No. Please… say it isn’t so.
I just can’t imagine a world without a Graeme Smith.
But it’s so. I’m just re-reading the email that came in, haunting my brain.
Graeme Smith is gone.
The email stated he was hit by a reversing car while out on his usual afternoon stroll around the neighborhood in Vancouver where they'd moved to many moons ago. This sent him to hospital where… he died.
How can this be?
How can the world, awash in a devastating pandemic, make another turn on its axis without Graeme there to guide it along?
The memories are flooding back as I return home, awash in tears from being out walking my two noble rescue pups Molly and Macy. They’re staring at me, so attuned to my moods, wondering what’s up.
Graeme James Buchanan Smith. What a marvelous name. He and I marveled at our similarities, me having four names in my profile too. But I always told him I thought Graeme James Buchanan Smith outdid Peter William Gibson Jennings. Seemed somehow more regal, more important, more consequential. In true Graeme style, he didn’t argue.
Yes, the memories are flooding back…
The very first one being back in… what, 1958? ’59? ’60 even?
It was summertime, that much I know. We – mom, my two sisters and I – were ensconced at our summer cottage in beautiful Muskoka, Canada’s preeminent vacation destination. “Rockbottom” was always our home from mid June til early September when school was out and summer holidays prevailed. Dad remained in the city, toiling away at what’s now CIBC where he worked in Business Development. That is, until Friday. Each Friday, he and a bunch of his cronies, would board “The Canadian” train at Union Station in downtown Toronto. “Leave the city centre behind and glide through gentle prairie fields, rugged lake country and picturesque towns to the snowy peaks of the majestic Rockies” the website says to this day.
Only Dad and friends were not setting out to explore their home and native land. No, their journey was merely a simple two and a half hour haul from Toronto to Bala, Ontario. There, the wives and chillins would greet them and take them back to their cottages for what we came later to know as “Jump Night” (the boys having been alone in the Big Smoke for a lonely week without their brides!).
But, you see, bear with me for a moment while I explain about this magical mystery tour. You'll see that Graeme Smith figures large in it.
To begin with, it should be recognized that the vast majority of travellers on The Canadian were there to explore the country. Indeed, they were quite happy to leave the city centre behind and glide through gentle fields, rugged lake country and picturesque towns to the snowy peaks of the majestic Rockies while they discovered the people and places that make our country unique. “Sit back, relax, and get to know Canada in a way only the train allows,” the brochure extolled. ”With space to chat, space to nap, and space to quietly gaze at the view along the way—travelling by train is as comfy as it gets. Wherever you’re headed, our friendly staff and the relaxing rhythm of the rails will make your trip one you’ll want to remember.”
But not Dad and his cronies. Nope, they simply used this relaxing rhythm conveyance as a means to an end, getting to the cottage after a sweltering work week in the city. “Your adventure starts as soon as you step on board. The buzz of the city will be replaced by sway of the train as you glide past forests, lakes, and prairies.” Sure, that may be so, but our intrepid northern bound voyageurs rarely even looked outside the windows. “Why not dial down the stress and dial up the convenience?” the brochure asked. You bet: but for these guys, that started with scotch, cigars and cards!
Here’s what made their trek unique. The train featured two “dome cars”, one that was half way along the dozen or more cars that comprised the train, and the second at the very end, where the caboose once held sway. Called The Skyline, these cars featured a café-style dining area, kitchen, lounge, and the scenic dome section on the top floor, where the windows extended to the ceiling – the perfect place to admire the breathtaking scenery as it unfolded. Now, I’m not sure who the ringleader was who orchestrated this (somehow I don’t think was my Dad), but one of the lads offered the rear car porter a sizeable tip to keep the public out of there for the trek from Toronto to Bala. Yup, that’s right: it was their car for the duration! They paid handsomely to ensure it.
Now, on the other hand, imagine you’re spending a ton of dough taking the little lady and your kids on a train tour of Canada for a well-earned summer vacation. “C’mon,” you intone to your happy family, “let’s go explore the dome car at the back.” But when you get there, you’re met by a friendly, yet officious porter, who explains, “Sorry sir, this is a private car. No one’s allowed.”
“What the hell?” Looking beyond him, you see clouds of smoke and a bunch of well dressed guys a few sheets to the wind, drinking and playing poker.
“Once we arrive at Bala, you’ll be able to gain access,” you’re told.
OK, you get the picture? This is the way is was each and every Friday evening throughout the summer, from June to Labor Day. Outrageous! But it happened with a regularity only a trainman could worship. Each Friday, the porter was “looked after” so this band of merry marauders could enjoy the dome car in peace without worrying abut offending others. After all, they’d worked hard all week: this was their right!
So, there we are around 8pm on a Friday in July. The train pulls into the Bala station and the moms and their broods all congregate at the end car, knowing their hubbies will fall off The Canadian, well oiled after their trip from the city.
But this time, doesn’t a stranger alight with the boys.
He’s a young, fresh faced, red haired lad clearly amazed at what’s been occurring around him.
“Have a good weekend, Graeme,” the men are calling out to him. “Great to meet ya. Make sure Bill takes ya out in the boat. Hey, maybe we’ll catch up with you ‘at sea’.”
Sure enough, this fresh faced, red haired lad is with my Dad.
“Hya honey,” Dad slurs to Mom. “Great to see you. Hi kids!”
For a moment, we’re all over him, thrilled to have Dad with us again, looking forward to a weekend of waterskiing and trekking about cottage country.
The fresh faced, red haired lad is overlooked.
Except by Mom.
“Now Bill,” Mom says, not too coolly, “who’s your friend?”
“Oh!” sez Dad. "This here’s Graeme. He’s our weekend guest!”
Graeme smiles uncomfortably.
“He’s from Scotland,” Dad offers, as if this is an explanation that will make everything just fine.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see Mom’s not amused by this sudden visitor being sprung upon her without warning. She pulls Dad aside for a little tete-a-tete while my sisters and I occupy ourselves with making introductions to our “guest”.
The fresh faced, red haired lad is no dummy. He senses his arrival has not been forewarned. He can tell Mrs. Jennings is annoyed at having his attendance thrown at her without advance notice.
“Look, Bill, perhaps I should find an inn or a pub or somewhere that I can stay in and…” he says.
“Don’t be silly my boy,” Dad cuts him off. “This is Cay. She’s thrilled you’re staying with us. Aren’t you sweetheart/”
Mom offers her hand and advises, with a warm smile, “Sorry Graeme, didn’t mean to get us off on the wrong track. It’s just, Bill had neglected to call ahead and let us know you’d be with him. It’s just a surprise. But a nice one.”
And that was our introduction to Graeme James Buchanan Smith. From Scotland, don'tyaknow.
By way of explanation, Dad had been dealing via letter and phone with Graeme’s father who ran a trucking parts manufacturing company in Alloa, Scotland. The old man was interested in possible expansion to “the colonies” and eventually decided to send his 21 year old son to Canada to suss out opportunities. Dad offered to host the lad and show him around, which included picking him up at the airport the previous day.
“I know what,” Dad said to Graeme on that fateful Friday after a liquid lunch, “you’ll come with me to the cottage. Give you a chance to see what Canada’s all about!”
The die was cast.
Fast forward to Graeme hitting it off in this country and deciding to linger. He’s eventually joined by the beautiful Merlyn, his girlfriend from home. They get married in Toronto and form long-lasting friendships with several people, most notably Mom and Dad, as well as me and my sisters,
Time moved on and Graeme and Merlyn eventually went back to Scotland where he took over daily operations of the family firm. Various members of our family visited them there (and later at Petham Court, a lovely old farmhouse in England where they moved). In fact, as a young lad myself, I spent a summer living with G&M in Scotland, working as a clerk at the company by day and helping with their two (soon to be three) kids. That summer, we travelled by car through France to Puerto De La Selva, Spain, in Catalonia on the Costa Brava, a charming fishing port, where I learned, amongst other things, how to drink!
There are tons of memories I could regale you with. But I won’t.
I last talked on the phone with G&M a couple of months ago. Mom’s 100th birthday was looming and they couldn’t believe it. Many memories were consumed on that call.
And now… And now, he’s gone.
Just like that.
And I can’t believe it.
OK COVID-19, ya might as well come and get me.
I’m not sure there’s much pointing in carrying on now.
You see, I can’t imagine a world without a Graeme Smith.