Harry Leslie Smith's Blog - Posts Tagged "family"

There was a time when the city’s skyline was low and my horizons stretched towards infinity. It wasn’t that long ago when I was a new immigrant to this country. I was fast putting down roots in this young land where billboards dotted the highway and promised ice-cold Coca Cola and happiness at the next exit. Back then, opportunity was long and endless as the freeway for recent arrivals to this nation.

When my second son was born, a little over fifty years ago, I bought a used Morris with a dodgy clutch. Even though I thought it a bit pricey, I purchased it because I needed it to ferry home my new child and my wife from the maternity hospital. In those days when wealth was measured by the health of your family and the strength of your convictions; we lived in small rented house on a cul- de- sac which edged onto a park. During the summer, those rambling woods were populated with the cries of children building forts and in winter the trees were hushed by dense clean snow.

When I brought home my second boy, he slept happily all the way through the car ride, cradled in his mum’s arms. I thought watching the road and stealing glances at them in the rear-view mirror; this is just marvellous, this is just right; the gods above have shown me mercy and benevolence. When I laid him down for the first time in his crib; I wished for him, I wished for me and hoped for all of us a calm and pleasant life. The simple hope didn’t seem out-of-place in our new land, this country of endless space, unspeakable prospects and bounty. Back then, in the not so distant past, I marvelled at my family, I trembled at my luck and grace to be a husband and a father.

Now in the present, the city is vast. The skyline is a behemoth of cold steel and glass. It erupts towards the earth’s ceiling like an arrogant gesture of one’s finger to nature and humanity. The Morris, the park and the little house on the cul-de-sac vanished long ago, along with my young family. We evolved with this country. We aged and through the march of days felt the beginnings of our decay. My wife, she was the first to let go and slip beneath the waves. I thought, her going was the deepest cut, the hardest blow I had ever faced in my life. But I said this is nature’s way; the old die off and the young take over. Life continues and so I thought, the next must be me. It was only reasonable because I am old and this is the law of life and renewal. But you, my second son, left before me. You disappeared at the moment where you could see the summit of your achievement but could not reach it. When you went, you didn’t sneak out in the night. You didn’t leave quietly, gently or with painless kindness. No, you went hard and heavy, slow and painful. There was no lesson to be learned from your end but there was so much to savour from your too brief dance on this planet.

Today is your birthday and it will always be for me a day of wonder. So, with your permission, I shall move backwards into the thicket of my time and my place. I will remember a second-hand Morris with a dodgy clutch, scrubbed and polished for your ride home, from the hospital. I will remember taking extra care on the roads which led us home. I will remember stealing glances at you in the rear-view mirror, wrapped tightly in your mother’s arms. I will remember smiling and loving the mystery and miracle which was you, my son Peter.
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At 90, I know I am not a historian, but I am history and I fear its repetition. Perhaps this is the price or curse of advanced age – to witness a timid present unfit to face either its future, or its past mistakes.

Long ago, I experienced the same crisis of ideas and faith that we face today. You see, I was born in the shadow of the first Great War, during a decade that roared with innovation, social injustice, debt and revolution. A midwife delivered me into the tired arms of my mother and the backward world of a coal-mining town in the north of England divided by class, education and wealth that was held by too few families.

My memories stretch back to a time when lamp lighters trolled dusky, teatime streets and lit the way home for my sister and me. I was five and I was the colour of night because along with my sister, I had spent a frozen afternoon foraging for coal on top of a slag heap at the edge of town. Our bounty was to be used to heat the rooms our parents rented in a doss house, whose tenants were the unemployed, the infirm and the unwanted. They were victims of changing economies, national debt and plain indifference by those with a better roof over their heads.

Many a night I went to bed hungry, my sister beside me, who fed my soul with nursery rhymes and lullabies. There were also too many mornings when I awoke and was forced to forage for breakfast in the rubbish bins of grocers that were scattered along my route to school.

I was not alone. Many other children shared my hunger and kept me company while I dug through garbage looking for discarded fruit. We were a whole generation of men, women and helpless children, tossed into the gutter after the economies of the world collapsed.

My family fell sooner, quicker and harder than most because my father was considered redundant labour after injuring himself at work. He was spent capital to the mine owners and struck into the books of the unemployed, like a neat mathematical formula. His subtraction from the labour pool meant that for my family’s survival I was added into the workaday world of adults, at the age of 7.

I became an afternoon barrow boy and plied a cart filled with beer bottles down despair-filled cobbled streets. I delivered ale to those in my neighbourhood looking for a short respite from their diminished lives, which were being suffocated by the Depression.

As I grew, so it seemed did the problems of the world, and by the time I was 16, the world was at war. At 18, like the rest of my generation, I joined the armed forces and did my bit for king and country. In many ways the great cataclysm of the Second World War irradiated for most nations the economic cancer of the past decade.

Along with so many who witnessed or participated in that war, I fell into the heady optimism of peace. I believed in governments that promised better days were nigh. I believed in prime ministers and ministers of state who said from this day forward, no child would go hungry. I agreed when industries and economists said no one was to be without work, if they were willing to pull their fair share of the load. I accepted that unions had a moral right to demand safe and secure employment. Work was to be a means to a better life, not just a threadbare existence. For me, it was truly a new era and required a new and promised land: Canada.

My wife and I disembarked in Montreal in 1953 and made our way by train to Toronto. I was in awe at this country’s size and depth. To my eyes, Canada was large enough to hold every new voice, divergent idea and difference of opinion coming to her shores.

As a young immigrant I paid my dues to this new country. I found work, paid my taxes and accepted my civic responsibilities. My hard work was rewarded and I was able to purchase a home for my young and growing family. In summer, I cut my backyard grass, and in winter, I shovelled the snow from my driveway. It was marvellous to me how far I had travelled: from street urchin to respectable, middle-class man.

Each day, I reminded myself how hard-fought was the road I had taken from the slums to the suburbs. Each day, I gloried in my three sons, who experienced childhood without poverty or hunger. Yet even then, I understood I was fortunate and owed a debt to my country.

I accepted that my tax dollars, along with every citizen’s contribution, helped pay for and sustain the nation. My friends, my peers and my superiors also held this notion of supporting the common good. It crossed political, social and religious divides because it seemed reasonable and just. Back then, everybody knew somebody who had died in the war or suffered during the Depression and knew the brevity of life.

Today, however, as I reach the end of my time, I find that we are returning to the blackness of the thirties. The evening streets may be awash in an electric afterglow, but children still go to bed hungry and hopeless. A great many people are being written up in the black book of redundancy, as if they were waste from the cutting-room floor.

Too many of us ask for expedient solutions to our society’s ills but want to push the tab down the table. Too many of us read or watch economists, bankers, investment brokers as if they alone were the answer to our problems in Canada and the Western world.

But the problem is not just debt and economic malaise. All of us must work together – the middle class, the poor, the rich – to make a balanced country, a society that can reward entrepreneurs and protect the vulnerable. Instead, like in the thirties, we are divided by class and money.

Many historians have said that the people of my epoch were tested and found true. I don’t know if that is true or not because I am not a historian. But I do wonder, what will tomorrow’s generation say of us today?
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From Barnsley we moved to Bradford. My sister and I, because we were children, had to rely upon my mother’s dubious moral compass, dubious map of the human heart. Her directions suggested we keep moving and not look back. Perhaps that was because she too was hungry. My father was no use to us as he just clung on to our mother and us, dependent and silent. We were like migratory beasts of the plain, moving forward to find a safe savannah to graze. Lillian also knew there was more chance of remaining anonymous in a city rather than a village. Nobody’s fool, Lillian Dean’s instinct for survival at whatever cost was renowned to her siblings and reason for shame by her parents. My mum had little money but with cunning, sex appeal, and the ability to assume vulnerable airs, she was able to let a three-story house from a naive landlord. My mother quickly went about transforming a relatively respectable house into a workman’s squat with three beds running aside each other in narrow bedrooms. She took in Irish Navies, as they were lowly paid and in need of cheap digs. Drinkers and fornicators were welcome as long as they could pay their daily or weekly rent. She suffered no abuse, but handed it back liberally.
A tenant of ours pissed his bed. My mother accepted this nightly nocturnal occurrence for several weeks as he paid his due on time. But the smell of urine became too strong and she grew tired of the complaints from the other lodgers. Lillian tossed him out of the house, telling him not to return. When he pleaded for his possessions; she returned to the third floor bedroom and thrust open the window. Lillian hurled his meager belongings including the piss-stained mattress to the small garden below. My mother cursed his belongings and him.
“Go fuck yerself to high heaven,” she screamed. “Fuck your pissed stained mattress and your piss-stained money,” Lillian grumbled at him.
On many occasions, my mother sent my sister and me to procure pullet eggs from a nearby store. The pullet egg was half the size of a regular egg. It was cheaper by half and was imported from Poland. They were packed in large wooden crates with only moldy old straw to cushion the egg. Most eggs were broken and rotting by the time they had completed their long journey from Poland to Bradford. The shattered and smashed eggs hidden in the straw emitted a foul damp smell like farts trapped in a sofa. Poor customers like my sister and I gagged from the disintegrating smell. Our stomachs turned as we rustled through the straw, saturated in rotting methane, hoping to find a few eggs that could be taken home and fried for our tea.
By this time, our father had given up all hope of being a hunter gatherer for his clan. He preferred to sit on his stool beside the fireplace. Silent and morose he smoked his pipe while my mother flirted with the lodgers and degraded him in front of the paying guests. Whatever turmoil, whatever regrets he may have had, they were wordless. On the wall above his chair was an elegant portrait of Francis. In the painting, Albert’s father appeared with a giant handlebar mustache. He wore a morning coat adorned with the tie of a prosperous merchant. I wonder if my father sensed disappointment glaring down from the portrait over how much had been lost. Or perhaps Albert stared upward to curse his father Francis who had always demanded loyalty and fealty, but upon his death-bed betrayed his first born son to his half brother.
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This essay was originally published in The Globe and Mail Newspaper

It happens most afternoons: Just before I nod into the haze of a geriatric nap, my mind teases me with recollections from a former life.

With my eyes closed, the images develop in my imagination like photos taken by an instant camera. They are from 40 years ago, but they remain as vivid as the aroma of my morning coffee.

My subconscious leads me safely, by the hand, past many unhappy thoughts toward a two-bedroom cottage overlooking a narrow lake in the middle reaches of Ontario. I feel content among these images, because in them I am young and fit and have a continent of experiences still to discover.

As the memories become more distinct, I can smell the morning mist trailing gently above the lake. I hear a loon calling to its mate. Turning around, I see my wife and three young sons emerge from the woods. My boys rush toward me and in excited voices recount their walk and their plans for the day. Between sunrise and sunset their expectations for adventure are boundless. Yet they are content. They understand the rhythm of their time at the lake, as familiar and comforting as the noise the water makes lapping between the dock and motor boat.

They will fish from a canoe until a cicada cry pierces the midday quiet and announces it is time to swim. After innumerable cannonballs and belly flops off a diving platform anchored far from shore, and parental rebuke, they will tire of the water and each other. One by one they will desert the platform and make furious lonely strokes and flutter kicks toward land. The afternoon will end with them loafing in hammocks strung between silver birch trees.

I leave them sleeping and awake to my present life.

My hands reach out for them, but the cottage, my young family and our endless possibilities for happiness are gone. They are just specks of memory floating before me like dragonflies skimming for insects.

I open my eyes and look at my hands, wrapped in skin as rough and brittle as parchment paper. I sigh, because I know I am old and I have outlived all of my childhood friends, my wife and one of my sons.

I am aware that I am past my third act. Behind me the curtain is quickly closing, but I will remain on this stage as long as life has meaning to me. Although I am in my decline, I marvel each and every day at this world and the miracle of life. I am straddled between two universes: one of light and hope, the other of eternal darkness.

That is why I retraced my steps, making a pilgrimage to that cottage far north of the city: That lake is the source, the headwater, of my cascading river of midlife memories. I wanted to utter my thanks to a place that gave me and my family so much joy.

So, with an old map of Ontario’s highways and byways, a well-serviced car, a working cellphone and lunch packed in a cooler, I travelled to the backwoods of holidays past.

The journey was not as long as I remembered it. The highway, cut through rock rich in uranium, was smoother, wider and less tortuous than when I last drove it, at the height of the Bill Davis era, in a giant Rideau 500.

The stores that once dotted the roadside and sold ice-cold, seven-ounce glass bottles of Pepsi-Cola, flip-flops and sunglasses without UV protection were gone, replaced by air-conditioned corporate outlets. I zoomed past them and their specials on DVDs, firewood and sunscreen.

The map, sitting folded on the passenger seat, directed me to the shores of the lake with more efficiency than any GPS. I parked my car beside a public boat landing across the water from the cottage where we spent our summers in the 1970s.

It pleased me to find the landing deserted. I didn’t want to be disturbed while I set up my lawn chair, ate my lunch and stared back at my past.

I could see the cottage across the waves, and remembered how the screen door slammed whenever someone was angry or sad or just in a rush to go out and play.

I sipped on my iced tea and heard the voices of children swimming in the distance. I heard their splashes as they jumped into the crystal-clear water from a diving platform.

I closed my eyes and could hear my three sons preparing for a fishing expedition on the lake. I remembered my warnings to them about respect for the water, the boat and their lives.

While I ate and watched, I felt less lonely. I could sense the lake was still alive, brimming with hope and possibility.

My lunch finished, I cleaned my hands and packed my cooler and chair back into the trunk. I took one final look at the lake.

Suddenly, before me, a canoe glided across the water’s surface. A father sat at the stern and propelled the craft with a paddle while two small children sat ahead of him. The children saw me on shore and waved.

I raised my hand in thanks. I was grateful to know the cycle of life continues. And that for me, whether my remaining days are long or short, they are still filled with endless possibilities.
Hamburg 1947 A Place for the Heart to Kip by Harry Leslie Smith
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