Raymond and I had an interesting morning this past Saturday, joining about a dozen other volunteers to do some repair and cleanup work on a very modest home that is a very important piece of Canadian literary history.
The home is the A-frame house that poet Al Purdy and his wife, Eurithe, built in 1957 in Ameliasburgh, down in Prince Edward County. (Which is the county due south of us here in Hastings County.) They built it themselves because they had no money to pay professionals to do it – a poet’s income being, then as now, pretty sparse – and they built it largely out of materials they managed to scrounge up. It always remained a pretty rustic place, outhouse and all, but over the years everyone who was anyone in Canadian literature paid a visit to the Purdys there, and many of them paid repeat visits. It was a place to talk poetry and literature while enjoying libations – perhaps some of Al’s wild grape wine – and the view out over Roblin Lake, on which the A-frame is built. There are photos of Margaret Laurence and Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood and all manner of writer types hanging out at the A-frame, enjoying the hospitality that Al and Eurithe offered. (You can read more about all that, and see some of the photos, here.)
Regular readers will know that I have a very great admiration for the poetry of Al Purdy, due in part to the wonderful way he describes my own part of the world – the Canadian Shield country where Queensborough is – in The Country North of Belleville and several other poems. I’ve written multiple times about that, and here I told you about the campaign to save the A-frame. The project’s goal was to preserve the rustic old place because of its singular place in Canadian literary history, and to carry on Al’s legacy by setting up a writer-in-residence program so that young poets could come and live and work where Al did.
Well, that campaign has come together nicely. The first crop of writers-in-residence has been named, and the first of them will be living at the A-frame come this summer. Which is why we volunteers were out there Saturday morning, hammering planks for a deck, moving rocks and debris, mowing the grass, washing out cabinets and cupboards, and just generally getting a good start at making the place – which had suffered from water infiltration and weather, and from simply not being lived in – ready to welcome residents. Here’s one photo of the workers doing their thing, on the front deck:
(You can read more about the cleanup bee, and about Al Purdy and the A-frame project in general, here, at our friend Lindi Pierce’s excellent blog In Search of Al Purdy. Lindi, an architectural historian, history buff, and writer, has been a driving force behind the A-frame project.)
Our A-frame experience Saturday was the first time Raymond and I had ever been at, let alone inside, the building we’d both read and heard so much about, and I have to confess that I felt more than a little in awe. To walk through the rooms where one of my literary heroes had lived and worked, to touch the furniture and see the books on the shelves and examine the pictures on the wall – well, it was quite overwhelming at first. But there wasn’t much time for being overwhelmed or awestruck, because there was work to do.
One of the jobs that I helped out with was going through household linens – tablecloths, curtains, seat covers, napkins, towels, etc. All were a little on the musty side, but most will be fine for re-use once they’ve been washed and aired out. But while going through them, I found something that I found endearing and, in its own way – I’ll explain – familiar.
It was the placemats. So many placemats!
One might wonder why such a small household – Al, Eurithe and their son Jim when he was young – would need all those placemats. Ah, but remember what I said about the Purdys welcoming generations of Canadian writers to the A-frame? Well, those people had to be fed when they visited! And what did Eurithe feed them? Spaghetti. Eurithe made a lot of spaghetti, doubtless because it was cheap and would feed a lot of hungry people at once.
What this all reminded me of was my mother, Lorna, in the days when I was growing up here at the Manse. As I’ve reported here, it was incumbent on the minister and his wife in those days to invite parishioners for dinner. And so pretty much every Sunday evening of all my childhood years at the Manse, my mum made a great big roast-beef dinner, mashed potatoes and gravy and all the vegetable accompaniments (including, of course, jellied salad), plus homemade pie for dessert, for a big group that included the company and our own family of six. And she did this after a long week of looking after four growing children and a big old Manse and working full-time as a high-school teacher. Yikes! (Which might be about how Eurithe felt when she saw yet another carful of visitors coming down the driveway of the A-frame.)
One last thing that I found very endearing about those placemats. Here’s a closeup that I think will allow you to see it:
People, I am pretty sure those brownish-orange marks are… spaghetti-sauce stains.