“Don’t drink the water!”

The upscale, leafy Toronto neighbourhood of Leaside, where my mother, Lorna, came from: it was a long way from Queensborough, in more ways than one.

I don’t remember a lot about my family’s arrival at the Manse that first sunny day in July 1964. (I was, after all, only four years old, as I’ve mentioned.) Only two things stick in my mind.

One is a swing set (was it painted pink, maybe?) that looked pretty appealing to a four-year-old, especially one who has sat through a long drive in the car – though I don’t remember where we arrived from; probably either the Sedgwick family farm outside Gelert, in Haliburton County, which my father had inherited six years earlier when his father died; or the home of my mother’s parents in Leaside, the pleasant, leafy Toronto neighbourhood where Lorna (my mum) grew up.

Anyway, the swing set was at the home of our new neighbours, the Gordons, and I’m pretty sure I was able to go play there in fairly short order. Their daughter, Connie, was an early friend.

The other thing I remember was the shouted welcome from the elderly man (Will Holmes, we later found out) who was standing in his front yard across the street, watching us pile out of Dad’s 1956 Chevy Bel-Air. It wasn’t your typical welcome.

“Don’t drink the water!”

Ah. Just what you want to hear. Especially if you are the young mother of three very young children (me, 4, my sister Melanie, 2, and my brother John, 4 months). If my father had been told ahead of our arrival that the water at the manse was not potable, he hadn’t shared this information with my mum. Perhaps just as well; she might very well have refused to come. It was a long way from Leaside, in more ways than one.

I guess we were lucky that we at least had a well, and running water in the house. Not everyone in the village did; there were outhouses here and there. But the well had been dug too close to the cesspool (“an underground reservoir for liquid waste [as household sewage]”) and the water was contaminated enough to be undrinkable.

So for all the 11 years we lived at the Manse, water had to be pumped by hand from the well outside the the schoolhouse (now the Queensborough Community Centre) and carried in buckets back home. That was a chore for the children, as soon as we were big enough. Dad would call out the name of the person whose turn it was (the victim, we felt like): “Katherine! Water!” “Melanie! Water!” and there was nothing for it but to make the hike up the hill to the school (maybe five minutes) and haul back the pail (or two pails, if you could) of water. Not bad on a nice summer day; a real drag in deepest winter. But it had to be done.

The pantry at the Manse in January 2012. In the foreground is where there was a stand where our pails of drinking water were.

There was a stand in the pantry for the pails of water, each of which had a dipper in it. If you wanted a drink of water, you dipped the dipper in and you drank from that. Everybody used the same two dippers, and we never thought twice about it. Seems amazing now, but we all survived and thrived.

I guess ministers who came to the Queensborough-Eldorado Pastoral Charge after my father left were less complacent than were Dad and the rest of us (though I wouldn’t include my mum in that) about having to pump and carry water; a few years after we left, a new well was drilled. The water, according to all recent tests, is 100% safe to drink. But let me tell you, it’s going to take a while before it doesn’t seem really weird to me to run water from the tap in that kitchen into a glass and actually drink it.

But I guess I’ll have to get used to it. The pump at the school is no more.

10 thoughts on ““Don’t drink the water!”

  1. I don’t even know what to say, this is so amazingly amazing. Thank-you so much for sending me the link – I will read faithfully. I was 6 when you guys left Queensborough and I think I have one hazy memory of the kitchen. I’ve always felt completely lacking in understanding of the Queensborough club. I swear there’s a certain reverence in Bruce’s voice when he talks about those days. I’m so looking forward to seeing where this goes!

    But why are you in Queensborough? Are you there full time? Are you still working in Montreal?

    I feel so…far…west…! This should help! Can you get Melanie started on a blog too, so that come Thanksgiving I can understand her emails?

  2. Let me just say that visitors were not exempt from water fetching duty.
    This also made for some pretty stringent conservation efforts, which I suppose is only natural when “you empty you fill it” rules are in play.
    For instance the entire Sedgwick family could brush their teeth on about two sips of water…
    Like ritual everyone went to the kitchen filled a glass with water, marched to the bathroom, brushed their teeth, rinsed sparingly, rinsed the brush, spit into the sink, then drank the leftover water.
    To a visitor it was pretty eccentric although I know they all thought it was just normal.

  3. Hey, remember that visiting minister who decided, after a tough hour of trying to hammer the word of the Lord into a bunch of less-than-interested parishoners, that he was parched and needed a big ol’ drink of water? I believe we all arrived in the pantry to see him finishing up his 3rd glass – delivered lovingly from the poisonous tap. ‘Ahhhh!’, as he smacked his lips appreciatively and turned to see 5 horror-stricken faces staring at him, eyes wide as saucers. (Dad, not too worried. What doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger, you know?) I could read the thought bubble over Mum’s head. In it there was an arrest warrant with her name on it. ‘Wrongful death’ was the charge. How in the world could she do the ironing from jail?

    Hey, guess what? He survived. Probably glad-handing unbelievers in heaven right this minute.

  4. The shouted greeting to was more correctly; “don’t drink that there water” according to Mum.
    Water pumped from a well, drunk from a dipper… the best. I think I preferred the smaller stainless steel dipper over the larger white chipped tin one. Kids are funny – never thought for a moment that it was anything but normal.
    Washing machine in the kitchen – how European.
    That kitchen, and I use the term ‘kitchen’ loosely, is in a word, unbelievable. Will be good fun getting a layout that makes some sense and bashing down some walls.

    • I was going to write about the two different dippers, but figured only those of us in the immediate family would remotely care. I too preferred the stainless-steel one. Is it still around somewhere, do you suppose?

  5. Katherine: Thanks so much for sharing. Just don’t change that secret stairway! Loved that!! I remember drinking from the dipper after the requisite skating party. We were parched. Or biking down that hill by the house at breakneck speed! Also parched. Washing machine; yes imprinted on my young memory…don’t get your fingers caught in that one.

  6. The secret stairway! You must mean the “back” stairway, the one from the kitchen, right, Megan? I cannot for the life of me figure out why there are two stairways in that house. Rest assured both will stay!

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