Poppy’s Secret Stash

The basement of Poppy’s house always fascinated me. A dozen or more narrow wooden stairs led down from the hallway to a place where I’d sometimes find a cool, quiet spot to draw, play or explore.

Dominating the far corner of Poppy’s basement was a large oil furnace up against a wide brick chimney. The basement smelled vaguely of oil, dust and old wood.

Walking around to the left around the furnace and the foundation of the house’s wide, red brick chimney, I found what must have been Poppy’s private refuge.

walterFoster-drawing_bookLit by the a beam of daylight from a small basement window behind his rose bushes, Poppy had a small basement painting studio of sorts. Tucked amongst the boxes and piles of old furniture, and an old upright piano, was a wooden easel, a palette with brushes and tubes of oil paints, and a number of “Walter Foster” art books. I knew Poppy was an avid photographer, but I had no idea that my grandfather was also a painter! For me, it was like discovering his secret superhero identity, by blundering into his subterranean fortress of solitude.

The Walter Foster books were large and illustrated, describing a wide variety of artist’s techniques. I was fascinated by the ones dealing with drawing with perspective, or on drawing and shading with pencil. The images looked so incredibly professional to me. Who could possibly draw such perfect images? I got lost in those books for a long time.

The old 1960s Batman TV show with Adam West had been playing each night on TV, and I really loved it. I think that Batman was probably the first comic book superhero that I knew about. Crouched over some boxes near Poppy’s basement easel, inspired by Poppy’s equipment and reference materials, I grabbed a pencil and some paper and drew my own simple cartoon pictures of Batman, usually just his head with the trademark mask, white eyes, and pointy ears).

old-teddy-bear_640After a couple of visits like this, I also noticed a wide, curtained wall behind me. My curiosity would not be denied, and I peeked behind that curtain and then pulled it back a bit to reveal that there were many wooden shelves under there, stretching right up to the ceiling, and filled with lots of old toys and knick knacks. There were all kinds of dolls. They looked old, and had an old style that was different from my toys. There were funny old teddy bears made from cloth, with large button eyes. There were brightly coloured clowns and baby girl dolls with fine china faces and real looking hair. I figured that these must have been Mum’s toys.

These were Poppy’s memories of Mum as a young girl – some part of his little girl, preserved on his curtained shelf, safe in the basement of his house.

One evening, my Mother took me with her to see the movie “Grizzly Adams” at the Royal Theatre downtown. In Victoria, “downtown” was never more than a 15 minute walk from Poppy’s house.

My mother had a very quiet mood that night. I don’t remember her speaking to me while we walked. She just looked straight ahead, perhaps lost in her own thoughts.

Grizzly Adams was a very nice movie, mostly quiet and gentle, with nature and man’s relationship to animals being the main theme. In the story, a man escapes to the isolation of the deep wilderness to avoid persecution (and even prosecution). Slowly, he adapts to his need to survive off the land, and learns to take care of himself directly from nature and becomes friends with the animals, most notably a large Grizzly Bear named Ben.

Mum always loved animals, and I think she loved nature too. We have many pictures of her as a little girl (and an only child) surrounded by a beloved pet or playing with some toy animal. As a young woman, she learned to ride horses quite well (Poppy was a Mountie, so she must have been inspired by him.) When she married Dad, before they had us kids, they had a Collie named Lassie, a cat, and a budgie, and they delighted in them. As Dad told the story, the cat would ride on the collie’s back, and budgie on her head, and the dog would run around the house, all three of them making a commotion and having a great time.

From my life, I have learned that animals have the purest emotions, and they are usually honest in their loves and hates. You know when you are loved by a cat, dog, or another animal. It is a very simple, straightforward and uncomplicated relationship. No strings attached, and no head games or hidden meanings.

Maybe Mum was looking to escape, at least for an hour or two, and to experience something simple and beautiful.


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The memoir and family history of E. John Love