The Last Awful Winter

T he water level is down this spring. Last year it was one big narcissistic festival with each budding willow in love with its watery image. Without the labouring of electric pumps and other struggles against rising water, the season has been placid but not uneventful.

Some of the ladies have taken to having their babies at home. This is not particular to the Island, but the anticipation is more general here than in less communicative places. One couple failed to find a doctor willing to attend a delivery on the Island. So they confined themselves to the mainland during the birth and several days of recovery and celebration. The event, in a friend's home, was relaxed and rapid and their baby girl is a perfect spring thing. Another was more fortunate and found a doctor to come to the Island. Fifteen hours after the onset of labour, as everyone was becoming quite anxious, their baby was born. The baby's grandmother had come from New York to be with them and the whole family was immensely relieved.

Early one Sunday morning, Fred and Elaine were married. Although they had met on a New Jersey bus and had loved one another for some time, the wedding was a spontaneous one. Fred plays saxophone and flute and most of his friends are musical; even the preacher was a lapsed pianist. The law requires only two things of marriage ceremony: that the couple swear it is their will to be married, and that neither knows any reason why they can't be married. Everything else about the event is optional. Elaine has beautiful dark hair and eyes and she wore a pale Chinese robe. During the brief and simple ceremony, she told Fred that she was glad they'd met on that bus and that she loved him very much. He didn't have anything to add but his face was a joyful one to see. After food and wine, photographs were taken in the backyard with a row of drying socks for atmosphere. It was a sentimental morning and at noon we all went away wondering what on earth to do with rest of the fine green day.

There can't be another blizzard, so we allow ourselves to remark on the bitterness of the winter. It was the worst in thirty years and the transportation system was in constant rebellion. The car-ferry, Ongiara, which takes us back and forth, broke down completely when the ice on the bay reached two feet thick. We resorted to a tortuous route via the Island Airport. This meant catching a bus at the Ward's dock, at the east end of the Island, travelling four miles to the west end, crossing the airport tarmac under escort and finally catching the airport ferry, Maple City. We depended on a series of vehicles, including a fleet of well-worn buses and a snowplow of dubious lineage. The system always broke down at some crucial point and hours of delay became the frustrating routine. Once at work, people felt like such heroes that they didn't do much until it was time to worry about getting home again. Even the rare harlequin duck, that greeted us each morning from the airport channel, couldn't console those weary commuters. The last boat left the mainland at 7:30 PM, so anyone with evening business in town was out of luck. Suddenly the ice thawed and in March service was returned to normal.

Would you say that Saturday morning at 6:45 is an odd time for a party? It had to be then because that's when Percy brings the milk and he is the object of our affection.

Percy is old enough to have thought of retirement but that wasn't evident this winter as he determinedly delivered milk in the foulest possible weather. He wouldn't quit. No matter what obstacles were thrown in his path, he overcame and got the milk through. People were grateful and wanted to salute him and present him with some special gifts. He was elusive about attending community parties where these ceremonies could have taken place sensibly, indoors, so Margaret and Sarah thought of the Saturday morning idea. To my great surprise about 75 came out on a glorious April morning and we took Percy by surprise. We thrust our gifts and kisses on him and Bob Ward delivered a fine speech, presenting him with the Royal Order of the Island. Percy enjoyed himself and even shed a tear which is, I guess, why he avoided the scene in the first place. We all had coffee and doughnuts (non-organic) on the dock and those who weren't going to market went back to bed with The Globe and Mail.

Romance is about to lose another battle with utilitarianism. The Toronto Harbour Police are soon to retire their handsome mahogany launches. These boats have been a part of many dramatic moments, shooting across the bay in a burst of spray to aid in a birth or cradling a sick or hurt child. I'll never forget that zooming ride en route to deliver my first baby (who now weighs 208 pounds). It was less than 15 minutes from the time we called the police until I was admitted to St. Michael's Hospital. Maybe Islanders should raise some money and save at least one of these beauties from the bone yard. After all, as we sail uncertainly toward our fate at the hands of the Supreme Court of Canada, we could do worse than plan independent transport.

Last weekend Tommy Swallwell died. He was out doing spring work on his sailboat and late for dinner. When his wife went out, she found him, lifeless, under that craft that was always her keenest rival. Tommy was born 65 years ago on a kitchen table on No-name Island, just east of the Island Yacht Club. His father was a diver with the filtration plant. The family moved east to Ward's when their home on Hanlan's was demolished by Metro in 1957. In spite of losing a leg in World War II, Tom was a great iceboater and remembered the days when it was basic winter transportation. Those iceboats were so fast you'd be there in no time flat. Tom's work as a commissionaire at the University Avenue courthouse was great for his morale, and when the Island case was being heard, there he was, on duty, by the courtroom door. He never missed a day of work last winter, except that one blissful Monday that everybody missed. He'd give himself plenty of time, take it slow and steady, down the street and over the Algonquin bridge to the bus. Tom and I took the same ferry home most afternoons and we'd talk as we struggled against the winter's latest onslaught, usually being blown south on Bathurst Street, across Lakeshore Boulevard and onto the airport ferry dock. He seemed to enjoy his life. His wife Jean and daughter Mary will sail the boat in the Queen City Yacht Club sailpast in May for the last time. After that the boat, with Tom's ashes on board, will rest at the bottom of Toronto Harbour.

Elizabeth Amer

This story, first published in The Goose and Duck in 1977, was reprinted in the Toronto Island Residents' Association Newsletter in April of 1994. Laurie Jones did the line drawings. The artwork for the Royal Order of the Island was done by Mick Henry, a west coast artist who has friends here on the Island. EA