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*
33 thoughts on “Verandah Society Revisited”
Whaddya mean it was the daily ‘rag’???? 🙂 Good piece, Clare was one of a kind, kind of like you are:). He and your parents would have loved this piece. all healthy here keep writing, there’s a book in all of these posts….love to see it happen, welcome to the world of real live grown ups….remember to keep the child in you and that today is tomorrow’s yesterday, so live for today, Ed
Well now, Mr. Arnold, I had to employ a little poetic license, I mean, it’s in the genes after all! Thank you for reading, and thank you for reminding me to stay childlike. I’d head back to Hopewell, but they cut our damn tree down! For shame!
Also on my book shelf, a few of your gems – Mayors of Peterborough, Inside Peterborough: Three Murder Stories and I’ve just started reading Young Enough to Die. You know, you should think about taking up writing, you’ve got some talent kid! 😉 Look forward to crossing paths in the real world soon. xo
Love it! I have many memories of that little verandah on Murray Street and the lovely ghosts of those passing townspeople! …and YES- I would like one of Clare’s books!
Well Anne, I’ve got a box of books with your name on it…literally! xo
Please write a book yourself! If you haven’t already, that is. I would love a copy of this book and will gift you a Claire book in return.
Well alright then, I’ll write a book! Gulp! I will most definitely get you a copy – email me your address and I’ll drop one in your mailbox! And yes, I’d love to read your work! xo
I would love a copy Megan. I knew both your Uncle Clare and your Grandparents. As I have been a grown up much longer than you I remember them all as customers of my father. I wish I could ask my Mum where her recipe for Banana cake is ( searched forever)and how she made her pastry so flakey. Not a day goes by that I don’t want to tell them or ask them something. I have learned at this age that you are always their child and as a parent , even when your kids are adults they are your kids.
Hi there Karen,
Thank you for writing! Where did your father work? Mmmm your mom made a banana cake? I wish you had that recipe too! Why didn’t we ask those simple questions eh?! You’re right, we are never fully grown up, we’re always “someone’s kid”. And I wouldn’t have it any other way! Thanks for reading and reaching out. If you’d like a copy of Uncle Clare’s book, I can drop one in your mailbox. Just send me an email.
Another beautiful essay. Miss your face Megan!
Kelly! Thank you for reading! I miss your face too! You’re lucky you aren’t here or I’d rub your baby belly! xo
Oh Megan! Your sister must love you a lot not to kill you 🤣😉😁👍 Well done my friend ! Miss you!! Come out to our patio any time…in the back, surrounded by hedges so others don’t see how spoiled we are to live on the lake 😘💕
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I ain’t scared of her, she’s got three kids, she’s too tired to chase me! Thanks for reading Kim! A backyard visit would be lovely! Look forward to seeing you two! xo
Very enjoyable with an “Our Town” vibe. Hey I know someone who was in that play. When I grew up in the south end we had a postage sized front porch we never used. Only one neighbor sat on her porch and she grew up on a farm. When Sue and I moved back 15 years ago we sought out a home with a big front porch. We found one we loved in the Avenues and we have been captivated by veranda culture ever since. Let’s make a deal, you keep writing and we’ll keep reading and enjoying your work. Also loving your podcast “Rewriting Dad”. Now what does a guy gotta do to get a book around here? Stay well.
Lovely stroll down Memory Lane
When we lived in Seaton Village in Toronto, Manning Ave was so narrow , many of us would gab/yell from our front porches. I loved it.
I agree, bring it all back…to the front yard.
Wordsmiths run in the fam, clearly
…and Clarely 🤓
Linnie Loooo! I appreciate your pun, it was very…punny. Hollering at you from my porch!! xo
Why I just ate ketchup on toast whilst skinny dipping last week! I wish I met your family, Meg. They and PTBO sound very Mulberry-eske at that time and who doesn’t want to visit that? Thanks for letting me sit for spell and drink in a simpler time. Pass the lemonade, please.
Careful – the toast might get soggy…! Thanks for reading my friend!
Another great read, Meg! I always enjoy hearing what you have to say. The Towns Clan would love a copy of your Great Uncle Clare’s book. We love stories!! I’ll share it with dad and Nance. Hope you are well and that we get to see your beautiful self soon:) Thanks, Meg!
Michelle!!! Thank you for reading! I’ll drop off some copies to the Towns clan!
You have inherited your ancestors ability to tell a good story with charm and wit. Love reading your blogs. Thank you
Thank you for your kindness Deb! Very much appreciated! It’s so lovely to know someone is out there reading them!
You have been on my email for a long time. I love your stories and I would,love a copy of your uncles book. I am Diane Malloy, at Box 63 in Cardiff, Ontario K0L 1M0 . If it’s not feasible to mail it how would I get a copy? Just in case 613-339-3118 Diane Ardent admirer
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Thank you so much for following along Diane! I shall pop a book in the mail this week!
What a lovely read this was Megan! The part about current home design, and why it is so, was particularly intriguing. I grew up outside London (ON) in the tiny community of Delaware. My parents added a large front deck to their 1961 house and turned the front room of the house with a large picture window into the dining room. What I recall most was how they “monitored” the goings-on of the neighbourhood … who had a haircut, a new bicycle, a relative or friend visiting, a broken arm, a couple that wasn’t walking together lately, etc. They knew the pulse of the area … and when outside, there were many waves and hellos and conversations long and short. Your story reminded me of all that (and that I should call my parents who now hold CoVid-distanced court with their building neighbours on their first floor patio in London)! Thanks. I hope you’re doing well … great idea to poke around this city with the past in mind.
Ohhhh I’m so glad your folks kept the pulse on the neighbourhood! Thank you for sharing with me. I love the details! I’ll get you a book so you can familiarize yourself with the gossip of the 1930’s!
Megan beautifully said. You have inherited Uncle Clare’s eloquence. I hope I get the opportunity to meet you at Aunt Bette’s Celebration of Life (whenever that may be)
Thank you for your kind words Judy! I look forward to sharing some Aunt Bette stories soon.
Megan, this was a heartfelt and delightful read! It makes me long for the days of the Big Bear outside of Lech’s, coffee at Churchill’s, and Butterfly Shrimp from Hi Tops. I especially enjoyed reading about your memories of Uncle Clare and Aunt Bette. Bette and Clare graciously hosted our wedding on the lawn of their beautiful home on Chemong Lake, back in 1979. They were such a big part of our lives in so many ways.
The Lech Bear! Hi-Tops! Ohhhhh you’re making me nostalgic! Thank you for reading along and more importantly, thank you for loving Clare and Bette so much. xo
Megan could I get 2 copies please, I was part of Bette care team, almost a year before she passed a few months ago, I came to love Bette for her quirky sense of humor, many of conversations about your Uncle Clare, what a beautiful family she has, and how they adored both Clare and Bette.
Stella – thank you for taking such great care of our dear Aunt Bette. I’d be happy to get you a couple of books!
Great article Megan! Thank you for sharing. I’d love to read your uncles book. He sounds like a very interesting man! How do I get a copy?
Rebecca! Thanks so much for reading! I’ll get a book to you!