By Jeff Carter
Russell was born in 1925 in Oxford County, the youngest sibling of seven; three brothers, four sisters.
His father, Valentine, “Tine” for short, was a wiry man of middling height, fleet of foot, known among his fellows for his prowess with the village football team and for his knowledge of most things under the sun.
“If you want to know something,” neighbours would say, “go ask Tine.”
The eldest boy was much like his father. He left the 100 square acres – 85 workable – as soon as he was able, finding an olive-complexion city girl and throwing aside the faith of his parents for the Catholic rite.
Years later he turned up on the farm alone and, as a small boy at play watched from a distance, chastised his youngest brother for failing to save corn seed. The exchange was brief. The elder brother walked briskly back to the soft round curves of his late-model, four-door sedan and left a trail of dust marking the withdrawal.
Russell remarked to the boy, “He doesn’t know anything. We grow hybrid corn here. I told him to bugger off.”
Tine was gone by that time. Russell knew enough of his father and elder brother to know that sometimes strength needed to be met with strength but he also carried his mother’s temperament, a quiet endurance tempered by the Amish tradition, though it was the 13th Line Baptist Church that she and her husband had attended.
This second oldest son was also like his father. The two would fight, parent and child, to the point of rolling on the ground, neither giving way until each was exhausted, or one pulled back from the precipice.
Machine Gunner Willis fought in the war and is buried at Nijmegen. Russell had been too young to enlist and was needed on the farm.
This may have accounted for his zoot suit, inspired by a sense of rebellion or, perhaps, the Jewish boy who for a time lived down the road. In any case, Russell, slim and dark-haired like his father but considerably taller, made for a striking figure in the attire, attracting the attention of the young ladies, despite his quiet ways.
There was one in particular who caught his eye, a rebel in her own right though not by choice, and with pluck to spare. She had earned acclaim in a black-faced, comedic role in Woodstock Little Theatre and, despite a hostile recommendation, had risen in her first job to become the head teller at a bank in town.
The contrast was startling: she was a city girl with few skills of any use on a farm, scratching at five feet; he was an accomplished agri-culturalist just shy of six feet tall.
It was a two-way family connection that led to the match. Her elder brother of the well-to-do Richardson clan had married Russell’s sister and together as a young married couple “Mr. and Mrs. Rich” (as Russell would later coin) provided for a time the room and board for the young woman who would become Russell’s bride-to-be.
A proposal of marriage by a son who in all likelihood would inherit a farm was never taken lightly in those days by the elder generation and so a task was proposed. Along with his usual duties, Russell was to sow, thin, harvest and process five acres of a crop that, while lucrative, required strength and endurance. The newly acquired tractor was denied. A team of horses would suffice.
Sod was turned early that year on a long slope next to the Braemar Sideroad and worked to a fine consistency. The seed was placed. Rains fell. The turnips sweetened. The fecundity of spring lay still months ahead when the harvest came in.
Tine would last through the arrival of two girls and until another male heir had come into the picture. He’d grown thin with age and spent much of his time in the front sitting room on his side of the house, sipping tea from a saucer, enjoying the tumultuous cries of young voices through a locked wooden door.
The boy resembled the Richardsons, was short like his mother and possessed a thoughtful aspect for one so young. Tine would watch him wander down the laneway as the twilight deepened, eyes peering skyward, reaching for a distant star.
Eva, Tine’s wife, remained. She was tall, like her son, and carried the same slightly bow-legged stance. Her side of the house shrank as the other grew, till the trek to the upstairs bathroom proved too difficult and no amount of cordwood kindled to a raging flame by her son could keep her old bones warm.
The Turnip Queen remained, her domain and skills as a farmer’s wife secured, though with a regret she'd often express to her son in later years, the space about her too having diminished over time. ◊