By Jeff Carter
“It’s the story my aunt Leone told me, Pinkie, the arrival to the Carter farm of relatives from Georgia in the 1920s, including the president-to-be, just a babe in arms then.”
Pinkie, I can tell, has some skepticism about the tale and so I elaborate, “she told me about it when she was 100 years of age and living in a spacious retirement apartment in Brantford. Being my aunt and a favoured older sister of my father, the only sister for whom he never named a cow, it is only fitting that her nephew upholds the veracity of the story.
“I also learned that she was a Grand Master in contract bridge and a key employee in the big department store, being in charge of the women’s section and having convinced the business’s owner to offer a small discount on wedding dresses. Before that time, wedding dresses were marked up by the same amount no matter where you shopped. The move was wildly successful, brides travelling from across Southwestern Ontario to Brantford to save a few dollars, and then spend what they had saved.
“She spoke of her second husband – a wonderful dancer – and informed me of a hand-dug swimming hole that once existed on the farm where she and her siblings swam without supervision.
“Father once mentioned her name during a discussion concerning the farm’s future, who would inherit what and so forth. My mother’s response was, “Oh, that Leone! She’s everybody’s friend,” at which point, having considered her words, her mouth snapped shut.”
“A likeable lady, then?”
“Certainly, and even in her elder years, most attractive. She was 103 the last time I visited, napping in the afternoon. As I left, the caregivers there said I should have wakened her.”
* * *
The last generation to have been conceived on the Carter farm were all highly successful, a testament of the coming together of families of divergent backgrounds, the Isbisters and Richardsons of whom you have heard, and the Carters and Millers.
The Millers were likely immigrants from what is now Western Germany and may have been supported by Amish Mennonites from what is now East-Zorra Tavistock in the vicinity of Cassel, today little more than a dot on a map. The Carters, if family lore is to believed, sailed from England to Virginia in 1637.
The grandfather of my grandfather, William Carter, was born in Pennsylvania in 1805 and is said to have been captured by Indians as a young boy, raised among them and eventually granted a farm of his choice in what was then Upper Canada. He chose land along the Upper Thames in the same area where the Millers would later settle, an acquisition that was formalized in 1828.
My father was named Russell, (Rusty to his friends). He was a tall man for his time, slim with dark-haired good looks, athletic, a champion plowman in 1945, Junior Class. The youngest of seven siblings, he dropped out of high school in Grade 9 to farm with his father along the Braemar Sideroad a few miles south from the original Carter homestead.
The farm was 100 square acres in size with a swampy woodlot of about 10 acres. There were seven little fields, not counting the three-acre parcel on the other side of the swamp. Valentine, like his father, managed an orchard and market garden along with dairy cows, poultry, swine and the rest.
A stone lay buried at the heart of that land, just deep enough the trip a drag plough. I was told that decades later it was excavated, a monolith the size of a moderately-priced pickup. It was there as a young lad that the land spoke to me, a whisper upon the wind, calling my name. I heard it once, twice, and try as I might, never again.
An era was ending for Canada’s agricultural communities and a new one beginning. The farming neighbours of my father’s time were numerous, the one-room school at the corner filled to capacity. They relied upon each other, the neighbours. Equipment and labour were shared out of necessity as much as good will.
Father owned the sprayer and, being clever with numbers, calculated the chemical formulations not just for his own farm but for many of the neighbours, and performed the operation.
He offered me only two pieces of advice that I remember. The first being that the precepts of Communism are not entirely without merit. The second was that “all people are the same” relating a story from his youth during the Second Great War about a Jewish boy of about his same age who was being boarded a mile away; up a sharp slope along the sideroad, down the other side and then up again to where the farmstead and his friend were located
He never judged, shared with me the agony his deepest frustration, a circumstance over which no control could he exercise, and on a single occasion tested my mettle.
There was single light bulb near the peak of the barn. It could be reached by climbing the ladder, past the first beam, past the second and from there if one were to lean well out, holding fast with one hand and stretching out with the other, the bulb could be replaced. Father asked me one day to do the job. I refused, trembling where I stood. Then he showed me how.
Upon learning of his demise at 60, I wept without pause during the flight home, drank excessively with friends at the Southside Hotel, and the day of his burial, remained sober and dry-eyed, watching in the funeral home the repetitive movements of a glass-enclosed time piece, counting the moments. ◊