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.
During the time of Dad’s struggle with cancer Mom found an article in the newspaper about a new surgery for people with facial paralysis called Smile-Surgery. It was pioneered by two plastic surgeons in Toronto. I saw the surgeons in March, 1977, to find that I was a good candidate for this procedure. After the surgery I would be able to move the corners of my mouth outward and up to smile.
Smile-Surgery: One end of the gracilis muscle is attached to the chin and the other end to the cheek. The blood supply and nerve are connected to the jaw muscle. After 12 weeks the surgery heals enough for the “smile muscle” to start working. It contracts when the jaw muscle is tensed causing the corner of the mouth to move outward and up to smile.
“Is this the answer?” I wondered, “Would I finally have what I had dreamt of for so long? Would I get my smile back?” I was afraid to hope. I didn’t want to be disappointed again and yet my intuition told me to have the surgery. I thought about it for months.
In October of 1997, I had Smile-Surgery on the right side of my face at the Toronto Western Hospital while Dad and Jeanne ran Tara.
The Smile-Surgery involved taking some gracilis muscle from my inner thigh and transplanting it into my face (right thigh for the right side of the face and left thigh for the left side).
The lack of a smile wasn’t my only problem. Since I didn’t have cheek muscles to support my lower eyelids they sagged. During this Smile-Surgery the surgeons made a sling for each lower eye lid from a tendon out of my left wrist to hold them up.
When I woke up after surgery the incision on my face went from my right temple, down past my ear, around the corner of my jaw and along it to my chin. I had an incision along the inside of my right thigh from my knee to my groin with drains sticking out. I had swollen, bloodshot eyes I couldn’t focus. They had taken a tendon out of my left wrist and there was an IV in my right hand. I was sore all over and all I could do was lie on my back and stare at the ceiling. Man was I ever feeling sorry for myself.
“Brian,” I said, “what on Earth were you thinking? You didn’t have to do this.” Wah wah wah.
Two days later I wasn’t as sore. I could focus my eyes again and I was glad it was over. Four days after surgery the drains came out and I could get up. Three more days in Toronto and I was back in Thunder Bay.
It took two weeks for the swelling in my face to go down. The surgeons gave me step-by-step instructions on how to strengthen my new muscle. I stood in front my bedroom mirror daily to practice twitching it by tensing my jaw muscles. There was no movement at all at first. The right side of my face looked to be more alive but, try as I might, the corner of my mouth wouldn’t budge. I was disheartened but I reminded myself that the surgeons had told me that the muscle needed time to heal before it would work. Of course I wanted the smile muscle to work right away. I kept practicing. Twelve weeks after surgery I was sure I could feel a tug in the corner of my mouth. It was also time for Smile-Surgery on the left side. In early January, 1998, I was back at Toronto Western Hospital.
Now I practiced twitching both corners of my mouth. To the surgeons practicing twitching the smile muscles every day was very serious business. I was like a kid with a new toy. Each day I stood in front of my bedroom mirror to practice twitching my smile muscles. At first I watched the corners of my mouth move slightly. The twitches got broader as the smile muscles became stronger. The joy in my heart grew and grew as I witnessed my motionless, expressionless face come to life. For the first time in 25 years I had movement in my face. I had my smile! It wasn’t the big, wide smile I would have liked but it was bigger than Mona Lisa’s.
“Why not have some fun with this too?” I thought. I discovered that, along with regaining my smile, I could make sounds again that I hadn’t made since I was a kid such as blow raspberries. Awesome!
The surgeons brought each smile muscle around under my lower lip as well. To have working muscles support my lower lip again proved to be a permanent solution to the problem of it curling down.