My dad was born in 1931. He was a product of the Great Depression, an Irish Catholic boy raised in Lowertown Ottawa, in an area that was expropriated in the 1960s in one of the government follies of the time (Pickering comes to mind as another). He was born in a decade when jobs were sparse and money was tight. There wasn’t much to fall back on then; no unemployment insurance, no health care. Family and church were basically what you had. You made do to make a dollar stretch. Hand-me-down clothes were what people wore, and what you had was fixed or mended. You walked, or if you had a bike, rode. If you were fortunate enough to pay trolley fare, well you took the OTC. My grandfather was an OTC trolley driver.
My mother told me stories of marks made by transients on the fence posts, of her mother keeping a pot of soup on the stove to feed people who came to the door. This essay isn’t about my mother though, she is older and of the post WW1 generation. She also came from the other side of the tracks, an upper middle-class “Anglo-Irish” Anglican. Her story is for later. But, to set the stage, this was a time of iceboxes in the kitchen, of outhouses and indoor plumbing if you weren’t poor, of telephone party-lines and operators who answered when you picked up the receiver (or the horn if you still had one of those crank kind of phones) with an accented “Numba please!”. It was an age where milk was still delivered to the door in glass bottles, where Sunday was for church and family, where women cooked, sewed their own clothes if they knew how, and children were children, with not too much of a voice, certainly not with any authority figure. Spankings and the strap were still a discipline possibility. Family secrets were never told to outsiders and radio and newsprint were the media. There was no t.v. then, cinema was king. The “talkies” had supplanted silent movies, but many of the stars were still thriving: think Charlie Chaplin, Lawrence Olivier, Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore to name a few. Big band, swing and jazz was the music of the day, prohibition was still on in the US (until 1933) but the only province in Canada that still had it was P.E.I. when the 1930s started.
When my dad was growing up, a lot more was expected of them than now. It wasn’t uncommon for children to leave school as soon as they could to help out on the family farm, or for city folks like my family was, to help meet expenses by working. At the time, to have a high school diploma wasn’t essential – it carried as much weight as a BA does now, which meant you could get a good job with a grade 13 (in Ontario) diploma – it was called a Senior Matriculation. My dad rode his bicycle as a courier when he was a teen, and he worked as a page in Parliament. By now this was the 1940s, but he was of the group of people whose older siblings or cousins were in World War II. By the time he was old enough, it was over. I’ve often wondered how easy it was for that group to get their first jobs just as the soldiers were coming back. Given that the woman who were holding down the jobs until the men came back mostly lost theirs, and unmarried women were expected to leave their jobs when they married, what did they do?
One thing I do know is this is a group who had a sense of adventure and they made do for themselves. My dad took a job that had him working in Churchill, Manitoba where he saw the northern lights and carried a flashlight when he went out at night because you wanted to make sure you saw the polar bears at a distance. He got his driver’s licence by buying a beer for the driver examiner (something others have told me did similar things). They were a little bit more rebellious than their war-aged previous generation; not quite as rebellious as the 40s, 50s and 60s generations after. Their rock stars were people like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day – I grew up hearing those albums played enough I got tired of them. While I don’t think I’ll ever appreciate Doris Day the way my dad did (oh, let’s face it – not at all), I have come to like hearing Frank Sinatra now because he does remind me of my dad.
My children’s grandmother is still with us, but her health is not that great. She is at a stage in her life where she is being cared for at home as long as can be done by her son, grandson, and her best friend. I loved hearing her stories of growing up on a farm in New Brunswick; of riding horses bareback and locking the door with a knife if there were ever a need to lock a door (once she remembered an escaped criminal), of a time when good girls married, unwed mothers went away and babies were put up for adoption, where school after grade 6 was optional depending on how much you were needed on the farm. For them, they weren’t rich, they age lobster sandwiches for lunch and were embarrassed with their “garbage food” sandwiches because lobster just wasn’t something that you ate if you had money. Funny how tastes change. She was a trail blazer, going to Montreal to nursing school after her doctor suggested it. She kept working as a nurse after she married; it was her career and that was that. In her 40s, a young widow, she got her BScN. I will always remember her swinging an axe as she chopped wood below the porch; we walked lobsters on the porch prior to cooking them, and we chased bats that got in from the stove and hung out on the curtains. I would joke that her answer to everything was kerosene because it seemed it was her answer to everything. If the world had had a huge calamity twenty years ago I know that she would have been more than capable of surviving in that cottage and she’d teach us all to do the same.
Oh, and Russell. I can’t forget my dear friend Russell. He died in 1986 at age 50. He was like my father, a world traveler but he did get a degree – never quite finished his PhD. He was raised in Northern Ontario on the shore of Lake Temiskaming, a quiet Catholic boy who loved to sing. He had stories of digging out of the house when snow went up past the door sill, and he, like my father left home as soon as he could to work and for him to get educated. Russell got involved with the CCF and knew Stephen Lewis. He lived in Africa, the US, Granada and Brazil – he had real shrunken heads hanging from hooks – they had eyebrows I remember. He loved to play his ukulele and sing in a deep baritone voice; one of his favorites was The Bastard King of England. To this day I miss Russell, and like so many of his generation he couldn’t understand why I didn’t just hop on a plane and follow my dreams. I’ve tried, and have succeeded in a minor way but nothing like him. Or my dad. Or Christine.
These are our parents, those of us who are in their 40s and 50s now. These are the people who shaped us, who taught us to fix cars with a wrench, a prayer and a bit of duct tape. They smoked like chimneys and drank and didn’t apologize. They just did their thing and expected us to understand that. It seems silly, but now they are leaving us through time and disease, oh how I wish I could go back and do like they did; what is it about my generation that we always had to be told what the rules were and how to go about things?
Anyway, lately I’ve heard too much about losses related to this generation. So for now, I remember them with one of my dad’s favorite songs; and in particular Russell who passed 29 years ago on June 29th with a song of my own that I wrote to help get over his death.
And here’s Russell’s song (click the link below):
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Russell’s Song, vocals and lyrics, sung and played by Catherine M. Harris
There’s a movie that was released in 2014 that captures this generation beautifully – it is “Still Mine” and can be seen here: https://youtu.be/EXfLcK-p8K0