The tale of Mattie

Bad David: I truly failed to keep up and foster the fairly good training in classical (and modern) languages with which I was blessed in childhood; and with the passage of the lazy years, have become ever more dependent on my halting English as a medium of thought. This helps account for my shallowness and provincialism, mentioned by several discerning readers.

And yet I travelled the world, or at least accessible Eurasia. Compare me to an old schoolmate who only once overstepped the boundary of his native Ontario township. He kept the training up, writing as well as reading in Latin, for instance; for one must write in a language to read it with understanding. Thus he turned out rather more cosmopolitan.

Were we delivered to ancient Rome by some time machine, I’d be depending on him to give taxi directions.

Or should we go back only to old Weimar (I’d hope a little ahead of Napoleon’s “spoon guards”), not I but he would have to forge our letter of introduction to Goethe. I’d only be ogling his mistress, and trying to look smart.

But of course my old friend would hardly agree to step into the time machine in the first place. When last checked up with in a small-town tavern, I found his view of technology even darker than mine.

The like I have seen many times in my travels: that the learned are seldom in their nature tourist, though some have been travellers. The life of the mind, the life of books and poetry, of art and music, is a much broader thing than a life on the run. Perhaps I should be more thankful to God that my circumstances combined to ground me, more than a decade ago; leaving me in this mountain hut, or rather, high-rise apartment with a view of the sunsets over Greater Parkdale. And trying to catch up with everything I’ve missed.

Since, I have learnt that travel is unnecessary.


A decade has also passed since my poor parents were bundled (at their own wish) into “old folk” accommodations, and the contents of their house were dispersed. I became the quick inheritor of what could be grabbed of papa’s “stuff.” At intervals since, I have been whittling down to what seems most worth keeping, in light of the remorseless movement of time. In the end, one cannot carry so much as a satchel, into the Land where all are going.

Much of the bulk is already given to schools, libraries, relatives and others. Papa became, at about my age when his own father died, the inheritor of the previous generation of stuff — mostly books and papers — and an adept of genealogy on both his and my mama’s side. I cannot bring myself, for instance — and notwithstanding my disapproval of photography — to “dispose of” old glass negatives and silver chloride prints going well back into the Victorian era. I’ve been trying to re-organize what papa once had organized well; it all went to hell during his last move.

Photos are good, in one way. Even through sometimes rather stiff poses, one can see what one’s predecessors looked like; so that upon reading old letters and documents they begin to move. There were many vague old family stories I heard, and now they come into focus. These people were my own flesh and blood; sometimes I almost hear their voices. I find a portrait of a man who died a century ago. It is captionless. But immediately, I know who he is.

Or another dead for, lo, rather more than a hundred. Who is buried in some place called Bruce Mines, which eventually ran out of copper. But even before that, there was flooding and a cave-in (1876), and my relatives moved on. Here is a letter of one who went back, at the beginning of the last century, and found Bruce Mines the ghost of a ghost town. Today, says Internet, there is a village again, with a liquor store, motel, and short-order restaurant, for motorists along Highway 17; but for an interim there was nothing. My people are thus only to be found one layer down; a generation later, no grave could be found.

That was one branch; there were these various other branches, and fate pushed them all over the continent. Well into that last (twentieth) century, most lived in log cabins.

My great grandpa and great grandma died in one, in the wilds north of Edmonton, Alberta, before the last World War; two of my great uncles with their wives in the same “Rochester,” well after. I have a Waltham pocket watch that came down to me from one of them. And a note, to me, never previously delivered, from one whom I never met. Yet he writes as if he knows me. Great Uncle Ross apologizes for foolishly having had the innards replaced in the 1920s; since when the thing has never worked properly. Mechanical standards, he notes, have been in continuous decline, since the watch was made in Massachusetts in the 1850s. It had worked fine when he carried it across Normandy, with the Canadian Field Artillery during the Great War.

Another branch went off to Nebraska; we never heard from them again. Many crossed the border, or crossed back: you didn’t need a passport in those days, and there were no tax returns to file. The rails did not run to some of the places these people were going. They were migrants who had heard that there was “freedom” out West, and that a man could earn a living from honest work, pulling up the trees on, say, twenty acres. Yet they were not entirely “hicks”: they went out into the wilderness with their Bibles and their Shakespeares (to say nothing of their guns), as little beacons of civilization; and did what they had to do to survive.


And the stargate opens on the stories I could tell you: of Martha (“Mattie”) Warren, for example, farmed out in childhood to another house after her dad John (1811–61) had died in wretched poverty. He’d been building a stone bridge over a creek near Zanesville, Ohio; died coughing his guts out from some stone-dust lung disease. (His clients had neglected to pay him; a bank had foreclosed on everything he owned.) The family this Mattie was lodged with then up and flit town, leaving no word of where they had taken “that very cheerful little body,” then three years old. Her mother and siblings searched for her, not giving up through a score of years, following any lead with letters and newspaper advertisements. (Kindly publishers would run these for free.) “Lost girl” was the title, wherever they appeared.

Twenty-three years pass. The advertisements still ran, sometimes, and by a happy coincidence the grown woman, now “Mattie Stewart,” saw one of them in Springfield, Illinois. She’d been told she was an orphan, but putting everything together, realized that she was not. Understandably, she had to see her mother, and was well-placed to set out right away.

Her husband, the estimable J.K. Stewart, was a railwayman, with stocks. Mattie was very beautiful; he was uxorious. On their journey to Canada — to Derby Township, Ontario, where now lived her aging mother, no longer Mrs Warren but Eliza Christie by remarriage — he had the train stopped. This was because Mattie was admiring the wildflowers in a passing field. So while the train waited, he went out in the meadow to assemble a bouquet.

They’d tracked down Eliza to this Anthony Farm, where she now lived with this Captain Christie (more stories there), in the usual small log house. They arrived at Owen Sound, hiring coach and horses for the muddy sideroad drive. And suddenly there they were, in their city clothing and extravagant hats, standing by Eliza’s door.

The mother did not recognize her little girl. It took some explaining. Then Eliza shrieked a shriek that her son would always remember.

Mattie would be my great-great-great aunt. Beautiful and wealthy: I had already heard that from my grandpa, long ago. Alas, no picture of her may be found in my gallery. By reputation, I had somehow gathered, she was badly spoilt by her rich fool of a husband. According to my papa’s chart: “Died childless in 1884.” It all fits together.

Better not to travel, except by necessity; and to die poor.