Here are the first few lines of a new essay “The Possum,” about dg’s great-grandfather, just published in The New Quarterly.
My great-grandfather John Brock killed himself with an overdose of laudanum in St. Williams on the North Shore of Lake Erie in March, 1914, the day before he was to appear in court to answer a charge of alienation of affection and criminal conversation. This was in an era when marital rights yet bore the flavour of property rights. Alienation of affection and criminal conversation referred to actions that deprived someone of his spousal relationship. In practice, the phrases meant anything from merely counseling a wife to leave her husband to seduction and adultery.
Today St. Williams is a sleepy hamlet on a sand and clay bluff overlooking the Inner Bay between Turkey Point to the east and Long Point to west, a beautiful and mysterious place, in summer especially when the lake surges languidly under the harsh sunlight and the trees on the point shimmer like a mirage along the horizon. In the early 1900s, lotus beds choked the shoreline and the bluffs were scrubby and bare except where the remains of the great timber flumes swooped down to the beach. For years, the McCalls (my mother’s family) had been engaged in lumbering, furniture making, boat building and general retail but mostly, as my mother’s father once observed, in shipping all the forest roundabout across the lake to Cleveland and Buffalo.
In 1914, the farms around St. Williams were turning to blow sand and dunes, and the McCalls turned necessity into virtue by lobbying the provincial government to buy their land and open a reforestry station to help put the trees back. The family businesses had been in gradual decline since the depression of 1873-78; we were the early victims of what is now called globalization, in this case the first wave of corporate bloat and centralization that coincided with the late Victorian era. When the railway finally extended a tentacle through St. Williams in the late 1880s, instead of inspiring a boom, it sucked all the money out of the village overnight. But in 1914 the family still thought a lot of itself, and those homes, with ivy crawling up their sweeping verandahs, stood with immaculate hauteur against the internal erosion of the economy and ecological ruin.