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Roots 1995

I never dreamed that I would ever be writing a letter to a Town let alone a thank you letter. I give a lot of speeches and write a lot of articles for delivery all around this world of ours. Coming back to my roots is what keeps all the marbles in my head from becoming too frantic and thus colliding in delirious fashion. However it is the sad reality of death that has recently made me take a hard look at Harriston and what really does it mean to me.

My grandmother use to joke that I was a farm boy born to be in the city. I believed that to be true for my entire adult life. I was born officially in Palmerston Hospital during the cold and blizzardy month of January 1947. For my short stay in Harriston before my father and accompanying family moved to Toronto, I lived in two homes, neither of which has left a strong image in my gray cells (maybe that is the root of my gray hair). Reinforced by years of story telling by my elders is the story of my starting a fire under a peer when I was four — he being the cowboy and I being the Indian. That and the horrible episode with poison ivy in the backyard are all that linger as I reach middle age.

I remember though that Harriston was always home. We were regulars at the grandparents’ farm (Bert and Evaline French) although I never did get very far with milking and after a swat at my ear I was delegated to the separator. I could turn a handle at the right speed but never mastered the delicate and rhythmic squeeze of the teat. In my case practice did not make perfect it made for angry cows! The mere mention of Harriston brings back the smell and sounds of the barn. The fall harvesting, that brought out such strong bonds between neighbours as they raced to beat the rain, will always lead my thoughts to the Town of my Canadian heritage.

Many a winter evening was spent in the confines of the world’s best baby sitter — the old main street theatre. My younger brother and I would be parked in there regardless of what was playing on the screen while parents played cards or visited with relatives. As a youngster parents and their games were boring and the imagery on the screen was much better. This of course had its down side as younger brother and I came face to face with the movie Psycho. Even though it was a very adult theme and very scary we were admitted since Dad new the show owner and of course any idea of parental guidance rules had yet to be invented. To this day my brother still takes a shower without the shower curtain and I am sure our underwear is still as brown as the night we wore it to Psycho.

My older brother was always the envied one since he, being of considerable advanced age, had the local friends he made before we moved to Toronto. That meant he could play with peers and have a totally carefree Harriston visit. Five years makes a lot of difference in siblings. He was always the mature older brother who possessed all the strengths of any hero brother.

Uncles, aunts and kissing’ cousins seem to abound in the town and there was always someone celebrating something. I took the relatives just like the Town for granted during my adolescence. I drifted into the global village and international travel during my career development. Always a different country and different pressures of work. There were times I would fit in a weekend trip to visit Gramma and Grampa in their dollhouse in town. I always left fully nurtured both in spirit and stomach. I have the curse of having enjoyed the three best cooks in the world — my Gramma, my mom and my wife. You just had to look at the three Morton boys to realize that food was good and plentiful in our formative years — just look at our girth.

The tradition of weekend or day visits to Harriston continued as my parents returned to retire in Harriston. As I matured (a little) I came to appreciate my parentage and my roots. Not just the tangible items that were passed from generation to generation but also the intangible. I believe that my demeanor that has been successful in my career was molded by my parents and cultured by the Town. More than once I took pride when someone in the world would come up to me a say that I must be a small town person since my scruples and style were that of the rural background. Some would call it honesty and integrity. I would call it operating with a trust in people and a desire to see no one hurt and no one plundered. I was taught by parents and nurtured by the environment of rural heritage that I must treat all as I would want to be treated.

I owe my parents a lot. My Dad is gone but definitely not forgotten. My Mom is still thriving in the Town of Harriston and remains as the focus of not only the Morton clan but the larger clans of the Holtoms and Frenchs. Mom is a solid individual who quietly gives her all to family and friends. She shies away from centre stage and prefers anonymity to acknowledgement. Each of her three sons inherited and acquired her magnanimous style tempered by my father’s determination and “pig headedness”. We three sons were indeed blessed and each enjoyed a successful adulthood.

Holtom Family Reunion’s were joyous occasions where for half a day we could catch up on relatives near and far. Games and good food filled the day. There was something special that all enjoyed except for the teen who struggles with all nerdy things until the thunderbolt of maturity hits. To have a reunion or not was always the burning question. Events of the last few years have reinforced my desire to see the reunion thing continue at least every two years. To have it in Harriston confirms our roots and shows them off to the newer generations.

Now, why I am I writing this now? Where is this brief piece of literature going?

In the past three years the ideal world of the Mortons has been full of life’s downside. There has been years in the past when an uncle or grand relative died (the shock of Eldon French’s early demise and the sad passing of Great uncle Jack Holtom are etched in my brain). Many years earlier I lost a beautiful cousin at the mere start of her adulthood but time has a way of lessening the pain. Most recently the events seemed to come in rapid succession.

My Dad died almost three years ago at a grand age of almost 81. I was in Indonesia and struggled to get home when he was in his last hours. I had to accept the fact that I could not change the world to get home faster. The family carried the tragic end while I cried a lonely cry in airport and plane. I still miss my Dad and his quite presence across from me in life.

My Uncle Randal French told me the end was near and asked me to be strong and help Helen. It was difficult to even help myself since I had never before been asked to accept responsibility for carrying out the wishes of a dying person. The order is reversed but that matters not since they were so close to each other there seemed no time to grieve for one alone.

Then my Gramma decided enough was enough and let her God take her to a better place. She was indeed the matriarch of the family and carried the wisdom of the ages wherever she went. She was indeed a great and honourable lady who was loved by all. No greater human has walked this earth.

Just when tragedy seems to be past us and we settle into expectations of retirement and grandchildren our world was shattered with the very untimely death of my big brother Terry. It happened so suddenly that I am still of the feeling that it has to be a dream. One minute he is the host at the Holtom family reunion and the next minute he is in a terminal coma. We may never know why and that leaves anger. Big brothers are always supposed to be there. Sons are always supposed to be there for their Mom. Two of three Morton boys must carry on with the help of the next generation of boys and girls.

In each of these tragedies I spent considerable time in Harriston preparing the funerals, giving and receiving comfort and just walking the streets. In every instance my admiration for the Town grew. Walking down the street people would stop me and say your Jim’s boy or your Randy’s nephew or Mrs. French’s grandson or how is Isabel. The condolences would flow in a sincere and consoling fashion. I hate to admit it but most of these people I do not recall their names nor their relationship but thank you all for welcoming me and my family home in the most difficult of times. Food arrives without fanfare to feed the family. Offers of assistance are frequently received in person and by telephone. Harriston rallies to console its family.

It is hard to write how one feels but I do feel renewed by Harriston. You always make me feel warm and cozy even when death has stung my brain. My relatives in town, especially Marion, Art, Helen and Betty Jean have always been fantastic. There is of course all the others, related and not, who come to the funeral home to pay their respects, which is of tremendous support to my mother and the rest of us Morton’s. I feel safe in Town. I feel my mother in her apartment is safe and secure with all the needed friends nearby.

I truly thank you Harriston for being there for my family and I as we faced some very sad times. Thank you for buoying my sole as I walk the streets seeking answers to questions that no one can answer. For those of you who reside there do not take Harriston for granted. It is a great place that really cares. It is a great sanctuary amidst the enormity of today’s issues both near and far. For those like myself, who reside in far off places these days, never forget your roots. Take the time to let the soul of Harriston refresh your soul in times of trouble and in times of jubilation. Sincere thanks from a boy who will never forget and tells the world proudly of his roots.