by Diana Ellis
When I was growing up, the utterance from my father of the phrase “when I was a boy…” usually at the dinner table, inevitably resulted in a combination of interest and eyeball-rolling, depending on how many times we had heard the story before. Now in my mid 70’s, this is one story I remember. Never did I get the full details, but there is enough here to get the picture.
It was the early 1930’s. The depression had hit Canada – Vancouver – and my grandparents hard. They, Frank and Madaline, my Dad Bill, and his sister, my Auntie Sheila, lived in a suite in one of the big old Kitsilano apartment/boarding houses – this one at 5th and Vine. Pops, my granddad, was trained in England to be a nurseryman, and had also picked up some accounting. Both he and Gran were ‘of landed gentry’ as the saying goes. Separately, around 1912, each had travelled from the UK to Canada with their parents– heeding the well advertised call for UK young people to “come west to Canada – start a fruit ranch…” etc. They met in Nelson, a hotbed of British ex-pats, and married in 1921. The Edgewood fruit ranch hadn’t worked out – too many rocks – and eventually, with two young kids in tow, they had found their way to Vancouver.
The story Dad told always began with a description of his own father returning from the food line with two paper bags of groceries for his family. “He slowly came up the sidewalk, head down, so embarrassed…ashamed even…. to be seen to be bringing food line groceries to his family.” Dad, who would have been 9 or 10 at the time, always remembered that part, sometimes with tears in his eyes.
That shame felt by Pops, and shared by Gran, led to a resolve to get themselves and the children out into the country – away from the strife and pain of a city in depression. Pops, also a volunteer lay preacher with the Anglican Church, somehow managed to land part time work as caretaker of an Anglican Church Camp along the Howe Sound coastline beyond Horseshoe Bay. Gran would be the cook for summer campers. They moved up to the mythic (to we children) “cedar shake shack” at Brunswick Beach – one of the few beach spits on Howe Sound’s east shore. They settled in. Dad would speak of how Gran learned to manage a rifle (“one time there was a knock on the door and Mum, rifle in hand, opened it to find a tall Squamish Indian there…she gave him some food”), of catching fish for dinners, of shooting bear and deer, of Gran baking endless loaves of bread. Dad also described, perhaps in extra vivid detail for his three listening children, of how he would row the several miles south from Brunswick Beach to Horseshoe Bay (and back) to pick up mail and groceries.
Some years on, perhaps three or so, of home schooling for the children, and living well enough off the land, Frank, Madaline, Bill and Sheila moved to Horseshoe Bay. Gran found work at Sewell’s Store and Pops did some accounting. Then in to West Vancouver village where they lived out their years in the top floor suite of an Argyle Avenue house built by Navvy Jack at the turn of the century. In 1947, at age 53, Pops died of a heart attack. Madaline would live a long and engaged life until 1975. In 1938, causing deep anguish to his parents, my Dad quit school to ‘ride the rods’ across the country with other out of work young men, eventually joining the Navy to spend WW2 criss-crossing the Atlantic escorting convoys of supplies to the UK. He met my Mum at a hospital in Britain. They married and she was shipped to Canada as a war bride in 1945, with me in utero.
But enough of that. I want to end this story with a postscript or two. First, for the rest of his life, my father (and my Mum too for that matter, having grown up in wartime Britain) always kept a full larder of tinned food: stews, evaporated milk, chili, beans, peaches in heavy syrup! He was never without back up groceries, ever. Second, my Gran, shortly before she died, told her son and daughter to check certain books in her bookshelf – because in between the pages of those books she had, for years, hidden paper money. They found hundreds of dollars in those books. Kept, just in case.
A moral here? None intended. Just a story. But yes – the power of story is affirmed. Perhaps no accident that I became a long time summer berry-picker, a fruit canner for 50 years, and an inveterate soup/casserole producer. I now find myself with pantry shelves and freezer full of food – put by long before news of this pandemic muttered out of that faraway Hubei province in China.