Sifting Out The Lumps
BRIDGET + CHAS . 1954
This had been home to five generations in the same family. The bones of the hundred-year-old house were foot-thick stones quarried right there in Dundas Valley. Crumbling mortar wound its way between the stones like a shallow creek in a rock-bed. At some point, a wooden addition was added to her front. This is where Bridget and Chas raised their four boys, the house squarely set on King Street, in Dundas, Ontario.
A century earlier, in the 1850’s, Chas’ maternal great-grandparents, Mary and Michael Burns, saved each dollar Michael earned as a cooper, or barrel maker, to build this house. Mary brought a hollow china statue from Scotland … a rougish Scottish Highlander decked out in his plaid. Tilted on his head was a flat wool cap centered with a red pom-pom. They called him Scottie. What made this figurine a story passed down through seven generations was Mary’s creative use of Scottie. He became their bank. Mary stuffed hard-earned bills up his middle, until there was enough to build their home.
Main Street in Dundas consisted of a few, modest stone or wood-frame dwellings and a dirt road. There were no sidewalks. Gardens flourished at the side or in back of each home yielding enough beans, peas, turnips, carrots, potatoes to be put down to carry each family through the winter. Mary and Michael even planted two chestnut trees. Or did they seed themselves? But, in any event, chestnut trees grew for a century and towered in their back yard, spreading overhead like majestic fans.
When Mary and Michael died, their daughter Mary raised her children there, then her daughter Mary did the same. And so it went, generation to generation. This was the home where Chas was raised. The aging stone edifice was like a member of the family, an aging Grandam who had served the generations well. It had seen their children born. It laid out their dead, and hidden within its stone walls, there existed a legacy of laughter and sadness.
Generation 2 ~ Mary Burns (daughter of Mary + Michael Burns) + William McGrath
Generation 3 ~ Ernie Peters + Mary ‘Minnie’ McGrath (daughter of Mary Burns + William McGrath)
After Chas and Bride married in 1936, his mother built a new brick home next door in which to retire and gave the dowager to the newlyweds.
Generation 4 – Chas (son of Minnie McGrath + Ernie Peters) + Bridget
By this time, roads were widened and paved. Sidewalks installed, taking away from front yards, so now homes often butted up against the sidewalks. Throughout their formative years, Chas and Bride’s four sons cracked, peeled and open nuts which fell from those tall chestnut trees that grew from seedlings a hundred years earlier when their great-great grandparents built the house in which they now lived. The soft, prickly green coverings of the chestnuts, once removed, exposed perfection of smooth-as-velvet mahogany shells. Those plentiful chestnuts covering the yard like a bumpy blanket, provided many hours of play and mischief for the boys.
And Scottie was still in evidence, on their grandmother, Mary Burns McGrath’s piano in the brick house next door. Scottie was always in view, always watching over the family.
The century-old home provided a plethera a memories. But it was like an aging dowager that dished out both humour and horror. Through the nineteen forties, decrepitude attacked the crumbling Grandam who had, by now, lived to a ripe old age. In post-depression, small-town Ontario, Bride and Chas, with their family of boys, did not have the monetary wherewithal to renovate. As a result their house dissembled into disrepair.
Her home was also the bane of Bridget’s life.
Her exasperated mantra told the tale, “This house is so old, it doesn’t keep out the cold. It just sifts out the lumps!”
Rats from Desjardins Canal and the nearby open dump, frequently found their way through openings in the old, foot-thick-stone walls, where mortar had crumbled away. Gavin tells of once using his pajama top to “bag” a rat and of Chas running out of his bedroom, stark naked, broom-in-hand, to divert one that was jumping for Gavin’s gonads.
The chill within those stone walls was another horrific but now laughingly told part of the memory pool of the four boys. Hot water bottles were placed in their cold beds to provide fleeting warmth. But one night, John’s fell out of the bed he shared with his brother, Gavin. In the morning, it was frozen solid on the floor.
Generations 4 & 5 – Bridget + Chas abt 1945 with three of their four boys. The youngest was not yet born.
Education and laughter were an obligatory part of survival at ’41 King’, as well as a dose of Celtic eccentricity and drama. Bridget was the Celt. Being intelligent and being tall were prerequisites for inclusion into her club. She foolishly forgot that her husband Chas and her one son John did not possess her tall-Duffy-genes. Despite that, she lined the boys up, back to back, to measure who was taller, as though that indicated a measure of their worth. The obsession with height and the back-to-back ritual was imposed upon anyone who crossed her threshold. Bridget was proud of her boys and did not hesitate to recount their charm and superiority to any available ear. Bride also bragged about the son who was not so tall since, in her psyche, even height placed second to accomplishment.
The family was poor. There was no furnace, only a space heater in the living room with pipes running across the dining room to the outside. One cold winter night, John, in trying to capture a little warmth, turned the heater to its highest setting. A pipe exploded and soot, accumulated for years, spewed forth, covering everyone and everything with its velvety black blanket.
Bride, responded in a deservedly dramatic outburst, “Mother of God, this can’t be happening!”
John remembers, “I got shit from everyone, even the squirrels.”
Their home had one cold water tap, no bathtub. Hot water was available only if heated on the stove. Hygiene for the family of six consisted of sponge baths or a run next door to Nana’s for a real bath. There were no closets, no doors, neither on the bathroom nor the bedrooms. An ineffective curtain provided only occasional privacy. But privacy was not a requirement in the life of four rambunctious brothers. In fact, each would take turns whisking the curtain open at the most inopportune times. As a result, Gavin is still obsessed with privacy. He locks his bedroom and bathroom doors to this day, seeking what was denied him in youth.
As mentioned, poverty was a fact of life.
Jim recounts, “We were so poor that if I didn’t wake up on Christmas morning with a hard-on, I wouldn’t have had anything to play with!”
Within the stone walls of the century-old home there was plenty of food on the table, Irish blarney and upheaval. The tumbling-down home afforded a most unlikely genesis for four successful young men. That stone dowager, that aged Grandam, sifted out lumps of self-pity and sloth, and in their place incubated eccentricity, outrageous humour and success. And today, decades later, the memory of Scottie resonates in the minds of the four brothers, a symbol of perseverance and frugality.