Sunday, May 3, 2020



And so another of the family dies without dear ones close.
It is a time then to treasure the past, to remember the joys and gaffes of growing up and flying away from the urban nest that was Weston before it was ruined by progress.
A time to cling to tidbits of nostalgia to comfort us in the sterile artificiality of a virtual world that tries to substitute even for our funerals.
In the day when Hollywood was still golden, there were popular movies like Cheaper By The Dozen that cast a romantic humour over large families. Magazines like Reader's Digest dominated the media. It loved big families and boasted a regular feature on the most unforgettable character the writer had ever met.
I think often these days of the decades after the second world war to end all wars because more of those familiar faces around the big table at mealtime long ago are gone now or cloaked with age.
Plewesville is located in dozens of memories and was a modest home on Weston Rd. in the south of what was a pleasant old mill town.
It used to burst with people. There were Aunt Jennie and Uncle Dave, my guardians after my grandmother decided an orphan boy was too much trouble. And my uncle's mother (and perhaps for a time her boyfriend.) And 11 Plewes children.
Then came the additions and subtractions of life.
The oldest girl, Verna, died in a car crash from the head injuries when she bent over to protect the baby on her lap. So the family adopted Margy because the father was a scoundrel.
Then I came along from Chesley, the sleepy furniture factory town of 1,800 near Owen Sound, to the city just stretching its muscles.
It was not that big of a house. Four of us lived in the attic which may not have had height but at least there were stairs. There was only one bathroom but the tub was in the basement. We managed because no one tarried. Once when Margaret did with some chums, Uncle Dave quietly removed the bathroom door to teach her a lesson and looked in with horror at strange girls.
Margaret just died after a long fight. Because of the pandemic we haven't been able to gather and remember stories like that about the warm lady who became the matriarch.
And now Robert with his wry smile has gone too, suddenly, without even a corporal's guard.  And I wonder if his sons know about the Saturday night we were playing hide-go-seek at twilight and he found the perfect hideyhole behind the water heater. Unfortunately he stuck there and then started to scorch and we were trying to dismantle the heater when we pulled him out, removing some skin.
It was only possible because it was one of those rare occasions when Aunt Jennie had fled for some peace.
On another occasion when the fiery and wiry lady who dominated the home was away, Paul who sat on my left for meals got into a heated argument with Dave who sat on my right and they started wrestling. When Paul decided to stab Dave with a table knife, I appealed to Bill to help me break it up and Bill refused, observing that it looked like a very dull knife.
Bill has been dead for years. The charismatic imp who was the student president at Weston Collegiate and art college who tapped the phone to listen to sisters talk to their boyfriends and squeezed .22 bullets in a vise just to watch them ricochet off the walls.
Oh yes, there was an element of danger running through the agreeable chaos of Plewesville. And innovation too because Uncle Dave was a brilliant engineer who designed unique machines and the boys learned his ingenuity when they weren't crashing on ramps in the driveway.
Uncle Dave had grown in London where the Lombardo family lived just behind. Chicken thieves, he called them, even after Guy became one of the most famous band leaders in the world and employed his brothers, one of whom had a crooked nose that my uncle had broken.
Uncle Dave acted every day like he was auditioning for that unforgettable Digest section. He broke every rule of family, society and indeed life as he drank too much and flummoxed his family by starting construction on bits of the house and never finishing. He bought food and milk by the case and had to bargain to do it because stores were baffled by his demands.
We figured his oldest son, naturally named after him, would follow him to the engineering firm he ran in what is now Liberty Village but David rebelled at the natural fit despite his talent around machines.
David died a few years ago, so we no longer remember when he, Bill and I owned a 1930 Model A Ford. Like the evening we put a set of rear end gears in the wrong way and ended up with three speeds in reverse. So we drove it late at night in the summer quiet of Weston Rd. to see how fast we could go in reverse.
The annual family picnic will be missing more faces when we are finally allowed to have one in a Lindsay park. It has been shrinking from a hundred or so as many of us have passed the Biblical promise of three score years and ten.
With Margaret and Bob, there are now five deaths from the core, since Margy died a few years ago in the Maritimes where she worked teaching deaf/blind children. They made a movie when Helen Keller did it but Margy laboured for decades in anonymity except for grateful parents.
Big families aren't fashionable now, and some of my cousins, who are like brothers and sisters, remember when they dared to gossip about us in Weston (but not to our face.)
Before the huge advances in medicine that ended childbirth and childhood being more of a gauntlet to  endure than a celebration of life, it was common to have big families. You needed spares.
Like when this family began in 1899 when a 22-year-old distillers' hand, Willem Hoogstad, married 23-year-old Cornelia Creteer, daughter of a distillers' hand, in a suburb of Rotterdam.
Grandpa got religion and decided booze was not God's way. No work for him then. So the Salvation Army helped him come to Canada in 1905. There were nine daughters, four of whom died.
There were tough years in Chesley, but the five survivors learned to endure even as passions ran deep.  Four of them put the youngest, who always tattled, upside down in a full rain barrel and she only survived drowning because my grandfather accidentally discovered her. One became a missionary in Nigeria, my mother married a doctor more than twice her age, and Jennie and the other two went on to have large families that spawned farmers, teachers, ministers and nurses.
The girls didn't talk that often in their final years after an exhausting life. No gabbing across the distances between Weston, East York and Chesley. There is a lesson there for all of us as we try to ride out a pandemic, to escape an ending where we slip away in isolation, and our anecdotes, our "remember whens," fall to silent linoleum because there is no one there that has the time to listen.
Don't let the warm times, the magic moments, the embarrassments, dribble into black holes when you still have the opportunity to chat with friends and folks about the family tales of yesteryear.


Mike Strobel said...

Well done, Mr. Downing. I hope your next family gathering is brilliant. My condolences and all the best to you and yours. Strobel

Unknown said...

John, I enjoyed your piece. I hope my son's take a moment to read your stories and reminisces. These are difficult but not unexpected times for the Plewes clan.We are losing our elders to the inevitabilities of aging. In my view we have been blessed to grow and thrive in a wonderful family. So many have not grown up in such a warm and loving family and your words have captured the flavour of the Plewes family.

Thank you John.
Michael Prescott

dunf said...

This is beautiful.

Unknown said...

I grew up with Margaret and Anne we worked at post office during Christmas and dominion stores i was a Harris then and my family owned Davis fruit market Albion rd my condolences to Anne especially sorry for all your losses

Angel17 said...

I am sorry for your loss. I hope soon that your next family gatherings will be full of joy. Tree removal services