Friday, March 10, 2017

There's a long long trail a-winding *

Finton Sanburn O'Donnell was born on May 12, 1896, in Carroll's Crossing, Northumberland Co., New Brunswick on the upper reaches of the Miramichi River.

On November 9, 1915, he travelled to Sussex, NB where he enlisted in the 104th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Six months later, on June 28, 1916, the Battalion embarked at Halifax on the S.S. Olympic (the older sister of the Titanic and the Brittanic) and set sail for Europe. (If you click on the pictures, you'll be able to read the small print.)

I never heard him talk about the war but I do know that he fought in the north of France and in Belgium. I connect him with Passchendaele and his service record seems to suggest that he fought at Vimy Ridge. Right at the end of his CEF Soldier Detail form, there's a cryptic note that suggested he might have been killed at Vimy. Look at the very last line:

He wasn't killed at Vimy but it may have been there that he picked up all those pieces of shrapnel that remained embedded in his body for decades after. I have a clear memory of him being in the hospital — I think it would have been in the '60s — for "removal of World War I shrapnel." If he went back to Vimy today, he would find it has changed although there may be landmarks he would recognize. It looked like this when we visited in 2015.

After the war was over, when he came back home, he married my mother's oldest sister — Lou, or Lulu. She had been teaching at the little school in Durham Bridge where she and her brothers and sisters had grown up. At some point after they got married, they moved to Smoothrock Falls in Northern Ontario where two of Lou's brothers had settled with their families.

But their future was in Durham Bridge. They came back and lived with Lou's family — their only child, Cedric, was born there — while Fint built the house that I visited throughout my young life.

The house is still there, in a lovely shady yard not that easily seen from the road.

It was a pretty house. It has some charming features that were particularly attractive to little girls. There were inviting built-in bookshelves in the triangular space beneath the stairs. Lulu had lots of books that we loved reading, including most of the works of L.M. Montgomery in old-fashioned hard-cover editions. I was reading one of them one day when it came time to leave and she insisted I take it with me. I still have it.

Upstairs, there was a cozy bed at the end of the hall, built into the space where the two slanted walls of the roof met. It was where I slept when we stayed overnight and I liked it partly because I could see whatever coming and going there was in the night, being out there in the hall. It showed a lot of imagination and creativity to have built that little bed in that space. People with less imagination might have simply put a table there — not nearly as interesting.

The screened-in sunporch at the front of the house was the chosen place for spending an afternoon during a summer visit. I can still feel the soft breeze and almost smell the fragrance from the flower garden, not far beyond where we sat. The women always sat on one end of the porch, the men on the other. There would be tea.

As with most country houses though, the kitchen was the heart of the house and the focal point in the kitchen was the built-in sofa/day bed. It was an inviting spot and I spent many an hour curled up there, reading. It seems odd to me now but it seemed perfectly natural then that stacked near the bottom of the day bed was a pile of The Illustrated London News. We often walked with Fint up the railway tracks to the station to get the mail and I remember a couple of times, a bunch of The Illustrated London News would have arrived. It was an occasion; those papers were much anticipated.

The kitchen sink with a water hand-pump was in front of a low window that looked out onto the garden. There were the usual rows of vegetables but the spectacular parts of the garden were the flowers. There were sweet peas and gladiolas, roses and pansies, cosmos, zinnias, marigolds, nasturtium. Those flowers were magnificent. At a certain point in the summer, every room in the house would be adorned with bowls and vases full of roses. It was a touch of such beauty and elegance.

Fint reputedly was not that fond of children but he seemed to like Marilyn (my sister) and me and we spent a lot of time with him. The land that belonged to the family was rented out and farmed by a neighbour but Fint still liked to take a walk down through the fields and he often took us with him, especially when there was haying or harvesting being done.

Although he had retired from working the farm, he kept some chickens and a black cow called Lady in a small barn not that far from the house. I was a little scared of Lady although not when she was in the barn. We loved being there when Fint was milking Lady. There were cats and kittens in the barn and he would send a stream of milk toward them and the cats would leap with open mouths to catch some milk, nice and fresh. He sat on a three-legged stool and milked into a shiny metal pail and from there, the milk went into a beautiful large amber pitcher, right into the fridge.

One time, Fint took us up the road to a supper in the community hall. It was baked beans, brown bread, potato scallop and ham. I'm not sure why no one else went to the supper but Marilyn and I were happy to go along with him. It was a good supper too and looking back, I remember how respectful all the people there were toward Fint. I had never seen him except in very familiar family situations and it was nice to see that his neighbours felt so warmly toward him.

Lulu did most of the cooking in the household, as far as we knew, but apart from that, she sat in her rocking chair like a tiny Queen. She was said to be "delicate," which caused her younger sisters to scoff. "She'll outlive us all," they often said and indeed, she did.

She was always nicely turned out and it was no secret that Fint regularly took the bus into town — Fredericton — where he exchanged her library books, bought a box of chocolates, and brought dresses and shoes home "on approval." She would make her choices and on his next trip, he'd return the rejects.

When Lady and the chickens were gone and he needed more challenges, he built a workshop just across the yard from the backdoor of the house. It was another place that he welcomed us and I loved going out to the workshop. Inside, there was a workbench on one end with every kind of saw and a good selection of tools. In the far corner, there was a cot and along the opposite wall, a pot-bellied stove. There was a record player with a selection of 78 rpm records that he was using to learn another language — Russian, I think.

Near the window, there was an easel where Fint painted pictures, usually still life of fruit or flowers. He built the wooden frames to put around his pictures. The floor was covered with curls of newly-planed wood. I loved the smell of the shop, the fresh wood, the paint, the turpentine.

He built furniture also. Mum had a sturdy little end table in her den that he'd built.

And he built this:

My lovely little bookcase — always called "the Sharon bookcase" — has now been with me for several decades. Its first home was in my bedroom when we still lived in the "hydro houses" in Chatham. It stayed home with Mum and Dad for awhile but it's now part of my furniture and has been for many years and in lots of houses. It's just outside the kitchen door here — a high-traffic area — and it's full of cookbooks which seem to suit it very well.

When I look at it closely, I see what a labour of love it truly was.

That's a little drawer along the top and the letters that spell my name are cut from wood and painted silver. Think of the work! I wish I had appreciated it then the way I appreciate it now.

It was the bookcase that inspired me to write about Fint. He really was such an interesting person. I had no idea when I was little. How would I know? But when I look back at the man who built such an interesting little house with such imaginative details; who was teaching himself another language; who read The Illustrated London News; who grew the most beautiful flowers ever and also painted their portraits; who built a personalized bookcase for his little niece never knowing that more than half-a-century later it would hold pride of place wherever I lived, I'm filled with admiration.

When you hear the expression, "a life well-lived," you don't always think of a life like Fint's, a life on a small farm in central New Brunswick, in sleepy little Durham Bridge.

I think his life qualifies though and I would like to think he thought so too.


* As often happens, I have no particular reason for choosing my headline except for a song that keeps running through my head as I write. I do think of the First World War when I think of Fint although I think of many other things too. But I like this song and I listened to a version that was recorded by John McCormack in 1917. You can listen to it too. You don't have to download it. You can click right at the top of the page where it says Vintage Audio. (Adjust the volume on your keyboard. It opens very loud.)

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