talks‎ > ‎

Libraries, family, and culture

I'll start with my earliest memories of the Woodbridge Library from visits with my mother Joyce in the '50s. The librarian in those days was Helen Schaller's mother--Helen's here tonight--Mrs. Frederica Howell. What I remember from my childhood is a small single-storey building on the north side of Woodbridge Avenue, then Pine Street, not far west of Clarence, where, I think, that little two-bench parkette between the laundromat and the barber is today. I know now that there had been books available in that building since 1883, when it was built, by John Abell, as a Mechanics Institute, to meet the reading requirements of the young men from England he employed at his Agricultural Works, which stood where the rubber factory used to be, and where one day soon I suppose there will be more condos. I remember the library only from 1958, when it had been renovated to accommodate either--and which is not clear in my memory--the village Council Chambers or the police station. There were two doors on the sidewalk, the east opening directly into a single aisle with books on either side. There may have been two aisles, or even three. I remember only one. The space had that somewhat depressing, musty smell of old books, there was hardly enough room for two people to pass, and both sides were solid books to the ceiling.

As a child I was amazed by the number of books a person could choose among, even down a single aisle. And how each choice opened into an entire world, far deeper and more complex and mysterious than my own, and yet, somehow, in ways that were yet to be fathomed by me, with information of vital importance to my life. I remember being daunted by the choice, and I remember being daunted too by the realization that everyone--not just myself--could find in that wealthy corridor worlds that suited their own. And that was a scary thought to me, that all these worlds, so vast, so different, so contradictory, could still exist in one apparently harmonious space. And people could come in here and smile and greet each other in whispers and yet go away with completely unreconcilable worlds under their arms. It seemed like a prescription for chaos, and yet somehow it worked. One thing I always expected to find out in there was why.

Now, the other half of that tiny building that held the library was, as I say, either the council chambers or the police station. Or both. What I remember is that you left the aisle of books by passing through this other side of the building and out the other, west door, to the sidewalk. This perhaps can't be, but it's how I remember it.

And remembering it this way brings me to my father. Ab wasn't reading much yet in those days, and him I identified with that other half of the building, because he was on town council and therefore connected to the forces of law and order as represented by Herb Weatherall, Chief of Police for Woodbridge, and there it was again, order emerging another way, not by reading, but by authority and by democratic government.

My father once said that when he was a young man all he cared about was being physically strong, and when I was a young child he was still boxing and playing hockey when he wasn't asleep on the chesterfield. But about the time I started to read--which was late, I didn't have any kind of schooling at all, except Sunday School, until I was seven, and I didn't really start to read much until I was ten--About the time I started to read, so did my father, and to write, and to think. I may be wrong, but I believe that in some way my academic successes gave him the confidence in early middle age to resume his own education, which had ended when he had left school in Grade 8.

Shortly before he died, in 1983, at the age of 66, my father wrote about 15,000 words of a memoir that 4 or 5 years later I finally gathered the emotional courage to read. It was the story of his early life, written in the way that people write about the past when they are concerned to emphasize the positive for the benefit of those to come. But more than this, two things struck me about my father's story. The first was how much good writing it contained. The second was what a great effect his own father, Charlie, had had on my father's life and yet how little he knew about him: where he had come from or what passed through his mind. Now, some of you will know that my father's sister, Mary Wood, published in 1984, the year after my father died, a picture history of Woodbridge, which was dedicated to his memory.

Mary was the family historian, but Mary was never particularly fond of her father Charlie, for various reasons including his decision to go fishing instead of to her wedding, and Mary's researches, as far as I know, were solely on her mother's side of the family, the Duncan side. So I grew up with a great silence around Charlie. Recently my mother handed me a pile of birth, death, and marriage certificates by which within half an hour we were able to trace her line, the McGlashan line, back to Scotland in the late 18th Century. But I've never known anything about the Hollingsheads, except what I found on my own at the British Library: that they probably originated in Cheshire, in England, and that the family crest features a fabulous creature called a bonicon, which is a bull with twisted horns that has the wonderful ability of firing flaming shit at its enemies. Needless to say, the Hollingshead family motto translates as "Never cross a Hollingshead."

And then lately, over the past few weeks, a distant cousin in Burnaby, B.C., with help from Ruth Burkholder of Stouffville, has been providing me with my genealogy on my father's side, back 27 generations. I know you'll be happy to hear I'm not going to go into all the details. But I will mention the necessary but insufficient reason we're here today, and that is Antony Hollingshead, one of many Hollingsheads who had lived since the mid-17th C in what is now New Jersey, near Philadelphia: Antony came, in 1783, to Canada as a United Empire Loyalist. After twelve years in Digby, N.S., he qualified to be given, as a Loyalist, 400 acres on Yonge Street in Vaughan but petitioned the government to be given his land on the east side of Yonge, in Markham--I can't imagine why he'd prefer Markham to Vaughan. Anyway, he was successful in his petition. Over the next 20 years Antony and his wife Elizaboth Conrow and their sons and daughters--of whom they had seven--patented about 2000 acres of land around Yonge St. in York, Vaughan, Markham, and King.

In 1803 Antony's son George, who, like his father, had fought on the British side in the American Revolution but gone to N.S. earlier, staying on longer, also came to Ontario and was given 200 acres in East Gwillimbury, near Queensville. George eventually sold his land and left his wife and nine children to join the Children of Peace, a Quaker splinter group, more liberal--being lovers of ceremony and music--and their temple still stands at Sharon, north of Newmarket.

One of George's sons was Samuel, who died in King Township in 1885, and one of Samuel's and Elizabeth Davis's 14 children was William, who with Elizabeth Crosson had seven children, one of whom was my grandfather Charles Albert: Charlie, born in King in 1873. When Charlie was nine his father William died, and though within the year his mother had remarried, to William Blanchard, life was tough, if it hadn't been already, for young Charlie, who if he was like his younger brother Sam was working for his living by the time he was ten.

But I'm not talking about hardship, I'm talking about the fact that by 1925, when he was 42 and working as a gravedigger for 25 cents an hour, Charlie was able to pay $4,000 cash for a new house, which still stands--though in 1961 when No. 7 was widened it was turned 90 degrees on its foundations--at the NE corner of Lansdowne and that highway. In that house and a few others in Woodbridge, and altogether within a radius of about two miles from the house in Pine Grove where he was born--in that house my father grew up with his brother Bev--whose daughters Beverly and Susan are here this evening--and his sister Mary--whose son Wayne and his wife Anne are also here--my father lived his entire life--except for the war years--and while he was working at Robinson Cotton Mills he met and married, in 1943, Joyce McGlashan, and so here we all are. And with us is my wife Rosa Spricer and our son David, who is already a writer and is wondering why his father is going on and on about all this boring old stuff.

This is history, but I'm talking about culture. A child glimpses entire strange worlds of possibility in a small library. Like his father and at about the same time, he starts to read and write. At the age of 48 he finally publishes a book called The Roaring Girl that a lot of people notice. One of them is a man who can tell him who his paternal ancestors are back 27 generations. This is interesting to the writer, who never knew these stories. And maybe one day he'll find a way to write some of them. (As he says this, people stir uneasily.) He'll write the stories as fiction, of course, because he's a fiction writer. (This doesn't necessarily reassure anyone.) Meanwhile, on the occasion of the unveiling of a plaque honouring himself and his book and his family in the community, he tells a little bit of that history. Of course, there are millions of stories. Far more than there ever will be books. And everybody's story is completely different. And everybody's story is exactly the same. And this is culture. The necessary and sufficient reason we're here.

 

------"Libraries and Culture." Address at City of Vaughan Public Library, Woodbridge, Ontario, June 1997.