My parents met on a playground in downtown Montreal, where each had been hired to work for the summer with the children of the area. They were both entering their final year at McGill, my mother training in a 2 year PhysEd program and my father about to graduate as a medical doctor. By the end of that next year, they were married. Because Premier Duplessis had ruled that doctors must be bilingual, and my father, born and raised in Nova Scotia, was unilingual, they went to the US. They headed for Binghamton, NY, where my father’s older brother had been on the staff of the city hospital for seven years.
For the next ten years, my father worked in the family clinic in Binghamton set up by the owners of the Endicott-Johnson shoe company for their employees. Later, he often commented that the experience of those early years was a great help to him in his practice, as he had met with a wide sampling of family health problems. In his spare time, he built me a handsome, dollhouse, with electricity, carpets and furniture, which was to be an important part of my first year in Arundel.
It was always in my parents’ minds that they wanted to live in Quebec, and they regularly subscribed to the Montreal Gazette and the Star. Finally, the bilingualism law was changed, and one day they found a notice from Arundel that the local doctor had died. This was a remarkable coincidence because Arundel was exactly where they wanted to be! My father immediately contacted the town and arranged to move back to Canada.
My mother’s family, the Flanagans, had been spending their summers in Arundel since 1908, when my grandfather, a Canon in the Anglican church, had bought 7 acres of land on Bevan Lake, with $100 his wife had won in a newspaper competition! My parents had continued this tradition. and after my birth in 1929 I joined them.
So, in the winter of 1937 we arrived in Arundel. We lived in the second house down from the railroad tracks, next door to Mrs. Miriam Cooke who became a very good friend. My parents enrolled me in the local school soon after we arrived. It had two classes: the junior grades in the classroom downstairs, and grades six to 10 upstairs, as I remember it. We sat two to each desk, an unforgettable experience, not only for me. A few years ago, an elderly man came up to me and said, “I sat with you at school!.”
I enjoyed that term, but the next spring I was moved into Montreal to attend school there, and spent the rest of my school years living with my aunt, uncle and Flanagan cousins until the end of my second year in university. I asked my mother once why they had not kept me in that school. She answered that I had been far too bossy “and the world didn’t need two Hitlers!” I also suspect she had a more immediate motive. She soon realized that my unilingual father was not going to manage without a nurse/translator and she would be fully occupied as she took on the role.
My father was a story teller with a wonderful sense of humour. Since he was meticulous about not mentioning anything about any of his patients, most of his tales involved his own problems. One that I remember from those early years happened that first spring. Because the community voted Liberal the winter roads were never cleared, so in order to be able to make his calls, my father bought a horse and sleigh, and Matt Day entered our lives. On one of their trips visiting patients, the sleigh slipped backwards down an icy hill and almost into the creek. To hear him describe the production of getting the whole contraption back up to the road left his audience in stiches! Years later he arranged to buy a car turned into a snowmobile with skis in front and traction wheels on the back, and my cousin David and I took turns being pulled behind on our skis at the end of a long rope.
Arundel had originally been settled by Scots moving in from the Lachute/Brownsburg area. Later, when French settlers moved to the district, they were encouraged to settle across the Rouge river, and in 1928, Huberdeau became a separate municipaliry. They had no doctor and were forced to come to see my father, in spite of the fact that their priest informed them in church that they would be excommunicated if they went to the English doctor!
Those of us who attended school in those years will remember how feeble the teaching of French was in the protestant schools. Somehow, after their arrival in Arundel my mother worked to become thoroughly bilingual as the French side of the practice grew.
In 1939, my dentist uncle, Cyril Flanagan, and his wife Elizabeth, decided to buy a farm in Arundel, an investment in security and useful training for their sons. They bought the Filion farm, which stretches all the way from Arundel to Huberdeau. Largely in order to help them finance that pretty expensive project, my parents agreed to buy the large house on the property. In our first visit I thought it was horrible! Inside, it was all stained brown and had not been lived in for years. It became a lifetime project for my parents who did a great deal of the work themselves. My father built the cupboards in the large farm kitchen and all the shelves and cupboards in what became the library and my mother painted and wall papered all the rooms. He converted the downstairs wing to become his office, with a waiting room that remains the main entrance to this day.
Over the years, with its three bathrooms and numerous bedrooms it became the home of both my grandmothers, various old aunts and countless visitors and has become very much a family house for subsequent generations.
In making the move to the Canadian countryside, my father had hoped that there would be time for fishing and golf and enjoying the country life. He couldn’t have guessed the number
of city dwellers who would move in during the summer, the season that rapidly became the busiest time of his year. A large part of his practice was carried out on the phone, and I remember my mother on many occasions explaining to newcomers what to do for “summer complaint”!
He had many hilarious tennis games at the lake with his brother-in-law, Flynn, in which he often had his partners doubled over with laughter at his ability to recover almost any ball in his own creative style.
My parents did keep up golf in the prewar years, but once the war started and the golf course closed they never played again. Gerry Trineer, my tablemate at the Manoir Westmount in the past few years, remembered playing with my father, who used to call the telephone operator who worked in the porch of Miriam Cooke’s house to give a message to whoever was trying to reach him to call back later.
Both my parents entered enthusiastically into the village life. They were active in the Anglican church, even though my father had grown up United! He was a warden for a number of years and my mother was involved in the Women’s Institute, the Women’s Auxiliary of the church and just about all other community activities. I remember going down to softball games in the village, where my father was pitcher. I was impressed and he told me that he had been a pitcher on a team in Binghamton. He loved listening to baseball on the radio before television came along.
My father adjusted very well to the way his practice ran. His hours were completely flexible, though he tried to get people to call ahead. He saw patients whenever they arrived, fitting in his other activities when he had free time. People got in the habit of ringing the doorbell and entering, to sit in the waiting room until called in to the office. There was a buzzer from his desk to the kitchen, to call my mother in when he needed her.
I have one particular memory from those years. My bedroom was directly over his office, and I could sometimes hear the faint murmur of voices. On one occasion, though, I heard my father quite clearly. “We don’t have electricity because you knocked down the pole!” The man he was speaking to angrily had been carried in by his friends, and none of them was sober. My father had no tolerance for drunkenness, and Saturday nights were a particularly busy time.
He always made house calls to those who were really ill and once I learned to drive I practiced, during the summer, by driving him on his calls, usually made in late morning. In the early years, he and my mother delivered lots of babies, sometimes staying all night waiting for the newborn. It was a relief, though, in later years when people got into the habit of going to hospital to have their babies.
Having served in the first world war, my father was very disturbed about the onset of a second. He and my mother followed the news every day, and eventually bought a television to keep up with events. He took up stamp collecting with children from a variety of countries. It was his contribution to helping young people, to support their interests and activities in the midst of war. He kept it up over the years, at his spot in the library which became known as the stamp room and we have a cupboard full of stamp albums to show for it!
Part of what my father particularly enjoyed about their life in Arundel were the non medical activities that he engaged in. He kept around 40 chickens, at first in the back of the garage and later in a building he had built in the farmyard. The chickens provided eggs for the family and sometimes to the community, the chance for the children in the family to learn to pluck the chickens for Sunday dinner (which was one messy affair), and, while holding their noses, the opportunity to learn about the innards of chickens as they watched my mother gut them. This was down-to-earth education.
He was also a keen gardener. There is a wide strip of property beside the house, stretching from the road to the farm which he planted each spring from top to bottom, with a great variety of vegetables and several rows of flowers. In the summers, when he wasn’t in the office he was usually in the garden.
In 1943, some members of the town council called on my father to ask him to run as Mayor. Mr. C. J Staniforth, owner of the store and the building beside it, had been Mayor for 30 years and it was time for a change. My father was very reluctant, but finally agreed to serve one term. We still have a copy of the notice he sent to the town residents explaining his reasons for running. He won, but when the term came to an end could find no one who would take over, so he ended up serving two more terms, until he put his foot down, and went to visit Dr. Morrison, the local veterinarian, and persuaded him to take over.
Finances were a major problem in the early years. It was still the Depression, with no government support for doctors and very little cash in the community. My father’s rates were always ridiculously low, and he accepted whatever people could bring, much of It in kind. Before Medicare, he provided his patients a form of universal coverage. He offered families the chance to pay an affordable sum for yearly medical care which many low income families were grateful to take advantage of .
I imagine, though I never knew, that they had saved quite a bit over his ten years on salary in Binghamton, and neither was a big spender. Years later, when I was principal of an elementary/ secondary school on the South Shore, I was shocked to learn that my father’s earnings were just about the same as mine: $7000 a year, but, in his case he had spent $2000 of that buying the drugs that he sold his patients, often for less than he had paid for them. He was entitled to run his own pharmacy and his unique bottles of medicine with his handwritten directions were a staple in homes throughout the area. He also had a secondhand xray machine and an operating table in what he called his examining room.
Finally, the provincial government began various support systems for rural areas, and in 1968, Medicare was adopted in Canada, and my parents’ standard of living improved dramatically. In the last years of the practice they managed two or three real holidays to Britain and Europe.
I remember gathering with several other family members in 1967 to hear my father on the national CBC radio explain Medicare and emphasize its importance. He gave an excellent talk, describing his practice in Arundel, the needs of the community and the importance to the country of providing health care to all citizens. I learned afterwards that he was the only doctor the CBC could find who was prepared to give such a talk. The hospitals and medical associations were opposed to the medicare and the doctors who were in favour of it were afraid to speak on the radio for fear of losing their rights to admit patients to the local hospitals. He was the only doctor the CBC could find who was willing to speak out, and he did a great job!
My parents were both remarkably healthy people, from long-lived stock, and yet both died comparatively young, my father at 75 And my mother at 73. In 197’ when a patient in his office fainted and he caught her to keep her from falling, he injured his back. He went in to the Royal Victoria Hospital to see the cancer specialist and told him he thought he had cancer of the spine. The doctor assured him that he did not. He wore a back support and continued his practice for several months, finally collapsing and being taken back to the hospital, where the specialist told him that he did indeed have cancer of the spine. He refused any treatments and insisted that my mother should bring him home. When I went to see him in the hospital and tried to persuade him to try the treatment he refused. “The ship I was on taking my regiment to England was torpedoed in the Atlantic,” he told me. “I was among those rescued. Many of our regiment whose bunks were on lower decks were drowned. I could have died then, and I have had a long and very good life ever since, for which I am grateful.”
He returned home to the bedroom over the kitchen stove, where my mother looked after him until he died a few months later.
The funeral was held, fittingly, in the Catholic church in Huberdeau, presided over by the priest, along with the Anglican minister and the United Church minister from Arundel. Attendance overflowed the aisles and stretched out into the town. My father wanted a simple wood box, but was buried in a very handsome coffin donated by the McLaughlin family in gratitude for his care for their parents and family.
Later, after her death, I discovered, among my father’s papers, a report from the hospital about my mother. She had been diagnosed with severe cirrhosis of the liver and operated on, but the letter in his possession informed him that the improvement was only temporary, and he very much wanted to die before she did. He told me that he could not imagine life without her.
From my cousin, Pat (Flanagan) Thomas:
Uncle Reg was a gentle man who was imbued with a marvelous, infectious sense of humour that drew people to him. He and Auntie Frank formed a formidable team. He was extraordinarily skilled as a doctor with an ability to reassure people; he was gifted in diagnosis and he had a lifetime dedication to his profession. He lived the image of what one would want a doctor to be.