I got a special 67th birthday gift, costing a few dollars but beyond priceless. A picture of my grandfather, George Allin. I had never seen his image. He killed himself in 1918. It wasn’t something that I felt comfortable about talking with my father, who always checked our gas stove dials before he went to bed. He’d lean back and forth and return two or three times. My mother explained why he performed this ritual. He’d been only eight, the next oldest boy.
George was born in 1880 in Bowmanville, east of Toronto. It was where his grandfather had brought the family in 1845 when a substantial chunk of land-poor Devon, England, moved to Canada. They had a small farm, but managed well with five boys. George’s father James became a gardener, and George moved to Toronto and became a florist. Not long after, he had a house on Runnymede Road and his own greenhouses.
My grandmother Julie knew what had happened. I remember her already in her seventies, a nice little old lady who found a wheelchair convenient. The stuffed Ookpik owl she gave me in 1955 is still on my dresser. When my Toronto cousins and I met once a year, we were off to the movies after taking Grandma to lunch. I didn’t consider that in her twenties she had been widowed with five young kids, one unborn.
Thanks to Ancestry.ca, I learned piecemeal about George’s life through marriage licenses, births, deaths, and the census. Surprisingly, he had had a first wife, Gertrude Gregg, and they had his first boy, Fred, and a girl who died at a few months. Gertrude followed via pneumonia shortly after. A sad start.
Enter my gene combination. Widowed George met Julia Palmer. Her family lived fifty or sixty miles north of Toronto in Gravenhurst. Her dad was a timberman. How did they meet? A train visit? Church? A mutual friend or relative yet unknown? She was twenty seven, and he was thirty. The 1909 marriage bed was fertile nearly every year. My dad George Norman in 1910. Then Marian, Harold, Albert, and Jack. One of York’s top businessmen, George was expanding, his roses famous. My father was photographed in a bed of flowers, the Carnation Kid. But something was wrong.
In 1918 they lived at 262 Runnymede Road in Toronto’s west. They had a phone. My Aunt Marian was seven. She said that Julie answered the call and fainted. Fred at fourteen would have remembered all, but he’s the one uncle I never got to meet.
The short family story had been that George had been a frequent patient at 999 Queen Street West, the fortress of the mental health centre. Lovely grounds with grass and trees, but cold baths and straightjackets inside. The rumour was that he was found gassed in the kitchens downstairs. Working with frantic brilliance for months, then laid low by the black dog. Manic-depression? Bi-polar? No Zoloft, not even an early tranquilizer like Miltown.
The genetic thread spun wide but thinner. My father’s nervous side emerged in eczema. Aunt Marian took Valium for decades but lived to ninety six. Uncle Harold chainsmoked but made it to eighty. Ab liberated Belson in World War II and ran a theatre, but he needed anti-depressants. They all held good jobs, never divorced, and owned their own houses. Death documents revealed that George’s mother, Hannah Moon, spent her last years in Penetanguishene, a shameful northern mental facility, dying four years before her son. Was she the source? Every family has its problems.
George died from “gas poisoning,” says the death certificate, in a house on Ashdale Street near The Beaches in Toronto. Miles from his home and greenhouses. Did he disappear to spare his family like people who commit suicide in hotel rooms? Dying at the asylum may have been a lie for the children, a kind of excuse. “My dad died young,” my father told nurses when he was in a nursing home in his eighties. They loved him very much and never blamed him, he told me. My grandmother gave her husband a legacy from the heart.
George’s estate dwindled, or maybe an evil partner took a lion’s share, or maybe Julie gave money to her brother. As the Twenties began, she supported the family by running rooming houses. Julie’s mother, who lived with her, a six-foot Scottish powerhouse, Great Grandma Charlotte Palmer, may have been the backbone. The kids all quit school at fifteen, normal for the time, and got themselves jobs and spouses to see themselves through the Dirty Thirties. Only Uncle Ab didn’t have kids. Jack died of influenza.
Julie had lived with Marian and my cousins, so in my fifties, I finally asked about the family pictures. Not until a basement forage at her brother’s this year did my cousin find one of grandfather George.
Here’s my eighty year old grandmother image next to this very young man. His hair, an Allin trait, is thick and wavy, parted in the middle. He wears a good suit with a loose cravat, a starched collar and a round pin. Is there a picture of a woman on it? A trace of pouches below his eyes. Lack of sleep? Worry? So many years ahead of him.
Long ago I wrote a story about Grandfather. 999 Queen Street West. Being a mystery author, I hypothesised that his evil partner poisoned him slowly with nightshade, belladonna or another plant-based remedy, playing into his cyclical moods. The partner had left his mansion as a museum, and my granddaughter sleuth found a telltale botanical book with curious dates of George’s hospitalization next to the plants. I never got it published. Too unbelievable, I guess. But when I look at this picture, I think I see a slight smile.