About me and this blog
I was born on a native reserve in Ontario, grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island (as far west as you can go without running out of Canada), came of age in Mexico City. Between times, I lived in the Fraser Valley, Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma, Bella Coola, on the BC north coast, and the Fraser River Delta, just south of Vancouver. For now, I'm "settled" in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.
I have a boatload of stories to tell. These are some of them.
Sunday, June 24, 2012
To begin with, the Martins were old. Not fortyish, like my parents; really old, older even than my grandma.
She -- Mrs. Martin -- was shaped like an engine block; almost as wide as she was long, and giving the impression of squareness, even though there were no right angles about her. A small engine; she was no taller than I, a mere five feet. Her steel-grey hair was always pinned firmly into a bun at the nape of her neck, her sober skirts fell almost to her ankles, her shoes were black and sturdy. No nonsense about Mrs. Martin.
The mister was larger and rounder and softer. Just barely, though. He always wore a workman's shirt and baggy wool trousers, held up by suspenders. Sometimes a hat; a city hat, but much oil-stained and sat upon.
I have a picture of them, standing side by side in the hospital gardens, holding hands and smiling identical smiles. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, without the battle.
I first saw them in the staff dining room. We kids came down to lunch early that day and found the room empty, except for the Martins. He was already sitting at the table, she was on his lap, and they were kissing. Energetically. This was nothing like the hello-goodbye peck Mom and Dad indulged in, twice a day; they were kissing like people in the romantic stories from the magazines my grandma hid in her basement. Long, breathless, face-crushing kisses, both his arms around her ample waist, her hand on the back of his head, fingers parting his grey hair. They didn't seem to notice us in spite of the racket we had made, pounding down the stairs, the boys shouting.
We kids were struck dumb; we slid into our places on the long bench under the window silently, without any of our usual jostling. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to look.
The grown-ups, when they arrived, were less circumspect. There was a slight pause as each of them came through the door at the bottom of the stairs, a quick grin, and then a jocular comment.
"Making up for lost time, Walter?"
"What's this, dessert first?"
Chairs scraped, silverware clattered. Doc MacLean came in through the back door from his office. "Okay, that's enough, you two love-birds," he called out. "Behave!"
I was embarrassed for them. For Mrs. Martin, especially. Caught like that, between pleasing her husband and maintaining proper decorum! How she must feel!
Or not. She stood up, laughing, and deposited a kiss on Mr. Martin's bald spot. And he, playing to his audience, pulled her back down again for an encore. One final, slobbery, noisy buss. "Mmmm--wah!" he said.
Doc MacLean said grace, and the cook brought in the meal. Mrs. Martin had to cut up her husband's meat for him. He had no teeth. From the jokes people made, I gathered that he had lost them in a honeymoon mishap.
Mom told us the rest of the story after work that evening.
Mr. Martin was a recent widower. In the last months of his wife's illness, they had sold the farm and moved into Vancouver. He found a good church there, and attended as regularly as he could, given his wife's condition.
After she died, he cast about for something to do, something useful. He heard about the mission hospital and sent in an application.
If he were to go out to the wilds to serve God, he decided, he would need a wife. He started examining the women in the church. Most were married, some of the single ones were too flighty. Some came only Sunday morning, dressed in their showiest hats, carrying Bibles that looked as if they were rarely opened.
He concentrated on the few women who came to the Wednesday evening prayer meetings, the very few. One, a Miss Peters, was there regularly. Her Bible was worn and stuffed with notes, her dress was modest. She looked a sensible woman.
He asked around. "Miss Peters? Oh, yes. A good woman. A willing worker," he was told.
He had never spoken to her, but he wrote a note and handed it to her at the door, after prayer meeting. "Miss Peters," it said, "Please excuse my writing to you like this. I have been accepted by the Nootka Mission Association to work in their hospital on Vancouver Island. However, I feel the Lord wants me to go accompanied by a wife. Will you marry me?"
He saw her Sunday morning and evening, but apart from a cautious smile in his direction, she gave no response. It did seem, also, as if the pastor's wife were looking at him strangely. And the organist. He refused to worry, though; Miss Peters was a good woman. God would tell her what to do.
Wednesday evening she passed him a folded slip of paper. "Yes," it said. Nothing more.
So here they were, wed less than a week, smooching in our dining room. Miss Peters -- now Mrs. Martin -- would be working in the hospital laundry; her husband was our new handyman.
Mom would have ended the story there. It was an instructive little tale, a good example for a daughter just beginning to think about womanhood: be good, go to church, read your Bible, be patient, and you'll be assured of a nice husband. But Dad was prodding her to go on.
"Tell the kids about his teeth," he said.
At dawn on the morning after the wedding, the Martins boarded the Princess Maquinna for the trip north. It would be a beautiful honeymoon cruise; the weather was balmy, the cabin comfortable, the scenery postcard-perfect. They ate a hearty breakfast in the dining room and went out to the deck to watch the tip of Vancouver Island glide by.
On the "outside", the water open to the wide Pacific, the boat began to roll, just a little. And it soon became apparent that Mr. Martin was not a sailor. Before lunch, the couple had retired to the cabin; she went up to the dining room alone. He wasn't interested in food.
Further north, the swell increased; there was a slight breeze. The Maquinna plowed through the water, climbing and diving, rising and falling, always twisting on a slight angle from the direction of travel. They rounded Estevan Point; West-Coast seamen call it "The Graveyard of the Pacific". Up, down, roll, climb, drop. Roll, and up again. Mr. Martin's breakfast left its moorings. Mrs. Martin held the basin.
When it was over, Mr. Martin lay back on the bunk, groaning. Mrs. Martin opened the porthole. She reached out and dumped the contents of the basin into the salt chuck.
"My teeth!" her new husband shouted. Too late. They rest, still, just off Estevan Point.
Dad loved this part of the story. He kept supplying the details Mom wanted to leave out. And he ruined her lesson. "Be patient, dress modestly, go to church" and all the rest, and what do you get? A lousy sailor, in suspenders, with no teeth.
There had to be a better plan.
Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004