BY Jeff Carter
My friends of Orkney, my conversation with my dear friend Pinkie continues and so does the story of Clifton and Estelle. With Clifton working a job in a remote location in Ontario’s northland and Estelle in hospital for a serious surgery, their children were taken by the Children’s Aid Society in 1937. They were among the many thousands of Canadians who experienced that fate during the first half of the 20th century. Among them was nine-year-old Anita, first sent to a group home and later fostered.
It was not the first tragedy for the couple. The other occurred a decade earlier when Estelle, nursing her second child, detected a slight fever in her first.
* * *
Phyllis Marguerite was a delight to her family. She knew many words and could travel about on her tricycle when the first signs the whooping cough appeared on a bright summer afternoon. She would linger for another 10 weeks, with her Richardson grandparents, then at the hospital in town where the nurses were both kind and attentive, and for a few brief days at home with Clifton and Estelle.
Clifton would sit by his daughter in a downstairs room, curtains drawn. Sometimes, as her breath became less laboured, she would reach out, grasp a thick finger and smile, the sound of village life faint.
Four little neighour boys, their names all familiar to the villagers, were pall-bearers, carrying the flower-clad coffin, a small, dark space for the wee pale girlie with her honey curls and fine, winsome looks. It was a private affair given the fragile health of elderly family members.
A pair of pastors preceded, offering words of condolence. Ollie Carter, whom Anita would point out to her son on the steps of the church many years later, sang: In the land of fadeless day lies the city four-square; It shall never pass away and there is no night there.
Pinkie and I sit in a sheltered, sunlit space overlooking the garden. An odd silence has fallen. Even the birds have lost their voice. High above, a flicker of movement, a subtle caress among the tree tops.
I think of Estelle’s words as she spoke of her view one evening from the window of her tiny two-room apartment in the senior’s residence: I could see the lightening on the horizon, but there was no sound.
“Anita maintained that she was an unwelcome arrival, Pinkie, darkness following the light, though I hardly think that was the case.”
To Pinkie’s unanswered question I reply, “They all lived full lives —Anita her siblings — though none were untouched by their experience. Clifton lived long enough to see my mother married and rebuild the relationship with another of his children. Estelle lived on, flourished even, earning a modest living working as a housekeeper and for a time as a laundress at the hospital. Forty years a widow.”
* * *
In her 80s, Estelle would rise at 5 a.m. Six hours later, her chores and daily calisthenics were completed. She could touch her toes, a feat she would occasionally demonstrate to visitors.
When we brought her infant grandson for a visit, she insisted upon observing the feeding. She told us she didn’t like Catholics, or Dutchmen, though would make an exception in our case. Once, when touring a black history museum, she told the manager of the place without the blink of an eye, “Our people owned your people.”
There was no ill intent in the remark; merely a statement of fact as she saw it.
She led a sober existence, had a knack for names, knew the whereabouts of distant relatives, had a passion for euchre, was a regular at the Saturday farmers’ market and attended church on occasion, bonnet affixed with a pin to her poodle hairdo, purse clutched firmly in hand, eyes forward, shoulders back.
In her 90s, in hospital, she said to daughter, “I don’t want to die.” The doctor in attendance said her heart was the last thing to go.
Anita was eventually taken in by Estelle’s younger brother who was married to the sister of the man she would eventually wed.
“So that means your aunt married your great uncle?” Pinkie asks.
“That’s right, Pinkie, and that aunt was the niece of the fellow who sang at the funeral of which we just spoke, Ollie. Father referred to them as Mr. and Mrs. Rich – short for Richardson. You remember me speaking of my dad, he’s the fellow who could fall asleep through an act of self will and begin to snore, especially when seated on a wooden church pew, wife and children beside him, on an Easter Sunday.”
I see that Pinkie is attempting to sort through the family connections and other things and I decide to interrupt.
“Someday I’ll draw you a chart, Pinkie. Meanwhile, in fairness to my father’s lineage, not to mention his mother’s people, the Millers, I’d had better tell a bit of their story.
“You’re heard of Jimmy Carter, Pinkie, I’m related.”
To be continued...