01 Aug The Life in My Hands Part 2 — Roots of Sensibilities
A multi-part blog post of a personal essay delivered at the Chicago Literary Society in January 2017.
The Life in My Hands Part 2 — Roots of Sensibilities
So rather than attempt to define what kind of animal lover I am, I will describe how the tormented sensibility all came about to become whatever twisted shape it now takes up in my brain. I blame for the most part my dearly and long departed grandfather David Beatty Russell, the former printer of Bay Roberts, Newfoundland, the most easterly Canadian province; a place where my roots have held fast to some notoriously hard and rocky soil against some pretty nasty weather. (Newfoundlanders sometimes stoically muse: I remember what day summer was last year.) Whether blame has been properly bestowed is debatable. I have always come away with a sense of things, and never really all the facts and figures neatly lined up in my retrospective, rose-colored brain. But I sense this is when my fledgling conscience initially became pricked, and when the microscopic droplets of awakening first began to pool.
As the town’s printer in the mid-20th century up until 1990, “Gramp” as he was known to me, had a printing shop on the first floor of his home that faced out onto the Bay. Long before the Internet, split-second decision making, and globally provocative presidential tweeting, Gramp’s major marketing efforts for his services consisted of a simple wooden painted sign at the street side of the shop: “D.B. Russell Printing.” The small crowded confines contained all of the lumbering machinery of a respectable printer in the early 20th century, including the monstrous Linotype that would mold the lines of lead-based letter guts for the bodies of messages contained within the Bay Roberts Guardian newspaper, the funeral and community events posters, and everything else he used to communicate the national and local goings-on to the town. The press’s paper scraps he kept stacked upon his back shop shelves for other uses. The multi-colored booklets were a delight to the little blond-haired girl he called the “Squeaker,” who would scribble furiously page after page, wearing her crayons down to the nubs, and who would very early confirm that she would never be an artist. Upon these scraps, Gramp would set the type for pieces of poetry, including Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata and Charles Hanson Town’s Around the Corner. These subtle reminders to his fellow man were intended to be tucked into a book or a brain; they have remained tucked in both of mine for decades. But one in particular got committed to memory: It was The Kindness Prayer, widely attributed to a Quaker. I’m sure many of you have heard at least one of its many variations: “I shall pass through this world but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show. Or any good thing I can do. Let me do it now; Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” No pressure. It was not just his bookmarks and those words, however, that wielded the conscience-pricking needle in the young girl’s brain.
When the Squeaker was young, the family enjoyed dinner with Gramp most Sundays, and she would impatiently sit in the back seat of the family car for the hour-long drive from St. John’s to the town of Bay Roberts. And sometimes before dinner and sometimes after, Gramp would take her hand and walk her out to observe what was left of the headless flowers in his little planter that decorated the front of the printing shop. He’d attribute the floral massacre to the cows, goats, and horses that roamed the prosperous little town. Back in the 1970s and long before, the animals grazed freely around Bay Roberts and the surrounding areas. There were no stockyards or Jungles. Unlike his neighbor Mrs. Tutt, Gramp did not run out in his bra when he saw the goats coming up the road with their bursting udders, corral them in the yard, and milk them for all they were worth. I never heard Gramp complain about the roaming ruminants, or call for their containment. At the time, the animals seamlessly and neatly folded among life’s other everyday wonders.
But his leadership by example was far less subtle at times: Gramp loved to fill bellies with the comfort of food. He never remarried after ovarian cancer spirited away my grandmother, widowing him in his late forties. After the loss of his Dorothy, he prepared his own meals. And when the crowd arrived on Sunday, they would be hit with the heady smell of roasted turkey mingled with the Newfoundland summer savory dressing balls, drenched in turkey fat, and Jigg’s dinner vegetables — turnip, carrots, cabbage, potatoes — all boiled with salt beef. It’s truly a wonder cardiac arrests never spirited us all away as we converged at the dinner table like a flock of half-crazed gulls. Many a time, I would witness Gramp quietly rise, go into the kitchen and fix a plate of dinner for the mentally ill Mr. Critch, who had seated himself on the stairs of the back porch, and who had signaled his arrival just moments before with a passionately delivered curse-filled tirade to no one and everyone as he walked up the town’s main street. As my father conveyed during Gramp’s eulogy in 1990, my grandfather
[H]ad a special feeling for people, animals or anything else that struggled to survive. He fed birds in winter, even crows, which he said – although despised had their place. He took in a ragged stray cat and nursed it back to health. He took food and blankets to an old horse in the dead of winter.