BENEATH THE HEIGHTS:

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

[Beneath the Moon]

Chapter 1
MY HOME BENEATH THE MOON

My terror always began the same way. On a peaceful evening just after sunset, I am gazing towards the east. The full moon slowly rises above the horizon, big and full and bright. As that beautiful moon rises, it grows larger and larger in the sky, coming closer and closer to me, blotting out the heavens. As I slowly realize what was about to happen to my world, I grow more and more agitated and fearful.

I cry out a warning, “The moon is falling! The moon is falling!” Then I begin a frantic race to get home. Sometimes I am alone running wildly through a strange and deserted landscape. Other times I am driving manically along highways clogged with many other terrified drivers. Will I get home in time? Wherever I am living at the time, my destination is always the same. I have to get home to Mum and Dad in Queenston, to our safe house up on the hill above the village. I have to get home before the end comes for us all.

For many years, long after I had moved away, over and over again, whenever I felt insecure and unprotected, I would experience that same terrifying dream. I had to get home. And Tom Wolfe notwithstanding, I had to go home, again, and again, and again.

My first memory of my home was most likely purely apocryphal. Could it have really happened? I do not recall anything of our life in the village of Carp just west of Ottawa Ontario where I was born in November of 1941. Nor do I remember the long trip down to the warmer climate of the Niagara Peninsula in our old ’32 Chev. Yet somehow I have this clear image of our first night in the new “old” house, bedding down on blankets on the floor in the back bedroom.

[Home on the Hill]Life for me beneath the Heights at Queenston was centered around this wonderful old house perched on the brow of a hill at the edge of a wooded ravine. Nearly sixty years later, whenever I dream of home, I am back in that rickety two-story brown shingle house with the double verandas. Home is never where I am living at the time. Home is never in the many places I lived over the years. Not in nearby Hamilton or across the lake in Toronto, nor far south in Florida, nor in desert Arizona, nor on the west coast in British Columbia, nor back east in Philadelphia where I lived for almost twenty-five years, nor not in Mexico where I have retired. The home of my dreams is always in Queenston.

How can I remember that scene from the summer of 1943 when I was not yet two? Whether real or imagined, that image is as clear to me as if it were just last year. All my childhood memories go back to that old home when life seemed permanent and when time seemed to stand still through the bright full days that I never imagined would change. Those eighteen short years of days and memories that forever shaped my life.

Within a year of our arrival in Queenston, David and I were joined by a brother, Ralph, who replaced me in my coveted spot as the “baby” of the family. Now I was just one of three boys, and unfortunately, I was forever marked as “the middle one." David, the first son was two and a half years older than I. From the beginning, he never wanted to share his macho adventures with me, his junior. When Ralph appeared two and a half years after me, the family’s attention seemed to focus on the new improved “baby brother” who received all the adulation and favors heaped upon the youngest son. I quickly adopted David’s technique and ignored my junior brother.

[Robin Nude]Just as being in the middle marked my place in the family hierarchy, my Christian name placed me in another uncertain world, that of gender confusion. I was named after an English friend of my parents, a young man whose name Robin was, in the English custom, a diminutive of Robert. The cute, and perhaps a little precious, name was first used only for boys such as the fictional Christopher Robin. By the time I grew up, Robin began to used for girls as well. By college I had been invited to the Dean of Women’s Tea Party at McMaster. But after a year enrolled as simple “Rob,” I accepted the difference of my name and once again proudly took back my Christian name “Robin.”

Besides the countless ribbings as “Robin Hood” or the colleague of Batman, I also had the burden of being named after a pesky bird. Like the small ubiquitous summer bird that warbled incessantly, I too was born with a loose tongue and bright red plumage. Early on I had developed a natural propensity to tell all. My bright auburn hair and a cowlick that could never be controlled also provided unmistakable clues to my developing personality. I soon realized that unfortunately I possessed the coyness and the quick temper that set short red-haired children apart.

Despite the childhood misfortunes of my fraternal birth order and my character revealing name, our family home in Queenston was a wonderful place for three very different brothers to grow up, each of us in very independent and separate ways.

Dad had rented the house from a Mrs. Hamilton who lived far across the Lake in Toronto. For many years we never saw her. Dad just mailed her the monthly rental check. She seemed happy to have someone keep up the house and keep it safe within her family. I learned later that Mrs. Hamilton was descended from one of Upper Canada’s first families. Her Hamilton ancestors had built several mansions in the Queenston area including Willow Bank in 1832 just across the ravine from our more simple home. So fierce was our landlady’s loyalty to her family name, she selected another Hamilton for her husband so that she could retain her own proud birth name.

Mrs. Hamilton’s own hunched-back father had built our crooked two-story shingle house in 1913. He was neither a carpenter nor an engineer and the house was as irregular as I pictured his old back. Just 30 years or more later, it demanded constant attention. Dad struggled to repair old plumbing and wiring and keep the place painted. He even paid the real estate taxes for most of our years there. But for twenty-eight dollars a month, it was a bargain, even in those years. We loved that house dearly and dreamed of saving up enough money to purchase it. Like most youngsters growing up, David, Ralph and I all thought it would be our home forever.

Although it contained five-bedrooms, the house was not large. Yet, from the street below it appeared grand because of the open verandas across the front. On the first floor, the veranda began at the front door at the middle of the north side, ran to the front of the house, then wrapped around and stretched across the whole front facing east to the street and the Niagara River. Every spring we opened the French doors from the living room directly onto the lower veranda. All summer long, we ate our meals, read, visited, rested and played here in the open air.

Our second floor veranda, which we reached through Dad’s office, stretched only across the front of the house. Here we had a perfect spot for sleeping outdoors during the hot summer months. There were battles with the mosquitoes, with my brothers over prime sleeping space and with Mum and Dad over curfews as we whispered secrets under their bedroom window. Ralph was the hardiest of the three of us, or the most independent, for he loved to sleep outdoors on the upper veranda late into the fall and early winter until the snows came.

Both verandas of our home had magnificent views to the east and south. The house sat a bit above Queenston on its northern edge. To the south lay a ravine, or gully as we called it, that separated us from the village. Beyond the trees of the gully, the village was visible only during the winter months after the leaves turned golden, scarlet and ochre, and then fell to the frozen earth. Beyond the village, further to the south, rose the gentle Heights on which stood the Victorian column dedicated to my ever-watchful General Brock, the hero of the War of 1812.

[River View]To the east, across the street in front of our house, lay an intriguing view to a young and most impressionable boy. Through a ­gap in the trees of the gully, one could see a narrow patch of green-blue water, the mighty Niagara River. Our gully in earlier days had been a small tributary that emptied into the river. The section across and below the street held an old dirt road that climbed up from the steamer landing, out of sight along the river’s edge, then hair-pinned below us and joined the main road into the village on the south side of the gully.

Across the fast moving Niagara lay another village in another country, Lewiston in the State of New York. I stared for hours through that gap and across the river from the veranda of our home. I wanted so much to know what happened in those homes and yards in that village on the other side, so close, yet so far across the dangerous currents that lay between us.

Our house on the hill had a steep and often treacherous driveway up from the street at the end of the bridge over the gully. Each winter we saved the ashes from our old coal furnace and spread them on the icy slopes to help Dad get the car up the slippery hill. After the ice and the rains, we repaired the ruts and brought back up the hill the gravel that had washed down to the street. But the driveway became a showplace every spring when pale purple lilacs bloomed along its northern edge that served as the otherwise unmarked property line between our neighbour and us. Mother gathered the blossoms in huge bouquets, and for the few short weeks the house was full of the distinctive embracing fragrance.

To us children the house seemed immense. The front living room was never off limits, like in more formal homes. We were allowed to play there on rainy or cold Saturdays, making forts and hiding places with old blankets as awnings behind our old brown chesterfield. Here the family sat during the evenings to listen to the radio then to watch television. Here we held somber family meetings or those dreaded prayerful “quiet times.” Here we shared our Christmas before a fragrant Douglas fir tree each one took pride in decorating. And here we visited with the many guests that came our way.

Our parents opened our home to many and loved to entertain. At least once a year, our minister from the local United Church and our teachers with their spouses were dutifully invited for a ceremonial family supper. Relatives or friends or strangers often came for Sunday dinner or stayed a time with us. Especially in the summer, our weekends and even whole weeks seemed full with our cousins or our parents friends traveling with Moral Re-Armament who brought us news and marvelous stories often from lands far away.

Both our company and family meals were set out in the large dining room, with its set of wide French doors built into a bay window overlooking the gully. Special dinners meant Mum’s best starched linen, Spode china and the good silver, just Lady Hamilton plate, but most elegant to us. Good hearty food and conversation about our lives in the village and the world beyond was centered around our old dining table. With up to eight extra leaves, the table and our guests could be stretched through the arch to the living room.

During the long cold winter months, we boys played in the dining room with its southern exposure, the sun pouring in the bay window. One Christmas, Dad built an elaborate runway for an electric train set along in front of the bay. The plywood table at one end had enough space for an entire miniature village, then a narrow section ran across the bay, just below Dad’s garden of African violets, to another narrow table where a second miniature town was planned but never materialized next to the door to the pantry.

Our electric train was not one of those clumsy big American Lionel models, but a truly elegant dark blue Hornby English set. Following the engine and coal car were two exquisitely designed passenger cars on a narrow gauge line. We combed the hobby stores and begged for Christmas surprises that would furnish the stores and houses for our town. We bought green blotter paper for grass, dyed cotton balls to shape trees, plasticene and tooth picks for fences and built houses with rubber mini-bricks. When we could afford them, we bought more realistic plastic model houses, a service station and an old train depot. Our growing collection of English Dinky Toy cars patrolled the streets. David, Ralph and Dad and I all worked at various times on building and rebuilding our little toy railway world.

[Scottish Brothers]Then, by our teenage years we seemed to have less time for our miniature railroad world and finally the toys and train were first packed then given away. Our proud runway for a time was used for menial storage until finally dismantled so that the French doors in the bay could be opened on warm summer days. The real world beyond was beginning to beckon to each of us.

Our kitchen was made up of two rooms at the back of the house. The smaller pantry was full of cupboards, and eventually held our proud new electric fridge, after we deserted our icebox on the back porch. The larger kitchen room was crammed with memories of family times together, doing dishes, eating meals, and helping with a thousand chores. Unlike my brothers, I always seemed to want to help out around the kitchen. Perhaps it was my sweet tooth, perhaps a sense of duty. I was usually there to lick the bowls and help my mother. Once when I was three or four, Mum sent me down to the cellar to get some eggs. When I did not return, she opened the cellar door to find me on the top step sitting on the eggs. Since I was a Robin, I was trying to see if I could hatch them. Was this my first encounter with my confusing name? Why had they named me after a bird?

Mother's warmth and love were demonstrated more in this room than any other. It was here in the kitchen that she worked so hard for us all. She spent many long hours preparing our meals, canning fruit or pickles in the summer, doing our wash in a noisy agitator spin dry washer, or stoking the old wood and coal stove she liked to use even after we had an electric range. Until we boys each purchased our own little radios for our bedrooms, the family stayed here for a time after dinner to listen to Jack Benny, Amos and Andy, Baby Snooks and Lux Radio Theater.

We ate our family meals here, and when one of us acted up, we were sent upstairs to bed without dinner. Usually though, Mum would break down later that evening and she would appear at our door with dinner or dessert on a tray for the guilty party.

Upstairs, there were five small bedrooms. Yet some were reserved for guests, storage or Dad's office, so that when we boys were young we had to share a room. First, my older brother David and I shared. As the younger brother, I was definitely the junior partner and took my second place as best I could. Somehow I don't really remember much about those years except the usual brotherly squabbles over toys and territory.

Then after David graduated to the guest bedroom with the bay window over the dining room, my younger brother Ralph and I bunked together in the back room. Ralph had taken my proud place as baby brother of the family almost three years after I arrived. I never forgave him for that. When big brother David got to do things first, I had to wait until "I was old enough." Yet, it seemed to me that as soon as I was "old enough," somehow younger brother Ralph was too. Why couldn't he wait his turn patiently like I had? Baby brothers have all the advantages of we older brother's struggles with our parents. I guess I resented his happy personality and the easy way he got around our parents.

While sharing bedrooms there were often dramatic brotherly squabbles. One of us would end up drawing an imaginary line through this battleground and dared the other to step into our territory. When Dad gave up his Raleigh route office, we were each able to have our own rooms. Finally, we gained a degree of privacy, much needed for growing up as three different young boys, each of us developing our own separate lives and dreams.

Alone in my own room at last, within a few months I realized that the dingy room needed re-decorating. ­I was at that stage in a boy's life when the latest style of car was the most important thing in the world. Thus, my first experiment in decor was to cover every square inch of those ­ugly old blue walls with colourful magazine pictures of the newest models from Detroit. Fortunately, my first decorating efforts were doomed to obsolescence in just one year.

My second effort was just as tied to the automobile and a fad doomed to expire almost as quickly. In the early fifties, many home magazines were imitating the latest trend in automobile fashion, two-tone paint combinations. Tired of my first boyish efforts, I eagerly ripped down all the crinkled car pictures. I spent hours sanding off the sticky residue from the scotch tape. First, I first painted the ceiling and two opposite walls of my tiny cell elegant silver gray. Next, I painted the other two walls that stylish and popular shade of coral that all the decorators were using that year. Suddenly, my walls were transformed from Popular Mechanics to House and Garden.

I was intensely proud of my sudden newly found “flair” for decorating. I spent many long hours alone here after that, reading, listening to my little black radio and making sketches of other rooms to decorate. No room of our house escaped my efforts at remodeling and redecorating. But all the grand plans stayed within my room, unrealized.

David's bedroom across the hall was definitely off limits. He was by then into his early teenage years and become fiercely independent of the rest of the family. Much to the growing displeasure and confusion of Mother and Dad, David had begun to smoke by thirteen, learned to drive the car by fifteen and sported the popular D.A. haircut of the day. He spent many long hours each morning in our single bathroom perfecting his big pompadour cowlick in front and the sweeping back the sides which culminated in that popular duck's tail that so many of the boys mimicked in those years. He was soon dating and staying out late at night as well.

Big brothers do not like their younger siblings nosing around in their rooms. But nose I did, and found his secret stache of revealing nudist magazines. I discovered them tucked neatly under the linoleum beneath his bed. I would take them back to my room to study when he left the house. The happy people with the perfect bodies seemed to delight in playing volleyball or sunning on some beach. The women appeared blandly facing the camera, but the men more often were discreetly covered by the ball or were turned away. But not always. And I was intrigued. The intervening stories of the nudist's experiences with their description of full freedom unencumbered by clothing were both strange and sexy though no one touched or stared in these pages. I imagined myself playing with these liberated people and wished I could share their freedoms. Even after I slipped those magazines back under the linoleum before David missed them, all those sporting figures filled by fantasies when I climbed back into my own bed.

What interest could I have in my younger brother Ralph's room? At that time, mystery and fantasy was attached to ages beyond my own. His L-shaped room next to mine, the one we had shared for several years, needed no further exploring. I had known its secrets for too long. The spotted rusty screens had already revealed Ralph's impatience for walking to the bathroom at the other end of the hall in the middle of the night. His taste in magazines never ventured beyond kid's comic books. Only later did I learn that even baby brothers can have secrets, secrets that I never got to share.

A narrow hallway ran from the back to front of the house connecting all the upstairs rooms. The hall was our bowling alley and playground in younger days. The old air register located above the kitchen stove became a favorite hiding place. Somehow, I could never swallow my vitamin pills. Every morning we were dutifully handed a bright yellow Raleigh's multiple vitamin. Every time I tried to swallow it, the pill would stick in my throat. Thus, countless un-swallowed vitamin pills were spirited from the breakfast table, and disappeared down the dusty maw of that old register between the floors.

Here too we would hide Dad's old rubber tire strap whenever we feared the worst. Though seldom used, we were in terror of its sting and would move it from his hiding place on a top shelf in his office to our own secret spot until it was safe to return it. Somehow he never seemed to be that upset when he couldn't find his rubber paddle to administer several well earned slaps. And when his anger cooled he was our old loving Dad again.

Another intriguing place for us to play was up under the eaves in our dusty attic. Reached by a ladder through the center hall closet, it was crammed with books and old luggage and family memories. I loved to rout through an old steamer truck full of family mementos, papers and photos from other times and places.

Up there in the attic we found our first revelations into the unspoken mysteries of sex and reproduction. Hidden away below the boxes were our parent's first manuals explaining human anatomy, coitus and birth control for newly weds. By the time they got around to explaining the facts of life, we were ahead of them.

[Wedding Day]Mum and Dad had married in their late thirties, held hostage I learned later by the Depression, the War, unhappy parents and their own uncertainties throughout a protracted seven-year courtship. While some of their old photos of their courting days showed them relaxed and sharing fun, we did not see a lot of affection between them as we boys were growing up. Both were in their forties when they began the difficult task of raising three active and independent boys in an old house that also needed constant attention.

Their bedroom stood at the far end of the hall, next to Dad's Raleigh route office. They had long ago given up their bridal double bed and now slept alone on twin beds. One of our favourite treats when very young was to run and jump into bed with Mummy and Daddy, usually early on the mornings when we were not in school. Daddy usually loved to snuggle and wrestle with us, all three at once sometimes. He delighted in teasing us with his favorite games. He would give us a playful beard brush burn with his morning stubble or little Charlie Chaplin moustache, then threaten to “nibble our souse,” our tender earlobes.

Mummy, in the other bed, was not so ready for the rough and tumble of three boisterous boys. During those times she did not feel well, she asked to be left alone up there in the bedroom. Sometimes she used her health as a threat to quiet us when we were wild or squabbled endlessly.

“Behave or I'll have to go to bed and let you fix your own dinners!”

We dreaded those days when Mother was not well. Nor could we fully understand why her love and patience seemed to falter at times. All we knew was that we had to tone down our fighting and our games, and make our own lunches for school. Only much later did I learn about the change of life for women. I did remember the family trauma of a serious operation, sometime after Mum gave birth to Ralph in '45. Dad drove us up to Hamilton once to visit Mum in an old hospital, but nobody explained to us what was happening. We were just a little scared by the hushed tones the adults were using, but I guess too young to understand what it meant or to realize the meaning of her pains.

The Lawrason family seemed to be able to generate only boys. Dad was second of four brothers and the family had not given birth to a girl in five generations. Mother kept telling Dad that she wanted a daughter to help her with the housework. We even tried taking in a foster daughter. David, Ralph and I all liked having a sister, but Anna did not last for very long. We welcomed her into our home and our family in a few short days. Yet naturally, she resented being taken in to help with the housework. She too needed a secure family, acceptance and love. Apparently she started running around with what Mother always called “the wrong crowd.” The teenager friends she preferred were certainly not from our church or from the better Queenston families.

One day Anna's estranged father suddenly appeared. He parked in an old car down along the road below. He would not come into the house. Just a few days after that tearful visit, Anna disappeared from our lives.

I seem to recall deciding to step in at that time to help Mum around the house. We all did our share and helped with cleaning, yard work and dishes. Did I try to become that daughter my Mother always claimed she wanted.

[Mother with boys]Memories of this house and my Mother seem inextricably tied. Perhaps it was our common love of home and hearth. Perhaps it was my dark red hair, the same colour hers had once been. Perhaps it was our similar sensitive natures, always worrying what others thought of us.

Or perhaps it was that both of us in our own ways wanted to excel, to break out of the narrow molds life seemed to have cast for us.

Near the end of our years at Queenston, our landlady Mrs. Hamilton developed an acute attack of nostalgia for the old house where she herself grew up. She wrote to ask if she could come and live there for two weeks, while our family took our summer holidays. By that time, I was working each summer for the Niagara Parks Commission to earn money for school. Since I was unable to leave even for a week, I was forced to room with a friend in the village to clear the house for their impending visit.

Mrs. Hamilton brought along her own teenage daughters to share her memories of her own childhood. Immediately, these Toronto big city girls grew bored by our small village with its limited social life. Even Mrs. Hamilton was disappointed with her trip back in time. During their stay, I was invited back into my own home to help amuse them.

“Weren't these rooms bigger?” she kept asking. “I thought this living room was so huge when I was a child. Everything seems so small to me now.” She continued to reminisce about her times there, her father and life in the village thirty years before. Yet she could not be satisfied. I too felt oddly sad that life and time and joy could slip so easily by.

Over the years since we all moved away from Queenston, I have often driven by that house. One time I slowed and stopped in the road in front to stare up at the place where our family had once lived for what seemed a lifetime then. The graceful old elms that surrounded the house had long since succumbed to Dutch Elm disease. Where Dad's proud rose garden bloomed each summer in the front yard above the gully, an old car sat forlornly on concrete blocks. The soft brown wooden shingles with rich cream woodwork trim were hidden under harsh white aluminum siding with ugly bright green trim. Our open verandas had been enclosed with plastic and screens.

At times I have been tempted to walk up the drive, knock at the door and ask the owners, who have lived there for over 30 years, if I could look over our old home. I could never get up the courage to spoil my memories. As it had not been the same home for Mrs. Hamilton, I knew that it would not be the same for me as it was so many years ago when our family grew up there together. I would not go back into that house and have more of my childhood memories shattered!

Those gaudy warm turquoise walls in the living room would be gone, along with the gray and maroon lilies on the dining room wallpaper and my silver and coral bedroom at the top of the stairs. But I can keep everything I loved about our old home in place forever where I can treasure every detail and moment, whether happy or sad or fuzzy or fearful. My old home is still alive in my own imperfect memory. That home beneath the heights where I knew that I would always be safe from the falling moon.

[red line]

Beneath the Heights

Robin's Writing

Robin's Home Page

Jim and Robin's Home Page