Before the War



Early September 1939, Mom was 'hanging out clothes' vernacular. The clothesline stretched about sixty feet from our back kitchen (wooden shed appended to our brick farmhouse) to the north end of one of her three gardens. It was a single fixed-end line, not the then fancy double continuous one with pulleys.


Height was adjusted by the relative slant of a thin pole pivoted from the ground and attached to the line midway between the two ends. Decrease the slant to lower the line when hanging the laundry and then increase it to raise it out of the easy reach of dogs and cats and an occasional escapee from the barnyard.


So much for engineering details. Because on that overcast autumn day at dusk, my recall is only of my mother's unease. Midway through her task, she looked East for what seemed a very long time and then murmured quietly, "The guns are pointing across the Channel tonight".  


Without understanding arrived a first scent of fear. It was the beginning of the end of my innocence so back to the earlier years. The war stories can wait. There's never a shortage.

* * *


Innocence?  Meaningless and undefinable without context. So what more accurately can describe the state of mind of this relatively isolated farm child?


Certainly not naivety, not in an environment teeming with birth and death. Simplicity comes closer—life revolved around seasons with tasks as predictable as our daily routines. For example, my father was only absent from daily barn chores for a mere eleven days over a span of forty-one years...once having been hospitalized with fourteen broken bones in his foot and later for a hernia repair. 


So we must burrow a bit into the circumstances that most influenced my impressionable years. First would be older brother's contribution. With a tested IQ of 86, he had little aptitude nor  interest in school, but functioned well in a labor environment until beset in later years with paranoia. So Dad had an able helper in the barn and in the fields.


My allegedly frail health was another. Alleged, because on reflection I'm not sure I suffered more than others from colds and the like. Though when I was felled by pneumonia at age six, the doctor's suggestion that Dad could build my coffin was a story that played well for years.


However the third influence and by far the more significant was my mother Mary Isobel Fitzgerald Morton, born in 1898 to William Morton and Minnie Wood near the village of Holland Landing in Ontario. Both my maternal grandparents were of Protestant British or Scottish descent but their families had been in Ireland sine the 1700's. Minnie was born in Ontario of earlier emigrants from County Cavan; William arrived with his parents from County Wicklow in 1880.


Good fortune eventually followed—in 1895 William's uncle (or great-uncle) George Morton bequeathed him Woodmount Farm located just north of the town of Newmarket. George was a doctor of some wealth...his horse Brunette won the fourth running of Canada's Queen's Plate race in 1864. But for my grandfather to be gifted these two hundred acres of prime farmland was a godsend and in 1897 he married Minnie Wood. A year later their daughter my mother Mary Isobel arrived.


Their future must have seemed secure.


* * *


Want to make God smile?  Make plans. Grandpa William died a mere six years later in 1904 after a lingering illness...from symptoms described in his diary, it was probably cancer.  So the farm was sold and mother and daughter relocated to a house in the nearby village of Bradford where for generations it was known as the Morton Home.


This early loss of her father and her early childhood home no doubt significantly heightened Mom's hunger for material security that persisted until her death sixty years later. It also explains her admiration of her Uncle Clarence Wood as the icon of prosperity. Brother to her mother Minnie, he had purchased nearby swampland for pennies per acre...a few years later it was drained and found to be ideal for vegetable cultivation. It's now known as our Holland Marsh.  Uncle Clarence retired comfortably, to say the least.


We of the next generation were not immune to this familial insecurity. My brother pinched every penny he ever earned. And with me it evidenced through prudence in spending and a preoccupation with job security. The latter was one of the factors persuading me to emigrate to New York in 1963 and a sales job on Madison Avenue for an equipment manufacturer headquartered in Utah. 


Admittedly several friends questioned my sanity; I had zero marketing experience nor any knowledge of the  industry. So what possessed a Canadian farm boy to risk his future in one of the world's most competitive environments? My intent was strictly my career defense.


After five years as process engineer following graduation, I saw my skills increasingly applicable to only one industry and to some degree to one company. Another factor was my observation that employees were seldom if ever terminated...corporate complacency doesn't doesn't sit comfortably with me. And no doubt there was some boredom mixed in...


Fortunately my wife agreed that sales experience should be a marketable career asset and where better to garner it than New York. Also in the smaller company there would be more personal visibility so possibly a better  chance for promotion if I was lucky. But it was a risky venture considering we had two small children, so why my receptiveness? 


* * *

Blame a parent. In my early teens I'd unearthed from our attic a dog-eared little booklet that described the early history of the Barrie Collegiate Institute in Ontario...and included was a write-up and photograph of  Mary Morton as recipient of a Barrie Collegiate Scholarship. But Mom had never mentioned it which is not surprising...pride ranked near the top of our deadly sins. But other details came to light from later chats with Mom's aunts.


During her years of secondary school...five was then standard in Ontario... my mother may have commuted daily by train some twenty miles from her home in Bradford to the nearest high school in Barrie. Or there's a vague recollection of a relative in Barrie. Anyhow, this final year scholarship would be her ticket to attend Teacher's College at the University of would have been her singular objective.


So in its pursuit it's alleged she learned that her significant competitor had been carrying two more courses than she...German authors and German grammar. And naturally course load would be one of the deciding factors for the award. What follows is anecdotally derived but I was told that Mom completed all five course years of the two German subjects in one year and scored a First in each...along with her other nine subjects!  There is one aspect not anecdotally based because it's a trait I came to know well—she had an iron will.


So along comes her nerdy kid with an early aptitude for academics. Is it any wonder after eleven years of farm drudgery and dreams castrated by the Depression that Mom's ambition would settle on her youngest?  My sister Jean pegged me as mother's pet for years—but do not misconstrue that observation. Jean indulged me more than Mom ever did and for her entire  life. 


The bottom line is that a strict yet supportive parent augmented by a loving sister shaped my young life and fostered my confidence and an openness to experience. Risk?  To quote a hockey guru—you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don't take.

* * *


Earliest memories before 1939? I'm at a loss. Recollection now is akin to flash photos in the night though over years of retelling my ego embellished them nicely. So what follows is an attempt to strip away at least some of that gilt and show more a accurate context for those very early years.


The first screen shot of my environment? It was not warm and fuzzy. That's not to say I ever felt insecure or unloved. But our days were sometimes complicated by my brother who was already troubled to a degree and by parents who struggled with his tantrums. And the silent elephant in the room was always the fear of losing our livelihood...the farm.


No electricity. Light was from kerosene lamps or lanterns and heat from the cook stove in the large room that doubled as kitchen and dining room. Chamber pots in the bedrooms, outhouse in the backyard. Wash water from a cistern pump in the back kitchen fed with rainwater from the roof. Cooking and drinking water carried pail by pail from a hand-dug well near the barn. Laundry was scrubbed in a tub, wrung out by hand, and then hung outside to dry in winter and summer.


So picture my genuinely wee mother hanging clothes and bed sheets outdoors on a metal line in minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit, often in a stiff breeze...our house was on a hill. Then later dragging the frozen stiff-as-a-board laundry into our back kitchen and folding it over wooden clothes horses for final drying. So you can understand that one recalled sense is of cold cold cold. Chamber pots in the bedrooms could freeze overnight.


In summer and particularly during harvest, work began no later than five-thirty. Dad and my brother first went to the barn to milk cows and feed the livestock, then returned to the house for breakfast. Come November and the harvest now safely in the barn, days began maybe an hour later. And for this little guy upstairs under hand made quilts on a thin mattress over sagging metal bed springs, the dash downstairs to dress behind the warm cook stove became winter routine.


Fortunately in both seasons there were often precious minutes when I could hop into bed with Mom in the morning and she'd instruct me in vocabulary. One such morning, she asked me to spell ceiling, a new word. And her pleasure at my correct answer is why I recall it. Praise sings when you're a wee tad and especially when it's received only for real achievement. 


Truth be known, I'd probably already seen the word in books that our minister sometimes gifted the lad who he hoped might be a budding savant. Sorry, parson, there was no special talent here. Just a kid with no playmates and not even a radio for distraction. Books and my mother's teachings were my mind's total universe.

* * *

Although my own children knew and were loved by one or more grandparents for many years, I was not so fortunate. Grandpa William Morton had died in 1904 as noted earlier. Grandma Millie Morton lived with her spinster sister-in-law Elizabeth Morton and both died within months of each other in 1937. Barely four, I can faintly recall two elderly ladies in a darker room and some mention of kerosene lamps on the table. Possibly it lingers because of an old Irish or British superstition that warns to never set three lit lamps in a row!


Grandma Emma Stych succumbed to spinal meningitis in 1932, a year before my birth. Her husband Grandpa Joseph lived on for a few more years with another lady in a wee house ten miles from our farm. Visits were infrequent because I suspect they were not married, a big no-no for those circumspect times. 


But in November 1938 and nine days before my fifth birthday, it was probably Mom who took me by the hand into our parlor where there was a man in a coffin. I can only surmise now that it was Grandpa...a parent's wake was usually held in the eldest son's home.


Now fast forward a decade and I'm shedding tears over a short story. Mom's curious so I explain that the hero cannot go on living on because his lover has perished. Her reaction was abrupt and severe—never ever believe you cannot survive the loss of a loved's an insult to the dead and to the spirit that gave you life. 


As to the emphasis on closure today?  It's highly unlikely she'd applaud that grief counselors compete to market solace that she summoned with faith and courage. And Grandpa didn't pass...he died.  As will I.


* * *