My maternal grandfather was Ernest Huntley Clarke, and my grandmother was Edna Ursula Clarke (nee Marks). Kim and I knew them by much simpler names however – “Poppy” and “Sam”. Poppy was named so because it is an English form of “Grand-Dad” (he was born in England), or maybe because I noticed that he wore a Remembrance Day poppy in his lapel from time to time. The name “Sam” came as a suggestion directly from Edna, who was always concerned with her appearance. The mere word “Grandma” made her feel old, so she said “Call me anything – call me Sam!”, and it stuck. She seemed pretty darn serious about avoiding the label of “Grandma” too. I once witnessed her chasing Poppy about the house with a big pan in her hand after he snuck up behind her and tried out a “Hello, Grandma” on her. She was laughing, but I noticed that Poppy didn’t run any slower!
You can see from this photo that Poppy and Sam had a nice looking home. Many of the baby pictures of Kim and I were taken at Poppy and Sam’s home on Cook Street in Victoria, BC. Obviously we were a source of great pride to them, and they loved showing us off and getting us in front of the camera. As far as I can tell, while Kim and I were still quite young, Mum and Dad travelled more than a few times from Saskatoon to Victoria to visit them. Then, the four of us lived with Poppy and Sam at their house at 1002 Cook Street after I was about four years old. Actually, Poppy and Sam’s place was one side of a duplex. It was of a good size, and had hardwood floors throughout. I thought it was quite a nice place.
Although they weren’t that far apart in age, Poppy and Sam could be very different in their personalities. Poppy was generally pretty calm and laid back, whereas Sam had a tendency to need to control her environment.
Poppy told me that he was originally from England and had come to Canada when he was about 12 years old. Mum told me that he had also served as a Corporal in the RCMP for a long time many years ago, and that when they all lived up in Vanderhoof (in the interior of BC), Poppy would give whiskey and tobacco to the local natives “to keep the peace”. That sort of romanticized image of the stalwart lawmaker is from another time and place.
I sensed a lot of pride in Poppy’s RCMP career, and there were little references to it around the house and in Poppy’s habits and behaviour. We had many old black and white photographs of Poppy in his Mountie uniform, and he always saved “Mountie” quarters for us kids (these had a picture of a mounted RCMP on the side where there would normally be an Elk’s head). Above the sideboard in the front hall, across from the front door, Poppy had hung a large framed RCMP coat of arms, which I always assumed he had received at his retirement.
Poppy had a lot of humble dignity, and was a great influence on me. As I remember him, he never lost his temper at me or Kim, and hardly ever raised his voice to anyone. I always admired how every morning he would come to the breakfast table fully dressed in a fresh pressed shirt, tie, and suspenders. While I do not think that Poppy had a great deal of money later on in life, he always seemed to manage it well. He always dressed in nice suits and black or brown wing-tip shoes, and he was a real gentleman.
Sam was a native of Victoria. She was also very dignified, and carried herself with great pride. Unfortunately, she also seemed to have a bit of a cold side which I have never quite gotten over. I remember being very young, perhaps four years old, and being very hungry, whining to her, asking when it would be lunch time. Nobody else was there, except perhaps Kim, since everybody must have been out at work or shopping. I would run around the house, getting into things, exploring, colouring, and playing, and I would frequently bother Sam about when lunch time would be. Well, one time she answered “Not yet”, and I sensed some irritation in her voice – a coldness that indicated that I was becoming a bit of a pain in the neck. My feelings were a bit hurt by this reaction. Of course, I probably was a bit of a pain in the neck, but that’s beside the point.
I guess I knew that I wasn’t exactly the apple of Sam’s eye – she perhaps just had a little less interest in me than my sister. Whenever Sam had to take me on an errand downtown, she always walked too fast so that I had to run to keep up, and she always seemed to hold my hand too tightly. If we came to a crosswalk, she would pull straight up on my arm, as if it was a leash from which she was picking up the slack. Maybe she was just a bit nervous out in public, I don’t know, but being a little kid, I assumed her behaviour had something to do with me. Years later, my Aunt Shirley would tell me that she didn’t think Edna liked little boys as much as she liked little girls. Dad told me of how Sam would hold baby Kim and talk to her and tell her how she loved her, so I believe that Sam really did prefer little girls to boys.
Poppy and I, on the other hand, got along great right from the beginning. This is my absolute favourite picture of me and him. In fact, I can remember an event like this pretty clearly: his aftershave, how soft my jammies were, and how I squirmed and giggled my brains out as he tickled me. My late Aunt Dora, a dear friend of Poppy’s of whom you’ll read more later, gave me a framed version of this photo as a memento. Dora kept it on her living room table for probably 20 years, and now I’ve had it on my dresser for almost 10 years.
Poppy was an enthusiastic amateur photographer for most of his life. Most of the photographs I have of my mother’s life and family can be attributed to him. This picture, taken from the front steps of Poppy and Sam’s house at 1002 Cook St. in Victoria, is one of my favourites. We look a little concerned, particularly Sam, who seems to be looking past us, off into the distance. What was she looking at? This picture always makes me feel like she knew something important was going to
Living in Victoria with Poppy and Sam was different at first, but being young, I quickly came to like it. Their house was actually one half of a duplex, and their side was located right on the corner of Cook Street and Rockland Avenue, only about ten minutes from downtown Victoria, so it could be a pretty busy intersection at times.
There was always somebody around the house somewhere, and there was usually something that needed to be done and somewhere you had to be in order to do it. This was the added structure and security that came with being part of a larger family. Dad was generally a very proud man, so I don’t know how happy he felt about moving back in with his in-laws, but I think Mum liked being “home” again. As a kid, I felt the stabilizing effect of being with her parents. It somehow felt safer – more secure.
In this house, an extra two adults and two kids was probably one or two people too many. Sleeping arrangements were a bit cramped for the four of us since we all shared one bedroom with only two full-sized single beds. Being only about two years old, Kim could still fit in her crib, and Mum and Dad usually got to sleep in the two available single beds, so that meant that I ended up either sleeping on the couch in the living room, or on a “chaise lounge” (a fancy term for a yellow folding lawn chair) in the dining room.
But sleeping in the living room wasn’t really all that bad – I kind of liked laying awake at night on my own. I’d hold onto my “Alvin the Chipmunk” doll and watch lights streak across the living room walls whenever cars drove by.