Super 8 Filmmaker John Porter, Toronto, Canada
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John's uncle, the poet, photographer and filmmaker
Complete List of Johnston Family Home Movies 1947-2005.
Part 1 (see Part 2, w/ family chart!)
Margaret, wife of Benson Johnston and mother of Marion and George (myself) was born to Lucy and George Black in London, Ontario, in 1886.
She was christened Margaret Ellen. Her mother, Lucy, was a third generation Canadian whose grandparents, Richard and Lucy Newborn, came to Canada from Lancashire in 1835. Their eldest daughter, Lucy's mother, married William Burrell, an immigrant from Yorkshire, and these two lived first at Bond Head, Ontario, then moved to a forty-acre farm on the Center Road, Port Credit. Margaret's mother, Lucy, was their eldest daughter. She went to live with her Aunt Nelly Black, second wife of Edward Black, an immigrant from Yorkshire. At that time he was a locomotive engineer with the Grand Trunk Railway.
George Black, who married Lucy Burrell, was his young nephew. He came from Yorkshire and stayed first with Nelly and Edward at their home, 90 Niagara Street, Toronto, just before Lucy moved in. Edward got him a job as fireman with the Grand Trunk Railway on the Toronto-Hamilton run. George then boarded in Hamilton and came back to the Niagara Street house for visits while Lucy was established there.
During his third summer in Canada young George took ill with typhoid fever, and his Aunt Nelly went by train to fetch him home. He had become so weakened and wasted by the disease that she had literally to carry him in her arms. She and Lucy nursed him back to health, and then Lucy and George married. This was in September, 1884. Lucy was twenty-four and George was twenty. When George was promoted engineer on the London to Windsor run he and Lucy bought a small house in London and lived there.
Their first child was born in this house in 1886 and christened Margaret Ellen. She was the Margaret of this account. She seems to have been called Maggie, for I remember that her sister, Myrtle, often called her that. Myrtle was the youngest of Lucy and George's three children. George was born between the two girls; they were all two years apart. Margaret was named after father George's mother, who was visiting from England when she was born, and assisted at the lying-in and birth. Her second name, Ellen, was after the same Nelly Black, her great aunt, at whose home on Niagara Street George and Lucy had met and courted. Lucy's cousin Elizabeth assisted at the births of George and Myrtle. She comes into the story later, when she was known as Aunt Lizzie. Margaret and Aunt Lizzie's beautiful daughter Frances were friends as teenagers and young women, though mostly by writing letters to each other.
Margaret looked back on her childhood in London as, for the most part, a happy time. What George earned was managed with care, and it gave them a good life. Margaret was the least practical and most intellectually inclined of the three children, most studious in school. Myrtle was down to earth and clever with her hands. George was practical and energetic. He enjoyed boisterous fun, was quick-tempered, and would get into fights. These distressed Margaret, and she took a blow or two for trying to stop them. Myrtle cheered him on and held his coat and books for him. He would be rough with her too, when they had a disagreement. He had an air rifle that was a source of contention. Margaret tried to wrest it from he when he was shooting at squirrels from an upstairs window, and he slammed her against the glass and broke it.
There seems to have been much fun in their family life. The children shared their father's North English delight in the comical, and enjoyed retelling absurd anecdotes and situations.
Father George had a game he played on their two fox terrier dogs as they were sleepily digesting their suppers by the stove. It took its rise from their antipathy to cats. "I think..." he would say, very quietly, and an ear, or perhaps two would perk up. "I think, I-think-l-see-a cat..." but he would hardly get past the second "think". The dogs would already be at the back of the yard, jumping up at the fence and yapping. If there did happen to be a cat they got their noses well scratched.
Margaret's prowess as a scholar was a source of pride to her father. One award was rather special; it was for achieving top grades in her high-school entrance examinations. She might choose either a set of texts for the years ahead or a medal, and George conceded that she choose the medal, though of course it meant a sacrifice on his part. The medal had an unhappy history. Years later, after she and Benson had been married a while, she gave it to him for a charm on his watch chain, and he lost it. Margaret no doubt forgave him, but she did not forget.
Her friend and rival for first place during some of her school years was a girl named Jean McKenzie. Margaret wrote about her in some memoirs she began when she was eighty.
'I was in third grade and had Jean McKenzie sitting in the seat in front of me, wearing a dress that had a bow and streamers at the back. It was a reading lesson and the teacher (Miss Brock) would have a row of pupils read aloud each day. I figured our row would not be called on that day, and as it got rather boring listening to the others reading and no prospect of performing myself, I started tying the ribbon ends of her dress in and out of the iron framework of her seat. When I had gone just about as far as I could on this project, to my confusion Jean was called upon to read. She started to rise but found she couldn't. After a couple more tries the teacher asked her what was the matter. -- Please, I'm tied to the seat.-- It wasn't hard to find the culprit, who was punished with staying in after four.
'In this same room I had come with a very special treat to eat at recess, half of a lovely large orange. Now, oranges were something very special then, and I could hardly wait till recess, the beautiful smell of it in my desk was tantalizing -- so I took just one little suck -- I was unlucky -- Miss Brock saw me, so I had to bring it up to the desk and put it in the waste basket. What a loss! But I could not give it up, so at recess I sum-moned up all my courage and asked Miss Brock If I could take it out of the waste basket. She must have felt sorry for me, because I was allowed to rescue it.
'I was very fond of Miss Brock, and she was married just after my brother George was in her class. She lived not far from us and George and one of his pals used to peek under the blind of her parlor and see her sitting on the knee of her fiance -- H.B. Keenleyside was their son. I spoke to H.B. Keenleyside at a YMCA dinner at which he was the speaker, and told him how much I liked his Mother. He told me she was then living in Vancouver and was over ninety years of age.' (Margaret must have been eighty, or near it, herself, at that meeting.)
Brother George was often a source of distress to her when she was at school. 'He was a mixture,' she writes; 'very affectionate and good in many ways, but his bad temper seemed hard to control. My father was away a good deal, and my mother did not have all the advantages of present day psychological methods to help her handle him. She was most indulgent with him too, allowing plenty of scope for the things he was always inventing. I remember a period when our dining room table, which was really the centre of activity in the house, eating and doing homework and writing letters, all went on on its large oval surface, was out of family use while he worked on a machine that would produce perpetual motion. All sorts of projects kept his own room in continual disorder. One of his first inventions (probably the first) was a tin funnel affair placed in a hole cut in the floor of the outside privy, for my father to use as a spittoon, while smoking out there. My father said it would take a crack shot to hit it.'
I shall add here that I remember a superheterodyne radio he constructed for Margaret and Benson when we were living in the Eastbourne Avenue house, probably in 1925 or '26. It had four dials for tuning, and there had to be considerable twiddling on all four, with much whistling and squealing, to get right on to a station. An easy one to get was Margaret's favourite, KDKA in Pittsburgh.
The Black home in London was a plain little frame house 'with six rooms, situated in the south-east central section of the city, which at that time had a population of about 25 or 30,000. There was a verandah across the front, and the sidewalk leading up to the front door divided into a square on the right and an oblong at the left, and at the back there was a board fence. At the front right there was a mountain ash tree and a larger one at the left. The back yard was really quite pleasant with lawn and flower beds, an apple tree close to the back door, two more at the foot of the lot, and two thirds of the way down the garden a grape arbor which my father had built, and on which there was a very good crop of Red Roger grapes every fall. The main feature of the layout at the back to us children was the fine big swing which my father built for us, using two telegraph poles and the heaviest possible rope he could buy attached to two heavy rings at the top. We could do wonderful things on that swing, working ourselves standing up together right into the top boughs of the apple tree.'
Father George would often come home with a particle of soot or small cinder in one of his eyes, which had lodged there while he was leaning out and peering ahead from his cab window. Margaret and Myrtle became skilled in removing them with the corner of a handkerchief.
While Margaret was away for a year, attending Normal School in Hamilton, Father George was transferred to a more responsible run that began and ended at Stratford, and in the summer the household moved there. The new premises were grander but there were no fruit trees and no swing. By then they had outgrown the swing in any case.
Margaret began teaching at Romeo School in Stratford, full of enthusiasm and armed with theories, some she had learned and some she had thought up on her own. By the end of her first month she was at her wits' end. Her theories concerning discipline had let her down almost at once. Mr. Ward, a tall, thoughtful, mild-mannered man in his mid forties, was her principal. He knocked and came into her classroom one morning when anarchy had prevailed over her best efforts, and the noise from her room could be heard down the halls. She was in tears. His presence was immediately effective, with Margaret too. She wiped her eyes while he said a few words to the class and gave them an exercise that would keep them busy 'till noon, half an hour away.
After school, at her request, he had a long talk with her, and he agreed with her when she said that she had wanted to make the class like her. It was of first importance. On the other hand, students did seem to like teachers who were strict as well, and gave them lots to do. His advice was clearly good, and she paid attention to it, but much work and patience lay ahead yet before she could bring her class round to taking her seriously.
There were many disappointments and fatiguing times during her first year or two. Teaching, nevertheless, came to be an enjoyable occupation for her, and she did well at it. Mr. Ward was an avuncular figure in her memory, and he and Mrs. Ward popped up again later in her life.
It was in the Centennial Methodist Church Choir that Margaret met Benson. His family had moved to Stratford from Five-Mile-Town, County Tyrone, Ireland when he was ten years old. There were seven of them altogether, his father, mother, an older sister, two older brothers and his non-identical twin sister. His father had been eased out of a good job as estate manager by a younger man. He had then tried his hand at the grocery business in Five-Mile-Town, and when it gave signs of flagging Mother Johnston took charge, sold the business and directed the move to Stratford, where she had heard that there were railway shops and furniture factories. Belle, the older sister, married a man by the name of Margetts in Stratford. He died not long after their son Wesley was born, and Belle and Wesley rejoined the rest of the family in their big cube of a house on Nile Street.
Wesley, the eldest brother, found employment in the Grand Trunk shops, and established himself as the breadwinner. Fletcher, the next brother, and young Benson went to school, and Eva, Benson's twin, stayed at home to help with the house. Father Johnston attempted another small shop, but it did not amount to much. Mother Johnston was the manager, and their domestic economy in her hands seems to have been adequate. At some point they took in a boarder or two. Then Wesley, the prop and stay of it all, died of an injury he had suffered in a soccer game. Fletcher and Benson were taken out of school and found jobs for in the Grand Trunk shops.
Fletcher was the first to leave the shops and branch out on his own. He and Benson, besides handing over most of their pay to their mother, kept bank accounts of their own. Fletcher bought two small businesses in Stratford, one a shoe shop and the other a book shop. A relic of the shoe shop was an ointment for corns which he concocted. He gave it a name, Callous Off, and a selling motto: 'Thrice on, Pain gone'. One of its little round tins survived in our medicine cupboard for many years.
Belle, Fletcher, Eva and Benson were all active members of Centennial Methodist Church and Sunday School. All sang in the choir, a formal group photograph of which survives. It includes the four Johnstons, Margaret and Myrtle Black and one or two others who remained lifelong friends. One in particular of this group was Carrie, mother of Norma Dow, who became virtually a second daughter for Margaret in her later years.
There was joviality as well as evangelical seriousness in the church activities, the former especially in the choir, which had a fine organist-choirmaster. They did choruses and solos from The Messiah, Stainer's Crucifixion and other such works, and they also made visits to outlying churches, sometimes in winter by sleigh and cutter, wrapped in blankets, steamer rugs and buffalo robes. There was romance as well as evangelism in these activities, and Mother Johnston was dubious about them for her two boys. They were her breadwinners. Fletcher did not worry her so much. Handsome, successful, popular and all that he was, he showed no special inclination to any one of the ladies. Benson, however, was already narrowing his attention to Margaret though she was ten years younger than his twenty-eight.
The Black household does not seem to have been churchy beyond the girls' taking part in the choir. Myrtle soon had a beau to absorb her attention, Wally Hern, an amateur hockey player, champion of Ontario for a year or two, and a popular young man.
Margaret was much taken up by her work at school, now that she had become confident in it. In her third year at it she learned of excursion fares for teachers on certain trans-Atlantic passenger steamers. With George's encouragement she put in for one. Her application was accepted, and at the end of June, when term was over and reports filled, off she went, armed with invitations from George's folks in Yorkshire and some Burrell connections in Lancashire. Benson proffered a ring before she left, but she knew better than that, no talk of a ring, she said, 'till after she came back.
She was away for the best part of two months, and returned full of gossip and stories: Of three days in Paris with a well-to-do young aunt, and a week in London with the same aunt and her husband. A play, a musical show, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Crystal Palace, St. James' Park... She was hardly let spend her own money except to buy gifts, among them something special for Benson. He trotted out his ring again, and this time it was accepted.
They were married on July 12, it was either 1910 or 11. They had their first child, George (myself) at 383 Herkimer Street, Hamilton, on October 7, 1913.
Benson bought a stationery business downtown with capital he had saved and some he had borrowed. At the very outset of their marriage he assigned a regular monthly sum from their income to Margie, as he called her, which was to be her household and personal spending money, and he held to this proportionally, through good times and the brief interval of bad that came later. While he was laying in stock he purchased, by way of indulgence, a new R.C. Hupmobile open touring car that had brass carbide lamps and a high chassis. It was started by means of several turns of a hand crank. One day it stalled on a narrow street beside Gore Park and firemen, on their way to answer an alarm, had to lift it bodily out of the way.
Benson named the stationery business JOHNSCO, and expanded its stock after a few years to include office furniture. He and Margaret joined Charlton Avenue Methodist Church, and he served there as superintendant of the Sunday School for a few years. It was in Hamilton that he first took an active part in the YMCA, an investment of energy and spirit that he increased and never, so long as his wits held, withdrew. He became a member of the Scottish Rite Lodge of Masons in Hamilton too, and wore its ring all his life, though he took no part in its activities after our move to Toronto.
By 1914 JOHNSCO was paying dividends to its investors on a prosperous scale. Benson and Margaret began to feel that they had earned a step up in grandeur, especially of living quarters. They found a residence that pleased them farther east on Herkimer Street at number 220, on the north side, not far from Queen Street. It was a three-story house with a maid's room and bath on the third floor, a large master bedroom at the front of the second floor, two big living rooms and a dining room downstairs and a kitchen and summer kitchen at the back. There was a garden behind, a duck walk alongside it, board fencing and a garage giving on to a lane.
Meanwhile with Germany's declaration of war against France and Russia in August 1914 and England's immediate involvement, what was known 'till September, 1939 as The Great War had begun. The Kaiser's armies marched through 'heroic little' Belgium and on into France towards Paris. One of Benson's good friends, Bert Hooper, a banker, who had introduced him to the Scottish Rite Lodge, was a colonel in the militia. He had been released from his bank and was readying his men to sail as part of the first Canadian contingent. Unmarried himself he had a sentimental attachment to the Johnstons and their little brood, and he strongly supported Benson's decision not to enlist. He must stay and keep the home fires burning.
In any case, it will be over by Christmas, he said.
Everyone had the same notion, that Germany would never stand up to the united armies of Britain, France and the 'Empire', and many young Canadians were impatient, fearing an end to the action before they might get over there and have a taste of it. Canadian manufacturers and investors shared their interest, for there was clearly profit in it, as well as patriotic righteousness. JOHNSCO OFFICE SUPPLIES was innocent of profiteer motives, but it had motive good enough, for it shared in the prosperity of the time.
Marion was born in the big upstairs bedroom of 220 Herkimer Street on the 29th of January, 1916. By this time the War had been at a stalemate in the trenches for two years, and offered no grounds for hope that it might break out and battle its way to an end. Benson joined the Home Guard and learned to shoulder arms, form fours and march. He was issued an old Snider weapon, not properly a rifle, for it was capable of either ball or shot, and he did shoulder it and march on Victory Bond parades.
In the spring of 1916 he read an advertisement for a house and lot near the lake two miles east of Burlington. Putting us all into his new Dodge open touring car he drove us out along the as yet unpaved Lake Shore Road to have a look. The house was a two-storey frame structure, comparatively new, with a living-dining room, kitchen and entrance hall downstairs, and three bedrooms and a sleeping porch upstairs. Plumbing was connected to the town, so the bathroom, off the entrance hall downstairs, had a flush toilet, bathtub and wash basin, all with running water. The shallow cellar had a dirt floor and a few shelves. One and a half acres comprised the lot. Between this property and the Lakeshore Road was a big square field that had been surveyed as a city block. Right round its perimeter was a cement sidewalk.
This block had been meant for part of a suburban development which the outbreak of the War had brought to a halt. Street signs were in place on two posts. The property Benson drove us out to look at, and without hesitation bought, was at the northwest corner of Pomona and Enderby Avenues. Two houses were its only neighbours to the east, one in the middle and the other at the end of the block, and both looked, as ours did, across the empty lot towards the lake. Two houses were behind it on Enderby Avenue, on opposite sides of the street. A Mohawk woman with two young sons lived in one for a while; a succession of tenants lived in the other. One summer it was a single woman with three children, the eldest of whom she would chase with a stick through a small orchard on the property, yelling at him.
The Port Nelson house, as we called it, was our summer residence, and at first we occupied it between early May and mid October. After I began second grade in school we moved back to Hamilton at the beginning of September, but were out again early in the spring, as usual, and I walked to the one-room schoolhouse, a mile away, for the last six weeks of the term, carrying a lunch pail. It was a place of happy memory for the most part, though Margaret sometimes found the days long. Benson drove in to work and was out again in comfortable time for supper, allowing for an occasional tire change or mechanical problem, which he could usually repair himself. Weekends, from Friday noon till Monday morning, he kept sacred to family and church. During the week he might bring a business friend home for supper, wife too, if there was one, and if he had driven them because they had no car, they might stay the night and go back to town with him in the morning. He was not able to advise Margaret ahead of time 'till a phone became available after the War.
Once a summer there would be a JOHNSCO festivity, a grand affair, with trestle tables on the lawn and Chinese lanterns among the trees. Roast chicken, ham, potato salad, home-made ice cream and apple pies or turnovers. Jugs of teetotal kind of punch. Frankfurters were boiled, chiefly for a few children. Automobiles, of various makes, and the company truck, transported the forty-odd guests out and back. Jim Moy, the stockroom manager, crowded four into his Gray Dort touring car, his 'Gray Dirt' as he called it. Splendid occasions they seemed to me, and I wondered why they might not be frequent.
Benson's nephew, Wesley Margetts, worked in Hamilton during the War, having been rejected for service in the Armed Forces. He and his young wife Lily came out the first summer with one of Lily's flapper friends, and the two young women, being on holiday, stayed with Margaret for a week. They took me to the Lake with them while they fished from the end of the Government Wharf.
I have a vivid early recollection of that occasion, of pulling a toy boat along the edge of the wharf and all at once looking up through water at the sun and crying as well as I could for choking. Next thing I remember was being dropped on my stomach on the stoney shore and water gushing from my mouth and nose. Then I was lying wrapped in blankets on the couch in our living room. Years later, when Margaret was attending a funeral in Stratford, an old man came up and spoke to her. He told her that in the summer of 1916 he had been driving on the highway east of Burlington and two frantic young women had flagged him down and brought him to the shore with them. There he found a very young boy lying on the stones, seemingly drowned. He lifted and dropped him till he got him emptied and breathing again. Then he drove them from the lake and delivered them all to the boy's mother. He wondered what had happened to the boy, but before she could recover from her astonishment he was called away, and she did not find him again. Now she knew what Lily and her friend had kept from her, and understood why they had seemed so distraught.
Poor Lily, she said, when she told me. She was pretty and ambitious and irresponsible, and I was a bit slow-witted, I guess. She died in the flu epidemic at the end of the War.
Myrt and Wally came and stayed a fortnight, their young
daughters Margaret and Edith with them. Margaret was between Marion
and me in age, and Edith was younger. Wally then had his gents' furnishings
shop and was well off and full of confidence. He had been mayor of Stratford
for a term. While Benson was in town, minding JOHNSCO's thriving business,
Wally put in the time, good-naturedly, with Myrtle and Margaret and
They should take in a ball game, he said.
Somehow he talked them into this, though Benson was no watcher of games, and the women were full of doubts about the long day with the children.
The weather seems to have smiled on the trip there, and the picnic lunch on the beach at Sunnyside was sandy and fly-bitten but a cheerful festivity. Then the two women were taken to Riverdale Park, where there was a small zoo, and left there with the four children. It seemed a likely enough place. The McLaughlin stayed with them as a sort of headquarters. Neither Margaret nor Myrt knew how to drive.
There was no forgetting that afternoon for the men. Back they returned from the game in high spirits and were brought up short with It's about time! and fretfulness in their children of a degree they had not encountered before. An unforgiving calm descended for the drive home, and the children dropped off to sleep almost at once. By and by the women dozed off too.
Next day the Black devotion to the comical asserted itself, at the men's expense from the beginning, and the stories improved in sting and hilarity as they were retold. A lone elephant had stared at them, swinging its trunk from side to side like a pendulum till it made them dizzy, and they shifted their location and attention to a large concrete pool with an island in the middle. A lone seal slid from this island, swam around it and climbed back up again, over and over, barking with a noise like water down the drain at the same point every turn. When this became too much, back they went to the elephant. The men tried to see that it was funny, but their attempts were laughed out of court.
This was the first of two long visits the Herns made. Brother George and his young family visited once, or perhaps twice. There was certainly a visit to Guelph, where George was chief engineer at the Reformatory, living with his family in a big stone house on the grounds. These visits, and the occasional midweek guest broke the monotony of the country daytimes for Margaret. She was an affectionate and imaginative wife and mother, though not uncritical. Her tongue could be sharp, and she had occasional moods. She was a good cook with vegetables from Benson's garden and what might be had from the shops in Burlington. There was a wood and coal-burning range in the house, but she did most of the day-by-day cooking on a coal-oil stove. Milk she fetched from a farm up the road, bread was delivered by a man with a horse-drawn, closed wagon that came three times a week, and ice for the refrigerator came by another horse-drawn van.
Many of the days must have seemed long for her, especially after a lively family visit, and I can remember playing or perhaps quarreling with Marion on the living room floor during more than one hot afternoon, glancing up at her in the rocking chair and seeing tears course quietly and unchecked down her cheeks. If she knew that I saw them she smiled, sat up straighter, wiped the tears away with her hands and took us for a walk or read to us.
At the beginning of November, 1919, Margaret had another baby in the big upstairs front bedroom at 220 Herkimer Street. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing unusual cries, high; and quavery. I thought they came from the front, so I made my way along the hall and peered in at the door. The center light was on and there were strangers in the room, a nurse in white and a man I could not make out at the side of the bed. Benson was at the end. I could tell that the cries had come from Mother, but for the moment she was quiet. When the nurse caught sight of me she smiled and led me back along the hall to my room again. I satisfied myself with this and slept.
Next morning Marion and I were conducted into the same room to see Mother, who was still in bed. A wizened little red-faced baby was sleeping on the pillow beside her, wrapped up except for its head.
This is your new little brother, Fletcher, said Benson.
We were allowed to touch him gingerly, and he made some squeaks.
He hardly entered our lives, but we saw less of Mother than we liked. A nurse came every other day or so and the doctor came less often. By and by Mother took the baby out in his carriage, an impressive wicker vehicle with big wheels and a big wicker hood. Sometimes she would leave him in it on the side verandah, and we would go and look at him and talk to him, and sometimes he was brought to see us when we had been tucked in bed. Then one day he did a lot of crying, the doctor and nurse appeared and the mood of the house became busy and strained. We hardly saw Mother. A kindly woman appeared and gave us supper, read to us and put us to bed. This went on for another day. Mrs. Clegg, as we were told to call her, took us to Dundurn Park in the afternoon and then saw us through supper and bedtime again, and Mother, her face blotchy and red from crying, hugged and kissed us and tucked us in. Next morning Benson led us into the living room to see Fletcher in his little white burial crib.
He has left us, Benson said. He has gone to Heaven.
Mrs. Clegg came for another week. Mother kissed us and tucked us in at night. Otherwise we hardly saw her, and when we did her face was blotchy from crying. As we were told later, she would not be convinced that Fletcher's death from pneumonia had not been her fault, though Doctor Simpson did his best to persuade her otherwise.
I do not remember when she emerged. She had cried herself out and came back into our days, and we hardly saw that she had been crying, any more.
Christmas was not much that year, but next year we went to Stratford, as we had done before, by train. Benson would get out on the station platforms during stops and talk with the crew, many of whom he knew, and this trip he took me with him. On one of the longer stops we went to the locomotive and climbed into the cab, he hoisting me up, and stayed there to the next bigger station, a message having been sent back to Margaret. I was encouraged to pull a cord, and to my surprise I had set the bell ringing. When I let go it stopped. I looked on as gates were swung apart and I could gaze into the burning fiery furnace. Then I was sat beside the engineer on his bench. It was a noisy, bumpy ride, much clanking, and the feel of straining forward seemed to come directly from the big driving wheels. I had been aware of no such feeling in the coaches.
We arrived at the Nile Street house in time for supper, which declared itself as soon as we came into the hall, with its odour of cooking chicken. Glad sounds and bosoms greeted us, much hugging and kissing, Aunt Belle's and Aunt Eva's reedy voices, Uncle Fletcher's splendid, trained baritone and cousin Wesley's loud, younger man's laugh. Wesley's was the only lean figure. Belle was stout, Eva was fat and Fletcher, as far back as I remember him, was gross. The speech of the two women was North Irish. Benson always retained a trace of this. It seemed to recover sharpness in that tall-ceilinged, gloomily-lit hall.
The stairway curved grandly upwards from right to left across the far wall, and around it we climbed with our bags, conducted and shown to our rooms by Eva. Benson, Margaret and Marion occupied her room, she moving for our visit to a divan in Belle's grander quarters downstairs. I was given a boarder's small cell while he was back home in Mitchell for the holiday.
Supper at the long boarding-house table, with its rounded ends and white linen, was an occasion. We four took up much of one side, Fletcher presided-atone end, Wesley, a boarder and deaf Mr. Weir from next door spread themselves across from us. Belle sat near the kitchen. Eva brought in the hot dishes and occasionally lighted between Belle and me. She encouraged me to go on and on eating and stuffing myself, never satisfied that I was getting enough to grow on. Her very thin sweet ginger snaps were always ready, especially for Marion and me, whenever we came to Stratford.
Fletcher brings on a silence by quoting Shakespeare. Now good digestion wait on appetite, and health on both. Sometimes he follows with another quotation from I do not know where. Enjoy the little play, my friends, until the curtain drops. There are no second seats for this show. He would then ask Benson to bless the repast, which he did in a resolute tone of voice.
Accept our thanks, Father, for what thou hast provided for us. Bless it to our use and us to thy service, for Christ's sake. Amen.
There was more than a touch of good-natured staginess in Fletcher's table talk. He had been trained in elocution and travelled with a Chatauqua Tour in upper New York. Wesley was good-natured too, but no training had softened his tones. He barked what he had to say and kept breaking into a loud laugh. He felt called upon to tease me. Perhaps he meant it to show affection, but I found it hard to put up with. George, George the piper's son, he would say, and there was no correcting him or turning him off.
After supper Marion and I were conducted into the other front room, and there we were presented to Grandma Johnston. Aunt Eva was in charge of this formality. The old lady, dressed in black except for a white lace collar, had been sat up stiff and straight in a straightback chair. Her white hair was done up into a small bun on the top of her head. Her little spectacles glittered.
These are Benson's children, dear, Eva said. You remember that he had a dear little boy and a dear little girl, and here they are. And Benson has brought a box of chocolates. Isn't that nice?
Eva held the open box in front of the old lady's somewhat alerted face and then picked one out for her.
This is a good one, dear, she said. See!
Taking it between her thumb and forefinger she held it up for inspection, then squashed it and popped it into the open, aged mouth.
It was a memorable performance.
There seemed to be snow for all our Stratford Christmasses. Bedtime I remember for its winter noises. Sleigh bells from different directions and distances, one or two jingling somewhere. Shunting going on near by, and bells with that too. And Church bells. The snowy dark seemed to be full of bells. I fell asleep to them.
Margaret had mixed feelings about the Nile Street household. She had liked Belle and Fletcher and Eva in the choir, and Fletcher's wit had always charmed her. But her practical side was uppermost now that she had children and their futures to consider, and she was aware of demands that the Nile Street housekeeping made on their burgeoning prosperity. She knew of Benson's talks with Eva, how he would sit down and go over a budget with her. Eva would look solemn for a while, but her faith was not in calculations.
The Lord will provide, was her creed, and this meant butter, eggs, fat chickens and cream, a diet that neither the boarders' nor Mr. Weir's payments would begin to cover. Margaret did not query, but she knew that much of the Lord's provision came through Benson.
Fletcher was far from reliable. For Benson he was one of life's bitterest disappointments. A much looked up to and loved older brother, promising business man, singer and self-educated philosopher, he had thrown it all over on a whim, dignity, popularity and all. He had sold his Stratford interests, gone to Detroit, taken an elocution course there and got himself into "That Chatauqua Tour", as Eva called it. On the comparatively sophisticated American stage his provincial Irishness had let him down, and he had discovered the condolence that strong drink offered. He had also, it seems, educated himself in the sweetness and bitterness of carnal love. Considerably, but not wholly, chastened he made a sudden return to his sisters and senile mother. Benson got this story from him in bits and pieces, and it made him very unhappy.
A job-printing press in Ontario Street came up for sale, and Benson helped him purchase it. There, besides general printing, he edited and published a weekly free advertising paper called The Mirror, in which he always included a short editorial and occasionally a poem, both of his own composition, bright with uplifting sentiments, and broadly philosophical. The prose echoed Emerson and Fosdick, and the poetry Edgar Guest.
Fletcher's motives were benevolent, he was as generous in outlook as in build. On two of our Stratford visits he took me around the corner from the Nile Street house to see Bertha, a woman in her forties who was a helpless arthritic cripple. She and her sister had been left a sufficient income, and the sister nursed her while she lay on a hospital bed, with a board under her, in the living room of their house. Fletcher admired both women, looked in on them regularly and had philosophical conversations with Bertha, whose intellectual powers he held in high esteem. The disease had affected her speech. Fletcher always understood what she was saying, but I hardly could. He put up with a stink in the room that I found very unpleasant.
Belle, Eva, Benson and Margaret all liked Bertha and were awed by her wisdom and fortitude.
Another of Fletcher's benevolences did not have their approval, though they seldom mentioned it in my hearing. It had to do with the wife of his printer, whom he had set up in a millinery business next door to the Mirror Press. Her carryings-on had been notorious before the printer married her, and there was talk about her yet. Fletcher's relations with her were under suspicion.
More distressing items yet appeared in the catalogue of his doings: not going to church, smoking cigars -- though in fact he only smoked in his room. He drank beer and stunk of it. Worst of all, every so many months he would go on a tear. For his sisters these were dreaded breakings-out.
Eva phoned Benson long distance, an extravagance that betokened an extremity. She wailed. Benson could hardly persuade her to tell him what was wrong.
Fletcher had not come home, she said, and after a few days they had got a terrible letter saying that he kissed their dear hands and they would be better off without him.
Benson went to Stratford on the first of these alarms and found him already at home in his room, sleeping it off.
His third lapse was the worst. He was gone for over a fortnight, and they never did find out where he had been. Smidt, his printer, brought out two issues of The Mirror. Fletcher got into hospital somehow, with an attack of delirium tremens. It was his most serious lapse. He was sober then for a long while, and did not ever get so drunk again.
The biggest room upstairs was his. It was sparsely furnished. Besides the iron bed there was a rocking chair, a kitchen chair, two book cases with glass fronts, a table and a dresser. The dresser top was crowded with nostrums, talcum powders and Florida waters, not to mention tinned specialities of foods. I remember one of these that was called Whole Grain Wheat. It was to be eaten as a breakfast cereal with milk. It seemed to take endless chewing, and Fletcher felt that there was virtue in the very exercise it gave one's jaws. Elsewhere in the room and stacked on the floor were old issues of Harper's Bazaar, Judge, Vanity Fair and others, among them a theosophical journal.
I never did see him get into the rocker and can hardly imagine it, or his extricating himself again.
The Nile Street house went on demanding attention till its three denizens died in turn soon after the Second World War. Then it was divided into separate apartments and sold, lot and all, for considerably less than it was worth, but with much relief. Wesley, who had remarried and become owner of a stationery and gift shop in Ontario Street, supervised the alterations and sale of the old place.
To go back to our earlier visits: After two or three nights with Benson's folk on Nile street we migrated to Water Street to be with Myrtle and Wally and their young. Life brightened up for us all. Benson, too, was glad of the relief from grappling with problems. The bond of sisterly affection between Margaret and Myrtle was strong and remained so throughout their lives. Benson and Wally were not compatible in the same way, but they were young and as yet not burdened with the varieties of seriousness that awaited them. Both had loud laughs and gave them much exercise while they were together.
In 1923, Benson's sturdy character was given a severe shock. I was ten years old and Marion was eight. The news was broken to us one evening after supper by Benson and Margaret together, that the firm of JOHNSCO OFFICE FURNITURE had failed. It was too much for me to take in properly, but I understood from Benson's tone of voice that it was something big. The tears came to my eyes, and Marion cried too, when she saw me. We were reassured that we should all have food to eat and a house to live in, but meanwhile we might have to do without a few things. Harriet, for one, our living-in housekeeper, who occupied the third floor. No hardship that. She had taken to coming home late at night, drunk and beaten up.
Benson was shaken but not discouraged; far from it. He was not yet fifty, his mind was good and he was capable of many kinds of work, though best adapted to selling. The failure of his business was owing to bad luck. He had no sooner laid in a stock of allsteel office furniture than along comes the Government with a prohibitive tariff. The order was from Pennsylvania, and it had been a not unreasonable gamble. There were other causes too, and he felt the bankruptcy as a responsibility. Brother George's investment in the firm distressed him most. He made a point of returning losses, as much and as soon as he could manage, George's first. It was many years before he felt clear of this burden.
The Dodge had to be sold, a bitter pill. The evening before it was to be handed over, Benson took us on a farewell spin. It was a lovely hour, and we were on a quiet road. He persuaded Margaret to take the wheel for a bit. He had given her a few lessons and was keen that she should have a last try, certain that fate would smile again and make available another car. The road he had chosen was clear of traffic, and suitable, he thought, for a beginner, though it did have a fifteen foot drop on one side.
Margaret began cautiously and carried on so for a while. Then, with Benson's encouragement, she grew bolder. All at once she felt shy of the slope on her right and turned away from it.
Hang on! says Benson, but she has already over-corrected, an all too easy mismanoeuver with the old steering mechanisms. Moreover she had failed to take her foot from the accelerator. Swoop! goes the car across the road and Swoop! back again and then, gratefully, the engine stalled and there we are, at the very edge of the slope.
It was an eternal moment or two before Benson collected his wits and talked us all out of the car. We stood at the side of the road, simply amazed.
A car had been coming the other way, which none of us had observed. One of Margaret's swoops must have just missed it. The driver has stopped and he comes over to see us. He too was shaken. He congratulates Margaret effusively on not having hit him.
I wander off a hundred feet or so. The air is misty, and dusk is setting in. All at once I am struck down by a bicycle. I had thought it was a man running. He is apologetic, but Margaret assures him he need not be, the fault was mine.
Benson drives us home, cautiously, and Margaret never made another attempt.
A decision is taken: We shall move from Hamilton. Benson had become a prominent and respected citizen there, and though no opprobrium attached to the bankruptcy -- it had been mostly on account of a government move that he could not have foreseen -- he felt humiliated by it and desired to make a new start eslewhere. In all sorts of ways it was not easy. He could find no buyer for either the Herkimer Street house or the property at Port Nelson, and they presented one tenant problem after another.
We moved to Toronto, into one side of a double house on Fulton Avenue, almost at Broadview. At that time the city stopped and the township began at the back fences across the street from our new quarters. The Todmorden school was on the west side of Broadview, a stone's throw away. Kitchener Public School, which Marion and I attended because our residence was in the city, meant a walk of five blocks east to Pape Avenue for us.
The move was a come-down, and in every respect the first year or so was hard, especially on Benson. Walter Rean, a friend he had made through the YMCA persuaded him to join his division of the Sun Life Insurance Company, whose Toronto headquarters were on Victoria Street. It was the right move for him, but there was more to it than he could have imagined. First, he had to do a course that was mostly about salesmanship, an art he seemed to have been born knowing. In due time he became a Chartered Life Underwriter, and put the initials after his name.
Now he was given a list of prospects, and though he went through it conscientiously he did not make a sale. It was a tyro's list. He discovered that many of its names had been canvassed before, some of them more than once. When the Branch head, John A. Tory, called him in for a talk he complained about it.
Tory was gruff. Why did he have to depend on such a list? Make one of his own!
But Benson was a newcomer to town, what kind of names could he expect to bring out of a hat? He had taken what steps he had time for, joined a church and Central YMCA.
After Christmas he began going virtually from door to door, but his health suffered. He picked up an infection of barber's itch on his face, and this kept him out of sight till it was cured, for he could not shave and had to put a hideous green ointment on his bristles. What seemed a crushing blow, however, provided a spell of enforced leisure. Margaret bought him a bottle of tonic: beef, iron and wine. Then another. We all took it. And he did much serious reading and thinking. He had not been brought up a reader, but he had a grim determination. Insurance manuals and magazines, he bore right into them, and one drew his attention to group insurance and corporation insurance.
Leave those for the wheels! Walter Rean advised him. A beginner at that game might spoil a good prospect.
But if he were to locate a prospect on his own?
No law against that, Walter agreed.
Benson abandoned his door to door routine, stopped looking for prospects and began a systematic study of group and corporate policies in all their variations and potentialities. He became expert in the subject.
Margaret, meanwhile, had taken a boarder, a Miss Yawman, from Hamilton. She was a pretty, blonde young woman, slim and tall, about Margaret's height. Her hair was stylishly bobbed. She ate suppers with us, and her polite, friendly presence lifted all our spirits. Every morning she went down to the Mail and Empire premises where she was employed as telegraph operator. Her father had taught her, and he was on the same line in Hamilton for The Spectator. Early every morning Miss Yawman and her father visited in Morse before the news began its clickety-click. Then came a standby that pinned them to their keys and elbowed family gossip aside. Lines were kept clear and special editions of both papers were set up ready to roll. The King, George the Fifth, was gravely ill, and expected to die at any moment.
The crisis passed, the King recovered, and Miss Yawman and her father had to catch up on their sleep as best they might.
She had hardly recovered from this before another crisis presented itself in our household, no less demanding in its way than any king's illness, and this called for her attention too. She made a benevolent intervention.
Myrt's having her hair bobbed brought it on. She had had her woman's glory cropped and become a new person. All agreed that she looked younger and prettier. She had also been fetched by the alteration out of a winter of grieving for a daughter, Ruth, who had been born sickly and died after the first two months of her life. Spring came, and one fine day she took the notion, walked down town and had it done.
Margaret could not get over it. She pondered it a day or so and then, on a like impulse, did the same. The result was disastrous. Her hair was dead straight, and instead of rejuvenating her beauty the bob made her look older and, as she thought, plain. Benson came home to find her in tears. Failing to conceal the shock of his first response left him with nothing to say, however he tried. Margaret was uncomforted and he was shaken.
Bad as the situation was, supper had to be got ready, not just for Benson and Marion and me, but also for Miss Yawman. And what was she going to think? Margaret would gladly have gone to bed and put her head under the covers. But Miss Yawman reacted with aplomb.
You have had your hair bobbed! she exclaimed, with a hint of enthusiasm. Turn around and let me see!
Margaret's face was still red from crying.
Miss Yawman said nothing about good or bad.
It needs a bit of curl, she said. We shall put that in after supper.
Her fingers were ready with the clearing of the last dish. Out came curling tongs, a damp cloth, towel for over Margaret's shoulders, comb and pair of barbers' scissors.
It was impossible to follow all that she was doing. She tried one thing, then another, put a looking glass in front of Margaret and gave her a smaller one to hold behind. She stood back and stared, twisted her mouth, tilted her head one way and then another, back again to her labours, patting, snipping, plying the tongs, and by and by a new Margaret emerged, almost as beautiful as before.
We all exclaimed that she was more beautiful, but she knew better. A boundary had been crossed. Had she left her hair alone she might have clung to youth a little longer but she would have looked old-fashioned, or felt it. She grew her hair in again, somewhat, not as long as before, and it was a while till she could shape it to satisfy herself. Then she took on a middle-age handsomeness that was dignified and expressive.
Benson was now deep in his studies. Walter Rean and John Tory came after him.
Why was he not out, selling? He was on a modest retaining salary, but this could not be retained without some return.
I know what I am doing, he told them. Give me another two months and I will show you.
They must have respected his character, for they had little else to go on. He was granted the two months, and before these were up he had sold one of the biggest group insurance policies in the history of the branch.
It was to J.P. Bickell, at the McIntyre Gold Mines, in Timmins. His standing in the company was now assured. He was awarded a trip to the national Sun Life convention in Victoria B.C., and he and Margaret went together. It was not his way to make such a junket without her.
His confidence in the essential honesty of Big Business never faltered. He joined its National Club as soon as he was nominated. Nor did he query his motives in becoming a member of the well-to-do congregation of Timothy Eaton Memorial United Church. He was made a sidesman and bought himself a handsome morning coat and gray trousers to go with the dignity of this office. Central YMCA was his principal secular interest for the rest of his life, and besides being a very useful and active member, he was also a very friendly one. Good business connections were there too, and these helped him provide for his children and see to it that they were better educated than he had had any chance of being.
His North Irish Methodist prejudices never wholly forsook him, but he kept them in line, for his nature was tolerant and even-tempered. Nor would he have acknowledged anti-Semitic sentiments, though on the YMCA Board he agreed to keeping the Jewish membership within a quota. Suspicion of Catholics had been part of his Five-Mile-Town childhood, but it did not seem to influence his friendliness with individual Catholics. He was confident of Heaven, and knew that he would be reunited with his dear ones there.
When Fortune smiled again he bought a house on the as yet thinly populated north end of Eastbourne Avenue, a block south of Eglinton. From its west windows the view was unobstructed to the horizon, over half a mile away, on which there was a farm house and an apple orchard.
Next, and almost as important, he bought a car. First off, on Margaret's persuasion, he drove us to Port Credit where there were Burrells yet whom she had visited in her teens. She especially wanted to see Jen, who was not much older than herself. The two women had a reunion, they simply took up where they had left off many years before. Grateful as the occasion was, however, it was also subdued, for Jen was now Mrs. Bob Gummerson, wife and nurse of an invalid, considerably older than herself. When Benson next drove us there, two years later, Gummerson had died, Jen was now owner of the property and she had taken in the local public school principal, Jack Newton, as a boarder.
Aunt Jen, as Marion and I called her, was an energetic, big, strong woman, abrupt in manner but sympathetic, a natural nurse, with a broad sense of humour and love of clowning. It was on weekends that we visited her, and sometimes late in summer for picnics that she gave to relatives and friends on the ample grounds around her house. She made a clown performance of bidding farewell to her guests from a gallery above her front porch, joking and singing in a reedy Punch and Judy tone of voice.
Jack Newton persuaded her to marry him, and they proved a most compatible couple. He too had a love of fun and an unusual sense of humour. His notion of the comical was somewhat meditative and favoured the absurd. A situation would come into his head, or a wisecrack, and he would repeat it to himself two or three times over, quietly, and give a chuckle or a snicker, followed by a noisy intake of breath and shifting of his false teeth in his mouth. If I was near by he would repeat it to me. He also liked to throw small unripe apples at me, and laughed if he took me by suprise. They hurt a bit.
Another Burrell was Uncle Dick. He had moved into Toronto and married there and supported a snobbish wife and somewhat intellectual daughter on the salary of a clerk in a departmental store. When he retired from this he decided to live by himself and took the notion to ask Jen if he might occupy a small shack twenty-five yards or so behind her house. She was not enthusiastic but she let him have it for a few dollars a month,and he cleaned it up and put a few pieces of furniture in it, among them a portable pump organ. Churchgoing was not one of his foibles, but he dearly loved hymns, gospel hymns especially, and also The Lost Chord.
He would play these on the organ and sing them loudly to himself, or to anyone who would listen. He cooked for himself on one of Jen's old woodburning ranges, which also heated his shack in cold weather, and he would come in to Jen's kitchen for coffee in the morning, and sometimes for tea in the afternoon in her living room, if folk he knew were visiting.
Inspired by an illustration in one of Jack's history books he made a bit of ground near his dwelling into what he called a miniature Ojibway settlement. He was proud of this, and would lure any of Jen and Jack's visitors, that he could, around to see it.
Aunt Jen looked in on him the once or twice that he was under the weather, but his health in general was good, if two weekends with a cousin in Detroit are not counted. He returned from these badly hung over and Jen left him to sweat these out on his own. He also attended local "smokers" from which he brought back longstemmed cherrywood pipes. One of these he handed on to Jen, and she smoked cubebs in it, for her asthma.
He and Aunt Jen, not to mention Jack, carried on a more or less satisfactory neighbourliness for a few years. Then one day Dick became aware of an alarming development under discussion in the kitchen. He overheard enough to infer that Jen and Jack contemplated selling part of the property, perhaps even the house. It was nearly eight years since he had moved into his little shack, and he lost no time applying at the local town hall for squatters rights. This effectively nipped Jen and Jack's plan in the bud, however serious it may have been.
Such was the story. The consanguinity, which had never generated much warmth, cooled off altogether, and Dick rarely came into the house again. He became taciturn and surly. One day Jen wondered that she had not seen him in a while. No answer came to her knock on his door, so she broke the lock with an axe and went in, to find him unconscious in his bed.
An ambulance took him to hospital and there he stayed till he died, a month or so later, admitting no visitors, not even his drinking cousin in Buffalo.
continued - Part 2, w/ family chart!
>>> New Book of George's Poems.
>>> Analysis of his poems, one quoted in full.
>>> Catalogue of George's 8mm & Super 8 Home Movies.
>>> Peggy's Cove Photos, some by George.
>>> George's sister Marion Porter's Paintings.
>>> John Porter's "Lost Porter Cousins", and Father's Physics Theory.