I’m a Boomer, born long enough ago that the winter of ’63, which blanketed Northeastern North America with about 5 feet of snow, was prime playtime for me, not hell on earth. We had snowbanks 10 feet high along the driveway, into which my siblings and I dug tunnels and caves, blissfully unaware of the danger.
The winter of 2014 was a nasty affair. When it started getting seriously cold, around Christmas, I tried to find my parka. Bright green, I had bought it at The Bay in Banff on New Year’s Eve 1989.
My wife and I had taken Via Rail’s Canadian from Toronto (one of the last departures to take the southern route through Banff and the Spiral Tunnel). I decided to travel light on the train, and buy my winter gear at destination. The trip was wonderful, historic, and uniquely Canadian. We stopped, train draped in icicles, in Whitefish Bay, at dawn. I got up from our berth (we had a cabin) and watched the crew load crates of flapping trout, fresh from the lake, on the train, to be cooked two hours later for breakfast. As we rolled across Northern Ontario, the whole train smelled rich with the roast they were preparing for dinner. We got off to stretch our legs in Winnipeg at midnight to experience the sharpest, deepest cold I had ever run into.
Anyway, this stalwart parka, 25 years old and at the top of its game, had disappeared. And Toronto would no longer allow me to go out in a leather jacket, or a down vest. We were officially having a Canadian winter, after having English winters for about ten years. We’re now seeing the other side of climate change – the winters get colder as the summers get hotter.
I dug deep in my spare closet and saw a glint of nylon at the back. There was a serviceable olive green hooded parka back there. The memories flooded back…
1980, St. Catharines, my grandfather’s funeral. He’d died of old age at 87 after chain-smoking all his life. A cowboy in Alberta before the First War, he had learned how to roll a cigarette one handed, pouch and all. That impressed me most of all the things that were remarkable about him, but he had served in the Royal Flying Corps in WWI, as an observer in DH5A bi-planes, then gone on to serve in WWII as a Captain in the Canadian Army. He was a renowned naturalist and birder who had a birchbark canoe you could pick up with one hand. It’s in the Canadian Museum of Civilization now.
I had just gotten back from 3 years in Mexico, laying low, speaking Spanish and living in Cuernavaca, a town full of veterans of the Spanish Civil War and the Cold War, rubbing shoulders on the Zocalo every evening. I was underweight, broke, and suffering from amoebas, or “bichos”. I had no visible future, I was 26 and I was living at home in Quebec in a cabin under a butternut tree. And I wasn’t dressed for the weather.
My mother and her sisters were there before the funeral, disposing of Pop’s few belongings. They came upon his parka, green nylon, with fake fur around the hood. My mother said “You’d better take this, you don’t have any winter clothes”. I took it gratefully and wore it all through the funeral and our stay in St Catharines.
As we were leaving, I cleared out my pockets of the various napkins and Kleenex that had gathered there. Out of the inside pocket of the parka came a brown cash envelope. In it was $400 in 20s. It was Pop’s last pension cheque, he’d picked it up from the bank just before he died.
Up until that moment, I literally had no idea what to do next, where to go. An idea popped into my head. An old school friend rented a house in Toronto, the one place I needed to go to make it in Canada. And now I had a grubstake. I changed my plans and, instead of returning to the cabin under the butternut tree, arranged to be dropped off in Toronto. I found myself in the big smoke with $400. It lasted for 6 weeks. I moved into a spare bedroom in the house. I got work as an extra in films, I started auditioning. It was literally the start of the adult stage of my life.
That was 36 years ago. I’ve been through several careers, all of them interesting, but none of them might have happened if my grandfather hadn’t left me a secret legacy. And the parka? It’s very warm, and the hood is better than a hat. The cuffs and the collar are stained with his smoking, and it still has his name sewn in the collar, under the Eaton’s label. He was born in the 19th century and I’m writing in the 21st; that’s a lot of history in that parka.