Down Canadian Roads Part 14, Vancouver Island to Victoria Harbour, Ontario

For Deanne’s Allison Family

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Gordon and Annie Allison with children Mada, Orin, Margaret and Grace. Victoria Harbour, 1918

Gordon and Annie Allison with children Mada, Orin, Margaret and Grace. Victoria Harbour Ontario, 1918

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The Undertaker’s Granddaughter

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When it came to his own demise, Gordon Allison was philosophical. Of course you can’t pick up after the Grim Reaper for over fifty years and feel squeamish about death.  In the mid-afternoon late February sunshine, Gordon lay down on a couch in the front room of his house and let the sun strike his face directly.  He closed his eyes against the bright sun and watched the kaleidoscope of  light filtered through his closed eyelids refract odd little rainbows behind the blood in the capillaries in his eyelids.The effects of the pain medicine that he was taking would soon abate and the pain would soon return.

Wrapped  in a blanket and in the sun’s embrace, he could feel a glow return to his outlook as the room filled with sunshine. This fleeting radiance was a brief respite from the chill he felt deep in the centre of his being from the bleak intuition that he sensed. This illness would be his undoing. For the short duration, the hour and a half when the sun inundated the room, Gordon fell into a half-sleep and discovered  a little crack, a gap between consciousness and nothingness. He lingered in that half state, savouring the transitions, coming back to consciousness, then drifting off again, away from consciousness. He liked that ambiguous state. Over the last few months he had nurtured and cultivated it. It was a brief, new ecstacy where he was indefinitely suspended from time and place and gravity before the expected physical discomforts returned. He had, after all, reached  his expiry date, the 3 score and ten years that the Good Book had allotted him.

In the moments when he was back in touch with his conscious state, the Undertaker shifted into a mode of recall. He had had a rough apprenticeship with a mortician in the Windsor area.  Work on the first few corpses had naturally left its mark. Some of the cadavers, especially the infant victims of epidemic childhood diseases or the  bodies misshapen, twisted or dismembered by accidents from the area sawmills, had dwelled too long in the repertoire of his dreams. He soon however found consolations in his work.

The clients knew that his service was indispensable and approached the provider of that service with a degree of humility that reflected their appreciation. As an unsure young man he surmised that the respect that his clients showed  him simply reflected their emotional vulnerability in the face of death. He did not  however, question too long the motives of the grieving people who came, puffy faced to him for disposing of the remains of their loved-ones. Real respect or simply respectability, what did it matter?

Over time, once the technical routines for preparing the bodies for interment had been learned and practiced, Gordon felt a growing  sense of competence, an empowerment in one important domain of life, a domain which was reserved to an exclusive few: care for and disposal of the dead. It was then that he realized that he had found a calling.

His skills as undertaker were portable. Death is ubiquitous and universal. He would take these skills from the South Woodslee area of Kent County, Ontario and invest his own growth and that of his family in a growing community. In 1910 he decided to follow his friend who had recently moved to Tay County on Georgian Bay where the forests of  White Pine provided the economic base for a rapidly developing community, Victoria Harbour. The services that he brought were necessary and welcome and he soon counted himself among the valued entrepreneurs of small businesses in the town.

In the next 12 years Gordon and Annie contributed five people to the population of the Town. In 1922 Mary, the last of their children was added to Mada, Orin, Margaret and Grace. The growing demands of 5 children required more income than could be had from the proceeds of his primary business and Gordon took a second job. Telephone service was expanding to serve the demands of a rapidly developing town and Gordon would be an important administrative instrument in its expansion as well as the operator for the night shift.

As it did everywhere else, The Great Depression left its mark on Victoria Harbour. All businesses suffered but Gordon’s business suffered disproportionately. In the early nineteen thirties a kind of trickle-down poverty replaced the comfortable status that the family enjoyed in earlier times. For a decade and more, Death did not take a holiday but how could you deny your service to families in the community who already owed for the burial of one relative when a second or a third relative dies and the family is unable to pay? Business for the Undertaker did not decline, expenses for funerals were not reduced but income was frequently no more than a hope or sometimes a promise.

Recovery from the economic setbacks of the nineteen thirties was barely underway when Gordon’s deteriorating health gave him the realization that his recovery would never happen. He stirred from his half-conscious reverie on the couch just enough time to realize that he had been joined on the couch  by a little Pixie of flaxen hair, his three year old Granddaughter.

The room cooled noticeably as the sun left the transparent glass opening of the window and passed behind the opaque wall. The Undertaker shifted his position on the couch to allow a little more room for the yellow-haired fay who was now laying curled up on a sliver of space on the couch in front of his chest. He draped an arm over his Granddaughter and drifted back into semi-consciousness.

“Annie will be well cared for when she can no longer care for herself,”  he thought. Their five children, all now in stable family relationships will see to her care. Curiosity took Gordon beyond Annie and his children to his grandchildren. He smiled when he remembered finding one of his Grandsons, Orin’s boy, busy putting socks on a cadaver in the modest embalming parlour near the house. “His foot was cold”, the lad had explained.

Gampa! I’m uncomfortable!”  his three year old couch mate now complained. The Undertaker laughed a hoarse laugh.  He propped himself on an elbow, got up from the couch from behind her and reached back to wrap his Granddaughter in his frail embrace.

“Time to go stoke and fill the woodstove” he told his Granddaughter. “It’s getting cold.”

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The Undertaker's Granddaughter, Deanne

The Undertaker’s Granddaughter, Deanne

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Photo of Victoria Harbour Regatta courtesy of Ronald Dunlop

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Gallery of Gordon and Annie Allison’s Victoria Harbour

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