Michael‘s Mental Metis Drippings (1950–1970)
(The contributor is Michael Martin and he refers to his mother, Betty Savage (née Savage) and his older brothers Peter and Kerry among others.)
(I’ve tried to avoid duplication with stories in Mum’s ‘ Memories of Metis’ and Kerry’s ‘Reminiscences of Rowanburn’ and, miracle of miracles, there are no serious contradictions. Peter has also reminded me of a gem or two, for which much thanks. Errors are mine, all mine.)
I was a premature February baby. Mum would endlessly tell the story of my delayed arrival home to Gage Road and how I ‘screamed bloody murder’ day and night for the next six months. Colicky, I guess, but I couldn’t digest much of anything and Mum said my survival wasn’t thought to be a sure thing. Preparations of store-bought lactic acid for sustenance were frustrating as the instructions on the box were incorrect. Mum told of the company chemists in our Gage Road kitchen without even taking their hats and coats off, trying to figure out what was wrong: they eventually got it right. With some trepidation on Mum’s part, I was taken down to Metis in August 1950 where she wondered how I’d fare and how Granny would put up with the fantastic level of noise I was said to be capable of producing. Mum said that, on arrival, I slept the night through for the first time ever and on during the following weeks. She was fearful of a return to high-decibel behaviour on return to Montreal: it never happened. As I was now expected to live, I was baptised in September at Gage Road in a silver bowl which I still have. I was totally unaware that my love for Metis, even my need for Metis, had now begun.
Getting to Metis was a major effort in the ‘50s. When Granny went in late June or early July , we got to go and see her off at Central Station. It was quite a production as her trunks and luggage got brought down and loaded on board, Granny discreetly handing out ‘ fivers’ ($5 bills) to the porters who had worked the line for years and knew where the tips were to be found. At first, Mum, Peter and I went down by train and had a sort of room at the end of a sleeper car which was otherwise full of two tiers of bunk beds. It was high adventure as we were allowed to go up and down a few cars in either direction on our own before being-shepherded into the dining car for dinner with white tablecloths and flat silver (plate but gleaming anyway) on tables to either side of the central passage. Getting to sleep by the clickety-clack sound of the train was magical.
Later trips were all by car. I remember it taking about eight-nine hours and at first we broke the trip into two parts, staying overnight at the ‘Auberge de la Colline’ at the top of the hill leading down to the Quebec bridge: it had a swimming pool. After Quebec, I think it was a two-lane highway all the way, certainly past Rivière-du-Loup. Peter and I for nine hours in a car would have tested even Mum’s patience, but we slept on the back seat or on the floor behind the front seat or, even better, on the flat bit behind the back seat and under the window in the sun: no kiddie seats and no seatbelts back then! Later, we often went in tandem with the Stephens family and had a picnic together halfway at the L’Islet wharf. We knew every twist and turn and eagerly waited for the familiar landmarks to appear as we went. The falls across the river at Montmagny, the Catholic church in every village, glimpses of the river and ships moving up or down, woodcarving stores at St.-Jean-Port-Joli, Cacouna where Dad had gone as a child, the mysterious deer enclosure at Grand-Metis and much more. WHOOPS of excitement as the ‘Metis Beach’ municipal limit sign was spotted to the west of Leggatt’s Point, then the lighthouse came into view and finally we could see Cow and Bull Rock in the distance just before the tum into Metis near the Coin de la Baie.
Going back to Montreal (a much less exciting trip), we stopped at the Hotel Rimouski and bought the first English-language comic books we’d seen in a month. Mum was pleased: that kept us quiet for a while.
One of the earliest memories of my entire life is the sound and smell of a can of tennis balls when opened. Mum and Dad often had tennis parties at the house and they could play and keep an eye on Peter and me at the same time. When a ball went over the court fence, we would race to get it: if one landed in the stream, Dad would hammer it against the fence to remove the water, sending the spray flying off. In those days, racquet strings were made of catgut (nothing to do with cats, don’t ask me why it’s called that): water weakened them so after dealing with the wet ball, moisture was carefully wiped off. All racquets were made of laminated wood built up in layers and any water or water vapour (and fog!) could warp them and ruin a racquet. Racquet presses, square two-sided contraptions with screws built into the corners, were universal, key to keep the racquet heads tight and prevent the wood from warping. The paraphernalia of an afternoon tennis party included water, iced tea, sweaters and towels, and a few family tennis fans (Granny for sure, often her sister-in-law Selina Birks) but best of all for me were the Slazenger tennis cans. Cylinders of tin with a key at one end, they were opened in the same way as a sardine can, by using the key to unwind a strip of metal at the top. When opened, a clean, metal-and-rubber smell and a pjjjjft whoosh of air as compressed air escaped the can: I was a proud boy when I managed to open one for the first time.
Peter and I witnessed a lot of those tennis afternoons and endlessly pestered Mum and Dad: “When is it MY turn?”. Peter, a bit over three years older than me, got on and I was too young at first. It drove me crazy.
I think I remember Granny asking me if I’d go up the road to the hotel, Seaside House, to get her mail (no home delivery back then). I was very small and very proud of being given such an important task to carry out all on my own. The reception countertop was higher than I was but the hotel staff knew who I was and were very friendly as I recall (but maybe I’m making all that up, it was so long ago). There was no phone in the Big House when I was small and I don’t remember when one was first installed. I think the first phone in Metis was at the Doheny house and there was some muttering about it being contrary to what Metis was all about. Maybe I’m making this up too but if a call came for Granny for some reason, it went to the Seaside and a message was passed down the hill to the house so she could go up and call back if she wanted. Otherwise, telegrams were just as good and came in at the old post office at the corner of Macnider and the shore road. Of course, the shore road had no name like ‘Beach Road’ then: it was the only road so we just called it ‘the road’. The highway which now goes around Metis from the Petit Miami to the end of Les Boules was constructed in the late 1950’s although the short stretch between Macnider and Station Road was in use so when the second tee was next to the 1st green (its remnants are still there), driving across the road was tricky.
Seaside Beach was a popular spot. The Seaside House hotel was up by the road with a wing down the west side of the property and a spotless lawn swept down to the beach itself. Rocks had been removed from a stretch of the beach below the tide line to make it easier to get to the water: the gap is still there (and there’s a similar one on ‘our’ beach). Lawn chairs were all over the place for hotel guest use and small wooden punts, too: we played with them all the time and on a calm day we went to look for flounder and try to spear one. The punts weren’t seaworthy and to go all the way out to Cow Rock in one was an act of great bravery or foolishness: take your pick. I never tried.
When I was old enough to go to the Club for tennis lessons (I think I skipped the golf ones), it was a challenge for me to make it up the hill past the Price house and along the road past the Seaside on my little bike. I was dressed in tennis whites, tennis racquet in its press tied down in back and very self-conscious as I pedalled past the guests out on lawn chairs on the road-side verandah tucked under wool rugs, watching me as I went by. I tried to pedal harder.
Somehow, the Boule Rock Hotel at the other end of ‘our’ beach was less interesting than the Seaside. Less beach, no punts and the hotel was closer to the water. On calm days, it seems to me I remember that end of the beach being something to avoid as I vaguely recall a rusty sewage pipe leading out into the water, visible at low tide when calm. There was once a wharf there which Kerry could remember seeing when he was a kid: it may have been used to bring fresh fish to the hotel but I’m not sure of that (I have photos of it, though).
But the Boule Rock had a pool which provided a place for swim meets and Red Cross lessons and tests to see who could win a badge to add to their swimsuit. Diving in off the diving board, splashing around in the salt water pumped in from the river and wishing I was old enough to try for a badge. Nope, but I remember Peter got one, cousin Gord too until the programme stopped (Grrrrrrrrrrr!).
Beach & Rocks
The rocks on the beach are such old friends that they have names: the Pink Rock, the Pounding Rock (not sure what the pounding is about) and the Bathtub in Ted’s Reef which sometimes gets buried in sand but its formation is a wonder to imagine.
Down on the beach, we built dams with Dad to hold water from the stream. We loved breaking the dam walls and letting the water go down to the river. Sometimes we left the dam intact but Aunt Betty Savage next door wasn’t keen on stagnant water close to her house so down it would come.
The rocks of Ted’s Reef are vertical bands of different types of rock with the shale getting eroded quicker than other parts. That leaves little depressions where narrow ponds of seawater are left after a storm. Kerry and I invented a game there: pretending that twigs and sticks were bridges over these little ponds, we bombed them with stones and took turns being either British or German. We related everything to WWII which for Kerry was a not-so-long-ago experience.
The beach was superb fun. When you’re three or four years old, a six-inch wave is exciting terror and pools of shrimp wiggling among the seaweed endlessly fascinating. Skipping stones when the river was calm was great sport. Mum was very good at flat rock selection and getting low enough to get 16-skippers going. Counting the skips gave a sense of competition. Cigar-shaped ‘ bloopers’ made a great sound if they managed to enter the water vertically. I don’t remember being on the beach at high tide back then when a storm blew up: either we were kept away from the danger of wave action or we preferred being inside by the fire: probably a bit of both. I also don’t remember seeing crabs out on the sand bar back then but at around 15 or so, I saw quite a large one moving sideways in the shallow water and for some reason I took offence and pelted it with stones from a distance until it was dead. I was very accurate throwing and I still regret doing that. Picking up sea glass has been popular for generations but watch out for the ones which haven’t been smoothed off by the wave and sand action. At around age 8 or 9, I picked up a piece to throw and it was still sharp , cutting deep into my right index finger: the scar is still there as a reminder.
Going out to Cow Rock at low tide was as exciting for young kids then as it remains now. It seemed remote and venturing out with the cold water high on young legs was adventure itself, rubber pail and shovel in hand to pick up treasures like odd-shaped shells, starfish and live sea urchins. Climbing the rock itself was courting danger and it smelled less back then. Going as far out as Boule Rock was much rarer than in Mum’s day when picnics were common there. The accumulation of guano and rumours we were supposed to leave the birds to themselves put an end to all that.
In the summer of 1962, a dead whale washed up on the beach in Les Boules more or less opposite where Ratté’s store is now. It was mentioned in the Montreal Gazette, drew crowds from all over and I remember the traffic going by on the road to go see it. I could climb up and balance on its tail flukes. The breeze thankfully blew from the west all the time it was there: the smell was awful and it was said it took over a dozen barrels of gasoline to finally burn the carcass.
M. et Mme. Leblond
On arrival, Granny would shepherd us down to the Leblond shoe store (now the Café-sur-mer) and we each got a new pair of white tennis sneakers every year (she did the same with Howarth’s clothing store in Montreal – a new suit annually for each grandson). When our bikes arrived on the train, they went to Leblond’s where Monsieur tuned them up. Madame Leblond, born in the same year as Mum – 1917 – used to laugh as Peter and I chased each other around the store and among the shelves. Mum tried to quieten us down but we’d have none of that. Madame was one of my all-time favourite people. I used to drop in and visit her as she got older and went down to Metis for her funeral in February 2014 and experienced a truly wild snowstorm .
Astle’s (and Campbell’s)
Opposite us was the Astle house where the front was the general Astle’s Store with candy and goodies we could charge to Granny’s account. Harold Astle was a strong, burly man, friendly to us.
Tim and Diana are the Astle kids closest to me in age and an odd relationship developed between us. My life was staggeringly different, privileged and secure: when we were on summer vacation, theirs was spent working around the store and making deliveries (especially, as Tim reminded me, to houses where he’d get a cookie now and then). Tim still lives in Metis on the same property, watching over ours, and I would trust him to the ends of the Earth: although friends without question, the differences in our lives remain indelible. His daughter Dana and Diana are close friends and so it continues: Dana is one of my ‘Metis daughters’, a very special group for me.
There was a house which stood where the parking lot is now, originally identical to its two eastern neighbours, including the Astle house. Granny bought it in 1953 and the ink was still drying on the deed when she had it torn down (which Tim remembers seeing from his bedroom window). Mum later told us Granny didn’t like having neighbours who could look in her front windows – anyway, the front curtains were almost always drawn shut and the front door was always closed.
Up the road where Astle Park is now located was Campbell’s Store (formerly called Maria’s after its earlier owner, Maria Astle – the Cobbetts used to stay there, Kip says). I think it had much the same merchandise as Astle’s and for me back then, it was a long way away and up a hill so I rarely went. Also, in those days the summer households somehow chose to deal with one of the two stores and not both: the Savage household was tied to the Astles. Campbell’s closed in the early 60’s and Astle’s not long after.
The Big House (Kerry’s ‘Rowanburn’)
(I should mention that I found out in the summer of 2020 that the house and property were called ‘The Poplars’ in the 19th century.)
The Big House and the neighbouring ‘family’ properties were a source of fun and adventure all on their own.
The property had features which have since disappeared. Two huge pine trees were below the house on either side of a semi-circle of sand and crushed shells positioned at the bottom of the stairs. Their stumps lasted a long time, with wooden flowerpots on top. To the left on the lawn not far from the stream, there was a two-seater swing with a shade where Granny would occasionally have tea (Aunt Selina Birks would sometimes visit) with cinnamon buns, buttered bread and cookies at hand on a multi-layer wicker server. The flagstones in front of the swing are still there, under the grass. There was a swing on Uncle Bill’s property on the east side of the lower lawn (it can be seen in old photos but I think placed elsewhere) and a small goldfish pond to the west of the cottage near the stone wall fed by the trickle of water from the Astle property across the street. Uncle Bill’s lower lawn was also handy as it was wider than ours: the extra room was ideal for a kid learning how to ride a bike and fall off, get Mum’s encouragement, get up and try again – and again – and again. A gate was placed in the break in the stone wall by Uncle Bill’s saltwater pool (he had it built so he could get exercise by swimming as he’d lost a leg in the war) and another down where the lower lawn led to the beach. The gates, including those on the road, were always closed as Granny hated it when neighbours’ dogs came and crapped on her pristine lawn.
On the house gallery, two other two-seater swings hung down from hooks screwed into the overhead beams, one on either side of the central door. The one to the east was favoured as once you got it going, it would slam into the wall outside the kitchen, driving anyone inside berserk. That whole area was also home to a large housefly population and Peter and I would have competitions to see how many we could swat, making as much noise as possible. There was a staircase leading down from the west end of the gallery towards the stream, perhaps a relic of long-ago days when the stream was the main source of water. Inside, sliding down the banister alongside the main staircase was nearly a daily routine and spinning the top on the post at the bottom an important part of the ritual. If it rained, riding tricycles around the gallery was good sport until ordered to stop which never took long. Then we were dispatched to the attic to play ping-pong or just about anything to get us out of Granny’s vicinity. When it rained for a few days on end, there was a limit to her patience.
The fireplace was smaller than it is now, tucked into a corner of the living room to the left of the window with the couch opposite: Granny’s perch. Playing with the fire, adding bits of birchbark or cedar and using the bellows (which Uncle Murray may have carved, Granny’s initials are on it: EMC for Edith Margaret Cassils), was irresistible. The bellows remain where they’ve been for decades along with the old stand, poker, and other critical fireplace equipment. I love them.
Going out onto the gallery roof was irresistible but not a good idea when it was wet: a fall from up there could have been serious but we all did it anyway and so had Mum and her brothers. Jumping over the stone walls was a ‘do or dare’ type of game and I didn’t make it over sometimes. We were told not to jump over the right-hand side of the stone fence to the lower lawn as the septic ‘system’ was right beyond the fence: if the wood slats above it gave way, it wouldn’t have been pretty. The grass grew well in that corner, though.
Mum and Dad had the bedroom in the north-west comer (Granny was, of course, in the master bedroom). One night, Mum got up to go to the bathroom and to her surprise, encountered a big rat in there. Typical of her thoughtful, calm nature, she tacked up a message on the bathroom door (“Keep closed – rat inside”) and went back to sleep. The morning brought mayhem as Peter and I were excited as anything and Granny just wanted it killed. Dad was deputized to carry out the task, put a pair of rubber boots on over some pants and with a pair of gloves and armed with a baseball bat and a shovel, went in to do battle. We listened intently, vastly tense and apprehensive about it all. After a few bangs and crashes, Dad emerged with the dead rat (which we were not allowed to see) and the search was on for its mate and where they lived. The cook remembered a chewed rag in the kitchen and sure enough, the nest was in the woodbin next to the old cast-iron stove. Alphonse, Albert’s replacement that summer (he was on government construction work for the highway around Metis, better pay – much to Granny’s annoyance) killed the mother rat while I watched her try and get back to the nest to protect her babies. They were quietly taken to the beach and buried.
The other wildlife which brought entertainment was a bat which somehow got into the old living room one evening. Granny simply got up and said something like, “take care of it, Harald”. Dad picked up a second-hand tennis racquet, waited for the bat to circle around a few more times to judge its speed and deftly served it into the far wall. So much for the bat (I was mightily impressed at the method of its dispatch, still am) but we had been ushered out of the room and missed all the action.
Summer life –1950s
Cousins, so many cousins – and close to my age. Bubby and Peter Birks were nearby and Barb and Gord Savage were often around (I don’t recall Edwin Birks being around as much). Hide-and-goseek was a popular game but when they hid in the house basement, I complained as I was too scared to go in and find them: they turned out the light and made ghost noises. Next door, Debbie Savage, Uncle Bill and Aunt Audrey’s daughter, was younger even than me and quite shy at a young age; Ted next door on the other side too. Next house to the west, Uncle George and Aunt Winnie Grier had grandchildren my age, Vicky and Georgina with their playhouse. Jane and Beverly Birks were off near the Little Metis Presbyterian Church and didn’t come our way often. All them and friends all over the place, especially the Stephens girls, Mary Pat and Caroline, and Kip Cobbett: the post-war Baby Boom made Metis a lively place, wonderful to grow up in as it was safe and fun (still is).
There comes a time in a child’s early life when having a pet seems inevitable. I had found a dead field mouse on the lower lawn and decided it was mine, wrapped it up in Kleenex and put it carefully in a small drawer on top of the bureau in my room. After a day or two, its perfume gave its presence away and Mum gently told me it couldn’t stay. I think that was the day the decision was taken to get a dog to replace the mean cocker spaniel which had bit everyone at home in Montreal except me. It made the fatal mistake of biting Dad twice one Saturday. Exit spaniel: we were told Dad had taken it to live on some farm somewhere but it bought the farm.
I had a nanny (called ‘Nan’, what else) in Montreal to give Mum a break now and then and to my delight, she came down for at least part of one August to Metis. This caused a crowding problem: Kerry slept in the attic as there were not enough bedrooms to go around.
After a quiet July (Kerry, Peter and I were off at Camp Nominingue), Granny’s August was a noisy, active month with the five of us in the house. Granny did not cook (Mum used to say she could boil an egg but not much more) and there was always a cook and a maid in the house with us in August. Imelda was Granny’s Montreal live-in and came to Metis for only part of the summer, I think. Mrs. Ziurko, a wonderfully kind Ukrainian lady who helped both Granny and Mum in Montreal, was also in Metis as Granny’s maid. Her husband came for a week or so (I’ve no idea where they stayed) and he loved to sit in the sea grass below the stone wall and watch the river and his grandson Stephan, a boy my own age, play on the beach. The cook’s name was Mrs. Cavanaugh and her chicken pot pie was a favourite of mine (Peter’s was her lemon meringue pie).
Meat, fish and vegetables were delivered separately almost every day but Sunday. Small paper pads hung on hooks near the kitchen door so Mrs. Cavanaugh could write out the next day’s food order and hand it over in the morning when a delivery came in. The kitchen was the domain of Mrs. Cavanaugh and Mrs. Ziurko and we rarely went there in the evenings as we’d been told that was ‘their time’. They spent it chatting and playing cards, mostly whist.
The house under Granny’s rule had a schedule and a tempo. Lunch and dinner were served at 12:00 noon and 7:00 p.m., on the dot and attendance was de rigeur. I don’t remember going elsewhere for meals, ever. After dinner, all six of us often played cards – especially ‘Hearts’ – and somehow Granny put up with the arguments, competition and wailing at losses and we kids learned how win and lose and how to ‘behave in polite company’. Dad loved to try and go for ‘control’, capturing all the Hearts and the Queen of Spades. My target was capturing the Jack of Diamonds, I think with some intensity – and beating Peter was important.
Granny stuck mostly to the property, patrolling the flower beds for deadheads and the lawn for weeds: it was her territory and she was boss, all five feet, two or so inches of her. The property was kept in immaculate shape by Albert Ratté who tended to the flower beds, mowed the lawn and could repair anything: barring rain, he rolled and dragged the tennis court and swept the lines at least once a day, sometimes two if a morning game were followed by more in the afternoon. Dad would do the same if Albert wasn’t around: they both loved that court and wanted it at its very best.
We think our court was the best tennis surface in Metis in those years and we played a lot. Kip Cobbett, one of my oldest and closets friends, and I played often together there in the early 60’s. Dad recognized Peter’s talent early on and I remember him placing handkerchiefs in the service box and baseline corners and Peter practicing his accuracy in hitting them: it paid off when he won the Men’s Singles trophy, the Grier Cup, at 16 against David Molson – I remember watching the 5-set final, very anxious as the match progressed and very proud of my brother.
Sunday mornings were Granny’s time off-property. Church at 11:00 for an hour, followed by a drive in her old Buick (that gave time for the cook to get lunch ready) with Dad at the wheel, I think. We drove slowly down the shore road to try and glimpse chickens and pigs in pens towards the east end of Les Boules. Lunch was often followed by croquet on the lower lawn: Granny was uncannily accurate. When Dad hit your ball, you were ‘sent off’ with a whack: he would gleefully order the gate to the beach opened and a hapless opponent would find the ball on the beach. I defy you to hit a croquet ball once it’s half-buried in sand. Another equally hopeless spot was the gap between the south end of the tennis court and the rock fence: once in there, never to emerge.
Mum, who I suspect loved but found her mother something of a chore and a social snob (Peter and I both recall Mum saying she and her mother rarely saw eye-to-eye on anything) and her house regime too restrictive for her sons, chose to rent in 1963 and we found ourselves in the Marler house opposite the Seaside for a couple of years and then in Uncle Gordon’s place, the fourth on Skid Row, until 1966. From the window on Skid Row, we could see if the Club tennis court nets were wound up or left down so we instantly knew if tennis was possible or not: those old natural clay courts took a day or two to dry out. Then opportunity knocked as Uncle Harold next door decided to de-camp from Metis and bought a summer place in the Townships in North Hatley: Mum bought the next-door cottage in 1966.
Mum and Dad never returned to the ‘Big House’ as we called it. When Granny had a stroke in 1968, she couldn’t return to Metis and lived in a residence in Senneville (partly owned by her doctor, Dr. Howlett) where she lived until she died in July 1970. The Big House remained closed for those years, I don’t think Mum felt right about being in there and too many memories but she also found it too big and the cottage served her and us all just fine. I think Mum’s relationship with Granny was somewhat tense as Granny was brought up in a way of life that in Mum’s eyes was not compatible with the modem times of the 1950s and ’60s (!).
After Granny died, Mum inherited the Big House and it needed serious work. Built in 1871-72, the centre beams holding up the core of the house were starting to sag. Mum got André Rousseau (he wasn’t cheap but he did good work and Renaud Isabel learned from him) to put concrete posts in the dirt floor of the basement, boosted the centre on hydraulic lifts and put wooden posts in to hold the floor up and in place. That exercise removed the trapdoor and interior stairs which had led down to the basement from near where the fridge is now (it was handy to get firewood down there). It also removed a pantry area where the dining room is now, redid the kitchen (a Harold Devitt design, too many drawers) and took out the dividing wall between the dining room and sitting room, transforming that into the big sitting room we have today. When that dividing wall was removed and the fireplace moved to a more central position (with side vents that Mum thought a real innovation), an old general store sales ledger dating back to the 1850s was found in the wall, creating quite a stir in town and starting rumours and stories about the age of the Big House and its origins, all of which turned out to be wrong. To the right of the front door, there was a cloakroom with a toilet at the far end but no door leading into the kitchen as the bedroom there was for the cook. The original door central leading north and onto the gallery disappeared – Mum had a mental list of what went missing and she mourned the loss of the pearl-handled doorknobs. I wish we had some photos of what the interior looked like back then but we don’t.
Uncle John Birks had a thing for seagulls. He hated them. They woke him up too early and never shut up. He amused himself occasionally from the back porch of the Yellow House shooting them down on the rocks at low tide with a .22 calibre rifle. Sometimes, we would borrow the rifle and shoot at targets ourselves (we’d learned this at Nominingue), mostly a can perched on top of a vertical log on the beach. One kid kept a lookout for those walking along the beach and the other would be flat on his stomach on the lower lawn beside the tennis court, down close to the sea wall. Probably a good thing that pastime didn’t last long. Speaking of Nominingue, I made myself a bow and some arrows there one summer and brought them down to Metis to shoot. Dad found some bales of hay and set them up in the parking lot for me: but I was shooting parallel to the road (the lot isn’t deep enough to bother otherwise) and that pastime died too: besides, after five minutes it was pretty boring: so was finding the arrows.
Boys invent games to play together and Kerry and I invented one of the all-time best (this, in the ‘60s): golf with a tennis ball and a low iron (3, 4 or 5 iron were all good) with four properties as the course. The first tee was always on the back gallery at the top of the stairs and the holes varied: the winner of a hole picked the next one. The back stairs at the Birks’ Yellow House was a favourite as that was a par four from the first tee but could be made in three, rarely. Other holes were the bottom gate leading to the river, any tree (the ones which were on the river side of the tennis court were good}, the door to the pool and best of all, inside the tennis court (and not through the gate).
What to do
Weather has always been a major factor in Metis life. A sunny day meant tennis, golf, swimming, bikes, picnics and outdoor fun. An east wind would often bring fog and rain, sometimes for days on end: snuggling by the fire and card and board games like Monopoly were the order of the day or biking around the gallery. The foghorn gave off an unforgettable sound, two short blasts followed by a third longer one so ships’ captains knew how far up or down the river they were (Father’s Point was three short blasts). In bed in the morning, the foghorn told you if your tennis lesson was on or not: no need for texting or an email notice. Like many of my generation, I miss that sound to this day. The family which operated the lighthouse were occasionally persuaded to have a few dozen kids out to Lighthouse Point and climb the stairs to the top. When we were all safely down and off to its south side, Mr. Ferguson (I think that was his name) would start up the motor to bring the horn up to pressure and we were treated to a foghorn blast on a sunny day with no fog in sight.
A major outing was going to fish for smelt off the wharf at Sandy Bay (we never called it Baie des Sables), involving a mass of relatives and friends. Parents bought a bucket of sea-worms and rented fishing poles with 5 or more hooks on heavy string. Hooking a sea-worm wasn’t a favourite of mine but if the smelt were running on an incoming tide, many could be caught at one go just by dipping the line in the water. I think we left the smelt there: they say they’re great for garden mulch.
Another spot was Red Bridge [Pont Bélanger], straight back on Macnider to the south and back: a covered wooden bridge over the Tartigou river where there was room for a few cars to park. A splendid spot for picnics where Kerry, Peter and I would splash about in the stream and the Stephens family would often join us. Patricia (‘Steve’ to us), Mary Pat, Caroline and Ian who have been my second family all my life: they lived close by in Montreal, first on Gage and then Trafalgar. One day while following the stream flowing eastwards, I came across several big brook trout in a pool but had nothing to catch them with. When Red Bridge was repainted a dull gray, no one wanted the name to change and in our minds it never did: so, it never has.
[We went f]ishing in the Cascade stream for brook trout under the bridge. I even caught one with Mum one day and brought it back to the house for the cook, Mrs. Cavanaugh, to prepare for me. I wasn’t all that keen: a small fish with too many bones. There was a small dam in the stream a bit further up and below the back of the Club tennis courts: walking across its top was a good short-cut to get to Town Hall in time for Cabaret rehearsals.
The Cascade stream waterfall was a challenge for kids to climb (one I ducked). The path down to the beach was well-travelled by Cascade Hotel guests and better maintained than in later years. One time, I was following Peter running down the path and he stepped into a hornet’s nest. He’d gone by and so they went after me – 20 or 30 stings later, I was still howling as everyone back at the Big House paid me lots of attention and slathered the stings with Milk of Magnesia to take the sting out.
The next major opportunity for adventure came a few years later, at 12-14 years old or so: Fleet’s Lake (which I revisited in August 2020 with Tim Astle). There was protocol involved, a visit to have tea with Miss Fleet, a Redpath descendent, at her house (now owned by the Price/Winser/McLachlan/Notman clan). An adult would politely ask if a group could go to the lake for an evening of fishing and dinner (drinking omitted from the conversation, no doubt) and the critical services of Lucien, her property caretaker, would be involved. Critical, as he invariably caught by far the most fish and then gutted, cleaned and pan-fried every last one on a cast-iron stove. Lucien’s canoe normally had the youngest kids who were particularly hopeless at casting (most of my casts got caught in branches of bushes lining the lakeshore) and so who rarely caught anything: like me. Once ashore, the accompanying fathers broke open a bottle of scotch or rye and we boys played/wrestled outside: Peter, Peter Birks, Gordon, Kip Cobbett and Carleton Monk. After a while, the fathers (I remember Uncle Gordon, Uncle Stu Cobbett and Mr. Monk) broke into song, mostly ‘rugby’ songs involving tales of loose women and wonderfully foul language. We boys couldn’t hear enough of the lyrics but all subsided once we were back inside the cabin and tucking into a delicious dinner of fresh-caught lake trout with lit candles and old oil lamps on the table and toast done over the fire.
Swimming at St. Ulric wasn’t a big draw in my day but it’s a beautiful spot (quite dangerous after a heavy rain around the bottom of the falls and a bit of a trek to get there, though). There was also a ‘swimming hole’ off the road off Maclaren to the west but I only went there a few times.
Cabaret skits have often mentioned the old Sunday ritual of sending off the fathers back to Montreal on the Ocean Limited at the Metis train station after a weekend downriver. After dinner, a trip to the old station beckoned, whether your father was involved or not. The porters knew us on sight so the older kids were able to get on board and check things out while endless social chatter went on outside. We left pennies on the track to get flattened and tried to find them after the train had left. Once in a while, a few kids were allowed to stay on [at no cost] and disembark at Mont-Joli: that was the ultimate in travel excitement (not me, too young). I remember one or two kids who hid on board and a parent had to trek all the way to Rimouski to fetch the miscreants back: not a happy parent, that one.
I have only vague memories of being up at the Club until I hit my teens. I’m sure I had tennis and golf lessons and do remember one lady tennis instructor but I was a bit scared of her: I stayed away. Another one, an Australian named Bill Bowen, was a riot, running after us all and tickling us half to death.
Mum and Dad were very good tennis players, awesome as a doubles team. When the tennis prizes were given out at the Club prizegiving, they had little chance to sit down until one was called up again to accept yet another prize. The tennis matches drew crowds from the hotels to watch the finals: well over 100 would attend. There was an umpire perched in a chair atop a platform, four linesmen and ball boys and ball girls. At one mixed doubles final, Mum and Dad were playing Bill and Mary Molson and I was ball boy at the far end. Mum served an ace whizzing off the line down the middle and it barely missed me. Bill came back, muttering under his breath “Christ, what a fluke” and then hit the ball back over the net: “Good shot, Betty!!”. I loved him for that, found it funny as anything.
The 5-club match was a huge gathering on an August weekend afternoon, with tons of kids and parents participating. It was a 5-person team, alternate shot event and each team member had to hit in tum with their assigned club. There were antics aplenty: putting the flag upright in a bunker; hiding it and filling the hole with cut grass so it couldn’t be found; and, of course, driving with the putter and putting with the driver. I had my team’s driver one year and on the first tee in front of that clubhouse crowd, was nervous as hell. I kept my cool and my head down for once and hit a terrific drive straight down the middle and about a foot over Cliff Powell’s head as their group had just barely finished teeing off themselves. I almost killed the man.
Another weekend afternoon brought the Metis vs Locals softball game to Daly Field. Lots of people turned out to picnic and watch the fun, with Brian Powell pitching underhand and Harold Astle crushing the ball into the far woods. The parallel event, the Metis vs Locals golf event, saw Harold again, this time on the 18th tee with everyone watching to see if he could drive the green (or the parking lot if he missed). He could and did.
The Club arranged for movies on Tuesdays and Thursdays, every week. Folding chairs were set up by the caddies on both sides of the clubhouse room, with a gap down the middle for a table and a projector with a screen at the far end. When a reel finished, all the kids raced to the canteen for candy and a drink while the reel was changed. The older boys and girls were in the back on The Couch, the Alpha males (Con Harrington, Tim Powell, Pat Doheny and his cousin Ian Taylor, Gord, Peter and Peter Birks, Andy Brodhead, Kit Osler, Peter Stuart and Charlie Macfarlane) with the prettiest girls, the Goddesses: Barb Savage, Deanie Doheny, Cricky Brodhead, Debbie Osler, Cathy Mills, Bubby Birks, Mary Pat Stephens, Jill Harrington, Di Pepall, Jenny Macfarlane, Christine Iversen and, ruling over them all, Joanie Daly. I sat languishing a bunch of rows further up, wondering about the unattainable in behind. That couch (and my memories of all that) is now on our back gallery.
Dad came to pick me up in the car after a movie one night (no idea what age I was) and the Northern Lights were fantastic, very strong. They moved across the whole sky across the river like curtains in a breeze. A few years later on my bike going home on movie nights, I used to find the road too dark for my liking and I imagined all sorts of bogeymen in the properties by the side of the road and pedaled like crazy to get home and to safety. My bike, a 3-speed Raleigh, was new and had a gizmo on the front wheel which provided power to a lamp on the handlebar. It didn’t cast as much light as I would have liked. It’s been restored and is in the basement: only one gear now but it’s a thing of beauty.
As a young teenager, I did get out on the golf course on occasion. Cousin Gord liked to time his round so he’d be on the 11th as the afternoon train went by. We’d set up 4 or 5 balls on tees, wave at the conductor and then blast away at the cargo cars. Gord actually put one ball through a cargo car once as its doors were open on both sides. One Parent and Child golf event in about 1963 or ’64 had me paired with Dad who by then had wrestled the game into submission and become a very good golfer. The format was alternate shot and on the 10th tee, I took a mighty swipe at the ball, barely nicked its very top and it rolled gently off the end of the tee and down the slope to come to rest among the scree. We didn’t win.
The Birks cousins have always seemed to have a fascination with fire, fireworks and bonfires, led by Peter and now carried on most enthusiastically by his nephew Johnny. In the mid-1960s, the Mills had cleared a property south of Station Road to build a house (complete with a golf green so Lennox could practice his pitch and putt) and loads of dry pine and birch branches were too much for Peter Birks to resist. He, Gord and I drove up in a station wagon, loaded it up a few times and got it all down to ‘our’ beach by the Birks’ Yellow House where two tree stumps served as a base and we piled it all on. At least six feet high and as many across, it was impressive as hell when it went up and then a bit too impressive as big sparks and cinders floated slowly on the western breeze over to the closed Boule Rock Hotel. We were pretty nervous we’d burn it down.
Saturdays brought Junior Dance Night with a contributed record player, cherished collections of 45 rpm records and the latest LPs if we were lucky. The same albums over and over. Music over the radio could be heard only from the most powerful of the AM broadcasting stations and on car radios, from stations like Buffalo’s WKBW and WABC in New York bouncing off the KennellyHeaviside layer (later to be made better known in Cats). Other nights we gathered at a friend’s house to listen and dance (or learn to) to the same music. My very first dance? Mary Pat Stephens (Hébert) at John MacPhail’s place, now one of the Rioux houses, at the top of the hill opposite the Yellow Church. John and I were close Selwyn House friends and played tennis together at the courts hidden away in the woods on the property there.
When about 15 or 16, I used to bike up Macnider past the 4th hole and up to the 2nd concession on my Raleigh, tum around and scream back down as fast as I could go. The speedometer would be stuck at 50 mph and if l’d hit a pebble or the railroad tracks the wrong way, I was totally screwed. Fun, though.
At around 16, I was shooting my mouth off about Venus always being the first star in the sky and those who knew better kept quiet. Not long after, someone (Di Lafleur, I think) pointed at the same star and said “That’s Arcturus and the constellation Bootesl” and I kept quiet. I began reading about astronomy (starting with George Gamow’s Red Giants and White Dwarfs) and haven’t stopped since.
Dinner Dance has generated more stories than any other Metis event over the years, I think (well, maybe apart from Cabaret). Members paid to attend and eat food prepared by the cooks in various families’ houses (later they cooked it themselves and paid for the privilege of eating it later the same day). Our parents were all there so we would be too, watching all the goings-on. I remember Mum and Dad on the dance floor: Dad was light on his feet just like on court, an excellent dancer and Mum could match him as they twirled around to the music of Dan Doheny’s ‘Big Band’ records. The Goddesses were waitresses (some things never change) and would sneak half-finished wine glasses out the back to the Alpha males waiting by the bicycles. When it got dark, they found the traps on the 18th tricky to navigate. I watched, too young to get into the act: I bided my time, it would come.
Not that the adults didn’t cause some fun of their own. I have a clear picture of Big Jim Cronyn at a Dinner Dance one year trying to raise a few bucks for the Club from the crowd. Brandishing a hambone in one hand with no meat on it at all, with the other he pointed out his friends in the audience, suggesting a proper sum which the victim should pay for such a tasty morsel before finally bringing the forced bids to an end while the rest laughed at the antics.
Many memories relate to the three summers (1968-69-70) I worked at the Club teaching tennis: best summer job ever. Kerry was ‘Secretary’ (these days, Manager) and Richard Hague took care of golf instruction. I was living alone at the Club, upstairs in one of the front bedrooms and I had the use of what was left of the Chevy Corvair (“Unsafe at Any Speed”) after Peter got through with it.
The Corvair: a four-seater convertible automatic with black exterior and red leather interior. A tab on the dashboard could change from Drive to Reverse very quickly with a flick of a finger. Mum had bought it for Kerry to use but a bus sideswiped it in Montreal on his very first time at the wheel in a freak accident: he never drove it again. It was brought down to Metis and stayed in the cottage garage in winter. Peter used it when he had the Club tennis job in the three years before me. He’d take kids for drives along the bumpy back concessions and by the time I got my hands on it, the suspension was near death and Mont-Joli was about as far away as it dared to go. I filled it up at the FINA station in Les Boules. It was one of the most recognized cars in Metis, a place where waving at a car because you know which family it belongs to is a normal thing to do. The Corvair got a lot of waves.
Brian Powell drove a Porsche convertible in those days. He’d come up to us at the Club, saying “Wow, 140 Baby!!” (meaning 140 m.p.h.) and I’d reply, “40 Baby!’ as the Corvair couldn’t make it much past 35.
Tennis lessons began early, about 7:30. On those rare occasions when I’d perhaps skimped on sleep, timing a breakfast of toast, bacon and eggs and coffee (with 8 sugar lumps for energy and consciousness) was important. Two days a week, the first lesson was with a group of small kids: it sometimes consisted of telling them the inscrutable finer points of scoring until the sugar and coffee finally took hold. Madame Paradis ran the canteen and she had it all ready for me every non-rainy morning and five minutes later, I was on court –- days went to about 5:30 pm with a break for lunch, so it was a long day. I prayed for rain but Julys were sunny and warm. Madame Paradis also prepared lunch, a soup, meat/potato/veg main course, and dessert daily feast and Kerry, Richard and I would head out for two or max four hilarious holes of golf to aid with digestion. Dinner was with Mum and Dad at the cottage more often than not.
Evenings followed a pattern with two movie nights, a Saturday junior dance and Sunday dinner always with Mum, Dad and Kerry at the cottage. The kids looked to the Club as a place to hang out: they were always welcome and we’d let them know if at least one of us would be there. (usually Richard and I). The legal drinking age back then was 20 (it was lowered to 18 in 1972) and it was near-totally ignored. A curious 13-year-old wasn’t going to wait 7 years to try beer out and the parents knew it. So Kerry, Richard and I ran a system at the Club where Kerry would get some money from the older kids, buy beer for them (and me!) down in the back of the Hotel Les Boules (later the site of ‘Ti-Pierre’).We’d keep it in the Club fridge and dole it out a bit at a time. Many parents knew what was going on and were okay with it. They preferred their kids had their beer at the Club than down on the beach with tides, rocks and slippery seaweed . Besides, we had music on an old mono record-player, ping-pong and a fireplace.
When Kerry did his weekly banking run into Mont-Joli for the Club, he passed by the Quebec Liquor Commission store and occasionally picked up a bottle of Chivas Regal for me (that changed to something cheaper in later years). While the kids enjoyed the weekly movie, Kerry, Richard and I could often be found in the old Club kitchen having a beer or plundering the latest Chivas bottle. When the film broke in the projector, one of the kids would come and drag us out to do the repairs so it could continue. On really dreary rainy days, I relaxed in my room with a record player and music and the occasional late afternoon Chivas and water (Kevin Williams was dispatched on ‘ice patrol’ to fetch ice). I kept a Rogues’ Gallery of the 3 years’ worth of empties on a bedroom shelf upstairs and left them there to contribute to my successors’ education in the strange ways and traditions of Metis.
As ‘Metis people’, Kerry and I were permitted to play in Club golf and tennis tournaments. We teamed up for the Harrington (a handicap, best ball event) and with big handicaps as we rarely played, no one stood a chance. I’d drive first and if the ball couldn’t be found, Kerry went straight down the middle. If I bashed it 250-275 yards and it was still visible, Kerry went straight down the middle and I went for the pin on my second (if I missed, Kerry went straight down the middle – you get the picture). As a tennis doubles partner, Kerry was as steady as a rock with a marvelous ability to volley as he could get very low to take balls as he moved up. Angles, angles, angles – all low over the net and to mean and cruel places. Finals were best of five sets in those days and we won in ’69, ’70 and ’71, twice after coming from behind after dropping the first two sets – and retired the Webster Cups, which are in the Big House dining room. Fun!
THE place to go was the Jolly Roger, down a driveway just across the highway from the Petit Miami (then a small hotel with a bar and dance floor of its own – it burned down in 2002). The Jolly was a motel with a pool in the back, a large central room with a high roof, a stage at one end and an extension towards the back where the bar was located. This was the area where we were usually found. Occasionally, a band would show up but more often it just had loud music off a stereo system. As going there was totally illegal, it was totally fun.
Drinking and driving was a fact of life back then and weaving out of the Jolly sometimes left cars in ditches. Mr. Walter Meikle ran an Esso station opposite the eastern entrance to Leggatt’s Point and he was called on from time to time to haul cars out. One car (I think Don McGregor’s – my cousin Barbara’s first husband) wandered all by itself on to the golf course early one morning and ran into a double bunker on the 18th which had a central ridge: it was balanced nicely on the ridge when Meikle came to pull it off.
Following the Club’s August Dinner Dance and on Cabaret weekend, Metis was chock-full of people and all of Metis emptied into the Jolly, everyone of all ages on the dance floor and the place literally shook. After Dinner Dance, Kerry, Richard, myself and the older caddies put the entire clubhouse floor back into shape for the morning in under 45 minutes and roared out to the Jolly as fast as possible. I remember one time passing the Metis mayor André Rousseau (the abovementioned Robber Baron of the Lower St. Lawrence) en route, waving as I went by and then greeted him at the door with a beer when he walked in.
Late one night, I think at the Petit Miami after the Jolly had closed, Don McGregor thought it would be a good idea to take the Metis Beach Community Association lifeboat off the Seaside Beach, hitch it to his car and ever so quietly with a gang of 5 or 10 co-conspirators, deposit it into Maurice (‘Momo’) Hodgson’s pool. When Momo woke the next morning to this strange sight, he phoned Pat Hingston, the Metis Beach Community Association President, told him to come “get your damn boat out of my pool” and hung up. Pat had no idea what the call was about.
Another group of Merry Pranksters, led by Jill Harrington (whose motto was ‘do no damage’ and still is), kidnapped Pat Hingston’s bike (which everyone recognized as it had a wicker basket on the front) and ran it up the Club flagpole one Cabaret weekend. A poem was tacked to the front door of St George’s Church for the assembled hungover Anglicans to read the next morning, explaining how Pat had one too many and rode his bike straight up the flagpole. I hadn’t noticed it when I got back to the Club earlier that night but will never forget the sight of it up there the following morning as I rattled past the Anglican service then in progress in the Corvair on my way to the cottage.
Kerry thought it would be a great idea to flood the tunnel under the highway on the golf course and row people back and forth for a fee. Somehow, I don’t think he’d have done the rowing.
About half-way through one August Dinner Dance, Brian Powell had Jill Harrington’s number and was egging her on just after the desserts appeared. Simone, the Doheny’ s cook, had produced a multi-tiered chocolate cake topped off with icing and in front of a cheering crowd, Jill was wielding it on the dance floor, trying to restrain herself from applying it to Brian’s face. Not a chance, as she gently pushed it in and gave it a smearing twist for good measure. Brian loved it.
July 1969. Uncle Dick and Aunt Fran Birks had one of the few TVs in Metis and we went to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing and returned several hours later to watch as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Amazing to have seen that bit of history.
In my last summer, Kerry waved me over one day and asked me to inquire after three local guys on big motorbikes. They had parked them right at the front of the clubhouse, bought a soft drink at the canteen and were watching tennis quietly from the gallery, all in black leather with black helmets and one had an afro that rivalled my own. Kerry’s excuse was that my French was better than his. “No big deal, just relaxing,” they said and the one with the big hair returned a few days later. The kids couldn’t keep their eyes off him and his bike was a magnet. Next thing I know, this guy was taking the smaller kids one by one on 3 m.p.h. rides out to the parking area and back, he had a line-up and was thoroughly enjoying himself – he was fabulously kind. The kids were over the moon. He also loved speaking to my Belgian girlfriend, Anita, as they had trouble understanding each other’s French. That was how my friendship with René Bérubé began (he died of cancer in 2018). He later told me that his time with ‘les anglais’ that summer made him feel comfortable enough to look for work in Ontario and that until he went there, he never realized there was such a person as a poor ‘anglais’ – I’ll never forget that.
One time, Mum was driving the Corvair for some reason and René was waving at the car from his big chopper, coming the other way. Mum said the look on his face when he realized it wasn’t me at the wheel was priceless.
And that’s the way it was in those days. Pretty damn good.