The Ghosts of Balmoral
Those who know ghosts tell us that they long to be released from their ghost life and led to rest as ancestors. As ancestors, they live forth in the present generation, while as ghosts they are compelled to haunt the present generation with their shadow life.
On the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis
My story opens in the haunted house of my birth. Three storeys tall, nearly a century old, the place stands silent in my memory, as lean and austere as the midnight hands of a grandfather clock. Erected by my paternal grandparents at the outbreak of the Great War, the timbered beams, grey stuccoed walls, dormered windows, and chimneyed roof cast the sombre shadows of a past that holds me still. Night after night, my adult dreams still pull me down, back through its darkening staircases and corridors, nudging open the door of the nursery where I slept as a child.
Like my father before me, I was conceived in the second floor master bedroom. In my case, it was on a bleak January night in 1950, in the perfect middle of the century, in the perfect middle of the city of Toronto, the economic engine of English Canada. I arrived nine months later, a celiac baby afflicted with poor digestion; whatever I was asked to swallow, I spat out. Like all infants, I was an open vessel, exquisitely attuned with innocent intuition. From the start, I knew in my bones that 186 Balmoral Avenue was inhospitable to children.
In her bed at the Toronto Western Hospital, my mother, Janet, exhausted by the ceaseless agitations of my twenty-one-month-old sister, Shelagh, sank into a postpartum depression, overwhelmed by the prospect of suckling a second bundle of raw infantile need. On the second day of my life, I was surrendered to Mothercraft, a child-care agency whose name emitted ominous overtones of sorcery. While my mother recovered, I spent the next two weeks of my existence in a grand, buff-brick mansion at 49 Clarendon Avenue, a two-minute stroll from the house on Balmoral, where I was rocked in the starchy arms of a succession of nurses. Occupying an impressive two-acre, stone-gated estate, Burnside was once owned by a granddaughter of Timothy Eaton, the bewhiskered Northern Irish patriarch of the department store empire, who virtually gave away her property to Mothercraft some years after she lost her sole offspring on the Titanic. Designed to help both healthy and convalescent mothers to raise their infants and preschoolers, the progressive agency promoted the immunological virtues of breastfeeding, confronting the stubborn view that it was a low-class occupation, performed by impoverished mothers who could not afford cow’s milk. But by the time I was returned home, the milk of my ample-bosomed mother had dried up.
I was dipped in the lukewarm baptismal waters of Grace Church on-the-Hill, an austere High Anglican enclave of grey stone that gravely watched over neighbouring Bishop Strachan, the private girls’ school my sister was destined to enter; henceforth, the rituals of my young life would continue to mesh with these institutional vestiges of the Family Compact, the nineteenth-century ruling class clique of the British colony of Upper Canada. When they first landed here in the 1790s, the founding generation of red-coated aristocrats claimed the high ground where the wind swept away the swarms of insects. They called it the Davenport escarpment, unaware that in centuries past, the shores of a vast glacial lake lapped up to its base. Displacing the Aboriginal tribes who loped through the wooded ravines where I would one day play as a boy, the blueblood fathers of a muddy frontier town imposed on unruly nature a rigid grid system of roads, and from the beginning saw themselves as innately superior members of the upper crust. Generations on, I knew without being told what I must believe. The “Upper Canadians” who occupied the neighbourhoods of Deer Park and Forest Hill crowning the Avenue Road hill were born and bred above it all, and the natives below were to be seen as beyond the pale, quite literally beneath us.
Our short, tree-lined block was composed of facing rows of gentrified, three-storey houses owned by hard-driving professionals—lawyers, doctors, judges, and stockbrokers—with sturdy WASP names like McMurrich, Macmillan, White, Horne, Wilson, Reid. The very name of the street, Balmoral, echoed Queen Victoria’s craggy castle in the windswept highlands of Scotland; the fragment “moral” suggested a clear-cut, unequivocal sense of good and bad, right and wrong. Our own house had been built in 1914 by my grandfather, John Gerald “Gerry” FitzGerald, a fiercely ambitious, high-minded doctor of Irish Protestant blood who died in 1940, ten years before I was born. My father, Jack, followed his accomplished father into the ranks of the medical profession and, soon after his marriage, inherited the family home. Although Gerry had lived here for twenty-five years, with his wife, Edna, no portraits of him adorned the walls. As I grew up, my dead grandfather’s name mysteriously failed to fall from my father’s lips. Still, I sensed a compelling, invisible presence in the shadows of my earliest years.
Engulfed by a wave of postwar, martini-laden parties, my mother, Janet, learned she was pregnant two months before her wedding; to reveal the scandalous truth would have shocked her religious, Victorian mother into a state of catatonia. When Janet submitted to an illegal abortion in the back room of a dingy storefront on Queen Street West—a secret she revealed to me late in her life—the hemorrhaging that ensued nearly killed her. Yet alcohol continued to play a role in the conception of her legitimate children; she admitted that my younger brother, Michael, was, in that unhappy phrase, “an accident,” conceived in a guest cottage in the wake of an inebriated summer party on the sultry beaches of Lake Simcoe. My father pushed for an abortion, but my mother, understandably, refused.
On a late March day in 1952, suffering the early throes of labour, Janet was driven pell mell down the Avenue Road hill to the Toronto Western Hospital. Behind the wheel sat her unflappable Scottish father, keeping his cool as she frantically urged him to run the red lights. Her husband was otherwise engaged, pressing his ear to the radio, listening to the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race and getting blotto with his buddies. The mores of the time did not dictate that fathers (even fathers who were doctors) attend the reception of their offspring. Yet his selfishness planted in my mother’s heart a silently festering virus of resentment.
With Michael’s arrival close on the heels of my own, I was destined to inherit the perspective of a middle child, forever struggling for a sense of balance. Separated by only three and a half years, we three kids found ourselves compressed into the fuse box of a common environment, the quirks of our characters squirming for uniqueness. Shelagh tended to the volatile, Michael to the phlegmatic, James to something in-between. Today, whenever my siblings and I decompress our memories of Balmoral, we recall a tightly organized regimen of meals, naps, baths, and tears before bedtime. We share no recollections of carefree, spontaneous play together; a profound isolation divided us, even as a silent sympathy braided us together. Of the three of us, Balmoral made me the obsessive writer of furrowed brow, the psychic archaeologist trolling the cryptic rubble of my formative years.
One such dream, one of hundreds before and since, comes after writing the passage above, returning me to the nights of my childhood. I am standing in the front yard of Balmoral on a black, moonless night in winter, gazing at the giant, leafless maple tree. Suddenly it teeters and falls, crashing through the slate-shingled roof, bisecting the long, grey house as if it were a human body. The massive trunk—the family tree? the tree of knowledge?—lands squarely on the bed of a dreaming boy, killing him instantly. I wake with a violent start, sitting bolt upright, in the dawn light. Yet the pounding of my heart tells me I am still alive. . . .
My sister, Shelagh, was deemed “a handful.” A whirlwind of midget willpower, she pulled medicine bottles out of the bathroom cabinet with wild abandon and gulped pills by the chubby fistful; at least once, our mother rushed her to the emergency ward to have her stomach pumped. She rolled milk bottles down the hardwood stairs and giggled as they smashed on the landing. When my mother, pregnant with me, poised herself to sit down at the Singer sewing machine, Shelagh pulled the chair out from under her and she collapsed to the floor. My sister proved an escape artist of Houdiniesque calibre: One winter day, my mother zipped her in a snowsuit and tightly harnessed her to the maple tree in the front yard. Later, glancing out the window, she saw her defiant daughter prancing through the snowbanks, as naked as the day she was born.
My terrible two-year-old sister was consumed by such restlessness that she roamed the rooms of the house at all hours of the night; my exasperated parents resorted to plying her with tranquillizing doses of Seconal and cocooning her in her bed by affixing the blankets to the mattress with thick safety pins. But my tenacious big-little sister continued to wriggle free, obsessively twirling tufts of hair with her fingers and pulling them out by the roots. Compounding her distress was my own recent arrival in the nursery, an unwelcome event that detonated a paleolithic sibling rivalry; one day my mother had to restrain Shelagh from crushing my baby-soft skull with an ashtray.
For all the Sturm und Drang, “She-She” showed early executive leadership abilities, waving her arm and famously exhorting her toddler brothers, “Follow me, men!” And follow her we did. Our house shared a driveway and a large two-car coach house with our neighbours, the Macmillans. On frosty winter mornings, the trio of FitzGerald children slipped out the back door, past the coach house where our father parked his sleek Studebaker and our mother her nimble Nash Rambler, for a spontaneous visit next door. I would consciously avoid looking upward at the loft where I knew a black wooden beam, originally designed for hoisting bales of hay for the carriage horses, stuck out like a gallows.
The Macmillan family felt like a Floridian sanctuary. “Jick” Macmillan was an easy-going industrial psychologist with Canada Packers; I imagine him busily salving the guilt complexes of butchers flecked with the blood of fatted calves. His wife, “Miggs,” was a kindly, chain-smoking soul who seemed unperturbed by our routine invasion of her breakfast table. Compared to our strict parents, our neighbours seemed like carefree bohemians, letting their three kids and slobbering standard poodle have the run of the place. At their table, we jabbered freely, spinning the Lazy Susan with impunity. Our intermittent morning missions to the Macmillans felt redemptive, like warming chilled fingers by a potbellied stove; here, we felt welcome.
On the other side of our house stood a progressive nursery school, Windy Ridge, run by yet another psychologist, the controversial anti-Freudian Dr. Bill Blatz, a short, iron-willed son of German immigrants, who wore a toothbrush moustache disturbingly redolent of der Führer. Rumoured to be a proponent of wife swapping, Blatz—pronounced “blots”—loved to shock the conventional sensibilities of the Toronto middle class, declaring, for instance, that mother-love was highly overrated and that Santa Claus did not exist. I never set eyes on Dr. Blatz, but in later years my imagination conjured a heartless Snidely Whiplash figure waving pages of black ink blots and affixing electrodes to the temples of squirming toddlers. My older cousins Anna and Patrick had attended the school, but mysteriously I would not. Of course, I had no way of knowing that Windy Ridge, funded by the massive Rockefeller fortune, was the first establishment in the world expressly designed to study the “mental hygiene” of preschoolers, nor that it was patronized by Toronto’s old money families, including the Gooderham distillery clan; eventually I would learn that both the Rockefeller and Gooderham family fortunes had played an integral part in my dead grandfather’s story.
My mother, Janet Grubbe, was born in December 1918 amidst the unchecked fury of the influenza pandemic that would kill untold millions of people worldwide. She was lucky to emerge unscathed; luckier still, over her lifetime, to seem immune to bouts of the flu or the common cold.
She grew up at 21 Delisle Avenue, a gloomy three-storey house only a few blocks east of Balmoral, the third and last child of Talbot Grubbe, a severe, poker-faced, Scots-blooded manager of a Royal Bank branch from whom I took my middle name. Her mother, Mabel Ewart Steele, a voracious reader and pious teetotaller, was raised in the cocoon of upper-middle-class privilege, a pioneer female graduate of University College, class of 1907, and a classically trained pianist. My mother liked to maintain she had enjoyed a carefree childhood, even as she let slip story after story that made me suspect otherwise.
A looming, square-jawed giant of six foot three and 220 pounds, my maternal grandfather was proud of his pioneer Toronto roots stretching back to the early nineteenth century, ancient by Upper Canadian standards. Talbot was born in his great-grandfather’s 1834 stone farmhouse in Thistletown in northwest Toronto, presently owned by my brother; and although he entered the world in the same week in 1882 as my paternal grandfather, and lived only blocks apart, the two men never met. A major in the 48th Highlanders, Talbot stood grim and muscular in spats and sporran, his thick, tree-trunk legs shooting down from under a tartan kilt. He dedicated himself to local history, jigsaw puzzles, curling, and rowing; on the wall of his den hung framed black-and-white photos of him stroking hard for the Toronto Argonauts in the Henley Regatta of 1906.
And he was a bully. On Saturday mornings when I pushed the rotating blades of his mower over his front lawn, he would loom over me, demanding I work in a tight, clockwise square around the gnarled oak tree—deviate ever so slightly and there was hell to pay. One morning, when I showed up half an hour late, I trembled at the consequences of my tardiness. Sure enough, he glared down at me and spat out words I would never forget: “I’m ashamed your middle name is Talbot.” So was I—I would have gladly swapped it for something Irish.
Most Sundays after church, we dutifully showed up at 21 Delisle. I remember rooting around in the backyard vegetable patch, pulling up fresh carrots by the stalks and carefully washing off the black dirt with the garden hose. The standard joke was to bite off a piece of the carrot, Bugs Bunny–like, and cry, “What’s up, Doc?” Then we sat down for formal noonday dinners, my hated necktie feeling as tight as a noose. As my namesake hovered over the roast beef with the carving knife, I never saw him break a smile. My father was mysteriously exempt from this unbending ritual; after his wedding day, he never set foot in the house of his Scottish in-laws and at the time I didn’t notice or care.
After graduating from St. Clement’s, a private high school for girls, my mother asked her father if she could enrol in the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Artists, of course, stood a notch below parasitic ne’er-do-wells and he flatly refused. Instead, she followed her mother and took an arts degree at the University of Toronto. As my mother confessed to me many years later, she was glad to escape 21 Delisle postuniversity. She hated the ritualized meals where she swung her head back and forth, watching her parents serve sarcastic volleys across the tablecloth. The constant tension spawned aches in her stomach. One day, when Talbot reduced Mabel to tears with yet another scorching barb, my twelve-year-old mother sided with her father and learned to despise such feminine displays of weakness; on the spot, she vowed never to cry again.
Suffering a nervous collapse, my middle-aged grandmother withdrew into the dark seclusion of her bedroom for months on end. Janet, in turn, escaped into theatrics, singing and dancing with Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster—Canada’s future, longlived comedy team—in the University College Follies of 1936. My mother was hell-bent on puncturing the bilious gloom of her “square” Delisle home with brash outbursts of vivacity.
During the war, Janet defied her controlling parents and worked in the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan as a decoding clerk for the inscrutable Sir William Stephenson, “The Quiet Canadian,” who ran the Allies’ MI5 spy network for Winston Churchill. Because her mother and brother belonged to a pacifist organization, the Oxford Group, she was investigated by the FBI and RCMP before being cleared for duty. In 1942 she volunteered to work at an office in Guatemala City to help monitor suspected Nazi spies in Latin America. In a local bar, she met a pilot from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and married him, swept up in the ongoing epidemic of impetuous, booze-fuelled war romances. Given that her anglophile father detested Americans on principle, it was not surprising that he failed to show up to give away the bride. When her husband’s B-29 bomber disappeared in a long-distance air raid over Japan in 1944—no wreckage was ever found—my mother returned to Toronto, a widow of twenty-six. In November 1945, at the wedding rehearsal of mutual school friends, she met my father, a junior intern at the Toronto Western Hospital. Fixing his blazing gaze on her, Jack FitzGerald badgered her to break an upcoming weekend date and step out with him instead. She did—setting in mysterious motion the course of my own future existence.
The object of my father’s desire stood over six feet tall in heels, buxom and statuesque as an Amazon, with fine skin and long, stemlike gams. Well-groomed, lively, and charismatic, she radiated an air of taste and sophistication that rarely failed to turn heads in a room. And she played hard to get. As part of his mating ritual, Jack jokingly filled out a psychiatric certificate committing her to the 999 Queen Street West mental hospital:
“I hereby certify that I have personally examined Janet Ewart Grubbe of Toronto and that the following signs and symptoms have been observed which indicate a psychopathic disability, namely, slurred speech, unsteady gait, inability to maintain a normal, healthy attitude towards life in general, and ME in particular!”
Possessed of unusual drive and intelligence, a love of travel and adventure, Janet could have run a corporation as well as any man, yet marriage compelled her to quit her job at American Airlines and submit to the unlikely and unsuitable role of housewife and mother. Like many bright women in those prefeminist days, she often played dumb, disguising the fact that she was as quick on the uptake as anyone. In a diary she bequeathed to me, she wrote she had thrown in with Jack FitzGerald because he was “sexy, witty and had good earning potential.” Initially, she was charmed by the shabby gentility of 186 Balmoral Avenue and intrigued by the medical family who had built it. Only decades later, after my father’s death, did she admit that early in the marriage, she realized she had made a mistake; living at Balmoral, she confessed to me, she had always sensed “something rotten under the floorboards.” Yet there was no question of divorce; like her military father, she soldiered on, hoping for the best.
Early childhood memories situate my mother talking into the telephone to invisible strangers as I wished she’d bend down and speak to me instead. Repeated words like Crippled Civilians and Women’s Auxiliary and Art Gallery of Ontario seemed to carry some import. A booming laugh would invariably lead to one of her favourite catchphrases: “Oh, honestly!” She devoured the novels of Graham Greene and thumbed the weekly issues of The New Yorker; she loved to dabble in photography, gardening, and interior decorating. Despite her father’s tacit disapproval, she set up an easel and dabbed oils on a canvas, casually puffing Matinée cigarettes—then abandoned both habits.
As a toddler, I would plant myself on the floor a safe distance from my mother’s feet, holding a picture book upside down, pretending to read, my back turned to her. Every so often I would swivel my head, catching the subtle expressions passing like clouds over her face, gauging how close I could get to her curving, silk-stockinged legs, even as I wriggled towards her, inch by inch, on my bum. I was forever sticking my baby finger into the wind of my mother’s changing moods.
What was left out of this oft-repeated story was that by an astonishingly early age, I somehow divined that my mother, under her mask of self-possession, was overwhelmed by my sister’s one-girl, placard-waving protest movement. Strategically, I gambled that the only way I could reel in a modicum of maternal physical affection was not to demand any. I would wait her out, hoping, one day, that she’d come across. I gambled and lost; my mother, relieved by my self-imposed hands-off policy, cast me as a “good boy” and the label stuck. I was perpetually and unnaturally quiet, never a bother, the one who never once asked to be lifted onto her lap. For my thoughtful acquiescence, she rewarded me with a passing smile.
Only much later would I come to interpret my mother’s mercurial and contrary temperament as largely a consequence of the self-thwarting of her artistic impulses; or come to understand that she treated Shelagh more as a rivalrous sibling than a daughter. But before pneumonia claimed her in her eighty-eighth year, my mother did manage to snatch some belated creative fulfillment, spending the last two years of her life writing and publishing a biography of her maternal great-great-grandfather, John Ewart, a pioneer Scottish builder and architect. Ewart was responsible for erecting an impressive array of gothic public edifices in early Toronto that included the city’s first general hospital; a wing of the law society, Osgoode Hall; a wing of Upper Canada College (where his two sons excelled as head boys in the 1830s); a Catholic church that sheltered refugees of the Irish famine; and part of the notorious 999 Queen Street lunatic asylum. But as a child, of course, none of this meant a thing to me.
Occasionally, as a special treat, my mother orchestrated evening visits of we three kids to the living room. Clad in dressing gowns and slippers, squeaky clean from our nightly bath, we padded past the threshold of the French doors, the invisible barbedwire fence of no kid’s land. My parents reclined in easy chairs, stirring their cocktails with swizzle sticks, while jazz, cool and hot, jumped off the record player. In these isolated, electric moments, my cheeks flushed, my pulse quickened, my adrenalin flowed, engulfing my body in a rush of kiddie bliss. Yet all the while I knew the grandfather clock was ticking towards an arbitrary deadline—any second, we three mice might be shooed back to our black holes in the nursery.
From time to time, terse family anecdotes sifted down to our childish ears, and we picked up dropped names that meant nothing: An antique book cabinet with latticed glass windows once belonged to an Irish writer named Jonathan Swift; a winter landscape was painted by a Canadian doctor named Fred Banting; a sterling silver dinner knife, inscribed with an equine coat of arms, spoke of a medieval Irish knight to whom we seemed remotely tied. In the adjacent dining room, my eyes roamed over the mahogany sideboard, the ornate brass candlesticks, the hand-carved, drop-leaf rosewood dining table, the escritoire studded with tiers of tiny drawers—solemn artifacts that spoke of another age. I knew I may look, but I must not touch.
My curiosity was drawn most powerfully to a foot-tall plaster statue of a nine-year-old boy that stood fretfully on a windowsill, looking like Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. He was wearing short pants, grey woollen knee socks, and the crested blazer of his prep boarding school, Upper Canada College, only three blocks distant. I vowed that one day, when no one was looking, I would break the rules and run my fingers over the contours of the talismanic object that, mysteriously, looked just like me. It was, I eventually learned, an unerring replica of my father, Jack, frozen in time—and boarding school—circa 1926.
Our brief, pre-bedtime forays to the living room—fifteen minutes? twenty minutes?—indelibly conditioned our young nervous systems. Emotionally egalitarian, my mother had we three creatures of desire scrambling for a single, scarce natural resource. Affection, like food, was given and withdrawn at will, a process of intermittent reinforcement—a kind of bizarre Skinner box experiment—that pressed a lid firmly on our ids. In adult life, no matter where I spent the night, I would forever feel like a perpetual guest, dogged by a subtle sense that my presence was being barely tolerated, like a servant or tenant or guest or pet. Our father, it seemed, wanted our mother all to himself.
Following our command performances in the living room—why did they call it a living room?—we headed back upstairs to be quarantined in the Siberian steppes of the nursery. In bed, I watched my little brother hold his hands over his ears as he mechanically rocked his head to and fro on his pillow, humming in the dark. Sometimes, when my parents threw cocktail parties—both had a happy talent for making friends—I’d slip out of bed, creep to the second floor landing, and sneak peeks through the bars of the wooden banister. With guilty pleasure, I inhaled the sensuous buzz below, the clinking glasses of martinis and grasshoppers, the diminuendos and crescendos of brassy big-band jazz, the sharp bursts of hysterical laughter cutting through the blue clouds of cigarette smoke.
No memories survive of my parents visiting the nursery to tuck us in or read us stories, although I suppose they must have. I do recall my perfumed, mink-stoled mother standing at the doorway before a night on the town, stretching an imaginary kiss from her lipsticked mouth, like a piece of taffy; using her fingers as imaginary scissors, she’d cut it off, roll it up into an invisible ball, then throw it at us. Then she’d turn off the lights and close the door.
Whenever one of us started crying, it triggered the other two. To divide and conquer our piercing wails, our mother sometimes shifted one of us from the nursery to the spare bedroom, from the spare room up the back stairs to the third floor. For years, she rotated us about the house like pieces of antique furniture, a strategy that I grew convinced was designed to quell the kid-induced anxiety mounting inside her like a riptide. We were, quite literally, being put in our place.
My dreams invariably pulled me down the deserted streets of our neighbourhood—Lynwood, Edmund, Farnham, Clarendon, Cottingham—where devouring nocturnal monsters lurked behind neatly clipped hedges. I dreamt of being chased, my legs turning to maple syrup; I dreamt of being impaled on a stake; I dreamt that my murdered corpse lay under the floorboards. I curled up into the fetal position and hugged myself tightly, as if to prevent my body from exploding into pieces, scattering among the painted wooden blocks that littered the nursery floor. Other nights, I feared I’d float out the gothic dormer window into the black, infinite, airless void of outer space, cut adrift like a birthday balloon.
Then, far too often, the night terrors came, far worse than bad dreams—dreadful, petrifying, ravenous as a mythical beast.
A thunderstorm crashes beyond the curtained windowsill, forked lightning stabbing at the curtains; I fear being consumed by the terrifying blackness of the night sky. What is this grave, unseen incubus pressing on my chest? My throat burns, as if coated with the child-killing germ of diphtheria. Dream and reality fuse. Flung into helpless confusion, I scream into the silence, but no one comes. I scream and scream; still no one comes. Is no one listening? Are my parents dead? Am I dead? No longer heard, I no longer speak. Driven inside myself, I lash myself with the accusation, over and over: “Why is this happening? What have you done? What have you done? You must have done something terribly wrong.”
I survived such nights, but not unscathed. In time, I came to realize that in the house of my dead grandfather, my psychic apocalypse was nothing personal, merely the transmission of an ancient command: Thou shalt not feel. Most of all, I was not meant to feel the dark spirit of Dr. Gerry FitzGerald slipping under my skin and into my bloodstream, like a needle in a vein.
Where was my father in all of this? Straining to conjure my childhood impressions of him, I make out a classic concave Irish profile—a thin, balding man with prominent chin and ears, his nose crowned by a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. I recollect the dainty, near-feminine gestures; the clipped, eccentric turns of phrase; the repertoire of nervous twitches; the way he pursed his lips and pensively ran his fingers through his thinning strands of reddish-brown hair; his immersion in cryptic crossword puzzles; his tearing open of crinkling cellophane packs of Dad’s Cookies; his habit of removing his glasses, breathing on the lenses, then rubbing the mist clean with his handkerchief; how he wore his silver-banded wristwatch with its face unconventionally turned inward, not outward; how his dressing-gowned body, just shy of six feet tall (the same height as our mother), flapped past me in open-heeled bedroom slippers, his domed head lost in thoughts I struggled to divine. These surface traces are what first appear; for, like a ghost, he shunned extended contact with flesh-and-blood offspring as if any second he might shatter like a frozen pane of glass. Perhaps to actually touch the bodies of his own children would push him perilously close to the lip of his own Balmoral boyhood.
I know the facts of my father’s life far better than I ever knew him. John Desmond Leonard FitzGerald was born on May 29, 1917, the same day as John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the doomed American president of Irish blood. This was only one of many weird pieces of synchronicity that infused our family romance. My father intensely admired JFK and the media-generated myth of Camelot, yet never said why. I suppose there was something about their shared name and birthday that seemed to define him, and us; something about his identification with the wretched excesses of the Irish, tragically striving and failing, the flashes of wit and charisma, the liberal idealism, the isolating and sacrificial nature of manly success.
Why did my father become a doctor? In my childish, idealizing mind, I assumed he wanted to help people. Much later, as details of his early life emerged, I realized his motives sprang from a poisoned chalice.
In 1942, he graduated from the University of Toronto Medical School—no small feat for a chronically indifferent student. It was also the year Jack married—but not my mother. Brief and tempestuous, my father’s first marriage burst with the stuff of Hollywood melodrama.
It all began with Peter Spohn, a close friend from Spokane, Washington, with whom Jack bonded during their boarding days at Upper Canada College. The two moved on to medical school together, both competing with the reputations of powerful doctor-fathers. Dogged by a depressive temperament, Peter Spohn would eventually suffer professional setbacks and drown himself in his early forties.
When Spohn’s fiancée arrived in Toronto at Christmas 1941, she brought along a Spokane-born girlfriend, Caroline Leuthold, a slim, striking redhead of German blood who had attended the Baldwin School in Philadelphia, an exclusive all-girls boarding institution, and then the elite Smith College. The foursome doubledated and Caroline stayed at Balmoral as a house guest. Like her hostess, Mrs. FitzGerald, she was an heiress to a family fortune, and the two women got along famously. The velvet nights of jazz and drink made Jack voluble and witty in the presence of the glamorous yet naive American aristocrat born with a silver spoon in her mouth; the attraction proved instant and mutual.
Jack next saw Caroline in the spring of 1942, when she travelled to Toronto to attend his graduation from medical school. In May, he headed south to Baltimore to spend the next seven months interning at Johns Hopkins Hospital, tending to the afflictions of affluent southern gentry on a private ward during the week, and cutting a swathe through the jazz nightclubs of Manhattan on the weekends with the dazzling Caroline—now studying fashion design in New York—on his arm. Living in the same hospital where his dead father had once worked over thirty-five years earlier, Jack wrote to his mother of his loneliness among the Haitian, Chinese, Belgian, and Venezuelan resident interns, his infatuation with Caroline, his lapses into sudden fits of weeping. Swept up in the winds of a cocktail-laced wartime romance and a powerful sense of entitlement, he pressed his mother to let him marry Caroline as soon as possible. Further, he wanted Edna to support him financially until he got on his own feet.
Even as he wooed Caroline that spring and summer, my father became enamoured with one of his instructors, a married physician; she and her husband had both graduated from the Hopkins medical school two years earlier. Within two weeks of meeting “Dr. X,” as she was later named in court documents, Jack slipped secretly into her apartment one afternoon when the husband was out of town. Here, under the breastlike dome of the most famous hospital in North America, here in the gothic cradle that gave modern scientific medicine its name, my father abandoned himself to one last fling.
The affair lasted six weeks. Then, in September, he married Caroline. Edna had urged her twenty-five-year-old son to postpone the wedding until he was self-supporting, but with deft doses of wheedling charm, he was able to gain her blessing—and two hundred dollars monthly support. Caroline’s father, the genteel millionaire lumberman, offered his Canadian son-in-law a cushy job as a corporate doctor in Spokane, a position that could set him up for life. But he refused; Jack FitzGerald had much to prove, and he would prove it on his own.
After the honeymoon, the newlyweds lived in Baltimore. One night, Jack introduced his new bride to Dr. X; as it turned out, his ardour for his Hopkins teacher had not entirely faded, for he had secretly phoned her on the night before the wedding. When the internship ended in December, the couple moved to Toronto and lived with Mrs. FitzGerald at Balmoral. Jack wrote Dr. X several letters and when she responded, he told her to direct future letters to his fraternity house. But before long, Caroline discovered one of the letters and from their steamy content she assumed that the affair had continued after the marriage. When my father denied it, she reluctantly believed him.
Months later, in February 1943, Jack enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy, although he did not travel overseas until the following year. The navy was an odd choice given his near-phobic aversion to water. He was posted for training in Port Arthur–Fort William on the northern shore of Lake Superior, a frozen outback that could not fail to brutalize Caroline’s sensibilities. Balking at the prospect of moving north with a man she realized she no longer trusted or loved, Caroline, now pregnant, left Canada on New Year’s Eve 1943, and returned to the protection of her family home, known as Deer Park, a wooded, five-acre tract of land outside Spokane. That March, weeks away from giving birth, she invited Jack to Spokane in a bid to revive the marriage, but he failed to endear himself to his inlaws when he drank all day and night and slept in till noon.
On May 1, 1944, a hazel-eyed, red-haired boy was born in Spokane, the fifth, first-born FitzGerald son in five generations to be named John. But his father was now half a world away, serving overseas as a surgeon-lieutenant on a newly commissioned Canadian frigate. In his beige, toggled duffle coat, Jack stood night watch on the conning tower, scanning the storm-tossed North Sea with a pair of binoculars. Anticipating the dreaded torpedo attack, he always slept in his clothes, joking with his buddies to allay the terror he felt. In its only action, in October 1944, the HMCS Annan engaged a surfaced, wounded Nazi U-boat in a running gun battle, then sank the sitting duck with a barrage of depth charges. As German sailors floundered in the frigid, oil-slicked waves, a crewcut, trigger-happy, young machine gunner from Winnipeg raked the sea with bullets, killing and wounding several of the defenceless enemy. The Toronto Telegram saluted the victory on its front pages. My father typed up an unpublished first-person account of how he dosed the survivors with morphine, transfused bags of blood plasma, and “probed and picked steel out of Gerries for many hours.” A fellow doctor on board, Stuart Macdonald, was a son of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the beloved Anne of Green Gables books, who had killed herself only months earlier. The dark family secret would not be made public until 2008—such was the silence, shame, and stigma attached to depression and suicide, especially among the socially prominent.
In the spring of 1945, my father, the returning veteran, made a second visit to Spokane and once again drank excessively. He paid little attention to his son whose recent first birthday he had forgotten. Jack wanted the family to live in Toronto; Caroline preferred to stay in the States. Caroline filed for divorce and on their third wedding anniversary in September 1945, it was finalized. Not only did Jack agree to let Caroline retain sole custody of their son, he waived all visitation rights. The divorce was legal in the US but not Canada, where the law required proof of adultery. Jack tried to persuade Caroline to testify to a trumped-up claim of adultery to restore his single status, as he had recently fallen for my mother, but Caroline refused. All in all, it was a royal mess, and it wasn’t over yet.
Months afterwards, at Christmas of 1946, Caroline remarried, this time a Spokane pediatrician. Six weeks later, she died suddenly, ostensibly of infected fallopian tubes, but some whispered suspicions of a botched abortion. She was twenty-eight. Devastated by the loss, little Johnny withdrew into a nervous shell. His stepfather hastily relinquished the boy to Caroline’s wealthy brother, Sam, who was assuming the reins of Deer Park Lumber, the lucrative family business.
This strange turn of events lit a fire in my father’s belly. With Caroline’s death, he was now legally free to remarry. Repeating the pattern he had followed with Caroline, he hectored Janet with the passion of a small boy, urging her to marry him within weeks, but that was not all. Racing over to his fiancée’s house, he stood in the living room of 21 Delisle Avenue and cried: “I’m going to the States to get Johnny!”
Jack was now passionately determined to reclaim custody of a boy he had abandoned to convenience; my mother, understandably, was unnerved by the prospect of bringing up a three-year-old stepson—especially when her betrothed, aflame with Irish impetuosity, neglected to consult her first. When Janet asked for time to think about it, he stormed out, slamming the door. Years later, she told me she regretted she did not stand up to my father and refuse to marry him if she was expected to mother a small boy. Or was it two small boys?
Taking a leave of absence from his new job—he was working as a chest clinician at Hamilton’s Mountain Sanitorium, a tuberculosis hospice outside Toronto—my father and his sister, Molly, travelled three thousand miles by train to the state of Washington, checked into a Spokane hotel under assumed names, and filed a temporary restraining order. When they brusquely demanded that the Leutholds, one of the plutocratic families of Spokane, hand over the child on the spot, the reply was short and swift: “See you in court.”
In a highly publicized society trial, the American lawyers depicted Canada as a “backward country,” the traffic intersection of Avenue Road and Balmoral as “suicide corner”; noxious fumes allegedly oozed from the sewer grates—a laughable fiction given that “Toronto the Good” boasted one of the best sanitation and public-health records in the world. My father was portrayed, not entirely inaccurately, as a feckless lounge lizard, addicted to drink and the unsavoury jazz underworld, indifferent to the welfare of his baby son. Clinching evidence of his moral failings came with the revelation of his premarital fling with Dr. X at Johns Hopkins.
Eminent character witnesses were stacked up in my father’s defence; if the Leutholds had “pull,” so did the FitzGeralds. In Toronto, glowing depositions were given by an Ontario high court justice, the medical director of the Royal Canadian Navy, distinguished doctors who had been friends of his father’s, and Dan Lang, an Upper Canada College classmate and navy shipmate destined to become a Liberal senator. Another UCC friend bent the truth more than a little when he testified that he had never seen Jack drunk. The seventy-eight-year-old Reverend Dr. Henry John Cody, former president of the University of Toronto and a pillar of the Anglican establishment, the man who had presided over my parents’ wedding only weeks earlier, testified that Jack was “the son of the most outstanding medical man on the staff of the University of Toronto. Everybody knew him as his father’s son.”
In the end, the Spokane judge—who happened to be a regular golfing partner of the Leutholds—ruled that Jack FitzGerald’s sudden, new-found attachment to his discarded son was “pecuniary, not parental.” My own intuition is that my father wasn’t after the money, rather that his small son needed rescuing—and suddenly reminded him of himself. In any event, Jack appealed the case and lost. Little Johnny, heir to a $300,000 trust fund, was adopted by his maternal uncle and aunt, a childless couple, and the boy’s name was changed from FitzGerald to Leuthold. The judge noted, in passing, that my mother was the only fully honest witness to testify, as she had openly admitted in court that she was not keen to raise a three-year-old boy not her own. As the two-week trial adjourned, a rouged, fur-draped grande dame sidled up to my mother—married for only six weeks—and hissed the prescient words: “My dear, you’ll be very unhappy.”
The case of a father losing custody of his own biological son attracted the press on both sides of the border (including a satirical squib in The New Yorker); the same Toronto newspaper that had championed a hometown doctor as a naval war hero now ran headlines proclaiming that an American court had judged him an “unfit father.” To cover the legal expenses, Jack burned through ten thousand dollars of his mother’s, Edna’s, stock portfolio, a small fortune in those days. By coincidence, the trial ended on the day my father turned thirty, no doubt reinforcing his lifelong aversion to the celebration of birthdays—his and anyone else’s.
The loss of his son was an event of which my father would never speak—just as he never spoke of his dead father, his years in boarding school, the war, the wild alcoholic binging of his sister, and the suicide of his close friend Peter Spohn—a chain of batterings that must have ripped pieces from his soul. On top of it all, he still carried inside him the cutting words of Duncan Graham—a bloodless, cantankerous Scot who was chief of staff of Toronto General Hospital and a close colleague of his father—words that Graham had dropped when Jack was still a doodling student in medical school, lost in the clouds of Ellingtonian swing: “You’ll never be as good as your father.”
My father already burned with fierce ambition; Graham had simply thrown gas on the fire. Jack FitzGerald would show him—and any other of his father’s cronies who dared think the same. In this he was not so different from Sigmund Freud who believed that all politics could be reduced to the primal conflict of father and son. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud recalled a searing moment in his childhood when his father scolded him for brazenly showing off his penis as he pissed into an adult chamber pot: “The boy will come to nothing!” The father of “the talking cure” would have something to say about that.
The autumn after the custody trial, my father started a nine-month research fellowship in immunology and pathology at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. He interned under the pioneering American allergy specialist, Robert “Pops” Cooke, an exacting, sober-minded, fourth-generation doctor who sported an ugly Frankenstein-like scar across his forehead, the result of an operation for severe sinusitis. Cooke became my father’s first mentor.
Allergies had been discovered accidentally in 1906 when laboratory pigs injected with diphtheria antitoxin became asthmatic. Coined by a German scientist, “allergy” was derived from a Greek word meaning “other energy.” But for years the reaction was dismissed as a mere idiosyncracy. As a young intern in that same year of 1906, Cooke was assigned to ride horse-drawn ambulances through the streets of New York. After each call, he was left gasping and choking, needing a shot of adrenalin. Finally, someone deduced that his asthma was caused by the dandruff of the horses.
In 1908, after exposure to a patient suffering from diphtheria, Cooke was treated with a shot of antitoxin produced by the blood serum of horses. Before the needle was out, he was in a bad way; again, an emergency shot of adrenalin saved him from death by anaphylactic shock. Medical opinion held that the offending substance was poisonous. Yet a mystery remained: why were some people sensitive and others not?
Driven to understand the roots of his affliction, the thirty-eight-year-old Cooke opened the Institute of Allergy, the world’s first asthma and hay fever clinic, in 1918. To neutralize allergic reactions, he used tedious desensitization methods, injecting patients with tiny amounts of the offending allergen—ragweed, grass, dust, hay, etc.—in incremental doses; as he lived on a farm in New Jersey, he desensitized himself to horses. Three decades later, there were still only a few hundred allergy specialists in the world, more than half in the US, and one of them was my father.
With his trophy wife on his arm, my father rented a brownstone walk-up on 101st Street near Riverside Drive, where they listened to the woman in the upstairs apartment routinely beating her kids. One day in the spring of 1948, Janet rendezvoused with “Fitz”—for this is what she called him—after work in his favourite haunt, a jazz nightclub on 52nd Street. Newly pregnant, she suddenly fainted and slid off the bar stool.
That December, my sister, Shelagh, was born in Kingston, Ontario, as her father was now sweating out an FRCP, the elite fellowship degree, in the labs of Queen’s University. He was studying the nuances of an embryonic new science—the immunology and pathology of tissue sensitivity in allergic disease—and he was dead set on dominating the field. If Dr. Cooke’s reference letter to the National Research Council was to be believed, his future was a promising one: “Dr. FitzGerald impresses me as a man of great intelligence and high ideals. He possesses an unusual flair for medical research; he is thorough, painstaking and extremely critical. In other words, he has a natural aptitude for medical research, which in my experience is unusual.”
In the fall of 1949, my parents returned to Toronto, where they paid Edna fifty dollars monthly rent for the third-floor apartment at Balmoral. Nearly penniless at thirty-two, Jack FitzGerald had passed through the universities and hospitals of McGill, Cambridge, Toronto, Johns Hopkins, Manhattan, and Queen’s, putting a gruelling postgraduate education, degree by degree, behind him; before him stretched a life designed not to fail. Renting an office in the elegant Medical Arts building at the corner of Bloor and St. George, where six snakes of Aesculapius hung over the art deco portico, he launched a private allergy practice that grew in leaps and bounds. In January 1951, as I cradled a stuffed bunny in my infant arms, my father co-authored an article in an American pathology journal, entitled: “Diffuse glomerulonephritis induced in rabbits by small intravenous injections of horse serum.”
The time had come to live up to his dead father’s formidable reputation—and, ideally, surpass him.
Every day after work, without fail, my father escaped to the only corner of the world where he was truly happy. Passing under the porte cochère and through the front door of Balmoral, he headed straight for the living room. Thumbing through his voluminous collection of vinyl records, he pulled a disc from its sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and dropped the needle in the groove. For my father, jazz was the coolest drug that soothed the restless blood coursing in his veins.
My father was a hipster. Being hip, of course, held long associations with drugs—opium smokers lay in their dens, smoking their pipes “on the hip”—and my father fit the profile perfectly. Since the war, he prescribed himself hefty doses of Wigraine to melt the migraine headaches that stabbed his brain like a burning knife. Many of his heroes, both medical and musical, used opiates and their blissful extracts; for my father, the medical, musical, and drug scenes fused as one.
In his lonely boarding-school days in the 1930s, my father’s stacks of seventy-eights rose higher than his textbooks; during his arduous medical training, he trailed big bands across two continents, as they played clubs in Toronto, New York, London, and Paris. Over the years, he would worship the virtuoso piano players—Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk—moaning softly as they ran their quicksilver fingers up and down the ebony and ivory keys. Swinging high, swinging low, Jack snapped his fingers to their seductive rhythms, revelling in the golden age of jazz that strangely coincided with the rise and fall of the Third Reich. He loved mimicking the slang esoterica of the coal-skinned jazzmen, his body bursting into jags of convulsive joy.
When Duke Ellington’s band played in Toronto in the days before my birth—often in the art deco lakeside dance hall, the Palais Royale—my father would liberate many of the musicians from their downtown fleabag hotels and lead the way up to Balmoral (his friends called it “Club 186”) for wild, all-night bacchanals. The Duke’s signature catchphrase at live concerts—“We love you madly!”—was repaid in kind. Belting back the shots of booze, they’d rivet themselves to the phonograph player, blacks and whites together, digging the latest, hottest cut spinning on the turntable. They’d rarely dance; reverent listening was the sign of the true aficionado. Once my father gave an impoverished Ellington trombonist a second-hand pair of pants. “We don’t get treated this well anywhere in the world—except Paris,” the musician gushed in thanks. Their gratitude intensified when the obliging Canadian doctor “prescribed” soothing narcotics for whatever ailed them. A cautious few of Jack’s private-school buddies warned that he was risking career suicide by consorting with negroes, let alone serving as their drug pusher, but he didn’t care. And so Balmoral took on a Jekyll-and-Hyde hue: On sunny afternoons, my grandmother Edna, the elegant, Victorian chatelaine, held formal tea parties with her polite society friends; under the cover of night, she pretended not to notice her son, Jack, the hipster doctor, sink into the same settee and pass rolled up leaves of “tea” to unsavoury jazzmen with faux-aristocratic names like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, as they idly tinkled the “eighty-eights” of her baby grand piano.
One night in the early 1950s, as I was dreaming in my crib, Count Basie stood regally by the crackling fireplace downstairs in the living room, intoxicated with marijuana chased by shots of Crown Royal, as divine jazz sprang off the turntable. He was holding forth to my father when suddenly, in mid-sentence, he crashed unconscious to the carpet—Basie down for the count. Some time later, I sat on my father’s cherished Django Reinhardt record, Sweet Chorus, and broke it—another family story played back over the years in tones of rueful loss. I might as well have shit in the lap of the great man himself; I might as well have committed an unpardonable sin.
Our backyard fence abutted the playground of Brown Public School, vast and cinder strewn like the surface of a dead planet. In September 1954, I was sent there to junior kindergarten. Each morning, the entire school body assembled to drone “God Save the Queen” and I puzzled over the line: “Long may she rain over us.” I did not know that a generation earlier, both my parents had sat in these same wooden desks in these same drafty, high-ceilinged classrooms. Not until the 1960s, pulling out a tattered 1923 class photo, did they discover they had attended the same kindergarten class, ages five and six.
I was a veteran nail-biter and thumb-sucker and, like my sister, I obsessively twirled my hair into knots. In my report cards, my teachers observed I was “easily upset, readily reduced to tears, but can be aggressive and noisy. . . . Jamie is a very sensitive child who is anxious to succeed. . . . he is sensitive about mistakes and accepting criticism.” My marks show the early signs of a schizoid personality: straight A’s in writing and straight C’s in oral expression. Some invisible authority had swung an invisible axe and cleft my brain in twain, as if separating church and state. Semi-mute, I was one-quarter Helen Keller, teetering on the lip of autism. I craved attention, yet recoiled when I got it. Among groups, silence became my second language.
By now, I had cultivated a knack for dissociation that in retrospect probably saved my sanity. On my first day of grade one, the teacher read out the roll call, an unfamiliar ritual. When our names were called, we were required to say, “Present.” When I heard “Jamie FitzGerald,” I did not answer, for I was not present in any real sense. My classmates swivelled their heads as one and stared at me; their attention only deepened my paralysis. I felt stripped naked, accused, antlike. I did not yet know who I was—nor did I know how to know.
Each breakfast before school, my father hid his face behind The Globe and Mail; although he rarely lowered it to speak, his self-immersion indirectly imparted to me the importance of words. Perhaps printed language could make sense of my world; if I could not speak, I could read and write. And so I took to turning the pages of children’s books, hand-me-down, English literature from the 1920s, redolent of prams and nannies and Little Lord Fauntleroy, reflecting a topsy-turvy world where children were treated like adults; when they grew into adults, they were treated like children.
Family photograph albums survive as vivid yet unreliable witnesses to my “picture perfect” childhood. Before the days of the ruthlessly truthful video camera, emotionally doctored images sliced us into precise sections of time, sometimes candid but mostly posed, forever voiceless and still, models of familial formality and normality; no prints exist of my sister being drugged and tied to her bed. In one portrait taken by Ashley and Crippen, a firm catering to the carriage trade, I sit perched on the arm of a settee, my crewcut head backlit like a religious corona. My mother, incandescent as a Hollywood movie star, wears a dress with plunging décolletage and a pearl necklace as white as her teeth; her jet black hair is pulled back tightly in a bun. Within the gilded frame she gazes up at me, together with my brother and sister, all smiles, all eyes on me. My father is conspicuous in his absence, literally “out of the picture”; the photographer had unconsciously cast me, a six-year-old boy in neatly pressed shirt and tie, in the timeless role of Prince Oedipus-in-waiting.
Although we were not allowed to miss Sunday school, my father never set foot in a church himself. On infrequent Sunday afternoons, he would drive the family down Russel Hill Road, originally a twisting Indian trail, to the Toronto Western Hospital, his place of work, my place of birth, for lunch in the cafeteria. He owned a convertible, which my gap-toothed brother, angelic with chubby cheeks and curly blond hair, called the “broken glass.” As if in childish imitation, my father called the hospital, “the doctor place.”
The serious, white-coated men pushing trays in the cafeteria line seemed busy and important, and so did my father. We spooned up cylinders of vanilla ice cream inexplicably wrapped in strips of wax paper. After lunch, in our father’s spare and clinical office, my sister stood on a chair behind the smooth black plate of his X-ray machine, munching an arrowroot cookie; transfixed, we watched a black blob travel south, down her esophagus, like a rabbit coursing through a boa constrictor. We sat on the crinkling paper rolled over the examining table and fiddled with the thermometer and tongue depressors, saying “ahhh”; oblivious of our shenanigans, our father toiled at his desk, head bent as if in prayer, mumbling odd words into a dictaphone. All work and no play was making Jack a dull boy.
During my own childhood years at Balmoral, an ethereal figure named “Granny” drifted cloudlike in and out of my life. My grandmother Edna Leonard FitzGerald had lived in the house through two world wars, watching the city of Toronto quadruple in size. She loved the old place dearly; naturally she wanted her children and grandchildren to love it as dearly as she. Sadly, none of us could oblige.
Edna’s inherited wealth stemmed from the industry of her iron-willed great-grandfather who had built a foundry in London, Ontario, in 1834. Her grandfather, Elijah Leonard, was appointed a Senator in 1867, the year of Canada’s Confederation. Born in 1882, Granny grew up in the family home, Trewiston, surrounded by the high-collared, aristocratic trappings of the local anglophile Establishment; alcoholism ran like a quiet stream through branches of the family tree. Her mother died when she was two and her father, Charles, remarried. An Upper Canada College old boy, he was a retiring character who whiled away the hours at the London Hunt and Country Club. In the late 1890s, Edna was sent to Toronto to board at Havergal College on fashionable Jarvis Street, the newly opened private school designed to fashion agreeable young ladies of taste and breeding.
Not surprisingly, my grandmother was a snob, one of the “Leonards of London.” Frequenting the Toronto Ladies Club at Yonge and Bloor, she gracefully played out her predestined role of chatelaine—shopping at Britnell’s bookshop, taking cabs to the ballet and opera, playing rounds of bridge, contributing to charity, sailing back and forth to Europe on vacation. When first introduced to my mother, Edna inquired snootily: “And what does your father do, dear?” Happily, my mother’s social bloodlines made the cut, and soon they formed a bond of affection, likely based on the mutual recognition of a certain toughness.
In 1948, the widowed matriarch had rented the third-floor apartment of Balmoral to her daughter, my aunt Molly, who was raising two small kids, my cousins Anna and Patrick. Her husband, Major Tom Whitley, my godfather as well as my uncle, was a hard-headed war hero and rising young executive in the Royal Bank of Canada. Only a few years earlier, in the summer of 1944, Tom had commanded a company of infantry in a bloody battle with SS panzer tanks in an apple orchard outside Caen; in the end, the Tommies beat the Gerries, but not before an enemy bullet ricocheted off the silver cigarette case my uncle carried in his breast pocket. Postwar, he remained a tight-lipped man of action; whatever scars he bore under his impeccable suits and cut-glass Oxford accent, he pressed bravely on, winning even more battles in the trenches of Corporate Canada.
Molly was a thin, stylish redhead whose dry wit matched her epic consumption of dry gin, her deadpan drolleries echoing the English actress Maggie Smith, the masterful parodist of snobbish affectation. No stranger to scenes of alcoholic excess, my mother once told me that until she met Molly, she had never seen anyone so floridly drunk; she was shocked, too, to catch her sister-in-law one night, lit up, her husband out of town, lolling on the sofa in the living room of Balmoral, flirting shamelessly with an old flame, a handsome Irish cad named Gerry O’Sullivan, as the children slept upstairs.
In 1949, the Whitleys moved out of Balmoral. It was now my father’s turn to reoccupy the place of his birth as the new third-floor tenant. With my birth a year later, Granny ceded the bottom two floors to my parents and took the upper apartment herself. When my brother arrived in 1952, Granny quit the house entirely, but she did not stray far, moving down the street to a rented apartment at number 133. Balmoral, the gothic dream castle of his childhood, now belonged to my father; or rather, he belonged to it.
And so did I.
Wisely, Granny saw her five grandchildren one at a time; each week, she spent an afternoon alone with me at 133 Balmoral, taking tea at precisely four o’clock. As her Bakelite bracelets jangled on her wrists, she taught me how to hold a knife and cut the tops off shelled, soft-boiled eggs, then dip narrow slivers of toast “soldiers” into the yellow yolk. With classical music playing on an old Victrola, she’d park me at a polished antique table and hand me a string bag of ivory mah-jongg tiles; I was never sure what to do with them. I felt frightfully grown up to be served coffee ice cream, dished into porcelain bowls decorated with scenes of Chinese pagodas and intricate garden paths, where my mind wandered lonely as a cloud. Later, my mother told me I was Granny’s favourite, as I looked like a perfect replica of Jack, her only son.
Yet none of us ever heard my grandmother speak of her husband, Gerry, dead for over fifteen years.
In 1955, Hank and Haans Besselar, a newlywed Dutch couple, moved into the self-contained apartment on the third floor of Balmoral, the first in a series of live-in “help.” Both of my parents had been raised under the ministrations of full-time nannies, and we too would submit to this “upstairs-downstairs” world. It was up to the third-floor spare bedroom that our mother would often send us, mostly one at a time, where my bad dreams far outnumbered the good. Perhaps her motives were benevolent; perhaps she thought we might receive something from the young couple she herself could not give.
Hank was a blond, wiry carpenter who carved and hammered my parents a new double bed; Haans made us meals in the kitchen and bathed us afterwards. One night when a dish of pears raised the gag reflex in my throat, I dropped my compliant persona and refused to choke them down. Haans calmly turned out the lights and left me to stew alone in the dark. Around this time, my brother began running away from home. Mike was only three when he first slipped out the front gate of Balmoral and dashed a full mile down the Avenue Road hill. Eventually, a stout Irish cop picked him up and delivered him back home, berating my mother for her negligence.
“What are ya doin’,” he fumed, “lettin’ a wee lad with a fine Irish name like Michael FitzGerald wander the streets alone?”
Mike’s escape attempts persisted; a second cop rescued him, and again my mother received a stern lecture on parenting. Whenever my mother repeated the story, she said she was appalled—not by her own maternal disconnect, but by “what the neighbours might think.” Born in captivity, the youngest and smallest member of the family had looked up and seen two preoccupied adults, a hellraising sister, and an inert brother, all nervous as cats; my little brother voted with his feet and tunnelled the hell out of Stalag Luft Balmoral. But such experiences failed to inhibit his growth, for by his late teens, Mike would sprout to the height of six feet six inches.
By 1957, our time in our grandparents’ house was nearing its end. That winter, my sister contracted a case of infectious arthritis that wracked her right leg with excruciating pain. At first, our father dismissed her complaints as growing pains, but after she suffered a night of agony, she was taken seriously and driven to Sick Kids Hospital where she spent the next six weeks. I retain the strong image of my father carrying Shelagh in his arms out the front door, an unsettling sight, not only for her distress, but for the fact that my father was actually embracing one of us. To this day, my sister loves hospitals, for at Sick Kids she received a steady diet of kind attention.
I was six and, aptly enough, reading the British books Now We Are Six and When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne. One poem included this singsong line, which resonated deeply—“James James / Morrison Morrison/ Weatherby George Dupree/ Took great/ Care of his mother,/ Though he was only three.” “Waiting at the Window” featured an ink drawing of a mooning, solitary boy and his teddy bear, sitting together in a window seat, gazing out on a rainy day. I knew my own name was James; perhaps I hadn’t yet grasped that John Desmond and John Gerald were the names of my father and grandfather.
These are my two drops of rain
Waiting on the window-pane.
I am waiting here to see
Which the winning one will be.
Both of them have different names.
One is John and one is James.
All the best and all the worst
Comes from which of them is first.
James has just begun to ooze.
He’s the one I want to lose.
John is waiting to begin.
He’s the one I want to win.
James is going slowly on.
Something sort of sticks to John.
John is moving off at last.
James is going pretty fast.
John is rushing down the pane.
James is going slow again.
James has met a sort of smear.
John is getting very near.
Is he going fast enough?
(James has found a piece of fluff.)
John has hurried quickly by.
(James was talking to a fly.)
John is there, and John has won!
Look! I told you! Here’s the sun!
Life, it seemed, involved a lonely, grievous contest between fathers and sons—a contest about which no one dared breathe a word.
At Balmoral, of course, I was too young to voice the questions that would come much later: Why did my father shun his own three children as if we were lepers? Why did he refuse to share meals with us, banishing us to the pantry, hapless among “the help”? Was he competing with his own children for the caress of our overtaxed mother? Was he unwittingly replaying his own starved Balmoral childhood with the precision of a sleepwalker?
Years would pass before I would understand that my father had a childhood, too; he, too, had parents; he, too, harboured and hid contrary feelings. It was simple yet astonishing: My father had been conceived in the same bedroom where I had been conceived; his eyes had traced this same wallpaper pattern on the same nursery wall; he had been washed in the same claw-footed bathtub, sat in the same stifling church pew, the same cavernous Brown School classroom; he had dreamt and tossed behind the same wooden slats of the same wooden crib, wearing the same pyjamas made of lead. He had been picked up by the same giant fingers, dipped in the same dish of liquid porcelain, and set out to dry and harden on the same windowsill.
Years would pass before I would understand that both my parents were rebels, each in their own way, which helped account for their initial mutual attraction. Both were the youngest children in their families; both defied their parents’ expectations and married Americans during the war; both surrendered to the boozy allure of the smoky house party and the forbidden, primal rhythms of the jazz nightclub, the only club they ever joined. Yet in the end, each for their own reasons, my parents played the Establishment game, honouring the straight and narrow path.
Like my father before me, Balmoral taught me how to make a virtue of necessity and fortify my capacity for solitude. But then, unexpectedly, some sharp shaft of feeling would rise up within me and puncture my calm. I remember my mother used to “bleed” the black, cast iron radiator in our nursery, turning a knob to let off steam. Sometimes, as I wandered alone through the rooms at dusk, I felt sure that some daunting, suppressed secrets were poised to burst out of the rad, flooding the hardwood floor.
Sometimes, like the boy in the sad English poem, I would part the curtains and gaze out the nursery window for hours on end. I would never bring my intuitions to words, but I felt I was living someone else’s life, like an actor following a script. But whose life? And whose script? And who, beyond the curtains, was that persistent old man in baggy pants who trundled up and down the sidewalks as I napped on somnolent summer afternoons? Why did he lug a grindstone on wheels, spun by a foot pedal? Why did he seem so indispensable to the story? Did my boy-father hear this same old man, year after year, ring this same eerie brass bell? Did he hear him calling us out to the sidewalk, awakening him from his own slumbers? Did he, as entranced as I, run out and offer up our dinner knives to be sharpened?
When Carl Jung writes that a grandparent can influence a child as much, or more, than a parent, I am inclined to agree. At Balmoral, the citadel of repression that ringed the ghost of my grandfather Gerry served only to connect me to him in uncanny ways; the three-storey house has three crowded generations of stories to tell, and mine is only one of them.
One of the single most powerful memories of my early childhood remains indelible: Walking home from kindergarten one day, I turn the corner of Balmoral—Step on a crack, break your mother’s back—and open the front door. I climb the stairs to my parents’ bedroom, where I startle my mother with the solemn words: “I want to change my name from Jamie to Gerry.”
I had never heard my grandfather’s name spoken; my mother’s look of amazement made me sense that I had, as curious children do, unlocked some long-neglected closet door.
Some time later, the family drove past an impressive medical building on College Street on a Sunday outing. My young ear caught my parents whispering references to its builder, my grandfather—still a taboo subject, not unlike sex.
“Where does he live?” I piped up from the back seat of our 1955 Studebaker.
“Oh, he’s dead now,” my mother explained.
Brow knitted, the budding journalist in me retorted: “Who shot him?”
Even then, my parents’ evasive, nervous laughter seemed a kind of clue, another tenuous lead to something hidden.
Perhaps, one day, I would find out who Gerry was—and who I was.