When my eldest sister Eva was three years old, my Dad told her to sit behind the Conductor when he put her on a 9-hour train north to Smooth Rock Falls, alone. It routed through Union Station in downtown Toronto.
‘Sit behind the Conductor,’ he said. ‘You will be fine,’ he said. Little Eva screamed, ‘No Daddy, No Daddy!’ reaching with her little chubby arms for the person who was supposed to protect her.
She was three and she had just been torn from the tight grasp of her baby sister Amy, just 10 months her junior, who was holding onto her for dear life. Both baby girls, one blond, one brunette, were crying with red cheeks. All I can think now… is that it must’ve been a completely different world back then. With so many very large families of seven children plus, perhaps this was how parents coped?
She was being sent to stay with Gramma and Grampa because baby brother had come along and with baby Amy too, one just needed to go. Gramma and Grampa didn’t drive. They never even owned a car. So, on the train went Little Eva.
In wintry Smooth Rock Falls, Eva remembers days of nothing happening. No toys. No interaction with other children or adults and an unfamiliar scent (which she can now identify as mothballs) in their home coupled with the smell from The Mill. It all made her feel terribly homesick. She was left completely to her own devices. The house was chilly, smelly and dark. Gramma was quiet and busy. Grampa was at work most of the time. The Grandfather clock ticked incessantly.
The lunch whistle would blow at the Mill and a quiet Grampa would walk home to sit at the Arbourite and chrome table where his lunch awaited him. A steaming bowl of home-made soup and a large sandwich on fresh-baked bread. It was eaten without a word of thanks while Gramma watched, hands wringing in her cotton apron beneath her large, matronly bosom. The next whistle would bring him home for supper with a nearly perfect replay of lunch time. Quiet. Expected. Ungrateful. Gramma had her job: keeping house. Grampa had his – The Mill Wright – keeping Mill.
When Eva related this troubling story to me recently, my mind wheeled back a dozen years. My son Leo and I had gone to a neighbourhood wedding for Leo’s babysitter’s Mom and step-father who were getting married. As we approached the large house on a beautiful sunny and warm afternoon, I was feeling a wee bit worried that there would be no one there to talk to and that I would stick out like a sore thumb. Leo ran over to the candy bar in glee. I lifted the full skirt of my simple grey silk dress as I descended to the deck of the pool in my pumps. Being extra careful so as to NOT make a splash of an entrance! All of the guests stood in small groups, mingling. An older man approached and welcomed me, shaking my hand gently.
‘Welcome to the wedding of Mack and Mary,’ he said, extending a large hand and a big smile. ‘I am Mack’s father, Paul Bouvier. How do you know them?’ he asked.
I responded and then asked where he had come from for the wedding. ‘Arnprior, Ontario,’ was his reply.
‘Oh,’ I said with a smile enjoying that I had something in common with this friendly stranger. ‘My Grandfather was from Arnprior.’ Grampa used to tell me of his boyhood in Arnprior. He had a crab-apple tree outside his upstairs bedroom window and he would eat them from the tree when they were ripe (bleck!!). He would go downtown to the grocers and he and his pals would press their noses to the glass looking at the bananas. The grocer would shoo them away saying, ‘Sonny-boy, sonny-boy, get away from the glass and let the sun shine on the bananes!’ Grampa was raised in the depression era when certain luxury foods were scarce.
Anyway, Mr. Bouvier asked me who my grandfather was. I told him.
His smile widened and his eyes danced as he exclaimed, ‘I worked for your Grandfather at the Mill. He was a Mill Wright. And your Dad! Your Dad was a great hockey player!’
We just looked at each other smiling and nodding. Small world. Why did the stars align allowing this conversation to take place decades later, provinces away, in my new neighbourhood￼…?
When Eva was seventeen, she began to have extreme anxiety attacks and had no ability to concentrate on her school work. She had been the top student at her Junior High School, on many teams, in many clubs, leader of the folk choir at Saint Mary’s Church￼, known and loved by all.
My eldest sister Eva, with her amazing soprano voice, her leadership and enthusiasm for music, would lead the whole congregation through folk songs like: Here We Are, and Kumbaya and Jesus is a Soul Man. She would be right up front of the pews. Her long, straight hair flicking from side to side as she would stride around motioning to the congregation to sing louder and stronger, tapping her tambourine on her leg. The guitars strumming wildly. Pride would be welling up through my little body as I sat in awe of my teenage sister. Those folk masses were powerfully spiritual and I will never forget them. Sadly, almost half a century later, my beloved sister Eva, for some unknown neurological reason, completely lost her hearing and consequently a god given talent – her ability to sing soprano. It was a bitter pill to swallow for all of us who love her but, My God, especially for her. Thankfully, a few years later, Eva was fitted with a Cochlear Implant but, she will tell you, it is not the same as hearing with your own ears and her ability to sing has been diminished almost completely. Eva has told me that her voice no longer sounds like her own. Tragic!
But, getting back to when she was seventeen… when she walked in through the front door of her new, very large high school, her vision would tunnel and it was impossible to function. She told Mom about her troubles, which were obvious because she was crying a lot. Mom took her to the hospital where she was treated cruelly and isolated from all family members. Eva escaped from the hospital and when she told Mom of the cruel methods at the hospital, Mom was furious and went there to complain and to tell them off.
Next, Eva was sent to Florida to be with Memere and Pepere, the idea being that the sunshine would be good for her. But, similar to Smooth Rock, the lack of interaction with friends and the anxiety had her feeling very badly. She went home to Barrie and was then taken to the Psych Hospital in Penetanguishene. By hook or by crook, she managed to get well enough to leave that place and then a couple years later to marry and then raise three incredible young men who had her full time and were cherished and loved dearly. Today they have children of their own who are cherished and loved and trust me, would never dream of putting a toddler on a train, alone.
Dear Reader, what do you think of this story…can you believe it is true?
(The photo was taken by Eva in Wolfville, NS in 2017)