My father Merlyn was not the adventurous type. He was the 4th of 6 children of parents Bessie and Clarence Wolfe and had grown up just outside of Vienna on a beef farm. The furthest he moved from the family farm was about 5 miles. Dad was a momma’s boy and a committed son. A handsome guy, with a charming smile, he was a charismatic sort. He stood 5’8”, about 180lbs, with jet black hair, hazel eyes, forearms like Popeye and a work ethic to match his determination. Hunting and fishing were a passion and a common respite from the physical demands of his day to day routine. He was not much of a student and rather than do homework, he entered the school of hard knocks after struggling through grade 10.
My mother Jean was born in Pontiac Michigan. I never knew the story behind this, but suspect she may have been a “surprise”, her parents escaping to stay with relatives in the US, while the baby was born away from prying eyes. She grew up just west of Aylmer in a hamlet called Kingsmill to parents Mildred and Elmer Mossey – a small town girl, with a rebellious side. She was about 5’3” and very attractive with a killer smile, shoulder length light brown hair and emerald eyes. It was not uncommon for her to sneak out of the house, to meet up with her friends Verna Woods and Teresa Johnson.
Best friend Verna had flaming red hair and a personality to match – the 2 of them always pushing boundaries. Mom was often at odds with her parents. Out of exasperation, my grandparents finally sent their rebellious teen to live with her Grandmother Williams, near Springfield for her final year of high school – likely to try and keep her out of trouble. The strategy failed miserably and had a huge impact on her life as a result.
Love at First Sight
As fate would have it, my parents met at a local dance hall on a hot summer night on the Port Burwell beach in 1945. It was love at first sight. A few months later they were married. Despite her adventurous nature, mom was an excellent student and became a school teacher at 18 years old in a one room school house, east of Port Burwell. Dad with help of my Uncle Lyle Grant, began a custom trucking business. Mom was 21 and dad was 24. They had $15 in cash between them.
Start of a Career
Lyle owned Grant Motors, a GM dealership in Straffordville and was married to dad’s sister Madge. He had graciously financed a loan so dad could purchase a stake truck to begin his new venture. Soon he was building a business through hard work and determination. There were no hoists on his trucks at that time, so he shoveled gravel on and off his truck for his clients. The same was true for greenhouse “muck”, tobacco bales, fertilizer etc. It was backbreaking work.
One truck led to 2, and 2 led to a tractor trailer and a combine to do custom work for local farmers. He was always working – driven by the unrelenting desire to be a good provider for his new wife and young family. I remember him working long days, leaving early and often coming home late in the evening, generally filthy dirty.
And Then There Were Four
Initially, mom and dad had trouble conceiving, so they decided to adopt. Enter my sister Kim. At 6 months old, she was the apple of their eye. A couple of years later in February 1955, mom gave birth to the author of this blog. Who knew she would produce someone famous!! 😊 Once they had achieved perfection, they decided 2 children was enough. My parents finally had a “million dollar family” – a boy and a girl…….Or was there more to the story? A twist that took decades to discover.
Kim grew up worshipping my dad. I seemed to resonate more with mom. Likely because Dad never seemed to have enough time to give me the attention I was seeking as an active young lad. I resented that he seldom showed up at my games. I vowed I would be different and tried to make sure that never happened to my kids. As a result, I seldom missed many functions while they were growing up, sometimes being involved with 3 teams simultaneously. Who would have guessed that decision would lead me to coach various sports for over 25 years? It’s true that our lives are often shaped by previous experiences.
Moving to the ‘Burbs
After renting several homes in the area, mom was getting tired of taking the “slop bucket” outside every morning to dump in the bitter cold. They decided to build their own home and chose a lot in “downtown” Vienna – as fate would have it, beside Bill Bugler’s grocery store (he of the new Buick). It was a modest bungalow on the corner of Main St (Highway 19) and Elm St. We had a big willow tree in the front yard and the proverbial white picket fence around the property. Beside the house was an oversized garage to shelter dad’s combine during the off season and a shop for dad to do repairs.
Mom and dad were active socially, having lots of friends as is often the case in a small community. Most of dad’s sibling were within a few miles, so there were many family functions to attend and/or host. Euchre parties were a common pastime, and local dances were a priority. Sunday dinners were almost always big events, with extended family or friends in attendance.
Things were going well for the active young couple. Dad’s business was growing. Mom was raising 2 active young children and teaching elementary school locally. Then one day when I was around 3 years old, she awoke with a headache that continued to get worse. Life was about to change.
Honey I have a Headache
Mom continued to suffer through dizzy spells and balance issues for some time in her early 30s. She went to several doctors, who could not get to the bottom of the issue. One even told her the problem was imagined – all in her head as it were. It turns out that was very ironic, as eventually she was referred to Dr Charles Drake in London, who went on to become a world famous brain surgeon. He discovered she had a very unusual type of brain tumour, called a basilar tumour – and it was the size of a grapefruit, entangled with the nerves at the bottom of her brain stem.
It was Dr. Drake who, in 1958, devised a method of getting to this extremely delicate area by entering in front of and above the ear. His list of degrees, appointments, professorships, accomplishments and awards were seemingly endless. His discoveries and techniques are still in use all around the world. In short, it’s probably fair to say Dr. Charles Drake may be as relevant to the field of neurosurgery as Galileo was to the world of astronomy.
Mom’s surgery was March 9, 1960, barely 2 years after Dr Drake’s discovery. Imagine the fear! Would she live or would she die? If she died who would look after her kids? That was 62 years ago!!
Dr Drake performed 1000’s of brain operations after mom, and I like to think she helped pave the way for many that were much more successful than her own. She lost her hearing in her right ear, her sight in her right eye, and was paralyzed on the right side of her face, forcing her to drink through a straw for the remainder of her life and require multiple dental procedures. To the day she died, she idolized Dr Drake and credited him for saving her life. I seldom heard mom complain about the after effects of the surgery, but I know the physical changes were a devastating blow to her self-worth and self-esteem.
She would remain in hospital for 29 days in total at a cost of $3/day. A further eye surgery would cost $45, with a followup neurological consult costing $50. My how things have changed!
Getting on with Life
Mom went on to recover, but the physical damage was devastating emotionally. She hated to have her picture taken, felt the stares of prying eyes and was incredibly self conscious of her changed looks. But she was one tough cookie. It was one of several obstacles she would face in her life.
She continued to teach for several years and when the opportunity arose, became the head librarian of the new Vienna library. She was a voracious reader and loved to play the organ. In addition to library duties, she was a “farm wife”, responsible to care and feed for what must have seemed like an army of workers through harvest season. Breakfast at 6am for up to 12 people, never less than bacon and eggs. Lunch always included a big meal with at least 2 home made pies. Dinner was much the same. She was a busy lady with little time for a social life. It was not a life for the faint of heart.
Buying the Farm
In 1965 dad, along with bothers Roger and Bob Causyn, partnered to buy a tobacco farm on a hill overlooking Vienna from the east. Roger always referred to Vienna as “the pit”, as it was nestled in a valley and so insisted naming the property “Pittview Farms”. Both Roger and Bob had their own tobacco farms – Roger on the 4th concession of Vienna and Bob near Langton.
Dad continued to run his custom trucking company, while they hired sharecroppers to manage the 200 acre farm. It soon became apparent that the sharecroppers could not meet dad’s expectations and in 1968 we moved to the farm to take over the reigns.
Developing a Work Ethic
He was a hard driving perfectionist. In my mind, nothing I did was ever up to his standards and it became a battle. I knew better than to talk back to him, but we had our battles in the fields. He often used me as an example in front of the other harvesters, to make a point – never realizing that they weren’t getting the point – and laughing at me for taking the brunt of the criticism.
“A penny saved is a penny earned”, “save for a rainy day” and “it’s not what you make, it’s what you save”, were axioms often drilled into Kim and I. We rolled our eyes at the time, but those words have shaped many decisions as I have navigated life.
I eventually requested to leave the antagonism of the fields and become the “kiln hanger”, where I could work on my own and be away from the constant barrage of negativity. The job required you to walk on a plank about 10 inches wide and 15 feet long, as much as 20 feet in the air. As slats tied with tobacco leaves were transported into the belly of the kiln via an “elevator”, the kiln hanger had to take them off the elevator, hang the slat between the planks in the upper part of the kiln, return within about 5 seconds and do it again. It took about 1200 trips up and down that plank to fill the kiln for the day. It was hard work, but I was much happier there.
As much as I hated dad’s “forced labour”, the work ethic he instilled in me has served me well in my life. I have learned the hard way, that when you are teaching your children life lessons, they are often absorbed through osmosis rather than a hammer.
These early lessons shaped many future decisions. I have often told my own kids that sometimes you have to find out what you DON’T want to do, before you know what you DO want to do. That is the definition of experience.
As I finished high school, university was not a priority and dad had plans for me to take over the family farm. Turns out that I was a lot more adventurous than he and apparently far less risk averse. I had other ideas, none of which involved the family farm.