Monday, January 12, 2009

Stories of Ruthe and Bill

I went to Barrie and Bobcageon over the weekend to visit Tim, Lori, Ruthe, Bill and Corrine. I returned home Sunday afternoon, quite exhausted. Since we didn't really do a lot, I think it was as much emotional exhaustion as it was physical.

Ruthe and Bill are my aunt and uncle, the last of my Dad's family. They are both in nursing homes in Bobcageon. Ruthe has kidney failure and has refused dialysis, we thought she would not survive the summer but she's still kicking along. Bill had a stroke a number of years ago and his physical care requires a lot more than his wife Corrine could handle at home. Both of them are otherwise bright and communicative.

I drove up to Barrie on Friday to stay overnight at my brother and sister-in-law Tim and Lori's place, and then on Saturday Tim and I drove to Bobcageon, a couple of hours further away. Although very cold (-25C overnight), the roads were all bare and dry so the driving was good.

We went early to catch Ruthe in the morning while she was still feeling pretty good, she fades in the afternoon. She said this was not one of her better days but still she seemed pretty good. I think we were with her for almost an hour and by the end she was reluctant to let us go but barely able to keep her eyes open. She said she spent a lot of time remembering the old days, especially her very young days at Balsam Lake. She said as she got closer to death her memories were more vivid and alive for her. Tim told her that Mum had said that just before he died, Dad (Ruthe's older brother) had had a conversation with Jess, their oldest but then dead brother. Ruthe reiterated that she did not believe in God or an afterlife, but still, she felt very close now to her parents. Ruthe is a confirmed atheist, no amount of tribulation will sway her conviction.

Ruthe and Bill are in different nursing homes in the same small town. Bill's wife Corrine lives just outside of Bobcageon. Our timing was such that we just had time for a brief visit with Bill before he went to lunch, so we did that and then when Bill went for lunch we also went for lunch with Corrine, at a local restaurant called MacGoo's. We had All-day breakfasts for about $5.00 each. Then we went back to Bill's nursing home for a second visit with him. Bill is in better shape than Ruthe but he also tires after awhile.

Corrine got Bill talking about the old days and about our Dad, she got him to tell a couple of stories and then we asked him questions about his family memories and about some of his own life stories. Our Dad was eleven years older than Bill, who was the youngest in that family. I remember Bill babysitting for Tim and I and mentioned that to Bill, and he said, Yeah, your Mom and Dad were probably out dancing.

Bill remembered Dad riding a horse that was kept in a field near the old Mills place on Long Point, Dad would have made a bridle for the horse and mounted it by leading it to a fence and climbing on from there. Bill would have been just a little kid who looked up to his two older brothers, Ted and Jess. Their Dad was very musical and very handy, Bill remembers Grandad playing the cello, well enough that he played for money and also practiced with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. One time he brought home an accordion, and Jess learned in the space of a weekend how to play it better than Grandad could. Our Dad played fiddle, the three of them often played together, fiddle, accordion and cello.

Jess and Grandad built a kind of mini-railway to put their boat in and out of the water. They got the tracks from an old railway that used to be out on Toronto Island. Grandad made a fiddle out of an old wooden cigar box, a broomstick and some wire. He used his cello bow to play it.

Dad signed up in the Army and went off to War in 1939 when he was twenty. He came back about six years later, a very different man. Bill said he was older and kind of stressed. Because of his service in the war Grandad gave Dad the family sailboat. Unfortunately, Bill would have been around 15 at the time and he was becoming an excellent sailor, having won a race or two with that boat. He was not so keen on having Dad take the boat away. Dad was moving north to Fraserdale and of course took the boat with him. Just before he did, Grandad and Jesse had made a keel for the boat and bolted it on, changing it from a centreboard boat to a keelboat. It was a pretty good job that they did, but the boat leaked ever after, probably because of the bolts. Anyway, Dad had to make special arrangements to take the boat to Fraserdale as there were no roads there, they had to build a cradle for it and put it on the train. A few years later Mum and Dad returned from Fraserdale, but he did not bring the boat back with them, apparently because it leaked so much that he didn't see the point. Bill is still kind of annoyed with Dad about that. If you take it away, you should bring it back!

I can see that this would have been very upsetting for Bill, he was a young man who had his boat taken away from him just at what would have been the start of his sailing career. As a teenager and the youngest kid in the family, he had no say in the matter.

Something interesting, Bill said that Dad wanted to learn to sail (he woke Bill up very early one morning to get him to teach Dad to sail) in order to impress our mother, Anne. Bill said Anne was an excellent sailor, always was and still is a better sailor than Dad. Which surprised Tim and me, as kids we remember Dad being the sailor, not Mum. We also have no memories of Dad playing any kind of musical instrument, so it was surprising to hear how musical he was before the War. A lot of things changed with the War.

The other regret Bill had was over Grandad selling the cottage at Long Point. He loved that place. Grandad sold it because he just couldn't keep up with the maintenance.

Grandad ran away from home at age 14 to join the circus. He travelled to Chicago and other places, he learned to play the cello and he learned a trade, something to do with printing. He met Grandma in Montreal just as she was arriving from Edinburgh. They settled in Toronto where Grandad grew up but relations with his family were strained. I guess they never really forgave him for running away. Or maybe he had good reason to run away? Bill didn't have any memories of his grandfather, he didn't know why they didn't see much of the grandparents, he just knows that they didn't. Grandad went to Jesse Ketchum Elementary as a kid. Grandad was a very hard worker who was careful with his money and took care of his family, but one time he co-signed a loan for someone and that person defaulted on the loan so Grandad got stuck with it. He impressed on his kids never to co-sign on a loan for anybody, no matter what.

Bill was pretty handy too, I remember him building a sea flea (a little speedboat) and when I told him about building the kayak last summer, he told us about building a canvas and plywood kayak. His description of it sounded awfully like Mike's baidarka! For a long time he flew airplanes for a living, he still is intensely interested in airplanes. By his bed he had a lot of photos, including one of the Avro Arrow which was on display at a museum recently. I was surprised at the photo, I thought all the Arrows had been destroyed, but Bill said there were models that they tested and sank over Lake Ontario; someone went and pulled them out of the Lake. I would like to find out where that model is now, I would love to see it.

Both nursing homes are big and modern, clean and bright. Being in a small town they are surrounded by trees and nice views. Bill's nursing home has more common spaces for residents to gather in, Ruthe's doesn't have common rooms except for the dining room and instead residents gather in the wider hallways in front of the elevator. Corrine thought that Bill was better off sharing a room, she thought that Ruthe got lonely being in a room by herself. She knew a lot of the residents and we said Hi to several people that she knew there. So in many ways it seemed more sociable than Ruthe's home, but it's hard to say from just a short visit. However I think seeing so many very old people like that makes one very conscious of one's mortality; these are among the nicer places to end up, but still...

It was wrenching to leave them, if they had had the energy I would have loved to stay longer. I know Ruthe's days are numbered, I hope I see her again.

1 comment:

Barbara Anne said...

Huge (((((((hugs)))))), Anne,

It is hard to see those we love when they are so old, so frail, so sick, and have so little time left when we can talk with them and show them they are loved and cherished. I hope both Bill and Ruthe do as well as possible for as long as possible.

Just by taking time to visit Bill and Ruthe, you and Tim gave them the wonderful, priceless gift of showing you care and that they are each important to you. How? You showed up.

They, of course, gave you and Tim the priceless gift of their memories so you could have a glimpse of times you could not know of in the lives of your parents and grandparents and their families. What a treasure.

I hope you'll write these things down so your grandsons have this information.

What an enjoyable and interesting narrative you wrote!

More hugs!