For years, I thought I knew what home was, but I’ve since discovered it is not a place at all, not even a landscape. It’s the strangers I carry in my blood.
I learned this from my Aunt Mary, a one-room-school teacher from Picton, Ontario, who, one day in her seventies, with arthritic hands, decided to write the family history. Though she had been there all along, I really only discovered Mary at the end of her life. In the early days of my childhood at the end of the 1950s, the nostalgic days of family-values, we rarely visited our family.
My father owned a car, always a second-hand car with a radiator that blew on long-distance journeys. Every year during his two-week vacations, we’d set out for Smiths Falls to visit my mother’s mother, who had by then given up her farm. The trip to Grandma’s was a full day’s journey on a narrow two-lane highway with a stop for a picnic lunch. Fast-food restaurants hadn’t yet been invented. They were scary to me, those relatives we visited. My grandmother was a matriarch; she seemed to me as tough as the barbed wire she had once strung around the homestead she’d somehow managed to save after her husband died at the age of forty-five leaving her with eleven children. My mother was the baby. There were strict rules to be kept at my grandmother’s, and my mother was always struggling to hold her wild daughters in check. Great-Uncle Willie lived with Grandma, and we had to be quiet since he seemed always to he asleep in the front room in the leather armchair, his silver watch chain rising and falling over his paunch, his black vest stained with snuff. The best times were when we went to visit the home of Aunt Lizzy Bluett—how we loved that name—and she would spread a feast of fresh vegetables and pies over the huge harvest table. But to us children these people all seemed old and frail and like phantoms, surfacing in our lives for only two weeks every summer.
In my memory, we went to visit my mother’s sister Mary just once in all those early years. She and her husband, Nellis, had farm in Napanee. There would have been only three of us children then; two were not yet born. In a photo I have we’re standing in bathing suits and caps in front of the farmhouse facing the lake, me with one arm stretched protectively around the shoulders of my older sister Patricia, the other hand on my baby sister Sharon’s head. I had already assumed the protective stance since I was the one who knew the world was dangerous, but I was still confident I could beat it up if it came too close. We’d never seen a farm before, and we went wild, jumping from the high rafters into the hayloft and pestering the horses. Mary called us hoodlum and said we had scared the cows from their milk. My mother was highly insulted and we never went back again.
I thought it was because nobody in the family approved of Nellis. He was eight years younger than Mary, and they said he’d never worked at a proper job. He kept the farm haphazardly, occassionally drove a taxi, played the fiddle, and hunted bears. Everyone felt sorry for Mary, who had to teach school and earn all the money. But all along Nellis had been haunting local auction sales and had filled his barn with what the family referred to as “Nellis’s junk.” When he died suddenly of a heart attack, he left more than a hundred thousand dollars he’d squirrelled away from selling that junk. Two days before he died he sold the old violins he’d collected, some dating back fifty years. We went to the funeral for Mary’s sake, but the man in the coffin with the grey hair that still sat up like a cowlick was a stranger to the rest of us.
Every Christmas, there were Mary’s letters and Grandma Guthrie’s frozen turkey with the molasses cookies sent by express rail, but we so seldom saw those members of my family that my idea of family never stretched beyond my mother and father and, by now, the five of us children. Then gradually the world changed and people travelled in fast cars on six-lane highways with restaurants, but by that time all these strangers were either dead or in old folks’ homes.
I found Aunt Mary in Hay Bay Rest Home in 1985. When I asked my mother’s advice about a present, she suggested I buy Mary a pair of soft-soled shoes. When I gave them to her, Mary said she hoped I hadn’t paid a lot for them because she wouldn’t have time to wear them out. Then she gave me the family history she’d written out in longhand in her perfect schoolmarm script, eighty pages illustrated with daguerreotypes and photos dating back to 1847 when the Irish Morrisons had fled the potato famine. And there they were, all the phantoms I had been afraid of in my childhood.
When I was in my early twenties, searching out literary shrines —were those dead writers a kind of family?— I’d been to Sligo to visit Yeats’s grave, not knowing at the time that my great-great- grandmother Mary Morrison had buried two children in the same cemetery before despair sent her in quest of a new and more just world. In her book, Mary imagined her great-grandfather Darby Morrison speaking to his wife: “They’re saying in Sligo Bay we can go to Canada, Mary. The Flahertys, the O’Gradys, the MacNamaras are leaving. The government pays the passage. They owe us. Two’s enough to bury.” Mary Morrison was forty-five and pregnant with Bridget when she crossed the ocean. You can be that tough, I guess, with nothing to lose. They used to say in the family that Bridget crossed the ocean and never saw the water. The British government gave the Morrisons two hundred acres, a cow, a pig, a plough, an axe, and a shovel when they arrived, and they started to carve out a life among the rocks of Smiths Falls, which laid a faint trail through the bush that eventually led to me.
It is curious to read a story and know it is your story. Not just written for you, but maybe even explaining you. As I read it, it is Mary who surfaces from its pages. She had gathered the family history from her father’s mother, Catherine Guthrie. When Mary was a child, they would come to her farm and sit with her in the evenings. Mary especially remembered the look of contentment on her father’s face as he turned the wagon onto the side road that led to her house. She said: “His heart was always at the old homestead.” Trussed up in her kitchen rocker in front of the open stove, Great-Grandma Guthrie would get out her basket of pictures and tell the stories of the people in them, and sometimes she would recount some of the old Irish tales. I can almost see them all sitting there before the open wood fire. Much later, when I finally went to Ireland and traced down lost cousins, we sat before a similar kitchen stove with our Irish whiskey, and the neighbours came from miles around bringing gifts of white heather and more family stories.
Mary said she kept the stories for the edification of the younger generation. “Perhaps some of the stories may help some members of the family to make a right decision which will bring happiness and contentment,” she wrote in her Preface. For her, it seems life was a matter of right decisions.
Every life was a story to Mary. Her great-great-grandmother Mary Morrison and her husband, Darby, had had ten children, including Annie, Saul, Bridget, Jeremiah, Sara, and Catherine; the youngest was born in 1855 when Mary Morrison was fifty- three. My aunt tells each of their stories, and I discover her great-uncles, the ones who went off to the American lumber camps or became volunteers in the Boer War. She tells about great-uncle Saul’s soldier’s uniform that was kept for years up on a kitchen shelf at the old farm until one day her mother cut it up to make a pair of red boots for my Aunt Kay who was then a toddler, and everyone superstitiously expected the sky to fall down because it seemed a sacrilege to turn a soldier’s uniform into baby boots. It was Saul who bequeathed his two hundred acres on Georgian Bay to my grandfather, who traded it to the Massey-Harris dealers for a grain binder and ever after said his binder cost a farm.
Aunt Mary was too honest to leave out the black sheep. There was the story of her great-aunt Annie whose husband, William Blake, drank too much. On a drunken binge he came home and killed Annie and her daughter, and hanged himself the next morning. The son, Willie, somehow managed to escape the slaughter. He made a life as a cook on the boats that went up the Rideau River, often living at the Guthrie farm to help out when he was not on the river. He was a good cook and a fastidious housekeeper. Mary and her siblings didn’t like him because he was always making them “put things up,” and once they snuck into his room and cut up his fancy ties. Her father hid Willie’s whisky in the potato bin next to the hive of bees in the cellar where he knew Willie, afraid of all insects, would never look for it; but he would produce the bottle when Willie got “restless.” There was Annie’s brother Jeremiah, who, in his teens, got the hiccups and couldn’t stop and died within the week. Annie’s sister Sara began to “fail” in her early teens and “faded away and died.” It must have been TB, but the stoic tenderness of that ghostly fading lingered in my Aunt Mary’s mind.
My favourite is Mary Morrison’s daughter Bridget, the pretty one, who always worked in the field in her bare feet. (She’s in my blood somewhere; I too can’t stand shoes.) When she was twenty- one she went with her mother to a vaudeville show in Smiths Falls. One of the “showmen” fell in love with her, and, though she gave him no “encouragement,” he stuck like glue. Her father said no showman was going to call on his daughter, but the man persuaded Brid to go with him to the fair in Perth. In the tea room of the local hotel he proposed. When she refused, he spiked her tea with poison, vowing if she didn’t marry him, she would never marry anyone. With Brid unconscious on the floor, he said “his work was accomplished.” He was never heard of again. Mary said the showman had used too much poison and Brid had vomited it up. This saved her life. The family eventually tracked her down and brought her home, but she was always referred to as simple Aunt Brid after that and she would spend days at a time sitting and staring into space. Of course I wonder if my Aunt Mary couldn’t resist a good story, and if so, what moral she intended for me. At least I’ve never been seduced by a circus man.
Catherine, Mary and Darby Morrison’s last daughter, is the one I find most fascinating. Beautiful in the Irish way, straight black hair that reached below her waist and “flashing” black eyes, she was her father’s favourite. She hated domestic work and could be found out in the fields ploughing with the men. According to Mary she was high-spirited, outspoken, and vain. Men she regarded as a sort of “legal prey,” and when Douglas Guthrie came along he didn’t stand a chance. Her sister Brid would tease her: “Watch at the window for Gentleman Guthrie to come a-calling with his prancing black horses and fine carriage and his silk top-hat and gold-headed cane.” Douglas, then forty-five and widowed was a stone mason. The marriage wasn’t a happy one. Catherine used to say she couldn’t walk, talk, dress, or do anything to suit her husband, nor the many stepchildren who were her own age. After two years and the birth of her son, my grandfather, she headed back to the farm. When she decided to return to town, she found the stone mason’s house was locked up; he’d gone out west. He’d bought her a smaller house and, through a lawyer, had left her a small annuity. She never saw him again. Her child, Jeremiah, became her project. She would educate him—education provided “the wings to get away.” She worked as a cook at the Arlington Hotel in Smiths Falls and, later, on the tourist boats travelling through the Thousand Islands and plotted her son’s escape from that narrow life. She bought him a bicycle—in his late teens my grandfather become National Cycling Champion for Canada. But in his twenties, Jeremiah thwarted her desires— he upped and married a Protestant wife. Despite her independence, Catherine remained a staunch Irish Catholic and never accepted her daughter-in-law nor ever quite forgave her son.
I find Catherine’s stubbornness amusing. In 1905 her wealthy cousin Daniel Grady invited her to join him in Providence. Having made his money in cement, he was by then widowed and looking for another wife. Renting herself some fine jewellery on a six- month trial—why buy when the future was uncertain? – Catherine headed south. But she soon found the rich life smothering. She couldn’t stand how the day was laid out in dresses: in the morning she was expected to have a bath, then to put on a special gown to comb her hair, then a breakfast gown, a street dress to go to market, an afternoon shopping dress, and then a fancy dress for dinner. Every day was planned for her! Catherine headed home.
I can find Catherine’s equal in fiction. She is Hagar Shipley, a woman whose independence, finding no outlet, turned sour. Catherine disinherited her son for marrying the Protestant and willed the small property she had left to his child, her grandson. The more I read the family stories, the more real my ancestors become. And even though I have only met them through Mary’s eyes, I am now very fond of them. This poem was written for Mary in 1987. It’s rather gothic, but that was my mood then. I guess I was talking about the mystery of identity. How much of who we are is the product of our own choices? How much is determined by genetic make-up? How much am I the creation of all those strangers in Mary’s story, whose lives wove the complex web in which my own life began? I once asked Mary if she would consider publishing her book, but she said she wrote it for the family. Strangers might misread it. But I admire my ancestors’ toughness, their humour, and their sheer will for survival. And I am less fearful of them now. In fact, I hope to spend more time unearthing those phantoms I hear calling in my own blood.
Aunt Mary used to warn me about words.
They never stay where you put them.
Any no-good can use them.
Like a woman, she tried
to keep them safe in the family.
Family was her story that added down to me
– always fenced with a lesson:
words break loose if you let them.
She stored the family photos in a basket.
Trussed up in her rocker, warty as any gourd,
each night her hands plunged the corridors of blood.
I knew she was hooked on danger.
She could go all the way back to wind,
how it falls and picks itself up in a field.
Or fog empties a valley till all you see
is your hands where the world was.
From her I learned there were others
pacing inside me.
She said they had made me up.
I was meant to love them.
But it terrified me to think I was lived in
by strangers I had never met
or knew only by name.
They made me alien fiction.
In my bones
an old woman dies over and over.
I dare not look
in the room with the bloodied axe
nor speak to the men who walked out.
Their tracks in my blood. Their lust
I could spend
a lifetime digging graves
in my head.