Albert Doherty: our resident grandfather
A room all smokey from his pipefuls of Old Chum tobaccoMy earliest memories of Albert go back to the late 1930s when we lived on Northcliffe Ave. in Montreal's Notre Dame de Grace area. That was in the west end of the city. Our home was the top floor of a walkup flat. There was my mother and father, my younger sister Eleanor, me (five years old or so), and Albert, who must have been in his early 60's then.
Albert's room was always smokey and fragrant from his pipe tobacco. He sat in his easy chair under a floor lamp with a heavy octagonal metal tray around the shaft. He would bang his pipe on the tray to empty the ashes. It made a sort of muffled "gong" sound. Then he would fill it with fresh tobacco from a big tin can of Old Chum he kept on the tray, tamp the tobacco down with a finger, and light it with a wooden match. Small clouds of white smoke would billow up around his head, tinged with gold from the lamp. I loved watching him go through this ritual, and thought the resulting aroma was delicious.
On Saturday mornings, Albert gave me some coins and I fetched the weekend newspaper from the local drug store, not far from where we lived. Albert called it "the chemist's" because that was the British term for it, and he still used a lot of the words he grew up with in his native Manchester. He still talked with many traces of his Lancashire accent, too.
When I brought the newspapers to Albert's room, I climbed up on his lap, and he read the "funnies" to me. And we commented together on the pictures and plots. After Albert had finshed with the rest of the paper, sometimes days later, he often rolled sections up into long, telescoping cylinders, and gave them to me to play "swords" with. Or he peformed complicated folds with the pages, and magically presented me with a newspaper hat. Sometimes, with a little extra manipulation, it was a paper boat.
Albert worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway at the company's Angus Shops in east-end Montreal, where train locomotives and rail cars were built. He told me he designed trains, and often brought home blueprints to show me. One day, he brought home blueprints for a huge new steam engine, with a streamlined nose, and small crowns mounted on each side of the nose. It was, he said, a royal train he had just designed. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were coming to visit Canada, and this was the train that would take them across the country. That was the Royal Tour of 1939, the engine was the Hudson 2860.
Albert had a lot of books in his room. Some were volumes of poetry. Two other books were my favorites. One was a large book about the British ocean liner Mauretania. It was full of photos showing the huge ship at various stages of construction, then being launched, and finally, sailing on the sea with many flags flying. The other equally large volume was about the stately, ancient cathedrals of Great Britain. It, too, was full of pictures; views of these intricate buildings, which seemed quite magical to me. I was fascinated by the pictures in both of these books, and Albert and I looked at them often. He would read the text to me, or explain what the pictures were about.
A blue and gold Masonic apron to hang around my neck
Albert must have been a member of the Masonic order, because he had an elaborately-beaded and embroidered blue and gold Masonic apron that he would bring out every once in a while, and let me wear around my neck. I thought it was a great costume.
He also had an antique wooden writing box, the kind that opened up to a flat writing surface from two hinged panels. It had mysterious little compartments and underneath the panels, some hidden secret drawers, which Albert showed me how to open. (My sister, Catherine, says she was told years later by my father's brother that Albert had won the box at a Manchester area textile mill he worked in before he came to Canada.)
Albert's writing box, left, with lid off on right showing row of secret drawers. They were normally
Albert took me on a lot of outings with him. One I remember was to a cricket game at Westmount park. Albert said he had played the game as a young boy, and later was a cricket umpire. He tried to explain what was going on, but I found it too complicated and not very interesting then. But many years later that memory of a lot of men in white running around on a green field came back to me, and I did indeed learn the rules of cricket, became interested in the game, and even played a bit.
A fairly regular summer outing was to Bout de l'Ile, a spacious park and beach on the St. Lawrence River in those days, at the eastern tip of Montreal Island. I played in the sparkling water and warm sand while Albert usually sat on a bench and read. Getting to and from the park was as exciting as being there because it involved long trips on several electric street cars with a number of transfers on the way. Albert and I went to Bout d'Ile a number of times.
Early morning breakfasts of fried kippers and toast and tea
In 1940, we moved to another house on Ballantyne Avenue in Montreal West and Albert came with us. His room never seemed to change much, no matter where we lived. He still smoked a pipefuls of Old Chum tobacco under the same floor lamp and there were still lots of books around. I was now old enough to have breakfast with him sometimes, just the two of us. He prepared it himself, usually quite early in the morning before anyone else was up. We had fried kippers and tea and toast, often spread with marmalade. It was always Hartley's Marmalade, which came in a gray pottery jar that looked like stone and was imported from England. I enjoyed those breakfasts immensely. Much later in my life, I became a tea-drinker for many years and I think that was Albert's influence.
Albert once took me on a trip to Digby, Nova Scotia and that was the most exciting outing of all in my young life.
We went on a train to St. John, New Brunswick, got on a ferry boat and slept on it overnight. The ship was the Princess Helene, which went back and forth across the Bay of Fundy. It must have been during the Second World War, because I remember having lifeboat drill. We all had to put on life jackets, and line up outside on the deck, pretending we were going to get in the lifeboats. It all seemed like play to me then, but I found out many years later that the threat of German submarine attacks in the Bay of Fundy was taken very seriously then.
In Digby, we stayed at a boarding house near the downtown ferry wharf, right on the waterfront. I played on the beach there, collected scallop shells and watched the comings and goings of the colorful fishing boats. At the end of the ferry wharf, there was a small lighthouse and a wooden bench. Albert showed me two sets of initials carved in the bench. One set was "KD." Albert told me those were my father's initials, "Kenneth Doherty." The other set was "HD." Those were his brother's initials, "Hugh Doherty," after whom I was named. Albert had brought his two sons on the same trip to Digby when they were young. I wanted my initials there, too, so Albert helped me carve them with a penkife near the others.
Bench, downtown wharf, Princess Helene no longer there
The bench with the initials on it stayed there for many years, but eventually disappeared. The ferry wharf is gone, relocated to a spot outside of town. The Princess Helene sailed on for a long time, but then was replaced by a more modern ship. The boarding house building is still there, but the waterfront view is now blocked by a seaside condo development.
I inherited Albert's wonderful antique writing box, and in the years when I was a teenager, kept my important "stuff" in it, hiding my most treasured mementoes in the secret drawers. My sister Catherine had the box next, and she gave it to my youngest brother, Alan, who in turn gave it to his wife, Doreen, who keeps it in her artist's studio.
I also inherited some of Albert's books, three of which I still have, all printed in the 1880s and 1890s. One consists of the complete works of English poet John Keats, another is a volume of Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur. The third is the poetry of Scottish writer Robert Burns. In the flyleaf of the Burns book, Albert had pencilled his own signature:
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Pages started June 9, 2001; Last updated June 14, 2010