Northampton

Forging my own way

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My life quickly changed. It now took a different road – one which did not include my parents. As I endeavoured to trek down that path I asked myself, “Who am I now? What am I? Should my life take the direction it was heading when my parents were alive?” Only one thing became clear. Who and what I am had changed and I had to redefine myself. It was somewhere in that redefinition I would find answers.

I concluded that I couldn’t stay in the Whalen St. house surrounded by the trappings of the past while I searched for my new life. I also realized that just changing where I lived wouldn’t be enough to remake myself. The church I attended had to change as well. The decor of Corpus Christi church would constantly remind me of the many Christmases, Easters and special events of my past life that took place there. The people had to change too. I needed to be part of a parish community where the congregation would know me as Brian and not as my parents’ son.

“If I’m going to move this house needs renovating,” I told myself.

Room by room I painted walls and steam cleaned carpets. As I worked my way around the house I sorted through literally one ton of books and gathered the collectables accumulated by my parents over five decades. No way could I cart all this stuff around with me nor did I want to. It was my parents’ life and not mine. I donated the collectables and novels. The old sets of encyclopedias went to the recycle depot. Working on the house was a transition period when I prepared for my new life.

Two weeks before Christmas I finished renovating. I called Catharine. “Why don’t you and the kids come for Christmas dinner? It’s probably the last Christmas in this house.” She thought it was a great idea. That year I did something I had never done. I roasted a turkey. We had a wonderful holiday meal. In so doing Catharine and I started to say good-bye to the house we grew up in.

By March, 2000, my mind was set. I’d sell the house and a FOR SALE sign went up on the front lawn. Three months later on June 15th, one year to the day that I laid Tara to rest, the house was sold. I bought a condo across town and took with me only a scattering of memorabilia and, of course, my Team Canada autographed hockey stick. Catharine came over the morning of moving day and we toured the empty house talking about all the things that happened over the years. We ended up in the living room and decided it was time to go. I followed Catharine out the door and locked it. She drove with me to my condo and helped me move in.

Once I was settled into my new home I began the search to find myself. My first plan was to travel. I wanted to visit Switzerland. I waited five years to do this. In 1995, when Mom and I flew overseas to see relatives during the month I took off from Tara, while in France, I wanted to tour neighbouring Switzerland. It wasn’t in Mom’s plans and I didn’t go. This time I set the agenda and I made it my first order of business to see Switzerland.

The other goal was to establish my own relationship with my relatives. On the previous trips I was an appendage to my parents’ plans. As long as I was simply a part of Mom and Dad’s visits I remained, at least in my aunt’s and uncle’s eyes, my parents’ son Brian the boy. On this trip I was visiting everyone by myself on a schedule that I set. I would be Brian the man and self-determining individual.

My journey started when I arrived in Paris the morning of August 1, 2000. First on my itinerary was a city bus tour. Seeing the Louvre and Eiffel tower again was nostalgic. They reminded me of my previous visit with my mother when I was ten.

“It’s been 31 years since I’ve seen this.”

The buildings hadn’t changed but I had. In 1969, I was a boy led around by his mother. In 2000, I was an independent confident man. The day was mine. I freely spoke with people and walked about the city.

Back at the hotel I got ready to begin the rest of my trip. As I reviewed my plans I was filled with an anticipation of both excitement and anxiety. I was going to see a country of my choosing and establish my own relationship with my relatives. That evening I eagerly waited at the train station to board an overnight train to Zurich to start a three day jaunt through Switzerland. Day one saw me on a bus tour through Zurich, the financial capital. The next morning I rode the train to Luzern. It was a quaint little town with all its shops. I felt so at peace. A cogwheel train took me up the side of Mt. Rigi through “Heidi country.” The third day I travelled to Geneva for the most awesome fireworks display on the waterfront. The sky was a perpetual burst of colour celebrating Geneva’s birthday. It was worth the trip to Geneva just to see that.

The next day I caught the train to Lyon, France to meet my relatives there for the first time by myself. I was openly welcomed by Mom’s sisters, Delia and Nell, and cousins, Claire and Johnny (Delia’s children). It was a very pleasant four day visit. All too soon it was time to go and Aunt Delia and Johnny saw me off on the train back to Paris to catch my flight to Dublin, Ireland. As I left Lyon I knew I was leaving behind aunts and cousins who had bonded with me.

I spent four days in Ireland at Aunt Gertie’s house in Corofin, County Galway on the farm where Mom was born and grew up. As soon as I set foot in Corofin something stirred within me. It’s hard to put into words the yearning in my heart that began when I arrived in Corofin. I had a burning desire to record and preserve these moments. From then on my trip became a mission which I was compelled to complete. I walked around the area taking pictures of everyone and everything. While I walked I tried to imagine Mom’s life growing up on the farm and her thoughts when she last visited here in July, 1995. Was I seeing this place for the last time? Would I have conversations with my relatives here again? When would I be back? I had no idea. So I had to document it all.

I stayed at my Cousin Kay’s house in Dublin for my last day in Ireland. She and husband, Tom, saw me off on the plane to England to visit Aunt Jean, Dad’s sister, in Northampton, and her daughters, Diane and Valerie, for a week. I went to nearby Lower Harlestone, the village where Dad was born and raised, and where I would have liked to have grown up. Roaming through the village I noted all the places in Dad’s stories. Just as in Corofin I had to photograph and commit to memory as much as I could.

For the last three days of my trip I stayed with Mom’s sister, Josie, in London. I wanted to see Uxbridge and Hillingdon Hospital. They were only a short train ride away. I had to see the town and hospital where my parents had worked and met and where my story began. I had no idea where in Uxbridge Mom and Dad had lived. So I looked around the train station knowing they must have gone through it many times. I needed to walk around a few streets of Uxbridge to get a feel for what they might have seen. Then I walked to Hillingdon Hospital. As I approached I took a picture of the old exterior and went in to walk around the ground floor halls. I wanted to get a feel of the place and wondered what the walls could tell me. Eventually I had to admit it was a hospital that looked much like any other and had no special appeal to me. I left Hillingdon Hospital and Uxbridge with the satisfaction of having been to see them. With my mission complete I headed back to Aunt Josie’s. Early the next morning I said a quick good-bye and thank you to Aunt Josie, got into the waiting taxi and caught my flight back to Canada. This trip gave me a sense of closure on my parents’ lives and on the life I had with them. It opened the door to my own relationship with my relatives.

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My Pal

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When Dad was 14 he got a job at The Northampton Electric Light and Power Company in nearby Northampton. He fixed fridges and stoves, well pumps, installed wiring in houses that had never had electricity until then and wired up runway lights at Northolt Aerodrome so the allied bombers could land at night. World War II was raging in Europe at the time. Northampton, not being of industrial importance, was unscathed by German bombing raids. Dad remembered seeing from where he lived 20 miles away in Lower Harlestone the night glow of the manufacturing centre of Coventry burning from German bombs.

Dad could wire up anything. When I was growing up if any wiring needed doing around the house such as installing a light or electrical switch Dad would take care of it. I helped and he showed me a few basic things such as how to properly connect two wires. But on the whole Dad was left to do it. As a kid I accepted that this was Dad’s job. As an adult, and especially after Dad died, I wish I had learned more from him when I had the chance.

I listened as he told me about the people he met on his travels around the district to do various jobs. Roger, the butler of one of the houses Dad wired up sat him down at the pantry table when he had finished and said, “Here, have these.” Dad looked at the plate of different kinds of chocolates in front him that was unavailable to most people during the war.

“Where did you get these?” Dad asked.

The butler replied, “This is too good for those people,” referring to the Lord and Lady of the manner.

An elderly man in Northampton, Mr. Thomson, called regularly to have something fixed. He often asked specifically for Peter Spare. Dad showed up to fix the stove or whatever Mr. Thomson needed doing. Usually there was nothing wrong with it. He just wanted someone to talk to and he liked talking to Dad. All the jobs were timed so they knew at the shop about how long it would take him to return. Dad said, “I have to go they’re expecting me.”

“Oh, tell them the kitchen light and the fridge needed fixing as well,” Mr. Thomson was lonely. He had the money to pay for the all the work and having Dad’s company was well worth the expense.

One afternoon Dad arrived at what should have been another routine job. A Mrs. Jenkins had a problem with her space heater. He knocked on the door. No reply. So he opened the door a little and called in. Dad listened and heard a faint, ”Help! Help!”

Dad went in to discover Mrs. Jenkins elderly mother in bed with the bed clothes on fire. The space heater had shorted out and set the fire. Mrs. Jenkins mother was bed ridden and couldn’t get out. Dad pulled the burning bed clothes off and threw them outside before the flames got to her. Mrs. Jenkins had just gone to the barn when Dad arrived and would not have been back in time to help her mother. Needless to say both women were very grateful.

When he wasn’t telling me about his days in Lower Harlestone Dad talked about his time in the Royal Air Force and his posting to India. Dad volunteered for the RAF when he was 17 rather than be drafted into the army at 18. His Uncle Ted was an engineer in the RAF stationed in Dayton, Ohio, developing the jet engine with the US Air Force. Ted was Dad’s idol and the reason Dad wanted to be an engineer. But that would have to wait until after the war. Dad wanted to work with radar – the new technology of the day. The RAF wasn’t hiring for that position but they needed people in the medical lab. So Dad changed his plan. It turned out to be his life’s career.

When Dad was signing up the officer taking down the personal information asked the Irishman in the line in front of him, “Name?” then, “Occupation?”

The Irishman and his friends had been smuggling goods across the Irish Sea. When they realized that the authorities were catching up with them they decided to enlist.

“Smuggler,” the Irishman replied.

“A what? I can’t put that down,” said the astonished officer.

The Irishman turned to his friend further back in the line, “Seamus, I’m a smuggler, right?” Seamus confirmed this. The Irishman looked at the officer who thought for a moment and then wrote transportation.

The new recruits were sent to Yorkshire in the north of England for three months of basic training and to life in the RAF. All kinds of people from every walk of life were thrown together to work as a team. Some of the men in the unit couldn’t take it and broke down. Dad’s non-judgmental nature allowed him to accept people as they were and to make the best of whatever situation he was in. It enabled him to both endure and prosper by seeing the good side of whatever he did, wherever he was, or whomever he was with. Throughout his life Dad could see the humanity in people that made them who they were and accept them for it. He would find people who were interesting for what they knew. But moreover he liked people because of their character that made them different in some way. It’s what I learned to like about people too.

Dad and the other recruits were each issued a riffle and taught how to use it. Then they were ordered to board a Lancaster bomber for the long flight to Karachi which was in India at that time. The men sat on hammocks strung over the bomb bay doors that didn’t quite close. Their hammocks were strung low enough that when they sat on them the men could put their feet on the bomb bay doors and watch the land or sea go by through the crack. They all hoped nobody opened the doors. In Karachi they helped to run the RAF #10 base hospital.

The war in Europe was coming to an end so the hospital’s main function was to treat British casualties who fought the Japanese in Burma along with receiving British POWs held by the Japanese. Dad squeamishly talked about the huge jungle sores he saw on the casualties and the emaciated state of the POWs. The jungle sores and other injuries were treated and the POWs were fattened up before they were allowed to return to Britain. They also provided medical treatment for the local people.

The RAF brass regularly ordered the British lab staff out on a route march. A sign was posted on the bulletin board giving them notice: ROUTE MARCH WEDNESDAY 0900 HOURS. Dad’s commanding officer, who was a physician, called to head office, “Look, we don’t have time for this. We’re trying to run a hospital.”

A note to state that the march was cancelled was later attached to the bottom of the sign. The RAF brass didn’t catch on. They kept ordering route marches and Dad’s CO would be on the phone to get them cancelled.

After four years in Karachi Dad was sent back to Britain. He always spoke warmly of the Indian people and his time there. Although Dad never went back to Karachi a part of him never left.

Dad returned to Lower Harlestone and to the job he had before he left. He now wanted to become a Clinical Chemist and work in a hospital. The regular program in London at the University of London was full. So Dad worked full time during the day and took evening courses in Northampton set by the University of London for four years to earn his degree.

After a full day’s work Dad often came home to find that he had been volunteered, usually by his mother, to repair the stove or a light for a neighbour. Everyone helped each other in a small village. He had to squeeze it in between supper, going to class and/or studying. By the time he graduated Dad was tired of being Mr. Fix-it. Uncle Ted told Dad that he couldn’t stay where he was if he wanted to get ahead in life. Dad decided then that he would leave the UK.

In 1952, when Dad received his degree, he took a job as assistant Clinical Chemist at Hillingdon Hospital in Uxbridge in Northwest London. Before he left to go to London his father, Pop, advised Dad, “Son, if you need a helping hand you’ll find one at the end of your arm.”

Dad never forgot it and it influenced many decisions he made throughout his life. He would do things by his own device rather than seek help – an ideal that also influenced me.

One Saturday morning close to a year before he died Dad reminisced about his boyhood years in Lower Harlestone. He looked straight at me with an expression of sudden realization on his face and said, “You and I would have been good friends.” I have no doubt we would have.

Instead Dad and I enjoyed a close friendship as father and son. Dad called me Pal. I was his pal and he was certainly mine. My heart ached when I realized I would never hear him call me Pal again.