitude? We have doorbell cameras and call display and Facetime and Messenger apps and email and What’s App and Zoom and, and, and…all of which were created to allow for contactless contact with other people. It’s a marvel of human ingenuity, and we’re lucky to have these alternatives, but in terms of connection, superior they are not.
I find myself longing for the era of the Verandah Society, and I don’t think I’m alone in that desire. Despite all of our advances in technology, nothing beats real conversation in real time with real people. Not sharing a moment on social media, but living it in real life. Moments made more perfect by their inherent impermanence. Connecting, buffering and downloading moments, filing them in our memories, embedding them in our DNA. Fleeting, uncurated, authentic, human moments. Ketchup on toast, dry roast beef, skinny dipping moments. There ain’t no app that can replace that.
You see, I am allowed to pontificate like this, now that I’m a real-live grownup. Which reminds me, you know, back in my day…
*Giveaway! If you would like a FREE copy of Uncle Clare’s book, “The Days of My Years”, please drop me an email. I have 500 copies, so heck, take an extra one to re-gift! firstname.lastname@example.org*