CHARLES DOBIE : LOCAL HISTORY
KEARNS & VIRGINIATOWN, ONTARIO

Virginiatown in the 1940's -- A Child's View

By

Joseph George Palmer, Virginiatown, about 1944

Joseph George Palmer and his vegetable & fruit "transport" truck, after he left the mines.
Photo taken in Virginiatown about 1944.

Bundled in a nest of quilts, surrounded by our worldly goods piled in the back of my father's big red Reo truck with the tarpaulin roof -- we left Virginiatown, my First Home, and my First Love. We were headed "south", where palm trees swayed over soft white sand beaches, where no one had to shovel snow tunnels from their doors to the street, and where no mine sirens and blasts would rattle the windows and send my mother into hang-wringing wails, nor the cat flying under beds. Not even the mesmerizing hum of wheels on late night pavement brought sleep during the trip; excitement bubbled as we took turns holding the precious big palm leaf Dad had brought back to show us and which personified our future existence in Wonderland. We decided it was a palm leaf -- we'd seen pictures -- it had to be a palm leaf. And "south" meant sunny beaches with white sand -- we'd seen pictures! And Dad said the lake was bigger than ours so it must be an ocean -- we'd seen the pictures!

Kathleen Palmer
Kathleen Palmer, 1948.

We took turns being lookouts, one at a time, sitting in the front seat with Dad & Mom, hoping to be the first to see the palm trees and forever hold that discovery over the others. But I was going to miss Barry. . . . and Pam and the Oehring kids.

It was late summer of 1948. I had turned six years old in March. We were leaving what we'd always been told was the first house built (by my father) in the bush that was to become Virginiatown. My sister Virginia, we'd been told, was the first baby born in Virginiatown in August of 1939 which left little choice as to what her name would be; the town itself, we'd been told, had in turn had been named for Virginia McKenna, wife of the man who "opened the mine". Whether or not this is historically accurate never mattered much to us -- even after I became historically minded and would spend hours scouring records, I kept that one untouched in memory. Some things in memory are best left untouched.

My father had gotten work in the mine and left the rocky "farmland" in Warren, Ontario, where he had landed from England in June of 1913 at the age of 14, the eldest of five children (although they'd have a baby sister born one year and two months later in their new log cabin). They had left the sooty industrial Midlands of Birmingham, England with great hopes of a sparkling new life in the clean, new air in Canada, on one of the two farms my grandmother's uncle, William Green, had bought a few years earlier when, as a new widower with a young daughter, he'd also left England in search of a better life on the "farmland" he'd purchased unseen in England -- just outside Sudbury. "Farmland" and "Sudbury" didn't go together any better then than they did a few years later when most of them gave up and headed for the mines or logging camps.

The new little house in Virginiatown was just off the main street, halfway up the inclining street that led to the hilltop which led to the bush which led down to the lake. Settling in were Dad, (Joseph George Palmer), Mom, (Jessie Marion Prentice Palmer) Grandfather, (George William Frank Palmer) my eldest sister, Marion, who was born in Ottawa in 1934, next sister Norma who was born in Warren in 1936, and sister Joan who was born in Larder Lake in 1937. Virginia, ("Ginny") began the baby boom in Virginiatown in 1938. The family complete, the proper children's portraits were taken and hung on the wall. Then came the night in 1942 when our next door neighbour, Dr. Pollock, (whose house, we were told, was the second house to be built in Virginiatown) was called over to assist my entry into the world. Finances didn't allow another Proper Children's Portrait so ours forever after show four children. That pretty much was the number my older sisters would have preferred it stay. I used to think they could somehow paste me in there but no one ever got around to that. Norma said she knew I'd been born because there was a baby in the living room in the morning when they got up. About the same time Dr. Pollock's son Barry also entered the world -- I don't think he was a surprise like I was.

Four Palmer sisters

From Left: Joan Gwendolyn Palmer, born Larder Lake 1937; Norma Evelyn Palmer, born Warren, Sudbury District, 1936; Marion Audrey Palmer, born Ottawa, 1934; Virginia Avis Palmer, born V-Town 1938 (first baby born there, or so they say). Baby sister Kathleen is missing (born 1942).

Being a child in Virginiatown in the early 1940's meant spending all of one's time outside, in all seasons, wandering at will, watching new houses grow up, never doing anything "bad" because everyone knew who you were, listening to the stories my crippled grandfather seemed to have stashed in abundance in his memory and never being told not to talk to strangers -- there were none. If there were locks on our doors we never knew about them.

Barry Pollock, Kathleen Palmer
Barry Pollock & Kathleen Palmer.

Being an age misfit in the "child section" of the family (adults were in a separate category) -- meant I became the bane of my four older sisters' lives. They had things to do, places to go, people to see -- preferably without me. Despite daily orders to "Watch out for Kathleen!" they'd promptly disappear the moment they dragged me out the door on those days when they didn't all traipse off to school together. Subsequently, Barry Pollock, who also seemed to be alone, and I became a pair. If he had sisters or brothers I never saw them. We'd sit on his front steps crunching on apples and ponder the mysteries of our world that started at the lake and ended with the latest house being built . . . . and all the marvels in between. We'd sit on my front steps with my cat and do the same. We'd wander about the growing town in search of new buildings going up since there were always hot tar barrels nearby from which we'd pull off bits of half-hardened, sticky tar from the outside of the barrels and chew it. We'd search for dead grasshoppers and glue their wings to our shoulders and jump off my front porch in hopes of flying. We weren't allowed to go to the lake without "the older kids" but we could run through the bush at the top of the hill and see who could climb the highest in the trees and pull pine sap from pine trees to chew on. Mostly, we waited for his father's car (parked in front of his house) to roar into gear. When that happened in the daytime we'd hear Dr. Pollock call, "C'mon, get in . . ." We were off to fly! The new country "roads" were hilly and rough, peppered with huge holes and glorious high bumps. In the back seat, hanging on to the front seat, we'd see how high we could bounce when dropping into big holes or hitting really big bumps -- happily, the dedicated Dr. Pollock drove fast! We knew where all the best bumps and holes were and would get ready to fly. Our favourite wasn't a bump or a big hole, but a steep hill that, as the car climbed to the top Dr. Pollock would slam that gas peddle to the floor and we'd sail over the top, the wheels left the road and we were truly airborne, landing with a crunch that bashed our heads into the roof of the car where our stomachs stayed. We screeched and bounced continually until we could barely breathe while Dr. Pollock chuckled -- in this wonderful car that absolutely reeked of ether. The longer the drive, the more we screeched, and the patient Dr. Pollock never once told us to calm down. It was better than any roller coaster. Then the wait -- for Dr. Pollock to do whatever it was he had to do -- and the return trip! The wait is a blur -- looking back, I presume we were "sleeping it off". By the time we fell out into our front yards, we were wasted. Obviously we were getting higher than any hill -- no wonder we would wait on the steps for hours to hear that car start -- that car full of that incredibly wonderful smell that would take us really flying. (Years later when I was giving birth to my son, the doctor handed me a small breathing mask "if you want to use this..." I instantly smelled, heard and saw Dr. Pollock's car and Barry. Ah! Dr. Pollock must have been delivering babies in the country on our wild trips. If so, how long were Barry & me "sleeping if off" during The Wait for the return trip?)

Palmer house
Virginiatown house built by the Palmers
and where they lived 1938-1948.
Unknown date for the photo.

Directly across the street from our house was Pam Stewart's house. I had to call her Pamela if her Mom was around, other than that, she was "Pam" and other than Barry Pollock, Pam was my best friend. Pam's house had a fence across the front and a gate through which one never entered without invitation -- something I never received although Pam's mother once stood on her side of the gate and chatted quite nicely with me. Behind the fence was a beautiful display of Mrs. Stewart's prized flowers. I don't think Pam wore all hand-made clothing like the rest of us did, nor hand-knit socks but Pam had books that she'd show to me over the gate -- we had no books at our house and I was very envious of Pam's. Pam wasn't allowed to wander at will nor was she allowed to hang around our house if the other neighbourhood Rowdies were there -- that would be the Oehring kids who lived a couple of houses past Pam's closer to the bush. My sisters' best friends were all Oehring kids so they were around our house a lot -- or my sisters were at their house. A wonderful family full of fun, they had some sort of old barn or ramp behind their house that made a perfect stage for the summertime plays we put on from our own made-up stories. Old quilts, old coats, old hats, soft new twigs with new leaves made into fairy wands and crowns -- Virginiatown's first Amateur Outdoor Theatre -- we were our own audience. Our stage was decorated with flowers from Mrs. Stewart's garden -- gathered by an appointed "flower person" the night before, after dark, after the Stewart house went dark and quiet. Pam wasn't allowed to take part in these events -- she had to study or practice piano or was just plain busy. I used to think Mrs. Stewart must be a teacher since Pam had to study so much.

Yard cleanup on warm summer days was done with a passion because all those sticks that were picked up were stacked neatly in the very middle of our side yard to start the fires in the smudge pots my grandfather would put out for us. Blankets and glass preserving jars were dragged out as soon as the supper dishes were done and dusk settled in. Grandfather would struggle over on his canes and light the sticks in the smudge pots (old pails that we hammered nails through the bottoms to make air holes). The Oehring kids always came so Pam couldn't, but the rest of us then flattened ourselves on the blankets around the smokey pots that kept the bugs at bay and there, for hours, we'd watch the stars. Grandfather knew all the constellations and what he didn't know he made up and encouraged us to "find foxes" or "rabbits" or "moose" or whatever we wanted to find in those stars. In between star-gazing we'd make quick trips around the yard for fresh green grass to put in the pots for thicker smoke and chase flickering fireflies to put in our preserving jars: firefly lanterns while we were out there, all released before we went inside. They couldn't be kept in jars, Grandfather said, they had to be set free to recharge their lights for the next night.

Palmer family
Virginia "Ginny" Avis Palmer, b. 1938 V-Town;
Joan Gwendolyn Palmer, b. 1937 Larder Lake;
Marion Audry Palmer, b. 1934 Ottawa;
George William Frank Palmer, b. 1872 England;
Kathleen Anne Palmer, b. 1942 V-Town;
Norma Evelyn Palmer, b. 1936 Warren, ON.

Few warm summer days didn't include a hike through the bush to the lake to swim; no adult supervision needed, no swimming lessons, everyone just jumped in off the rocks and could magically swim. Taking turns in our old rowboat with home made fishing rods we might even catch a fish. Not like the big hauls my father would drag home from the lake, but one or two. The only Lake Rule was my mother's admonition to "Watch for bears! Especially baby bears!" My sisters and their friends had built tree houses along the bush path to the lake and would run ahead, scurry up those trees and be "gone" -- hiding from me high in trees along the path through the bush, their giggles betraying them. They must have used up a lot of energy daily trying to figure out how to "get rid of her" -- nothing worked. Alone, I'd wander along hoping to see a cuddly baby bear -- what could be more wonderful! I saw only one baby bear once on our way back home -- at the sight of this magical creature my sisters took off running, screaming at me to follow while I stood awestruck, watching this glorious over-sized fur-ball wander back into the thick woods. No bear hugs from that baby! That night the adults in the house were forced to reveal to me that bad things actually happened out there in the world. Danger lurked around baby bears -- from protective mother bears. I didn't believe them. Mother bears were wonderful creatures too; I'd seen them in our back yard trying to shove the heavy wooden cover off the deep hole where summertime milk and butter and meat were kept in a big pail way down at the bottom. That wonderful sight disappeared about the same time a miraculous, tall white box appeared in our kitchen -- incredible, ice cubes in the summer from a thing called "Frigidaire".

Virginiatown winters meant struggling out of bed from under a ton of quilts tied with red wool, running to the bedroom window to see what beautiful new designs Jack Frost had left on the windows. Whoever he was, this Jack Frost Fairy (had to be a Fairy) was a terrific artist: he'd have painted the windows in pure white intricate ferns and flowers and trees and leaves, on the inside of the windows. Lace curtains. In the kitchen, the wood stove would be blazing, hot porridge ready to be slathered with brown sugar and milk -- I hated porridge. The aroma of yeast from the big bread bowl meant the afternoon would be spent pounding down soft bread dough, making long dough strings to braid (like my hair) and, when the braids grew fat and soft I was allowed to make the icing to slather over their tops and grate fresh orange rind over that. My "bread job" also included spreading the butter, brown sugar and cinnamon over the slabs of fresh dough my mother had rolled flat -- and if I didn't muck it up too much, I'd get to roll the whole thing up which she'd then slice into what would become fat, gooey cinnamon buns. Besides the "fancy" dough things there was a dozen loaves of bread -- "Bread Day" was whenever the weather, time and need for bread dictated. (As adults, none of us ever stopped this home made bread routine.)

Prentice family

From left at back: Marion Audrey Palmer, b. 1934 Ottawa; maternal grandfather James Lorne Prentice of Ottawa; Virgina Avis Palmer, supposedly first baby born in Virginiatown, 15 Aug 1938.
Front: Prentice cousins Marlene Crandall of Lanark, Lorna Prentice of Sharbot Lake, Kathleen Palmer, born Virginiatown Mar. 1942; and Linda Prentice of Sharbot Lake.
Photo was taken on side lawn of Palmer house in V-Town, with Dr. Pollock's house in the background.

The winter path from our house to the street would, by mid winter, become a deep ditch, the snow piled on each side higher than I could see over. The wildest of my sisters, Norma, was mindlessly addicted to busting the long icicles that hung from the roof along the entire side of the house. The mere sight of these long glistening things would send her racing outside with whatever she could grab on the way -- broom, shovel, my grandfather's canes -- to run in the high snow beneath them and whack at them. My mother would screech, "She's out there again!" and run out after her. But Norma was hooked on this, nothing would stop her, it's like people today who can't look at a piece of bubble wrap without needing to pop those bubbles! Norma still has a perfect question mark scar smack middle of her cheek -- proof that mother's threat, "One of those things could pierce your face!" was true. I don't know how Norma actually grew up to adulthood; she was fearless in all things and after the first time the townsfolk gathered to search for her and found her swimming in the lake before the ice was off it, no one got too excited all the other early Springs when she couldn't be found -- my parents always knew where to find her. It must have been a great comfort to have Dr. Pollock right next door. Dr. Pollock was very familiar with our house; sister Joan used to sleepwalk, wander about the house and many times right outside; I remember him poking his head in our back door early mornings to say, "I brought Joan home again last night, put her in bed . . . ." One of those times it was in the middle of winter. Joan was the best tree-climber and the best tree-house builder, although the giggling gossip was that one of the Oehring boys helped her and sat up there with her . . . . a lot.

We skied everywhere in winter. The big snowbanks along the path to our back door served as our ski stands -- we were warned to never leave our skis lying flat -- new snow would cover them, someone would trip over them -- stand them up in the snow banks. Our main downhill run started at the top of our street and ended at the main street, the same "run" we used for sledding which was especially fun after supper when it was dark. The Oehring kids would be there too with their sleds; never enough sleds meant we had to double up and fly down the hill two at a time on one sled -- not sitting, lying. Thankfully, I'd get to lie on top -- it also meant I got to be the first to get tossed off onto the icy road. The greatest thrill of nighttime sledding was for the sisters to let me have one slide down all by myself -- I'd lie down on the sled, grab the steering rudders by their attached thick ropes and they'd shove me off as hard as they could -- straight down to where my father's truck or Dr. Pollock's car would be parked. I could fly under the truck but the car was another story -- I'd hear them screaming behind me between loud laughs, "Roll off, Roll off!" which I'd do, in the nick of time -- except for that one time when I didn't quite clear the back tire of Dr. Pollock's car. The sisters were in a bit of trouble over that one, and as she packed a towel filled with snow around my bloody mouth, my mother said, "Well, that tooth was coming out anyway." (By the time we arrived at the place of white sand and palm trees, the other front tooth came out too, rendering me unable to smile for the first and only school picture my parents bought, and which my father carried in his wallet until the day he died.)

Prentice, Palmer, Crandall
Lorna Prentice (cousin) of Sharbot Lake;
Kathleen Anne Palmer, b. V-Town 1942;
Marlene Crandall (cousin) of Lanark.
Taken at Palmer house in V-Town about 1946.

Winter Saturday nights saw my father put his heavy jacket on after supper and go out "somewhere" without a word -- but we all knew. He'd return in less than a half hour with a big bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale and a chocolate bar. Chocolate bars were big enough then to cut into five nice sized chunks and there was enough ginger ale for all of us to have a small fruit glass full. (The glasses came from the grocery store filled with Kraft Relish Cream Cheese.) Armed with these treats we'd all plop on the floor in the living room around the big radio which Dad would then tune to "Hockey Night in Canada". Mom passed out knitting needles and wool and while she knit she'd whisper directions to us -- we all learned to knit socks to the drone of Foster Hewitt's voice. Those who didn't want to knit could sit at the kitchen table and make crepe paper flowers which Ginny, especially, was good at. She couldn't learn to knit or crochet and no one could ever figure out why -- years later we realized that she was "different" -- she was left-handed. No amount of knitting instruction from us right-handers ever helped her so she took to making paper flowers and keeping scrap books. She was especially proud of the fact she shared Princess Anne's birthday and kept scrapbooks of everything she could find about Princess Anne in newspapers and was still trying to learn to crochet long after she was married.

No one at our house couldn't cook or bake. My grandfather was the best and had taught my town-bred & born mother how to make bread, and great pots of home made soup and stew and fat dumplings, and she in turn expected us to take turns doing the same. There was always a big pot of something hot simmering on the back of the wood stove. Pickled beef was home-made as was salt pork and kept in big crocks in the cold cellar. Everything that grew in our large garden was preserved in some way. The Children's Chore of picking wild blueberries was not our favourite pastime but resulted in delicious pies and jam. Pickling was another family affair that everyone was expected to take part in -- if it grew it could be cooked down, salted down or pickled. Laundry was another fun family affair that we kids took part in -- from heating the water in buckets on the wood stove to the excitement of using that brand new washing machine with the wringer on top. Everything had to be hung out on the clothes line to dry, winter and summer, and to this day I can see the frozen stiff sets of Grandpa's long one-piece flannel long-johns being pried from the clothes line, carried indoors like giant cardboard cut-outs and stood up against the wall behind the stove. We fought for that privilege. Frozen stiff they were bigger than me and couldn't be dragged -- mittens were necessary in the handling of these things. As they thawed and wilted they'd be draped over a rope line that hung from the ceiling along the wall behind the stove. Watching Grandpa's winter long-johns wilt was better than reading a borrowed comic book and we were expected to watch for them to wilt, to catch them before they hit the floor or fell against the back of the stove.

When I was old enough to realize the Sisters were all going off to school somewhere most every day of the week without me and not being told to take me, I took to following them when they left in the morning, hoping I'd be let in. I wasn't. It didn't take too long to figure out they came back at almost the same time daily so I started to go up and wait for them to come out of that school. There were swings to play on while waiting, I knew that because on warm summer nights they had to take me with them when they went there to meet the Oehring boys and other kids and would tell me to "go play on the swings" while they giggled a lot and ran off in the fields chasing one another. I'd annoy them by yelling, "Somebody push me or I'll tell Mom!" One night they pushed me really high to shut me up longer -- so high that I fell off from the highest point. When I came-to I could hear them muttering in the dark, "Is she dead? Is she breathing? What do we do?" One shaking voice said he knew somebody whose mother was a nurse and "let's take her there!" -- next thing I remember I was lying on a strange couch in a strange house with a very nice lady holding a cold cloth over my face, smiling, saying, "I think she's going to be okay." They must have carried me home and put me to bed because the next "minute" I was waking up in the morning in my bed, four sisters faces all staring down at me with great wide -- and terrified -- eyes. I was bribed into silence with the promise of being able to go with them on their future illicit late night trysts in the schoolyard.

The adults in Virginiatown had their own lives; in winter they all curled at the curling rink at night and summers they all visited with one another on Sundays -- or so it seemed to me. Me, being the odd, too-young one unable to go to school with the sisters, I had my own world. My father had decided, I presume when he first saw another baby girl arrive, that I would be a boy anyway in my "bringing up". He supplied me with my own toolbox and jack knife and turned me over to my grandfather who seemed to be a reservoir of greater learning in all things, from building and fixing to reciting classic poetry and teaching me all the slang French he'd learned. We'd whittle wood whistles together while he talked and the more he taught me about history and showed me how to make letters in Olde English the way he wrote, the more I wanted to learn until finally I decided I would simply go to school. When I announced this to the family they ignored me, when I repeatedly announced my intentions one summer to go to school with the sisters when they went back, my mother said, "You're only five, you're too young." My father patted my head, my grandfather smiled and recited another poem.

The sisters became so annoyed with my incessant "I'm going to school" statements they turned them to good use by taking me for a walk, showing me where the school principal lived and telling me that if I were to go knock on his door and ask then he would let me go to school, even if I was only five years old. When I went up to knock on his door the sisters ran. The man at the door smiled and also patted my head as he said, "You're much too young, you go back home now." The sisters encouraged me to keep trying. I did. Every second day or so I knocked on the principal's door and begged him to let me go to school. When he stopped answering my knocks on his door I took to sitting on his step, waiting for him to emerge -- everyone had to go out eventually. I took Barry with me a couple of times but he wasn't much interested in my plight and when I saw the sisters starting to gather up school supplies I panicked and began to sit on the principal's door steps and cry. I sat there daily, for hours, whimpering, for what seemed like years but was likely a week. Finally, one day, he flung his door open and hollered at me, "Okay!! Come to School!" My mother didn't believe me and had to call on the principal who assured her he'd said I could go to school. The sisters were not pleased, another "Take Kathleen" chore ahead -- perhaps for years! I was given a seat at the back of the room while the Principal whispered into the teacher's ear, both of them looking at me, me grinning from ear to ear with my new pencil in hand fairly frothing at the mouth for that stack of scribblers being handed down the line to reach my desk. Grandfather had taught me to read and write and I'd written or drawn on every scrap of paper the sisters left around, so it was with incredible joy that I wrote on the inside cover in my very first real school scribbler, "Kathleen Palmer". A couple of weeks into the school year I was given a seat at the front because I couldn't see over top of the other kids' heads. My final report was A+ and when we arrived in the world of white sand beaches shaded by great swaying palms, I entered grade 2, conditionally, until the teacher could prove I had gotten through grade one.

My memories of the actual town consist of few physical places: -- the school, the hotel one had to walk past on the way to and from school, the small "main street" where the Chinese laundry was, the curling rink, our street. The man at the Chinese laundry always smiled and waved when I'd wander across the street on the way home from school to look through his big window. Sometimes I'd get very brave and walk right in to say hi -- he would smile and reach his hand out and give me a nickel. This was not something I shared with the sisters. I saved the nickels for my trips with mother to Kirkland Lake where we'd go on a bus regularly, just the two of us, to shop. I presume she went to buy fabric and wool since she was a master seamstress and made all of our clothes, including our warm wool winter coats (of the sort that weighed a ton when soaked wet with snow). On these trips we had the Big Treat of Dining Out at Woolworth's lunch counter where I would have my very favourite egg salad sandwich and a bottle of coke, all of which I'd throw up on the bus on the return trip home, to my mother's great embarrassment. She put up with this twice before telling the lady at Woolworth's to "Wrap it up, we'll take it with us". Being prone to car sickness wasn't all bad: I got to ride "up front" in the truck more than the sisters who would stay far away from me if we were all in the back of the truck going somewhere -- and I always knew before they did that we were "going somewhere" because I'd hear my mother say to my father, "Kathleen can't eat yet."

While we were enjoying our Utopian world of complete freedom and adventure -- the adults in the house apparently were not. The mine blasts and sirens, the rattling windows, the worry on my mother's face, my grandfather's often silence as he stared endlessly out a window, my father's obvious weariness -- only slightly affected us. Reality arrived with the big red Reo truck and my father's disappearance with it for several days at a time. He quit the mine and began to transport fresh fruit and vegetables from "down south" up to the stores in Virginiatown. Boxes of apples and celery and carrots and such started to show up in our cold cellar, only to be gone in a couple of days. Oranges and apples and pomegranates and pears and cherries at certain times would be there too -- but they were not ours to eat and never remained long in our cellar. What we did get to keep were a lot of apples and it was the place he got the apples from that my parents decided we should move to for a better life. Proof of the wonderful new world was in the palm leaf he brought to us and his description of the very big lake where we could still swim.

We landed in Meaford, Ontario in the late summer of 1948 (I hung up a calendar in our new house and saw "1948" on it which is when I learned years were actually numbered). The precious Palm Leaf turned out to be a horse chestnut leaf; the beaches of Georgian Bay indeed had more sand than our rocky lakeside Virginatown lake had, and the bonus was that the Blue Mountains promised even better skiing. Within weeks I was sitting in a grade 2 classroom surrounded by strange classmates all at least a year older than me, all with "best friends" and not wanting any more, and nary a one with hand-knit lace socks on or any clothing that looked hand-made. There were beautiful shoes on the girls' feet that made my brown oxfords from Sears Catalogue look suddenly strange. My hand-made plaid wool pleated skirts and cotton blouses (I had two of each) brought peer comment: "Are those the only clothes you have? Are you poor?" Was I? I asked my parents, "Are we poor?" They didn't answer. That's when I learned we were "poor".

We lived just outside the town with no neighbours beside the town cemetery that became my favourite place to wander -- over a creek that led to the Bay -- at the bottom of the Blue Mountains where I spent all my free winter hours skiing, alone.

Meaford was a very beautiful, very old town, long set in its ways. Everyone had been there forever and knew everyone else including who not to speak to or "bother with". Unlike the new growing town of Virginiatown with its wonderful mixture of accents and close neighbour necessity -- here, no one needed each other for anything, everyone was completely self sufficient, no one ate cucumber sandwiches and no one in a dress had a jack knife. It was the epitome of emotional frost where "strangers need not apply". For the first time we were warned not to talk to strangers. This wasn't difficult -- everyone was a stranger and no one wanted to talk to us. Gone the happy freedom, replaced with this new and confusing knowledge that we were "poor". Eventually I made a few friends among the other few misfits of the town and, like them, we all left the place just as soon as we could -- all except Joan who married a local farmer and still lives there, out in the country, high on the bluffs overlooking the bay.

I talked so much about Virginiatown (we never called it "V-Town") over the years that finally, in 1988, my husband decided he needed to see it himself; I didn't want to go at all. Norma had always kept in touch with her best Oehring girlfriend but that was our only tie there and I did not want to ever go back. I had spent a mere 6 years there, wonderful new-child years in a wonderful new-growing town full of varied and warm people building a new life together in the bush. I preferred to remember with a child's memory, I didn't want to see it through adult eyes -- things are never as one remembers and I preferred to keep Virginiatown the way I had it tucked deep in my heart. But back we went. We stopped outside our little house. I didn't get out of the car, just took a picture of it. It had changed so much -- the little back shed where Grandfather had recited poetry to me was gone -- everything had changed and I didn't want to look at any more of it. We left. There are some things that are best left -- in memory -- untouched.

Kathleen Palmer

Kathleen Palmer.
She says: "This is/was me . . . after that it was downhill all the way."
She lives in London, Ontario.


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