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Saturday Morning Chats With Dad

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The next morning, Saturday, when Dad and I would have had our chat, I sat at the kitchen table and looked at Dad’s empty chair. I imagined him sitting across the kitchen table from me just as he and I had done for as long as I can remember. From topic to topic we expressed our opinions. We were mostly alike in how we saw things, but we appreciated each other’s points of view when they differed. We sailed the seas of each other’s thoughts knowing we would never be judged or refuted. Everything was interesting to us. Because our minds were very broad we discussed all sorts of things – be they world events, past or present, the projects we were working on, people we met or just to be there to listen with a sympathetic ear. Dad and I had a natural curiosity about people and places and had an insatiable appetite for learning new things.

Dad’s views were staunchly conservative – a stand-on-your-own-two-feet and a cash-on-the-barrel stance. Although I shared Dad’s conservative nature I was more liberal in how I saw things. My reality was that we all need support at some point in our lives.

Our Saturday morning chats were times for us to find respite from an often crazy world. We found solace in sharing our thoughts even if it was just for an hour. For the last few years of his life Dad‘s mind narrowed in scope. I found this disheartening but our comradery more than made up for it.

Dad often recounted his days as a boy and young man. I loved to listen to these stories no matter how many times I heard them. As Dad reminisced he roamed the streets of the village where he grew up and I was there with him.

Dad was born Peter Dennitts Spare on October 27, 1926, in Lower Harlestone, England. It was a village of centuries old sandstone tenant houses owned by the Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s family. Young Edward John (Johnnie) Spencer, the future 8th Earl Spencer, Diana’s father, was a few years older than Dad. Dad got to know him as well as someone from the village could get to know one of the Spencers. Johnnie liked to escape from Althorp, the Spencer family manor, to go have a pint with the boys at The Fox and Hound (now The Dusty Fox), the local pub. It wouldn’t be long before his father sent the chauffeur to bring him back. Dad’s sister, Jean, who was considered prim and proper enough by the Spencer family, was invited to Althorp from time to time to have tea with the young Anne Spencer who later was Diana’s aunt.

Lower Harlestone was a community where everybody knew everyone and all about each other’s business. All the adults looked out for each other’s children. The house Dad grew up in was next to the blacksmith’s forge. Dad told me many times about blowing the bellows of the furnace while Mr. Smith, the blacksmith, heated a metal rod in the flames to shape it or helping Mr. Smith shoe a horse. Dad told me about the time when he and his friends found some small tires, a wooden box and other parts in the village dump to make a go cart. Then they rode it down the shallow sloping road past the blacksmith’s forge. When Mr. Smith saw them he called out, “You young devils, you’ll break your necks!” He put brakes and a proper steering mechanism on it before he let the boys use it again. Of course Dad and his friends knew Mr. Smith would do this and that’s why they rode it past his forge.

One time they found an old motorcycle in the dump. They cleaned it up, put some kerosene in the tank and got it running. Another time they found a mold for making lead musket balls lying on the edge of the garbage pit. They scrounged up some lead and melted it down to cast musket balls for their sling shots to shoot rats. Dad said he couldn’t hit a moving rat but his friends got pretty good at it. Lead was much easier to come by in those days since it was used for plumbing and to shingle roofs.

The village was laid out in a large square with the houses facing inward. Behind them stretched farmland and pastures. The kids spent summer days romping through the fields. They seldom went hungry. If they wanted something to eat they pulled up a carrot. Often they went scrumping in the vicarage apple orchard. The vicar said they could eat the fallen apples. If there weren’t any apples lying on the ground they gave the trees a good shake.

In the 1800s Dad’s family was silversmiths and quite well off. A couple of alcoholics in the family drank the business and had drained the wealth by the time Dad was born. Luckily living in a village where everyone looked out for each other they seldom wanted for anything. Crime was unheard of. No one locked their door – even if the door happened to have a lock on it. Parents only worried about their kids when they weren’t home for supper.

During the week Dad attended the small two room village school. The four to eight year old children were taught in one room and the nine to fourteens in the other. The lavatories were outside enclosed by five-foot-high walls but no roof. The urinal in the boy’s washroom was a long, gently sloping, shallow trough on the floor with a small stream of water running down it. The boys stood at the trough and instead of peeing into it they had competitions to see who could pee the highest much to the dismay of Mrs. Miller who lived next door. She had an ongoing complaint to Mr. Derbyshire, the head master of the school, about the spouts of urine arching over the wall onto her rose bushes. Dad laughed, “Little boys can pee a long way.”

Dad’s favourite teacher, Mr. Guest, had a gentle way about him. He instilled within Dad a love for learning. Mr. Guest could demonstrate practical applications for everything that he taught his students in class. He took his students for field trips around the village to show them things such as how to estimate the height of a house or tree using trigonometry. For memory training he got them to memorize and recite poetry in class. Years later Dad could still recite many of the poems. Wearing a broad smile he recited “Leisure” by the Welsh poet, William Henry Davies because the sixth line, “Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass,” made his best friend, Ron, laugh uncontrollably.

Dad said Mr. Guest could make anything interesting. He would have classes after school for the brighter students who wanted to learn more. He believed in teaching his pupils as much as they were able to learn and Dad willingly learned everything Mr. Guest could teach him.

Dad and his sister, Jean, visited their Grandmother on Saturday mornings to help her bake. Their Grandmother gave them each a lump of cookie dough to shape. She took the well-worked dough shapes blackened by active young hands that needed washing and put them in the oven to bake with the other cookies. Then she sent the two children off to play. Amazingly their cookies came out of the oven baked all clean and well-shaped like the others. Another reason Dad and Jean liked going to their Grandmother’s house was because she was completely deaf. They could make all the noise they liked and it didn’t bother her.

On Sundays Dad assisted with the church services as an altar server, singing in the choir, pumping the bellows of the church organ or, Dad’s favourite job, chiming the bells in the church tower. From Dad’s description of St. Andrew’s you would think it was a big church and to Dad as a young boy it was. When I saw it years later it was a small village church built in the 1400s made from the same sandstone from the same nearby quarry as the houses. In the churchyard cemetery I found headstones dating as far back as the 1600s.

Uncle Arthur and his wife Lillian were two of Dad’s favourite relatives. I know very little about Uncle Arthur except that he was a man of his convictions and faith. One evening he went out in the rain to help neighbours fix a wheel on their cart. He caught pneumonia and died. Arthur’s wishes were that half his ashes be scattered over the moors and the other half among the firs. The first part of Arthur’s final request was carried out. But Aunt Lil couldn’t bear to part with the remaining half of his ashes. Uncle Arthur in his urn, or rather half of Uncle Arthur, went back home with Aunt Lil and took up residence on the mantelpiece of the fireplace in her bedroom.

Aunt Lil sailed to America annually for some years after her husband died but, in a sense, never alone. Arthur in his urn travelled with her. When she got back home Arthur went back in his spot above the fireplace. When Aunt Lil died Dad took Uncle Arthur’s urn from the mantelpiece. His remaining half was interred along with Aunt Lil’s ashes in the family plot in St. Andrew’s churchyard in Lower Harlestone.

Dad told me about Dr. Churchouse who was a portly old country doctor with a low, gravelly voice who thought highly of himself. He visited Lower Harlestone once a week and ate his midday meal at Dad’s house. “And boy could he eat!” Dad said. His round figure was testament to his healthy appetite. The doctor’s remedy for everything was to prescribe a laxative. Each winter Dad got the flu which gave him an upset stomach and diarrhea for two weeks. When Dr. Churchouse came by on his weekly visits he would inquire about young Peter. Hearing of Peter’s ailment the doctor gruffly pronounced, despite the diarrhea, “Give him California Syrup of Figs.”

Dad hated this and put up a valiant fight by clamping his mouth shut. His father held him still and pinched his nose so he would have to open his mouth to breathe. When he did in went a spoonful of the mixture his mother had waiting for him. Dad promptly ran outside to throw up. This happened regularly but to Dad’s parents the doctor’s order was beyond question.

California Syrup of Figs: A fruit laxative containing Senna leaf and fig extracts in syrup.

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Getting Back Out There.

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In January of 1975, when I was 15, I was back at Sick Kid’s to have my eyes straightened once more by the same surgeon who had operated on me when I was eight. This was minor compared to what I had just been through. I knew the surgeon, I knew the drill and I knew the hospital. I spent two nights in the hospital, one night in a downtown Toronto hotel and then home to Thunder Bay. Two weeks after surgery the stitches were out and I got back to my daily routine. With all the trials of surviving my brain tumour behind me I was confident my life could move forward.

Dad and I began building projects again. Dad introduced me to electronics. I soldered resistors, capacitors and transistors together by following schematic circuit diagrams with my trusty magnifying glass. Dad helped me by guiding my hand as I held the soldering iron until I could do it on my own. My most ambitious project was a radio. When it was assembled it wouldn’t work. After examining the schematic diagram I concluded that I hadn’t followed it properly. All the same I had fun piecing the radio together.

I got a rock tumbler and started polishing small bits of amethyst. Dad helped me glue the polished rocks onto jewelry mounts purchased from a craft store until I could do it competently for myself. I made pendants, bracelets and broaches and gave them away to Mom, her friends and the church bazaar to sell at their craft table.

I believe that challenging my eyes to focus on small rocks and electronic components helped to clear them. My eyes were like muscles that had been weakened by illness and needed strengthening. Once they were strong enough my eyesight became clear again. The dexterity needed to solder electronic components together and to make jewelry improved my co-ordination by making my fingers manipulate small objects.

By the time I finished homeschooling in 1976 the world was much clearer. I could see large objects in detail such as cars and people but reading remained a problem. Lines of 12 point serif text were still hard going – especially a full page of text. My eyes gave out toward the end of one page. They hurt and I had to stop to rest them.

I was probably physically well enough to attend high school by September of 1975. But the outside world had changed dramatically. Maybe the outside world seemed different because I had changed. I had spent two years inside the house. How would people accept me with my facial paralysis, poor balance, and the way I spoke? These questions swirled around in my head and made me anxious about the world out there that was so unfamiliar to me now – the world I wanted to re-enter – the world I yearned for but was fearful of. Home was what I knew and where I felt safe. Like a chick ready to hatch I pecked away at the inside of my shell of fear. Once I got out of my eggshell I liked being out as much as any teenager. The people who knew me were glad to see me back out in the world. With youth on my side and with the support of my family and friends I quickly adapted to the changes in my body, my life and how I had to interact with the world.

At age 15 I began to venture out into the public. People had a hard time understanding me. Their difficulty was due partly to me not moving my lips to pronounce words and not making facial expressions. As well my tongue was a half step slower and my articulation was poor. People would be confused. It sounded like I was talking to them but it didn’t look like it. Dad suggested that I had to animate myself by moving my head or hands while I spoke so people would know it was my voice they heard. It helped.

When I went to a coffee shop or restaurant I learned to point to whatever I wanted on the menu. When the server looked at what I pointed to, and wasn’t looking directly at me, I asked for what I wanted. This worked well. More often than not I was understood because he or she didn’t see me say it.

Another technique I learned to help people understand me was to put my hand in front of my mouth when I spoke as if I was scratching the bridge of my nose. My hand masked my mouth so they couldn’t see my lips. This was effective especially when pronouncing bilabial sounds like “b”, “m” and “p”.

People including me hear with their ears and listen with their eyes. That is we lip read. When I speak, since I don’t move my lips, it doesn’t look like what I am saying. Some people are not fazed at all. Others have difficulty with my “accent” initially and I understand this. Still there are those people who are completely floored. I see a wall go up, a glaze cover their eyes and an aghast expression that says, “I can’t understand this person.” These people I find very frustrating. I’ve been given a pad and pencil more than once to write down what I said. Communication on the phone has always been easier because people can’t see me and must hear and listen with their ears.

One day in May of 1975, I was walking through Grandview Mall, a small shopping mall near where I lived. In passing I met Mrs. D who was a friend of Mom’s. We said hello and I continued on my way. She was speaking to Mom a few days later and said, “Brian gave me the nicest smile.” The fact is that I couldn’t have physically smile at her but I left her with that impression. I took note of that and began to watch how people are left with an impression.

Something else that affected my interactions with people was that I didn’t smile when I laughed. I learned to wait a second. When they weren’t looking straight at me I laughed at what they said. This largely solved the problem. Since they weren’t looking directly at me when I laughed in their minds I smiled.

My whole life has been one of adapting to ways of doing things varied from the “usual” way people do them. Sometimes I had to cajole people into letting me try. More often than not they found I could do it. My methods were at times unorthodox but I got there. I set a ground rule for myself, which was, whatever I start I finish. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I don’t damned well quit.

I found that, as a group, women are the most impressionable people who use a lot of body language. This was most apparent when I was at a party and watched two women have a conversation using only body language. No words were spoken. “Cool,” I thought. From then on I watched how women express themselves using body language. I adapted it to help me convey my thoughts when I speak. It works well and it’s not surprising that women are generally the first to pick up on it. Be advised ladies I’m looking at more than your legs.