JAIMIE VERNON – WHEN I WAS HERE

Jaimie as King George

March 9th was an auspicious occasion. It was my sixth month as Verm Blart: Cemetery Cop and it would have been the 99th birthday of my maternal grandmother Marjorie Barker. As hard as it is to believe, these two things are connected. Bear with me and I’ll explain.

 

Seagrave

Grandma passed in July 2011 at the ripe old age of 95. Feisty right up until a stroke took her motor skills the previous Fall, she was a mainstay in my life and that of the whole bickering, battling, jovial Barker clan. You’d swear we were Irish by the amount of in fighting we do. However, we actually come from St. Giles, Northamptonshire in England…and it was dear old William Charles Barker who brought the personal struggles from there to Seagrave, Ontario, Canada in 1905 [William is the one on the far right above].

David Joseph Blanchard Booth_1890sbMy granny, however, married into the Barker family so her feistiness was reactionary and was rooted elsewhere. She was a Booth. A clan that originated with David Blanchard Booth from Yorkshire, England and an émigré to Canadian shores in 1890. Come to think of it, maybe being embattled is a British thing stemming from a time when abject poverty and industrial wealth defined and divided a nation. Not unlike the world we now find ourselves in.

Marjorie’s parents were scrappy too. Gladys Booth grew up in a family of boys – at 19 Steiner Avenue – in a rundown ghetto east of the Don River in the City of York (later Toronto) reserved mostly for several generations of Irish immigrants displaced by the endless famines through the mid-1800s.

18Steiner_across street from19 Steiner

 

Gladys was born in 1897. She married Robert Winter on June 18, 1913 at the age of 16. They lived with the Booths in the Steiner house to raise a child named Muriel. Poor Muriel passed in early 1915. As did a second child. By the end of the year Gladys found herself pregnant a third time but the Great War was raging overseas and the Canadian government came knocking at all the doors on Steiner Avenue looking for eligible men to fight the good fight. Robert Winter enlisted in the Canadian Expeditiary Forces and reported for duty in September 1915. It would mean a better and steadier income which the military would mail back to Gladys, and a small pension should Robert arrive back at BabyMargehome alive following the War.

The money came in as it should to support Gladys and as a supplement to the Booth household. Marjorie was born prematurely March 9, 1916 while Robert was stationed in France. Granny was kept in the woodstove as a makeshift incubator. She wasn’t expected to live. And as such her birth was never recorded with the City Registrar. Instead, it was placed on record in the family Bible under the watchful eye of God.

Robert, meanwhile, found himself in a shitload of trouble. His recently declassified military record -which my sister rescued from the National Archives – shows that he was in the hospital at least three times and court martialed for insubordination once. One hospital stay was for scabies, another for gashing his forehead while walking under a river bridge. It’s unclear whether he was on patrol but he certainly never saw action in France. The court martial was for going AWOL and he was docked 4 months salary – a fact that didn’t go unnoticed at Steiner Avenue. He was either drunk, unlucky or trying to be Canada’s answer to MASH’s Corporal Klinger and vying for a Section 8. Regardless, Robert spent the final months of the war and a good portion of 1919 in the hospital.

Marge at 4When he returned to Canada Little Marge was already four years old. Robert was a stranger to both her and his wife, Gladys. It’s unclear whether he was already a drinker or it became a post-war proclivity, but Gladys was having none of it. She couldn’t rely on him as a provider – even with him present and accounted for. She soon kicked his ass to the curb. Gladys rarely spoke of him again except to say that he was a “scoundrel”. No one saw him again after the divorce in 1926. [Pictured: Marge with her uncle Arthur Booth]

My great granny suffered socially for this. A woman just didn’t instigate a divorce in the 1920’s. She and Marjorie became outcasts even among the Booth clan. But Gladys was already independent and had serious skills as both a farm hand and a maid. They’d make due, even without the support of her family. And Smithsonthey did. By the mid-1920s she’d met another man, Richard Herbert Smithson, a no-nonsense farmer, and they got married in 1927 if not entirely for love than as a stable home for Marjorie. Herbert played reluctant but dutiful surrogate Dad.

Marjorie eventually married my grandfather, also named Herbert, and they had many kids – my ever cantankerous but big hearted aunts and uncles. The couple lost a child in 1946. A brother to my Mom and her siblings. My grandma Marge never got over it.

BertI have to believe Bert Barker never did either. I’ve been told he never drank until after this tragedy. But like my great granny, Marge had to do battle with grand Dad’s demons. They parted ways long before I can remember. He would die at the age of 67, not long after Gladys. Marge would outlive him by 28 years.

On Sundays and Mondays my job is to patrol Pine Hills Cemetery in Scarborough – a suburb of Toronto. On the west side of the grounds near Birchmount Avenue is the grave of my Dad’s mother and my step-grandfather. Only a hundred feet away is my grandpa Bert Barker and one of his sisters (I believe).

Deep in the heart of the cemetery is the unmarked grave of Gladys Booth Winter Smithson and her second husband Herbert Smithson. Long before I worked the cemeteries I had found the spot in the rain. Farther to the east, against a fence backing onto Kennedy Road is the baby Bruce Barker who passed in 1946. His grave is also unmarked. Marge’s last wish was to be buried with him. When the weather is better I have promised my family that I’d have the staff properly locate the spot and put grandma’s ashes there. It’s the least I can do in her 99th Robert Winter_grave2year.

And what of Robert Winter? Well, I finally tracked down his grave based on the information provided in the National Archive documents. The “scoundrel” passed in 1978 and received a full military burial at York Cemetery in North York as he’d been a member of the C.E.F. 58th Battalion during WWI.
Gladys_Marge One day I hope we can put markers on Gladys (left) and Marge’s (right) final resting spots. They both grew up in simpler, less ostentatious times and didn’t believe in pomp and circumstance for the dead. But in the absence of stories like this one and a static entry on Ancestry.com, a gravestone might be the only evidence to which they can declare “When I was here.”

THIS WEEK’S VIRAL FIND:

THIS WEEK’S VIRAL OLDIE:

Send your CDs for review to this NEW address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA

=JV=

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.comhttp://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon

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