Here on Earth

John Sommer has been coming back into my life. It is a recent thing, that has happened since he died, as an old, old man. It is interesting how dead people do this — I won’t say those who “have passed,” for I think that is euphemism and evasion. Dead people. Physically dead, and unmistakably so, not “deadish,” not “gone but not forgotten,” but gone, deceased, buried, or whatever they do with the bodies these days. Let us specify this, with ghoulish, mediaeval clarity, before mentioning that they are present to us. “In memory” — yes — but that phrase is another try at glibness. I remember Peggy my cat, and Subash my dog, from childhood. There were limits to their influence on me.

Once upon a time, when I was little, my family had a house in Georgetown, Ontario. An aunt was visiting from New Waterford, Cape Breton. She went to answer a knock on the door. She almost screamed, running to her sister (my mother) in the kitchen.

“Florrie!” cried she. “There’s a man at the door. I think he might be Jesus Christ.”

Sure enough, Mr Sommer had a beard, and was wearing sandals. And there was an unearthly shine in his eyes. I should mention that my Aunt Mildred Holmes, a remarkable church organist, and a woman of extraordinary Christian faith, didn’t do “irony.” She meant what she said.

Mama came to the door. He was a German gentleman. My father had found him on Main Street, and invited him over. He’d been easy to spot. No one, but no one in that little town, in the 1950s, wore beard or sandals; no one had since Edwardian times. His accent went further, over the top. And when he told my father that he had just moved into a house, on the next street — and that he was starting an art gallery — papa was overjoyed. “You’ll be needing a drink,” was his first advice.

I was very young when all this happened. I can no longer be sure what is my own recollection, what borrowed from parental memory. But my aunt’s explosion of amazement was indelible.

“Gallery House Sol,” 45 Charles Street. For half a century it was the de facto cultural centre of that town. A beautiful woodframe farmhouse — built before the rest of the street — and filled by John and Gisela Sommer with the most gorgeous furniture, pictures, objects. The dining room doubled as the exhibition gallery, the parlour and its hearth welcomed the most animated conversations, long into so many nights. John’s voice and his enthusiasms had the ring of prophecy.

He was descended from aristocrats. He came from near Leipzig. The Nazis killed off part of his family, then the Communists another part — satanic interchangeable evils. Gisela, slightly older, was the daughter of the family that hid John through the War, in the cellar of their farmhouse. She brought down potatoes for him. I am vague on the details. The War over, they married and escaped; came to Canada as indentured labour. Then, having fulfilled their immigrant obligation — on yet another farm — they came to Georgetown. John took a factory job, which he held to retirement. They never owned a car, or a television.

He had wished to be a painter; acquired the skills, but concluded that he lacked the talent. Therefore he would devote himself to promoting other artists: mostly humble craftsmen from the countryside around Georgetown. His eyes discovered so many fine folkish things, that other eyes had passed over. He assembled a magnificent art collection which in the end he donated to the town library and a museum at Guelph. Had it ever been in my power to dispense Orders of Canada, I would have given the first one to John. He would probably have refused it.

There is a real estate listing that will soon disappear. It has pictures of this now empty house: the empty rooms, the empty walls, the empty hallways. I look through the pictures in grief.

Dead, gone, finished. And yet through the recovered eyes of childhood, I summon this man and his times. He taught me what “civilization” means — entirely by example. And after a pause, he is teaching again.