Reflections: Memories of mother and father
Transcripts of interviews with Douglas
[singlepic id=104 w=427 h=638 float=none]Pearl and Roy Fisher; late 1940s.
My Dad, Roy Walden Fisher, was born October 5, 1886, I think at Grand Valley, Ontario, northwest of Guelph. When he was three, his mother, Hannah Davidson, died horribly in a house fire; she had gone back into the blazing structure once too often to retrieve possessions. His father, George S. Fisher, was a farm and bush worker who later in life became a policeman in (Palmerston?). After Hannah’s death, George Fisher married Cathern Holborn, who became a very hard stepmother to my father.
Until he was old enough to go to school, my father lived with his paternal grandmother – the aforementioned Delaware Indian lady. So far as I have know anything about her, she was a small, dark and quick-minded woman whom my Dad loved dearly, an affection that he never developed for his stepmother – who, after marrying Dad’s father, went on to have seven children of her own. She was never described by Dad as a ‘wicked stepmother’ but it was plain from what I overheard that she was very strict with him and worked him beyond his years and strength. That said, he always got along well with his step-siblings, who were all younger.
When he was coming on 14 years old, he left home to get a job working as a ‘wiper’, the lowest job on the railway, keeping coal fired locomotives clean. So far as I know, he hired on at Palmerston, a divisional point of the Grand Trunk Railway, the first major railway in Ontario. That served as his apprenticeship to becoming first a fireman, then an engineer.
The romance of the railroad struck Dad early. He told me once that he saw his first steam engine up close and puffing at a station in Palmerston when he was a very small boy. All he wanted to do after that was become one of the men who ran the big black beasts – and he eventually did – as an engineer on the Canadian National Railway. From the age of 14 he was committed to becoming a railroader.
In his later teens he wound up in the American west and mid west, working as a ‘boomer’ (an itinerant young man who traveled to find work on railways) on the grain trade. Southern BC, Montana, and Kansas were some of the places he worked. He spent winters back home in Ontario. That’s how he got into Northern Ontario, sometime between 1905 and 1910. For some time he worked for the CPR out of The Lakehead, and as I remember him telling me, he was fired from the CPR for throwing a lantern at the window of a train being pulled by a ‘scab’ (non-union) engineer. One reason he was a devoted fan of Mackenzie King, and was a Liberal for life, was because King, as a labor specialist with Laurier’s government, had defended the CPR’s strikers in 1911. Dad got a job on the Grand Trunk Pacific at The Lakehead as a fireman for the building of a line from The Lakehead up to Sioux Lookout, 200 miles to the northwest, which enabled the new national railway to route grain cars from the Prairies to The Lakehead in competition with the long-established CPR route which heretofore had dominated the delivery of western grain to eastern Canada.
[singlepic id=100 w=600 h=600float=none]Roy Fisher, engineer.
My father, Roy Walden Fisher, was big, about six foot two inches and 220 pounds in his prime, and strongly built. He was a man of little education but was fascinated with the technology of his day, as witness his life long hobby of building boats and converting automobile engines for marine purposes. Dad was a very serious Bible reader and rarely came back from a trip to Winnipeg bookstores without a major biography or a tale of exploration, especially about Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott – the Arctic and Antarctic were being probed during his time. My father also loved to sing psalms and listen to church choirs. He went to church any Sunday he was able to and was an elder – but he was ‘on the road’ half his time. He was a Methodist until Methodists and Presbyterians joined to for the United Church of Canada. His lighter interests were following baseball in the United States, and boxing. Dad’s seriousness about everything he dealt with earned him extraordinary respect and the chore throughout his working years as a locomotive engineer of ‘grievance counselor’ for the local lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. This task centered on getting men restored to work after they were fired for misbehavior. And so it seemed that my early life was dotted with my father interviewing unfortunate employees at our dining room table.
Most of the cases involved men drunk or asleep on the job. When the case was made Dad, the employee and any witnesses as to particulars or as character witnesses would trek to Winnipeg by passenger train for a session with the review committee based there which would rule on whether to reinstate the employee and if so, how many points he would have against him on his record. In large part the most significant points about my father to me were his stand against corporal punishment of children. In all my years of growing up, he never struck me, although several times he frightened me by picking me up and setting me down at arm’s length from him and insisting that I tell him the truth about whatever it was that I had done that was wrong. The other point connected with this was that my father was a super enthusiast for girls. He doted on my sisters and with similar feeling but less open revelations of it he cherished my mother very much. But I knew almost from day one of my sister Irene’s birth, even though I was only four, that she had become his focal point. She was complemented in another four years by my second sister Joyce. To illustrate, once I came home from a summer in the northern bush at age 19. I had been away for weeks and I wanted to see a girl in the nearby town of Hudson, 12 miles away, and I needed a car. So I asked my Dad if I could borrow his. He smiled and said sure, but check with Irene first. If she doesn’t need it, you can have it. My Dad and I were never pals or friends and we often didn’t speak to each other because of fierce arguments we had had over politics. It wasn’t until I came home from the war that we discovered we had rather similar outlooks and could enjoy each other’s company. In comparable terms, I was never close to my brother George, who was four years older than me and who went off to become a gold miner when I was 16.
My mother, Pearl, was born Eva Pearl Mason, in August 21, 1889. Home was Elmvale, a small town surrounded by farmland, about ten miles northeast of Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay. Her parents, Elizabeth Scott and James Mason, raised a large family of six girls and two boys. Mother was the fourth eldest. James, her father, was a photographer with studios at Elmvale, Midland and Penetanguishene from the 1880s till 1913.
A pretty woman with an equable disposition and a modest, happy personality, Mother was not critically minded and almost never nasty. She acquired friends and never lost them and when she died at 89, the list was very long of those with whom she was still in regular correspondence. Mother read romance novels, loved playing whist and five hundred, and was an inveterate five pin bowler – the star of her four woman team in Sioux Lookout, the Adanacs.
Mother met my father in Fort William in 1912 while she was working in a new department store, Chapples, and living with her older sister, Phoebe Mason Wright and her husband Jim.
Mother was my rock at home and I never remember hearing a harsh word from her ever. She tried, despite her limited education, to help me have every possible experience, such as trips to Toronto or visits to The Lakehead, or buying a set of books I wanted. My father was a traveler and so was my mother. He wanted all his kids to see as much of North America as possible and we had the railway pass to use. Well before I was 10, I had put in thousands of miles on passenger trains, visiting Toronto, London Ontario, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Regina, Chicago and Cleveland, particularly Cleveland, because my Dad went there every two years for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers convention. This gave me my first look at big league baseball, in 1929.
My mother and dad both kept a suitcase of the satchel type ready for a trip at a moment’s notice and it was never a surprise when my Dad looked up from dinner at the table to say, “Pearl, how’d you like to catch the ‘rattler’ (the Number One, the high speed passenger train; he was almost always able to get a sleeper because he knew all the sleeping car conductors.) tonight for Toronto.” She would break out in a huge smile. He’d say “I have to be back by Tuesday but you can stay for a bit longer.” He’d then turn to me, Irene and Joyce and say, “And you three will look after yourselves.” To prepare us, my father insisted that we learn how to cook competently, how to change fuses, how to handle the wood furnace, and the standard of hygiene to be maintained in the kitchen and washrooms. This understanding of kids taking care of themselves in the absence of mother and father had a tragic consequence that none of us ever talked about later, which left my sister Irene embittered. My sister Joyce died in November, 1941. In the spring that year Mother and Dad had taken off on an impromptu trip, he going to his half brother Gordon’s place in Elora and Mother going to Toronto to stay with her sister Goldie.
I was home at the time waiting for a summer job to start on the first of May, when my sister Joyce took sick with a bad cold and sore throat. Irene and I gave her lots of sympathy and some attention but by the time my parents came home, Joyce was in bed all day, her glands swollen, with a high fever. Immediately the doctors prescribed various drugs and we assumed she would get better. She didn’t. What she had been struck with was rheumatic fever, a familiar ailment in the family which had already killed two aunts and two cousins (Edith and Rachel; Phyllis Wright and ___ Tough). A year later, that is in 1942, Joyce would have been treated with sulfathiozole, one of the new ‘wonder drugs’ that almost eradicated deaths from rheumatic fever. She didn’t live that long. Ever after, Irene carried bitterness towards Mother for having been away, blaming her somewhat for Joyce’s death. I felt my own guilt. I should have got her off to the doctor and the hospital. I could have had registered nurses who lived down the street come in. At the time I was moonstruck by Ann Meadwell. The effect of Joyce’s death on my father was telling, almost fatal. He was never the same afterward. At heart, despite his seriousness, he was generally a buoyant man, but he lost his buoyancy after this.
The cemetery was only a 500 yard walk from home and all the months of the year he visited Joyce’s grave there, every day that he was home. Often I came home while visiting after the war and find that every evening if the weather permitted, Dad would be up at the cemetery sitting by Joyce’s grave. He wasn’t openly morbid, but the ‘fizz’ had gone out of him. After this, he was happiest when with Irene, who had been twinned in his affections with Joyce. One reason I was pleased after Mark’s and his cousin George’s births was that he took such a keen interest in their doings. He had already got taken up with his grandchildren, Billy and Joyce, George’s kids. They filled a bit of a void.
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