Fifty years ago today (July 29, 1973) my grandfather, Morrie, died.
I didn’t know him really at all (since I was 5 when he died). The few memories I had were…
- Him visiting us in Kingston, must have been in May, and he came with a surprise… a birthday present for my brother, a Siamese cat! I was completely delighted (my brother named her Maria, for the Aristocats) and saw how pleased Morrie was to bring this joy into our young lives (my family is a big cat family, my grandparents had a Siamese cat, Tuggy, when my dad was young. More on that later).
- Me visiting Vancouver, and to occupy myself while the adults were doing adult things, I started playing with the stuffed animals he had on his bed (I mean they are stuffed animals – a Winnie the Pooh and a Piglet – so I figured they were fair game for a youngster) and him coming into the room, seeing me playing and in his booming voice (which I confused for yelling) rebuking me for not asking permission. Even though those stuffed animals later came to me, I never played with them again.
And then the one of my experience of his death…I had gone to bed, after a day of exciting birthday celebrations, my presents all carefully placed under my bed. Then, sometime after I had gone to sleep I remember my father opening the door to my bedroom, I couldn’t see his face, as the light from the hallway created a kind of halo/aura behind his head, and he said, quite flatly…”Your grandfather has died.” My first thought was that I had a plastic sword as part of my birthday loot under my bed, and I could protect the rest of my family, if needed. What I didn’t know is how profoundly my life had changed, in that moment, with that one statement.
He was beloved by the Wilson side of the family, and I have heard many a story, including:
- Morrie name came from his maternal grandmother’s maiden name (Sarah Ann Morris). And he was born, raised and died in Vancouver. In 1917 they moved to a property in Dunbar Heights. During part of the construction of what was to become the family home Morrie and his father CH (Charles Henry) lived in a tent on the property. Apparently both bears and cougars came by to see what all the commotion was about. They had a phone installed at the construction camp, but for some reason it needed water to connect the circuits in order to work. So, whenever it would ring, CH sent Morrie scampering to fetch some water from the well, all the while yelling “We’re coming, we’re coming, we’re coming!”.
- My grandparents met at a New Year’s Eve party (must have been welcoming in 1930). Both had come with someone else, but clearly had more interest in each other. Their first official date involved going to the car hop at White Spot (recall that back in the day White Spot was a big deal, and an even bigger deal to have a CAR… to take someone to the car hop), and then skating on Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park. They were married that year on Aug 30th at Holy Trinity Anglican Church at 12th and Hemlock.
- I had always known Morrie as an avid pilot. I don’t know when or how he learned to fly, but he took to the sky and flying with ease! He was a member of a flying club in the 1930s. During WWII he was a flying instructor, based first in Vancouver, then across the country, and also briefly in the UK. In the 60’s he built a scaled down Spitfire, which he used to fly acrobatics in the Abbotsford Airshow.
- Morrie was a very hands-on creative. Always with projects/ideas/constructions on the go. From updating boats, to renovations to his home, his parent’s home and the Bowen Island cottage. He also had set up a secret spiral staircase passage to his basement workshop in the Evangeline building (at 13th and Granville, originally built by my great-grandfather in 1908). This workshop was divided from the rest of the basement by a series of second-hand doors hung together from the ceiling, thereby creating the illusion of a wall, but with a peculiar two-inch hap where the doors didn’t meet the floor. Here he invented things.
- He made Hercules, a labour-saving hydraulic device that lifted and lowered the ramp that Morrie had cut into the floor of the back passage so that heavy objects would be easily moved in or out. This is also how Morrie removed the scaled down version of a spitfire plane that he constructed. It order to extract the plane, he had to make the wings removeable, and the body of the plane was so small that even his slender torso just barely fit the cockpit.
- He acquired a bunch of theatre chairs, which he disassembled and then reassembled as hallway tables, secretariats and atlas stands. He created a special suite for the manager, using huge chains to suspend a half-floor from the stately ceiling of the former hair salon.
- He named the building when, during the renovations in the fifties he said “If she looks good, we will have her after mother, if not, I guess we’ll call her Maude.” Recent bylaws made it illegal to merge the two buildings. But instead of changing his plans, Morrie, with the help of my dad, at the time a UBC Engineering student, did the work under cloak of night. He snuck in the supplies and jacked up the building and then my father cut it in two with a chainsaw. Owing to the secrecy of this matter, none of the tenants were informed of the changes that were taking place. So, when Mrs. Palmer in suite #4 panicked over the recent ghostly visitations, as evidenced by gunshots going off in the middle of the night and cupboard doors spontaneously springing open and sticking shut (due to nails flying out of the walls as the foundations of the building resettled), Morrie could give no explanation.
- My grandmother has a cottage on Bowen Island, that her mother had purchased. When Morrie was courting my grandmother, her parents asked all the suitors to dig a well on the property, and then compare them. I make up that Morrie was a very competitive man, always wanting to be first, win the race, or generally stand out. Well clearly at this endeavour he shone. Morrie proved that he was the kind of man who could both get things done, and take good care of a wife and family.
- In the 1950’s there was a decision to build a new cottage on the Bowen Island property. And with Morrie driving the designs and work for it, you can believe it was not just built, but over-built. It is still standing and when I last went to visit the new owners, I again marvelled at how tricky it must have been to construct the house and deck on such a precarious piece of rock. And I was not surprised to see the whole south side of the building is a bank of window, that can slide open to the deck to take in a beautiful day.
- As mentioned, my family is a cat family. And the cat that has lived on in our collective memories is Tuggy. Tuggy was trainable, but also had a mind of his own. When he was first brought home there was a blanket set up for him in the basement, but apparently, he had no interest in sleeping down there, so in the middle of the night he tugged his blanket up the stairs and repositioned himself on the main floor. And yes, that is how he got him name. A favourite story was how during mealtimes the cat would join the family. Morrie had set up a highchair, such that Tuggy could sit at the dining room table with everyone else. And while grace was being said, early on Tuggy would place his paw on the table and start eating. Morrie quickly relieved him of this habit with a quick “tut-tut” whenever it happened, until Tuggy learned that would not be tolerated. I guess his eyes were only half-closed during grace.
- During the building of the new cottage Morrie saw fit to bring Tuggy to Bowen Island. At first he was kept on a leash, so as not to wander away permanently, but eventually was allowed to roam free, apparently once coming nose to nose with a deer.
- Morrie’s ashes were scattered at the Airmen’s Memorial in Stanley Park (not something, I suspect, that is entirely legal – but I don’t think that was the sort of thing Morrie concerned himself with). I wasn’t there for it, but I picture my father sneaking in at some less active time of day to surreptitiously deposit my grandfather in the park amongst the rocks, and trees and wandering water ways. I have, occasionally, gone to that spot on Remembrance Day, to pay my respects.
And these memories, written in my father’s hand (and I can feel his essence through the words and turns of phrase) in a document capturing memories from his childhood:
“Morrie was working at 13th on the renovation project, when he slipped between two joists and fell to the level of the main floor below. I was horrified, but things looked up when a woman peered through the door, which was open to the street, and screamed that a man had fallen to his death. When I heard Morrie tell her “Go to Hell!” and slam the door shut, I knew he was OK. We quit work early, and the evening we sat in our living room in half darkness, drinking rum (Morrie seldom drank), listening to records, and feeling glad to be alive and unharmed.”
“Morrie also wanted to do more longer-range flying, and in the late 1960’s he bought a four-seater low-wing single-engine aircraft of French manufacture (a Morian-Saulnier, as I recall). It was pleasant to fly, even for many hours at a stretch, and Morrie went on some trips to the States, and then decided to make a round trip to visit us in Kingston. The initial, eastward leg was through the USA, and the return leg through Canada. I flew back with him as far as Sudbury, enjoying doing a share of the flying (I had soloed in Cyprus, though I never actually had a license). Morrie “innocently” suggested that I do the landing at Sudbury, and I naively agreed. It happens that the approach to Sudbury airport passes through the effluent from the Falconbridge stack. As I turned the airplane into the final approach, I found myself engulfed in a blinding foul-smelling smoke. I begged Morrie to take over the controls. He laughed and did so, making a perfect landing.”
If course I most remember him for dying on my birthday, and for many years it coloured by birthday (albeit briefly, since I love my birthday so much, I would bounce back almost instantly). And I sure wish I had gotten a chance to know him better! It seems he was quite the character and there might have been more than a few things we had in common!!
Neither my brother nor I have children, so Morrie’s line stops here. That is why it feels so important to tell his story, celebrate his life (what parts I know of anyway). And I would love if anyone else has stories to share about him, so that we can keep his memory alive!