In 1909 in a miller’s family in Arva, Ontario, near London, a young woman fell ill. What better place for fresh air and lighter duties than her uncle’s in Dinorwic, Ontario? Charles Self ran a boarding house for loggers in this remote community connected only by rail. Belle Martin was twenty-one. The six Martin sisters did not marry young. Their mother Clara saw that they were educated as teachers or nurses.
Dinorwic, named after a Welsh town near a slate mine, is twenty miles south of Dryden, not far from the Minnesota border, the back of beyond even now. Coming from well-settled southern Ontario, what must she have felt when she stepped from the train days later in that Boreal forest and muskeg with moose, bear, and wolves a common sight?
Two years later, she was teaching near Toronto and then found a drafting job with Ontario Hydro, a progressive position for a woman in World War One and even through the Roaring Twenties. Retired, never married, by 1945 she was living in an apartment downtown on Wellesley Street. “A nice red-headed young man knocked at her door one night and asked if she could sit with his pregnant wife while he went out,” her youngest sister wrote me fifty years later. Feeling vaguely put upon, she complied, and a few months later with my mother down with milk fever, Belle was bringing a newborn home from the hospital and making formula. She’d wheel my carriage to the King Edward Hotel and rest in the cool and comfortable lobby. I was the “love of her life.” But what had happened in Dinorwic?
Belle’s sister Rebecca lived on a shrinking farm in West Hill outside of Scarborough. Suburban bungalows were nipping at the edges, the land sold to pay taxes. Century maples surrounded a three-storey brick home and a gigantic barn. Rebecca had her carpenter husband build a cottage for Belle. She and I spent summers there in the Fifties when my parents brought me from Cleveland, where Dad had moved to follow the film business.
The cottage had a kitchenette with no running water, but a hotplate and flip-style toaster. In our exotic Murphy wall bed, I never fell asleep easily, so she played “zoo” on my back. “Guess this animal.” Elephant, deer, squirrel, chipmunk. On the walls were powder horns, a bayonet, and her collection of butter patties. A glorious ruby-pressed-glass oil lamp hung from the ceiling. For rainy days, a couch and plenty of paperbacks waited. Death of a Salesman confused me at ten. Willy seemed so sad. She read me poems from Riley, “The Happy Little Cripple,” “Little Orphant Annie,” and “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s.” “Someday you will say ‘Out to Old Aunt Belle’s.’” How right she was.
Outside the door was an old-fashioned canvas tent with a camp table out of the rain while paring apples from the orchard or cleaning gooseberries, black and red raspberries and currents. Mulberries squished between my bare toes, along with something worse when we took eggs from the speckled hens. I threaded blue spruce needles into copper maple leaves and marveled at the pea-sized eggs in the hummingbird nest she found. We ate supper in the Big House. Bedtime called for toast and Cherry Hill cheese, treating one of Uncle Bill’s many shelties called Peggy.
My friends and I tore around on our bikes, collecting, washing and drying sticky Popsicle wrappers to redeem for a first aid kit. We brought back fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, swung like Tarzan on thick wild grape vines, gone until supper. “Put your wheel away,” Aunt Belle would say.
“It has two wheels.”
Then we’d sing “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” to which she added, “Paul Kruger” to the final line.
“I’m not sure. We always said it.” She’d been my age during the Boer War. Once with a pal in a nearby cemetery, I shinnied up a monument and grabbed the granite ball atop. It came loose and we both plummeted. I still hear that THUNK next to my head. Aunt Belle never told on me. My vice-principal mother would have put me in jail.
Belle later moved with her unmarried sister Holly to Wingham, then London, returning like homing pigeons to that old mill area and two other sisters. Her nephew ran the Wingham paper and rented her an apartment above the print shop in 1953. I visited them on Christmas vacation in London, where they next rented a small house on the edge of town. How I loved tobogganing with my “Scarlet Comet,” accompanied by those handsome, “mature” Canadian boys who let me play goalie on crystal swamp ice. On my trumpet, I played “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight.
When I got to be a teen, other activities claimed me, and visits grew infrequent. At seventy-four, her heart was weakening. Had that illness been rheumatic fever? Her siblings made it to their nineties and Holly to one hundred and one. Aunt Belle died the year I was a university freshman.
And I got the album, quaint but nothing to ponder for long at eighteen. Her other sisters never mentioned it. When she returned from Dinorwic, the grand adventure, did they ask about her young man? What did her mother Clara say?
Most intriguing is what is absent. There are thirty five pictures, even the head-cut-off ones treasured, but no writing. Two bashful kids might be Charles’s, an older woman his wife. A “rowdy” picnic shows everyone lolling on the ground on a white cloth amid berry buckets and mugging for the camera. A school or church half built, an HBC (Here Before Christ) canoe, and of course, working on the railroad. Long skirts, gossamer dresses, and her glorious Gibson Girl hat. How did she handle it on the train? Then she’s kneeling at a fire, talking to a pipe-smoking native woman and then cradling a swaddled papoose.
Who is this young man posing on a pile of logs, unmistakable bush swamp behind him? Light pants, dark suitcoat open, rakish fedora, tie flying in the wind. A cigarette in his hand? That was Aunt Belle’s only bad habit, though she limited herself to one Black Cat Cork Tip on occasion. He’s the only featured man, in one shot with a child on his shoulders. As they sit under a tree, their mutual gaze makes the years vanish.
Two books had arrived with the album. A tiny Church-of-England hymnal with her name in round script, Sunday June 20, 1909. The other was an Ojibway Common Prayer, inscribed in flowery cursive, “To Belle Martin, from Charles R R Bunn, a sincere friend. Dinorwic, Sept 7/ 09.” Well into a new century, I saw the name for the first time. And with Internet research, I found Charles DD Bunn.
He first turns up in 1891 in Rat Portage (later called Dryden and not far from Dinorwic) as a young child, his father a bookkeeper. Rat Portage again in 1901. By now his father John Robert Bunn is an accountant. Charles’s lovely penmanship? In 1906, he’s in Selkirk at 20. Apparently his father and three generations before him were featured in Manitoba history in the settling of Rupert’s Land in the North. They were proud of their First Nations’ blood in the “custom of the country.” The Ojibway book starts to make sense. Summer in Dinorwic in 1909.
Charles married an Ida Marguerite Jackson in 1914 and the next year enlisted as a Captain and a physician-surgeon in World War One, sent to Camp Hughes, MB. He crossed the border in 1927 to take “postgraduate courses.” Then we find him on the Red Deer, Alberta, voting lists in 1953. Marguerite is now Greta, perhaps to differentiate her from his sister Marguerite. Finally he becomes Mayor of Red Deer, acclaimed, from 1949-51, and dies in 1964 within a year of Aunt Belle. The Benbow Museum in Calgary emails me that he studied genealogy and left his forebears’ journals and papers to their archives. Did he ever wonder about Belle Martin?
“A sincere friend.” What happened to them? Because he was already in medical school? Promised to Marguerite? Because Belle couldn’t leave her family to go west? Because due to her health, she feared having children? Worst of all, did he jilt her? The Red Deer obituary listed Barbara Hampton as his only child along with two grandchildren. As yet, I don’t have their names.
Belle’s pocket-sized leather-bound books can speak the last lines: Robert W. Service, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and three thin volumes of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, a popular if sentimental poetess: Poems of Pleasure, Poems of Passion, Poems of Love. A yellowed 1921 newspaper clipping of a poem is found in the last volume:
Into the dark unknown,
Braving its fears alone,
A woman’s soul goes down.
Now at the place she stands
Where life and death touch hands,
And God waits there with her crown.
She was thirty three.