Saying farewell, for now
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO The VOICE
I often think of a story that I’ve read many times. It was written not so long ago by an aging writer, Howard Norman, who heard it himself long ago, when he was living in the far north and transcribing Inuit folk tales.
A shaman turns a man into a goose. When it comes time for the flock to fly south for the winter, he despairs about leaving.
“In his incarnation as a goose, the man realizes that unless he migrates with the other geese, he will die,” recalls Norman. “He falls into unmitigated grief, primarily expressed through a high-pitched wailing lament: ‘I hate to leave this beautiful place! I hate to leave this beautiful place!’”
I have lived in Pelham—with brief absences—since I was six years old, when my parents moved with me and my two young sisters from a dodgy street in St. Catharines, where I received regular warnings about avoiding discarded needles by the curbs.
My first impression of our Ridgeville home, which I had not seen prior to moving day, was not of the house itself—we joked that we had gone from the nicest house on a bad street to the ugliest house on a nice street—but rather of the vast fields and forests that stretched for acres behind our little property.
When I first looked out there it seemed to me, who had only ever lived in a house that backed on to a bank parking lot, that I was facing a vast wilderness, filled with chests of treasure, mossy tree houses, and fantastical creatures.
I wasn’t far wrong. The chests of treasure turned out to be abandoned middens of pre-war soda bottles, the tree houses were crumbling hunting blinds, and the creatures were deer, coyotes, and turkeys. It wasn’t what I’d envisioned on moving day—it was far more wondrous.
I didn’t intend to be here during this past year.
My first plan was to move to China for the year, get back to learning Mandarin, and teach English for a while before moving on to graduate school.
There are ideas, and there are the events that interrupt them. Midway through a bicycle trip around Ontario, I took shelter from a rainstorm in a library in Pembroke, a mid-sized town on the Ottawa River. I checked my email there and found one from Voice publisher Dave Burket, telling me that reporter Nate Smelle was returning to Bancroft. Was there any chance that I would be interested in coming back and filling the opening? “A few weeks? A few months?” he wrote. I only promised him that I’d think about it, but in truth as soon as I read the email I felt a clunk in my chest and knew that I would not be able to say no. Once the rain cleared, I left the library and started home.
My favourite way to see Pelham is by bicycle. In the evenings, I follow Effingham Street south as it jogs its way to Webber. After hewing to Effingham for a while, I find a street to turn west on until I’ve made it to the railway tracks, meaning that I’ve gone far enough that I can turn right and head north into Fenwick, cross Canboro and Highway 20, and cut deep into North Pelham.
From here, the most scenic route is to move east on Kilman down into Effingham hollow, Sulphur Spring to Roland and then climbing back again all the way to the St. John’s school.
I do not know of a nicer place than Luffman Drive, its blend of wooded hills, streams, frog-ponds, fields of undulating wheat, swooping swallows. If this is not God’s country then he should buy it up, quick, before property prices outstrip even his ability to pay.
When I ride through Pelham in the evening, I play games as I go. Sometimes I assess each house as I pass by: If I caught a flat, would these homeowners be friendly enough to let me use their phone? Would I have better luck with ones set farther back from the road?
After nearly a year at the Voice, this game is different. Now as I make the rounds I pass the homes of friends I’ve made, people who I know wouldn’t just let me (or anyone) borrow their phone, but would invite me in, offer me a drink, talk until I had to use my lights to get home. My evening rides are Rolodex tours now.
Bruno on Poth Street. Hi, Bruno. Carolyn lives nearby. The Chambers in Fenwick. Our debt-collector Paul, and Jim Ryan’s auto. Mike and his horses. There’s Chile Bob in Ridgeville—that wily honest shark. Let’s play tennis tomorrow, old man. Won’t you let me win this one time? Peter, Pam, Mark, Bill, Glen, Zenia. Vilma. Rosemary. Ron at Sobeys.
Doug Drew. Bill Nudds and Mac. Are the garbage rounds done? Have you seen Top-Down lately? Is Gloves still haunting the castle?
Others too important to name. Goodbye, goodbye. I’d have never believed I’d have friends like these.
A few notes about our town is my aim here, but on the way a little more about people is inevitable. All of us who stay in a place long enough carry around an ever-enlarging list of those we knew here but who live no longer, or who at least move away. There’s my dead grandfather and me in the Sobeys parking lot just after it opened, wagering a dime on whether the pointed roof of steel beams would be covered over or left open. I bet it would be enclosed. He bet it would be left open. He won. I never paid.
There’s my grandmother dropping me off to work at Lookout Ridge, days before her fatal stroke.
“Don’t work too hard,” she said, clichéd last words to me that I won’t ever forget.
And inside the retirement home—don’t even get me started. I like to think of them all walking and wheeling out of the dining room, a cavalcade of the departed. There’s Margaret McGeowan, singing Hoagy Carmichael in an Irish lilt. There’s Kay Horvatek, today’s Tribune crossword puzzle in one hand, black Dixon Tri-Conderoga pencil in the other. Rosemarie Scattergood snoozing in her favourite armchair. Here’s Clarice Jacobs with a fresh perm, swatting away my hand as I try to pat her pillowy curls. Janie Makoutz and her sister Daisy, confused, ready to scan their boarding passes for their evening flight home to Welland.
“Here comes that skinny waiter,” they’d say to each other as I’d approach.
I usually pretended I couldn’t hear them, but one time I called back: “Who are you calling skinny?” Janie froze, embarrassed, tongue-tied, before breaking in to a rare grin. I did too.
And Larry Ball, tall, hunched, silent, kindly. Ralph Hogue—it always looks as if he’s running for mayor. Juanita Rathbun. Margery Dodge pining for a final night of gin and dancing. Dot Rungeling, smiling knowingly. And my friends still there: Papa Peter Mansfield, Jean and Jack Gray, Donald Rutledge.
Don taught poetry for most of his life. I owe him more than I can ever say. My favourite poem of his is called, ‘Chorus of the Octogenarians.’ It begins like this: This year is almost ended/And it has not been splendid/Our bodies scarred and mended/With crucial bits distended/And others sagging low.
Good lessons for a young man, spry, fit, in his prime. This is the future. Don’t be afraid of it. Maybe don’t rush ahead, but don’t be afraid.
Listen long enough and people will tell you just about anything. Sometimes it takes the right question. Sometimes it takes not asking a question and letting the empty air hang for a moment longer than is comfortable. Or just pointing out an innocent topic when no inquiries come to mind.
“Income tax?” a man in town once said to me when I mentioned I hadn’t yet filed. “The government has got me enough. They fined me two hundred grand when I was convicted on the marijuana charge. Took me twenty years to pay it. And they gave me two years in jail. Now it’s legal! So figure that out.”
There’s the next question. How were those two years?
“Not too bad. You don’t get used to being locked up. But it was the people that you had to worry about. I was in there with nuts. I beat a guy at pool one time and he said he was going to kill me—and he was already in there for stabbing someone fifty times. I said to the guards, ‘You’ve got to move me.’ And they did.”
When I was out at a sawmill the first thing I looked at was the operator’s fingers. Then I looked all around the apparatus—the blade, the chain, the belts, the engine—to find the most likely point of departure. I asked him which. It was the chain.
“I was out at mill in BC once,” he said. “There were six guys there. And when they all put their hands on the table, they were missing thirteen fingers among them.”
Being a reporter means dutifully following the story—unless you have to quit along the way. When profiling a Pelham Transit driver bus I foolishly took notes as we went. Nauseated midway through the ride, it was all I could to do to grunt an apology to the driver and say that I’d come aboard another time. I got off at the Fonthill Marketplace and teetered into the pharmacy there.
“When we first opened last summer we were so excited that there was a bus stop right outside the door,” said the pharmacist. “But you’re the first person who has come off—and you come in begging for Gravol. Maybe that’s why I never see any heads in the window. Everyone is doubled over.”
My first piece published in the Voice was a defence of old-fashioned small towns, and I still stand by that defence. What I was most adamant about was the need for respect for good people.
I am not old nor do I come from old-stock Pelham. My family is not one of those that has been here for centuries—not like the Chambers, the Beamers, the Haists, the Hanslers, the Alsops, the Stirtzingers. But I have always taken great pleasure in hearing from such people so that I can envision Pelham as it was and as we will never see it again, when drainage ponds were safe to swim in, when doors were left unlocked and bicycles propped against lampposts unattended.
My friend Dot Rungeling was born in Pelham in 1911 and lived here for nearly 107 years. Her depiction of life as a child always had an element of magic to me. She once told me that the thing she missed most of the old days was the silence, and she echoed this in the closing story in one of her books.
In the 1920s or ‘30s the sounds one was most likely to hear in the country were the farmer talking to his horse as they worked in the fields. The plough or the cultivator made no noise whatsoever. The horse’s feet made no noise. There was a wonderful blanket of silence in the countryside broken only by a bird bursting into song to let the world know how joyous he was, or a pheasant flying out from under cover because he was frightened by the proximity of the horse toiling in the field. As we reached the mid-1920s occasionally an automobile came down the road at a slow speed, but only occasionally. Perhaps one or two a day. A dog barked in the distance. A bell might ring at the house to summon the men from the fields for their dinner, or a hen might cackle to announce to the world that she had just laid an egg. But the point is that you could sit and actually listen to silence. If you have never experienced this then you just cannot imagine what a pleasurable experience it is.
Dot may have been right that imagining such an experience is impossible. But sometimes, when I am alone on a backwoods road somewhere on a summer evening, a breeze gently billowing the trees, the sounds of the world muffled, I feel that I can.
I said that I didn’t plan on being here this year. How many of us young people have that persistent longing to leave? We imagine that life in the place of our birth as being some sort of holding pen, where we pool about, pawing at the gates, waiting to be let out. Only then would we be able to begin our real lives, when finally time would speed up and things would actually happen.
I think I have always felt this way in Pelham. Even though I was secretly excited to begin working full-time at the Voice, there was a large part of me that felt the work would be what parents call “a learning experience,” or “character building” that would be a boon in the long-run, like eating spinach, or flossing twice a day. I think I thought that at best I’d be depositing bits of character into a savings account, to be withdrawn with accumulated interest one day after real life has begun.
I like to tell people that I was raised on three main food groups: Springsteen, Seinfeld, and Calvin and Hobbes. I still think about all of those things most every day, especially the cartoon. I think even more of a speech given by Calvin and Hobbes’ creator, Bill Watterson, at a graduation ceremony in 1990.
“At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you'll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own,” Watterson told the crowd of new graduates.
He also warned them about what likely lay ahead for many of them.
“A REAL job is a job you hate. I designed car ads and grocery ads in the windowless basement of a convenience store, and I hated every single minute of the four-and-half million minutes I worked there. My fellow prisoners at work were basically concerned about how to punch the time clock at the perfect second where they would earn another twenty cents without doing any work for it. It was incredible: after every break, the entire staff would stand around in the garage where the time clock was, and wait for that last click. And after my used car needed the head gasket replaced twice, I waited in the garage too.”
If you have a job that you hate you really have to work at reminding yourself that there is a world of interesting ideas and people floating around outside of your windowless basement. For the past ten months, I haven’t had that problem. Every day I have been beckoned here and there across town and impelled to ask questions about everything but myself. If last year at this time I thought that everything I didn’t know would fill an encyclopedia set, now I know that it would fill the world’s libraries.
For this job I will be forever thankful. Thankful to Voice publisher Dave Burket, who in addition to his inexplicable faith in me, works three times as hard as I ever have to put the paper together every week. Thankful to my parents, for letting me live at home for one last year, cooking most of my meals, doing most of my laundry, thereby ensuring that I could work as much as I needed to.
And thankful most of all to (nearly) everyone I’ve encountered over this year, who answered—and sometimes ignored—my questions, who called me with tips, who invited me into their homes and lives, and then at the end thanked me as if I have been the one doing them the favour. These past months have felt like a few long days without end, each story, each meeting, begetting another story, another meeting, another meaning.
In August it will take a real effort for me to migrate south. I’ll be able to do it. But if, around that time, you hear a wail echoing across the boroughs, I hate to leave this beautiful place, I hate to leave this beautiful place,you know that it will be mine. ◆