Preserved Stories Blog


Chapter 2: Family

Below is Chapter 2 of the draft of Graeme Decarie’s autobiography story.

Graeme, as noted at a previous post, encourages MCHS grads to write their own stories. We are posting chapters from his own work in progress, as a way to encourage other people to write their stories.

If you have a draft chapter in place, please send it to me and I will be pleased to post it at this website.

I’ve set up a separate Category, at the Preserved Stories website, for Autobiography Stories.

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Soryl Rosenberg and Graeme Decarie at a get-together in Montreal, May 2016. Both Soryl and Graeme taught at Malcolm Campbell High School in the 1960s. Photo source: Soryl Rosenberg. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

Chapter 2 – Family of Mr. Decarie’s autobiography story follows below; I have added headings for ease of online reading.

Family

I could hear the voice well over the rush of water into the tub. “Mexicali Rose, keep smiling. I’ll come back to you some sunny day….” Loud as it was, there was still lung power left for the soaring notes of the last lines, “Mexicali Rose, stop crying. Mexicali Rose, goodbye.”

Uncle Youbert had many a Mexicali Rose in his life. Of my father’s four brothers, Youbert is the one I remember best, though I knew him least.

The North End was a tough district to grow up in. Youbert was very tough. He was the last of five brothers, three of whom were big, strong and short tempered. Then there was uncle Allan who, though smaller, was a trained boxer, and would become a major figure as a coach in the Canadian boxing world. Youbert had to be tough, too, because he pretty much had to raise himself. It was as though my grandparents, in having five sons, had begun to lose interest after the first two.

It was never even clear where the name Youbert came from. The origins of it are probably middle eastern, so my best guess would be that it came from somebody in Montreal’s old Syrian district that began just a block or so from where we lived.

Youbert ran wild from early childhood. By age nine or ten he was already hanging out late into the night with street gangs, and had been long introduced to booze and cigarettes. Though not more than average size, he was a fighter from the start, and in his teens would pick up extra money in no holds barred street fights that brought him a cut of the betting money.

Graeme Decarie - 1962-63 Malcolm Campbell High School yearbook

Graeme Decarie . Source: Malcolm Campbell High School 1962-63 yearbook

By then, school was well behind him. He left in grade five or six, going to work for his father at Decarie Boiler. He got on well with the workers, most of whom would spend their whole pay on beer within a day, then go out looking for women who were attracted to men who spent their whole pay on beer within a day. Women liked Youbert with his rakish good looks, his careless grin, and his don’t-give-a-damn swagger.

His best friend was Horace Smith, a tall, powerful man with the strongest beer thirst and the lowest forehead I have ever seen on a human. Horace often said that Youbert would get in real trouble one day. Horace would know.

While he was still in his twenties, Horace tried to kill his father with an axe. He spent the rest of his life in a cell for the criminally insane.

We never had the details on exactly what sort of trouble Youbert was heading for. But we did learn something of his relationship with the law. One day, in his late teens, Youbert brought his father’s car to a stop at a traffic light. The car ahead of him was a police car. Youbert impatiently waited for the light to change.

My grandfather learned the rest of the story in a phone call from the police station. It seems the police car hadn’t moved on as quickly as Youbert thought it should. So he slipped his father’s car into gear, and gave the police car a bump. Could my grandfather come to the station and bail him out?

Mg grandfather hurried to the station, and was shown to a small room with a table and, sitting around it, uncle Youbert and several police officers. Youbert looked up with a grin. Not to worry, he said. He had already won enough to cover his bail.

I was seven, I guess, and alone in our flat on the summer evening when Youbert dropped by. I was sitting on the gallery, and spotted him half a block away. He had the confident walk of a tough guy who knows he’s tough, and curly hair and bold eyes that suggested his defiance of any rules. On this left shoulder was the bulge of a cigarette pack tucked in under his T shirt. As he crossed the street, I caught a glimpse of the quart bottle of liquor stuck in his back pocket that he took out for a swig in careless indifference to the law and anybody’s opinion.

“Hey,” he said. “I hear you got a piano.”

We had, indeed, got one. It was a treasure, a really old one with candlestick holders that swung out to light the music sheets. I had cost fifteen dollars, over a month’s pay. But my parents were determined that their children would have culture.

Uncle Youbert sat on the stool, pulled the bottle out of his pocket, had a swig, put the bottle at the end of the keyboard, and hit a chord. “Mexicali rose. keep smiling…” I was astonished. Uncle Youbert could play the piano, and play it in great, crashing chords.

On the last note, he reached for his bottle, took another swig, opened a bood that came with the piano, and launched into “As I walked out on the streets of Laredo..”

Two months later, I stood on the sidewalk in front of our church. The door to the church was locked. I had to explain to a group of boys waiting there, members of my father’s Wolf Cub pack, that may father would not meet the pack that night. His brother, Youbert was dying.

He lived for barely twenty years. But it was a wild and drunken twenty years; and it caught up to him in the form of tuberculosis. He died that evening, just about the time I met the boys of the Wolf Cub pack. The boys drifted off home. I watched some as they walked across the street from the church, through a vacant lot, and past the police station at the corner of Jarry and St. Hubert, the same police station where uncle Youbert had played poker with the cops to win his bail money.

“Mexicali Rose, goodbye….”

Uncles Irvin and Alex

Uncle Irvin and uncle Alec I rarely saw. They pretty well broke with their parents when they came of working age. Irvin went to work for Alcan, I believe, and became a VP, Alec had his own builders’ supply business. They each had one child, Gordon and Mary Ellen, and settled into the upscale suburb of Town of Mount Royal. All were quite wrapped up in themselves and their social pretensions. They might, very occasionally, visit my grandparents. They never visited us.

Uncle Alan and his wife never visited us, either. My father, my sister Winnifred, and I went to their place every New Year’s Eve. (My mother never came with us.) On one New Year’s Eve, we went as usual. Nobody was there. I have never heard an explanation of that; and we never went there again.

My mother never visited my grandparents. They disapproved of her, and made it no secret in their malicious and lying gossip. My grandmother was never in our house. My grandfather came only once – when my mother threatened him with a lawsuit for malicious gossip.

Of my mother’s siblings, her two brothers, Johnny and Danny, very occasionally came by. Danny’s wife was discouraged from visiting or contacting us in any way. (She was an alcoholic).

Aunt Dolly worked and lived in the US. The only time I ever saw her or had any contact with her was when I saw her on her deathbed in California.

Aunt Tilda and her husband, Sid

Aunt Tilda and her husband, Syd, on perhaps two occasions, came by to take us for a drive. (My mother gave them a quarter for the gas.) It was quite wonderful. The car was a two-seater and, when the trunk was pulled out, there was a bench seat called a “rumble seat’. Winnifred and I sat there, out in the open where everybody could see that we were in a car.

My mother’s twin sister, Aunt Maggie, married a paint salesman who had a car. Aunt Maggie flaunted her husband’s superior earning power for the rest of her life. She became, as my father said, “The duchess.” They occasionally visited, but never left the car. They would stop at the curb, honk the horn, and that was the signal for us to come down and stand by the car to talk through the windows to them. When we, much later, got a car, my aunt walked around it many times, commenting on how small and cheap it looked.

The twin sisters were constantly seeking to outbrag each other. Apparently, my mother frequently told her sister how brilliantly I was doing in school (even as I was flunking out); and then how I was getting promotions on an almost daily basis (“going up by leaps and bounds”) when I got a job as office boy at the Bell.

Their daughter turned out to be quite a decent person. But the son, Ross, already seriously hampered by gross stupidity, was subjected to constant badgering by his parents for his inability to meet my imagined successes. That may be why he grew up to be an unbearable braggart and liar. It certainly explains the evening , about 1980, when he pointed a loaded gun at me, threatening to kill me for the misery I had caused him while growing up. (I knew he wouldn’t shoot – though he said it quite seriously and probably meant it. His stupidity and bragging had long since put him into a separate reality.)

The extended family was not a close one.

Parents

Like their brothers and sisters, my own parents were strange, sometimes infuriating. But given their own upbringings, did a remarkably good job for my sister and me.

The strangeness did not mean they had much in common with the strangeness of the families they grew up in. My father was a non-drinker and non-smoker, a regular and active member of the church, and an effective volunteer as a scoutmaster. (Years later, former scouts from his troop would tell me how he had saved them from lives they might otherwise have led.) He was also a heavy reader, something that would have a profound effect on my life. That made him strange, indeed, in his own family.

He could also be clumsy, violent when angry, and a social misfit. He once walked over a newly carpeted floor in Winnifred’s house wearing heavily muddied rubber boots – and thought her objections to this more than a little fussy. He also, without asking, nailed (with large spikes) a wooden plaque he had made to the living room wall of a cottage I had just bought. As to the violence, a spanking from him was not to be forgotten.

Indeed, both of my parents were inclined to violence, including on each other. I can remember some royal battles in our little flat. In one of them, my father locked my mother in the bathroom. She banged on the door and screamed to be let out. My father sat a few feet away, reading a book and ignoring her. But the walls were paper thin, and the neighbours all outdoors must have heard the screams.

On another occasion, my mother sported a grotesquely swollen and purple eye. I don’t know the origin of it. But I remember sitting in a tram car with them at that time. The other passengers stared at my tiny mother with the big, black eye, then glanced at my very big and powerful father. He seemed indifferent.

When angry with us kids, my mother would hit with whatever was handy – a broom, a frying pan, the iron. My father would slap, punch, and beat savagely with a great, leather belt.

I grew into adulthood with the belief this was what a responsible parent was supposed to do.

Then there was my father’s habit of spitting from side to side with every step he took on the street – or anywhere else.

Piano lessons

My mother was the product of hard life with little education, an ignorant, uncaring, and violent mother, and a life of work that began before she finished the little schooling she had.

Whatever their faults or virtues, both had high ambitions for my sister and me; and both made sacrifices so we could have things they never did. Both Winnifred and I got piano lessons at a time when there was barely enough money for food. (Later, Winnifred took the dance lessons that shaped so much of her life. But the price was she had to take the piano lessons from me. As I remember it, that ended in a fearful row when I insisted, as her maestro, that she had to cut her fingernails very short to play the piano.)

They also had high expectations for us in school. (They were, as I would later realize, not high for most people; but very high, indeed, for our social class.)

They were crashingly disappointed with me when I began to flounder in grade nine. Curiously, they were equally upset and even furious when I decided to go to university, even more so when I went on to graduate school. My father was upset that this signalled I would not be going to work at the shop (which I was hopelessly unfitted for.) My mother feared I was trying to rise above my station. (She was deeply infected with the most rigid form of Scottish Calvinism.) Education was good. But too much was not good for people of our social class.

With Morgan on the Main

They were caring people – often awkward about it, often quarrelsome about it, sometimes violent about it. But they were caring. We always ate together as a family, (though my father commonly referred to supper as ‘burnt offerings’).We went to just about everything at the church together. We socialized with each other through long walks in the evenings, often of a couple of hours or more. (We couldn’t afford anything else.) My father got me involved in scouts; and we often hiked together for ten miles and more, on some occasions sleeping out with no shelter but a tree branch. He bought books for Winnifred and me almost every Saturday at a used book store. Within the limits they understood, they were good to us.

Perhaps there is one story that sums up the atmosphere of our childhoods…

I still have one of those books my father got at the used book store, With Morgan on the Main. I remember well the night I was reading it in the front room.

“Time for bed, Graeme. It’s a school night.”

The voice came from the kitchen. There was a wall between me and the voice, my father’s voice; but I easily pictured him, his face ruddy from a day of outdoor work, and his thick fingers, as always, cradling his latest book.

Ah-h-h…I was deep into the pirate world of Captain Morgan. I was right there on the deck with canvas straining and ropes singing as a Caribbean sun burned through my pirate shirt.

“Da-ad. I’m reading this great book.” I paused to let the reasonableness of it all sink in. “Just ten more minutes.”

“Now.”

Well, so much for being reasonable – because when my father said now he meant…well….now.

I closed the book, dragged my feet across the linoleum that just a moment before had been an oaken deck…when something on a shelf caught my eye.

It was a flashlight. An idea as brilliant as a thousand flashlights blazed at me. Isaac Newton must have felt like that, though in a smaller way, when he sat under a tree and an apple fell on him.

Another kid might have paused. But I was a kid who had faced down Spaniards on the tropical seas, and hacked his way through the jungles of Panama. It was the work of but seconds to pick up my book, grab the flashlight, turn off the room light, slide into bed, pull the blanket over my head, and switch on the flashlight.

I was back on a rolling deck, sunburned and windburned, my hand firm on the grip of my cutlass….

“Turn out the flashlight, and go to sleep.”

The sun vanished. The wind dropped. And the sea was stilled.

“How did you know I had a flashlight?”

There was a brief silence, then, “Because I was once eight years old, too.”

With a child’s instinct, I knew I had learned something important. But what? My first reaction was a warm thrill. Wow! My father had once been my age. He had done the things and felt the feelings I did. But it took years for the full lesson to sink in.

It all began because I did something wrong. I disobeyed my father. No big deal? Well, it was a big deal. Quite apart from me getting overtired for school, their was the need of a father to trust his child.

My father could have come down on me with a punishment, even a spanking. Certainly, he had done that before, and would do it again. If someone does something wrong, it’s natural for us to punish, to teach wrong-doers a lesson, to get even with them. That’s just the way most people think.

If my father had spanked me, I would certainly have learned a lesson. I had friends who learned that way. The lesson they learned was to make very sure they didn’t get caught in future.

He could have been generous – or what some people think is generous. He could have said, “No problem. Forget it.” But it was a problem; and forgetting it would just make the problem worse; and that does nobody any favours.

No. My father went right to the heart of the problem; and the heart of the problem was him – and me – and it was all of us. That was the meaning of “I was once eight years old, too.”

Forgiveness

Once we realize that we, too, do things that are wrong, we can look into ourselves for an understanding of why others do things that are wrong. Then we can deal with the problem in an effective way – to cure it, and not just to create a new and bigger problem.

Oh, it’s not an original idea. It’s as old as the most ancient of the world’s great religions. You’ll find it in Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam. It’s called forgiveness. You don’t even need to be religious. It makes sense; it works. Too bad that so few of us have every learned that.

On that night, so long ago, it worked wonderfully well. I went to bed with, instead of a sore bottom and anger, the words, “I was once eight, too.”, words that carried me happily to sleep. As a bonus, they also gave this child a lifetime of memories.

Entertainment

With electronics limited to radio and, occasionally, a scratchy, wind-up record player, we got together with friends; and we entertained ourselves. When my parents’ friends visited, we often gathered around the piano to sing. Since the 1970s, at least, popular music, like rock, has been largely tuneless, squawking, and with unintelligible words. That’s okay for crowds who just want to sit passively or hold their hands up in a V sign. But you couldn’t have a bunch of friends around the piano just squealing and waving. So we sang old songs. With tunes. With words. “A Shanty in Old Shantytown”, “I Wandered today to the Hill, Maggie”. And hymns. Lots of hymns. And my father would often play an old, old five-string banjo, “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie” or “On the Banks of the Wabash”.

It was for that reason, when I was seven, my parents made a huge sacrifice to get a piano. It was quite old, so old it had candlestick holders built onto it. I, and later, Winnifred, would take lessons at the astronomical price of fifty cents a week. By the time I was twelve or so, I was the pianist when friends visited.

Eve Stervinou

A frequent visitor at those musical sessions was Eve Stervinou, whose favourite song was “Mighty Lak a Rose”. Mrs. Stervinou lived in our district, and attended our church, and was welcome in our home. And nobody thought anything of it.

Now, you have to understand that in our poverty we were proud of our respectability. We were as properly Victorian as the Victorians never were. Even the coarsest and crudest of us had a claim to respectability in our church. When I got the Sunday prize for memorizing bible verses, Stanley, the kid who sat beside me and would grow up to become something of a thug, muttered, “You lucky buggar.” And no-one thought that an unreasonable comment.

But Eve was a bit odd because there was no Mr. Stervinou. I don’t know whether there ever was, but I do know I never heard of one. Now, in our social setting, divorce was the utter unspeakable and unthinkable. Not to have a husband in the first place, and while having two daughters, was, well, it just didn’t happen. But there was Eve.

She was regularly in church, and there were no conspiratorial nudges or grins, no disapproval. She was good friend of my parents, and regularly visited our flat, as we visited hers.

Oh, and she was a nightclub entertainer. Those were the glory days when Montreal nightclubs were world class, the days before TV when the nightclub was the only source of stage entertainment for the price of just a few beers. Montreal was a magnet for jazz musicians from all over North America. And the clubs, run in wide open style by the mob complete with hookers and gambling, pretty well ran the city.

And they meant jobs for women who normally couldn’t get them. Black women, for example, could hope for nothing more than baby sitting or char work. The club was a way out. And so it was that the girls you saw dancing in the chorus on Saturday night were the same girls you might see in the choir of the church in the Black ghetto behind the CPR station on Sunday morning.

The situation was much the same in those days for white women. So Eve worked in the clubs.

She was a whistler. They billed her as The Whistling Nightingale. It still meant she lived in poverty – but it was a poverty which was better than nothing at all.

By the time I was twelve, I could play most popular stuff on the piano, so Eve would bring sheet music – like Mighty Lak a Rose. I’d play, and everybody would gather around the piano, and we’d sing the opening chorus – and then Eve would whistle…

We moved when I was fourteen, and I forgot Eve for the next sixty years. Then I heard she had married in New York, and her husband had died. In fact, he was her fifth husband. Eve, then in her nineties, decided the east coast was not for her. So she climbed into her old VW and drove, alone, to Los Angeles.

I heard no more. And thought no more. Until I found that old copy of Mighty Lak a Rose. I took it to the piano and played the verse.

And I’m sure I heard a whistle joining in.

 

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One Response to Chapter 2: Family

  1. Jaan Pill Jaan Pill says:

    I had a conversation with Graeme about a name, as I worked on the posting of the draft of Chapter 2 – Family. Here are some of the points that he shared, in the course of our conversation; the following text is from Graeme Decarie:

    My grandfather’s factory was on St. Hubert St.

    (There’s no St. Hubert, either [that is, no saint by that name]. When Montreal bought the property for the street, in the early 20th C., the farmer who owned made it a condition that it had to be named after him. So the city did name it after him – and they called it St. Hubert.)
    So far as I know, Youbert is a name from the middle east.

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