Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Hymn to George Cusden, My Father!

He was born, George Cusden, in Alvinston in 1905, son of a baptist pastor and a kindergarten teacher-mother, the eldest of four that included a younger brother and two younger sisters. It was a spartan life, from all reports, depending on the resourcefulness of the imagination for play and the closeness of siblings for warmth, companionship and interaction.
Both parents were severe disciplinarians, especially on themselves, and worked hard to make ends meet.
The children spoke of frozen water in the wash basin on cold winter mornings, so meagre was their income that fuel came at a high cost, and was usually in short supply. His sisters spoke of "never witnessing a word of conflict between their parents" as a badge of honour, although today, some, including your scribe, wonder if this scenario was more a sign of repression on both parts, and perhaps even a little apprehension on his part, anticipating the critical parent, especially from his kindergarten teacher spouse.
 His first baseball "glove" consisted of heavy brown leather stuffed with straw, and he kept it for all of his ninety-one years, a token of a childhood long ago, far away, yet never out of sight or memory. His large muscular hand filled that "mitt" as he invariably called it, and with his long right arm he never tired of throwing the ball, whether in a real game or just a "game of catch."
His father, John, had sailed alone from England in 1898, coming to Canada as an Anglican curate, although upon arrival, he enrolled in the Baptist training school at McMaster, and served in four Baptist charges including: Alvinston, Burgessville, Thornberry and Parry Sound.
In the last of those four charges, the congregation, apparently, according to several sources of 'oral history', demanded that he remove from the pews and from church membership, at least one family whose pedigree was not "up to snuff" as perceived by those responsible for the operation of the church. They were poor, shabbily clad and probably lacked a full and complete education, even to the end of high school. Also according to the same sources, the pastor, my grandfather, refused, and was summarily dismissed from his post.
Naturally, an already strained family budget was now replacd by an empty cupboard and ice-box, and while the ex-clergy took work gardening the town 'park' that enclosed the cenotaph, the eldest son sought full-time work in a local lumber yard, bearing the name, Johnson's Lumber. His father, according now to family reports, became exceedingly depressed, and after being discovered to have attempted to take his own  life (by his eldest son), was admitted to the hospital in Whitby, then for the mentally ill. His tombstone declares his death date as 1925; so his eldest son knew his father for a mere twenty years.
Both sons now having secured employment, one in the lumber yard, the other in a retail business, their two sisters were soon ready to enrol in nursing school, while their mother was constrained to "take in borders" as the family oral history remembers it and passed it along.
My father, George, in 1922, having transferred from the lumber yard to the hardware and building supply business owned and operated by the family that founded the town of Parry Sound, the Beatty family, soon met and began dating a young woman who had moved to town from Brent, a sparcely populated location of a CNR roundhouse managed by her father in the northwest section of Algonquin Park. In the late 1920's, she enrolled in the nursing school at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, where he would visit her from time to time, sitting up to sleep on the all-night train after leaving work at 11:00 p.m. on Saturday night, arriving early Sunday morning for a brief visit, before having to catch the return train home in order to arrive back for work on Monday morning, following another all-night train ride home. That endurance and the calm with which he underwent most of his life, help to define the man I know as my Dad.
He had known what today we would call "extreme poverty" in his youth; he had also developed a sense of maturity, having become the 'man of the house' as the eldest son, upon the illness and death of his own father.
His sisters quite literally adored their two brothers, and following graduations, one from Kingston General Hospital, and the other from Sick Children's Hospital in Toronto, would visit at least annually their two brothers still in Parry Sound, from their respective residences in Toronto and Kingston.
These annual visits, frequently coincided with Christmas vacation from school for me, and eventually for my sister, born in 1954, when I was twelve. These two nurses, our aunts, also developed a long-standing tradition of taking their month-long vacations at a rented cottage on Georgian Bay, until they found one they purchased, and that became their eventual retirement home, after some winterizing and retrofitting. These vacations were shared by many other practicing nurses, some head nurses, some former army nurses who had transferred to the Canadian Red Cross following the second war, some former classmates from nursing school, and even one pediatrician who taught at the Queen's Medical School, and his wife.
Naturally, our family were invited to meals hosted by Rowena and Eleanor, or as my sister and I preferred, "Auntie Row" and "Auntie Eleanor," known mostly by her friends as "Tommy" in honour of the famed British soldier "Tommy Atkins".The "guests" at Row and Eleanor's cottages, both rented and owned, became a window on the outside world for children raised in the confines of what is commonly regarded as the "most conservative town in Ontario," Parry Sound. They gladly told stories of world travels, experiences in other lands, as if they knew implicitly of the provincialism that both protected and limited children from the little town, dependent as it was primarily on government cheques to civil servants for its winter survival, while in the summer American dollars flowed up and down the "main drag" known as James Street, being lavishly spent by U.S. Republican tourists, some of whom even landed on tour ships out of Duluth Minnesota.
These "boat people" would patronizingly and generously throw pennies to the dock below where the local kids would "scramble" to retrieve them in the weekly, Thursday afternoon "penny-scramble."
By the time I was in school, in the late forties, Dad had risen in the small hierarchy of the hardare-department-store-building supply store, at the main corner of the town's only intersection with traffic lights, James and Seguin Streets. He "managed" probably anywhere from 6-12 employees, the numbers rising for the summer trade, and dropping down after Labour Day. His cadre of workers without exception, worshipped the ground on which he walked; his intuitive attention and caring and respect for their individual persons and needs, including those of their families, linked to his high expectation of his own performance and their's, resulted in a highly effective and efficient retail operation, catering in the summer to large lodge owners and operators south and north from Parry Sound, resulting in considerable growth of the business, and annual "bonus" payments for my father, although never a profit-sharing contract.
I was in the second year of undergraduate studies at Western when he approached me with this question, "Would you like to join me in buying the hardware store that is now for sale across the street from where I work?"
This man who had borrowed cars from a friend to drive me to music festivals as a young boy, and had been immediately ready to "play catch" or even touch football whenever I happened to mention it, and had walked to and from work, a pleasant twenty-minutes only, but on nasty weather days, a biting experience, for more than a dozen years, now sought a partnership, really a life-partnership with his only son, in the business he knew and  understood intimately. It was in this business that he had grown a professional reputation for managing among Ontario's elite, many of whom vacationed on Georgian Bay, and among the northern U.S. visitors, some of whom were CEO's of major corporations, all of whom sought out "George" for their hardware, sporting good and fine china purchases in Parry Sound. And, I knew, as did everyone who knew George, that this was an extremely proud man, yet at the same time a very humble man, who loved the best suits and cigars, a very warm house, and the family's many picnics on the shore of Georgian Bay, which we reached on a loaned boat from another of his many friends, Tan Geddes.
I recall the conversation as if it were yesterday.
"I would dearly love to work with you for the rest of my life," I recall uttering spontaneously, "but I really have so little interest in and knowledge of hardware and even less interest in learning its fine points that I think it would not be a good thing for me to accept your very kind invitiation."
In what now appears as a pivotal moment in both of our lives, although I certainly could not have known so then, he responded, caringly, openly and calmly, "I understand, and I accept your decision, but I thought I would at least ask."
"I am very glad to have been asked, and I do hope that I have not disappointed you with my answer," I told him speaking from somewhere deep inside my being.
"Not at all," was his response, and the subject never raised its head again, in his remaining thirty-five years, until his death in 1996. This conversation occurred in 1961.
Never did I hear my father utter an unkind word about anyone. Even the phrase, "four just men,"  by which he dubbed newcomers to the Session of the Presbyterian church in which he served as a member, was the only phrase that I ever heard him use in derision, and he clearly held their new-found, born-again evangelism as repulsive as did I, and many others. They had "converted" at the urging, preaching and charismatic oratory of the then new Balleymena-born evangelist who had been hired to serve as clergy.
Although Dad never openly criticised them or the clergy, his secret scepticism and perhaps even cynicism were well known in our family, although my mother "religiously" bought in to the hype. I shared my father's scepticism, and eventually left the church, based on my then sixteen-year-old's belief that the blather that was being preached in the pulpit was utterly bullshit. I still do, today!
However, the gifts from my father include a love of most sports, both spectating and participating, a curiosity and a critical survey of humanity's oddities and grace, a detachment from all forms of authority, especially from those who abuse their power, a wonder and an awe at the majesty of the universe and the complexity of human and mother nature and an attention to detail, while preserving the "big" picture, that only he could both explain and comprehend.
As I have often said, in describing my father to others, "He taught me about the highest and best angels of other humans by living from his own every day of his life! And he brought into graphic relief their dark side, simply by the light of his presence.
I remember and thank him every day, and I am proud to honour his memory on this Father's Day, 2012, sixteen years following his death.

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