Elderly relatives are a great source of information. The trick is to catch them before they pass away. Be sure to save the contents of their interviews in computer files, back them up in a cloud or an external hard drive, and print off a hard copy.
My father, uncles and aunts provided most of the information I needed to write my novel Somewhere I Belong. The tall fellow in the back was the oldest child, Larry. He was twelve when my grandfather died and became a father figure to his younger siblings and a support to my grandmother. Larry studied history and classics at St. Dunstan’s University, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and then attended St. Augustine’s Seminary, in Scarborough, Ontario. He became a priest and a university professor, but, unfortunately, died of cancer in 1968. Nevertheless, I remember that he read voraciously (usually the Bible), he loved music, had a deep, wonderful baritone voice, and sang Gregorian chant and his favourite Irish tune, “Danny Boy,” always on key. Larry was the most serious and studious of the five children in my father’s family. He is represented in Somewhere I Belong by the character of the same name.
The tall girl standing in front of Larry is Eleanor. She lived to the ripe old age of 91 with all of her marbles intact. Eleanor was eleven when my grandfather died, so her memory of that time was vivid. She recalled walking home from school on a Friday afternoon, of hearing an explosion and seeing a plume of black smoke rise up from the vicinity of the Beacon Oil Refinery where my grandfather worked as a foreman on the day shift. She recounted that their kitchen window got blown in and her mother raced down Hancock Street, to the plant, and then to downtown Boston in a fruitless search for her husband. It ended at Massachusetts General Hospital where she received the news of his death and fainted in the foyer. Uncle George found her lying there, picked her up and brought her home. Eleanor also told me that her mother packed up the house within two weeks of my grandfather’s death, gave away her furniture and moved her young family back to her parents’ home on Prince Edward Island. My aunt was forced to leave her dollhouse behind, but my grandmother promised that Uncle Jim would build her a new one. Eleanor also told me about Island life, which included Halloween superstitions, walking to school in bare feet, and wearing Depression era winter boots, which were hand knit socks pulled on over shoes. Eleanor also remembers that my grandmother gave advice to the love lorn, and made hand-hooked rugs, and that Aunt Gert babysat ‘the scamps’ when my grandmother visited her best friend in Gaspereau. When I asked Eleanor what it was like to grow up poor, she replied, “We didn’t think we were poor; everyone was in the same boat.” The character, Helen, is based on Eleanor.
My father, Paul, is the little guy standing in front of Eleanor. Dad talked incessantly about what a saint his poor mother was. There were also a few dirty stories about the antics he and his older brother Joe got into, ones that make my own five brothers seem like angels. He told me about the $25 cheque an uncle in Baltimore sent his mother every Easter and about him winning the Bell Scholarship to attend high school in Charlottetown. In those days, county schools only went to grade 9, at which point the girls completed their education as did the boys whose parents were too poor to send them to the city to finish high school. So, unless they could win a scholarship, like the Bell, which covered room and board during the school months (for boys only), they stayed back on the farm, went fishing or joined the army and were shipped overseas to fight in WW II.
My father also told me that when he went to enlist in the army, he flunked the medical test and got 4-F’d. He had contracted TB from his roommate at St. Dunstan’s University, spent a year in the Prince Edward Island Sanatorium, and another year between the homes of Uncle Jim and Aunt Gen, on Cambridge Road, and Uncle James R. and Aunt Ellen (El), in New Zealand (PEI), which is close to Souris. The most essential piece of information he gave me was that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played in a charity ball game to raise money for the widows of the Beacon Oil Refinery explosion.
The taller fellow standing next to Paul is Joe. You can tell he was a scamp just by looking at him. Joe recounted being bullying at the hands of his schoolteacher, who strapped him for being left-handed. He also quit school at 15, headed back to Boston, lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Joe fought in the North African and Italian campaigns, the latter during which he lost his best friend, Jimmy Johnson, in a skirmish against the Germans. Paul and Joe form the character ‘Pius James,’ otherwise known as P.J.
The youngest child, standing in the front, is Phyllis. She was just ‘a bun in the oven’ when my grandfather died and has no memory of him. But, she did remember a lot about her mother and home life on Cambridge Road, and she shared everything she could remember with me.
Some of the information I gathered from these people, such as the Beacon Oil Refinery explosion and the Babe Ruth baseball game, forms the main elements of the storyline; other aspects, such as the woollen socks over shoes for boots and Eleanor losing her dollhouse, flesh out the everyday lives of the characters and make the story real.
Larry, Eleanor and Joe have passed away. Phyllis is 86 and lives in Saugus, Massachusetts. My father, Paul, is 88 and lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.