Caroline Adderson's house in 1931, courtesy of Madeleine Scott.
Lives of the House 385x230
A basement shrine in her 1920s home inspires Caroline Adderson to discover the past lives of her house and its inhabitants.
The house we bought had a shrine in the furnace room. I discovered it only after we moved in, when I made the room a catch-all for the things I’d been unable to part with during the move but that we didn’t really need. My son’s first crib, for example, which he slept in for the first three months of his life. I’d rescued it from the dump, stripped away its many layers of pink and blue paint, and now I was attached to it. I attach to things in general, particularly old things, not just sentimentally but out of a belief that stories accrue like an electrical field around even ordinary objects, stories about how and where the object was made and all the people who used it. I could picture the boy babies and the girl babies who once slept where my son also had. And now I had discovered a secret shrine in my house tucked around the corner of the chimney. If anything radiated a story, it was the long black rosary beads from Italy, and the wooden crucifix hung on two nails in a way that made the small bronze Jesus seem twice crucified, and the tin medal that read I will bless the houses in which the picture of my sacred heart shall be exposed and honored.
I wondered who had placed the shrine there, but I was busy with the move and a six-month-old baby and my vague dream of restoring the house, which had been built around 1925, but had been so wallpapered and brown-carpeted that little of its original character showed. Through our next-door neighbour I asked the people we’d bought the house from, an older Czech couple, what they knew about the shrine. They’d been aware of it, but not its provenance and, though not religious, they’d left it intact because, my neighbour reported, “They felt it was protecting the house.”
Over the next few years I peeled away more than ten different wallpapers. We took down the wood panelling in the living room and the mirrored wall tiles in the stairwell. In the tiny attic room that was to become my office, I catalogued these layers:
Pink paint Green squiggled wallpaper with kelly green trim Blue squiggled wallpaper with sky blue trim Yellow paint Jelly bean wallpaper General Paint “Tequila” with Benjamin Moore “Elephant Tusk” trim
Layer 6 was me. Stripping and scraping, pulling up the blue shag carpet and discovering a beautiful streaky blue-green linoleum, then prying away those tiles and uncovering virgin fir floors, I felt like an archaeologist bringing to light the tastes and materials of each era. And I found myself wondering not just who had put up the shrine, but who had made these particular aesthetic choices through the decades.
Then, after four years of showerless living, we renovated our bathroom. During the ordeal the plumber cut a hole in the lath-and-plaster wall of the master bedroom to access the pipes. An extraordinary thing happened that night; a deep loamy smell filled our bedroom, so strong and so strange it woke me up. The house was exhaling, or so it seemed, releasing this graveyard odour. When I told the plumber about it the next day, he laughed. His grandfather had been a plasterer. The men used to urinate in the mortar, claiming it improved the mix. Even if it was just workmen’s piss, in my half-dream in the middle of the night I believed I was smelling the lives of all the people who had lived there before me. Now I was sufficiently curious to find out who they were.
The research turned out to be easy. There are annual city directories at the public library that list the residents of every address and their occupations as far back as you care to go. Our address first appeared in the 1926 directory. A retired William J. Richardson lived in our house. The following year there was a new owner, Walter M. Scott, a salesman for “Can Prod.” What was that? Canadian Products? Canada Produce? Because the old directories were on microfilm and most reels covered only one year, I had to keep getting up and walking across Special Collections to exchange the films. These little breaks created some suspense. Would my salesman with the literary name still be there? Yes, he was! Each time I was relieved he had stayed on. Then, in 1934, a Clela P. was added. He’d got married! Congratulations, Walter M. Scott, salesman! In 1937 he bought his own business, the None Better Dairy, but by 1939 he seemed to have lost it, as there was no occupation listed for that year. Luckily, he was able to start over the next year with “Scott Prod.”
It was sounding like a story. Walter M. Scott, salesman, was putting on flesh, his veins filling with blood. He was an industrious man, a risk taker who sometimes failed, but bounced right back. I pictured him in a fedora, Clela in a chignon (mostly because I like the word chignon), her arm wrapped tightly around his. They were devout Roman Catholics, of course.
1942—Dairy prod. and eggs, 2344 Granville 1948—mgr, Scott’s Prod. 1953—retired
The cryptic listing for 1954 read: Scott, Mrs. CP Clela P wid. WM prop. Yorkshire Smokes 512 Hornby. I hunched before the microfilm reader trying to decipher this. Finally I understood; Walter M. Scott was dead. He’d bought a smoke shop and then he died. I felt a little pang for him, this person whose existence I knew only through a strip of celluloid, yet to whom I was connected through the rooms we had both inhabited.
Clela lived on in my house for another year, then Rodney G. Dove, passport agent, moved in with his wife Helena. From 1960 to 1967 John F. Kerk-Hecker, an engineer, lived there with his wife, Jean, and his widowed mother, Rosemary. Mrs. Jean Kerk-Hecker became the secretary treasurer of the Vancouver Ticket Centre in 1964 and John the president and managing director. After that, J. Gordon Henderson, a teacher, moved in with his wife Philomene, who had an MA. Then, in 1982, Josef Lampa, an engineer with BC Hydro and his wife Ivana, an aesthetician, lived there. These were the people we’d bought the house from.
Though I couldn’t match any of these previous residents to the scraps of wallpaper I’d saved, and I still didn’t know who had put up the shrine, by the time the library closed I felt I knew these people, particularly the Scotts who had lived there for so long, just from the sound of their names and the bare facts of them. This is the starting place for a fiction writer: a name, an occupation, a setting—in this case, an actual house—alchemized through memory, intuition and imagination. Presto, a character is conjured. But this is not how the non-fiction writer works, I soon discovered. About the salesman Walter M. Scott and his devoted Clela, I was entirely wrong.
Three doors down from us lived ninety-year-old Pearl King. Though I knew her only to say hello, I saw her almost daily, usually brisking to the mailbox a block away with a clutch of letters in her hand, always in a hat. Once I met her in our shared alley as I was coming back from a run. She stopped to warn me about wearing shorts in cold weather. I would regret it. “Varicose veins,” she said, twinkling. You could have a decent conversation with her even though she was so deaf her television was audible from the street. When my son was about six he took a daredevil ride down the pair of steps in her walk and had a stupendous wipeout. His hollering drew Pearl away from the blaring TV. He was so surprised she’d heard him that he immediately stopped crying. But Pearl was best known, almost legendary, for having lived in her house since she was eleven years old.
I went to see her in July 2004, and the next day she dropped off a card. Thank you for the beautiful plant. It was so thoughtful of you! (I don’t remember taking a plant.) I enjoyed your visit and hope I was of some help to you. I have fond memories of your home. Wishing you much success and happiness.
When I told Pearl I was researching the history of my house, she started right away with the builder. A Mr. Quinnenville had built both our houses, she said, as well as the two in between. He took on the mortgage himself in order that Pearl’s father, a travelling dry-goods salesman, could move his family from Lethbridge. (When they took possession, they owed him eighty dollars.) Of course she knew the people who had lived in our house. The Doves moved to California in 1960. The Kerk-Heckers moved to Hawaii.
“What about the Scotts?” I asked.
Clela had been a friend of Pearl’s mother, Estelle. Pearl politely declined to say much about Walter, beyond: “He wasn’t home much.” They had four children—a boy, Douglas, and three girls, Gertrude, Beatrice and Madeleine. “I went to their birthday parties,” Pearl said.
I asked her if the Scotts had been Catholic, and she drew back. Pearl attended St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Kerrisdale. Someone picked her up every Sunday morning. Madeleine lived in Surrey now, a suburb of Vancouver, Pearl told me. And she offered me the phone number.
Before I left, I glanced around at the home Pearl had lived in for the last seventy-nine years. Everything was original—the linoleum in the hall, the cast-iron vents, the light fixtures, the wallpaper—where all these things in my house had been replaced over and over. If I wanted to know what my house once looked like, all I needed to do was look at Pearl’s.
I phoned Madeleine many months later, nervous that she would think me nosy, or that the house wouldn’t matter to her after so many years. I said, “You don’t know me but I got your number from Pearl King.” And I told her my address.
She gasped and said, “1549L Kerrisdale,” which I later found out was the phone number I would have been calling her from had I called her from my house when she lived there.
Madeleine was eighty in the spring of 2005 when she visited me. In her excitement to be back, she seemed much younger. Earlier, on the phone, she’d told me that she had driven past the house several times since returning to Canada after years in Hawaii (a second Hawaiian connection) and even thought about stopping and ringing the doorbell but, like me, had felt too shy. From the age of six months, when she was brought to Vancouver from Saskatoon by train in a dresser drawer, until she married in 1946, my house had been her home.
We walked together through the rooms, me armed with a Dictaphone to catch the memories that streamed out of her. The living room seemed so much smaller to her. After a moment’s reflection she realized this was only because our furniture was bigger. She remembered a sofa in the English style and a piano, which Clela had played beautifully. Gertrude and Bea, older than Madeleine by six and twelve years, took lessons. Madeleine studied tap dancing and practised on the hearth. Eventually the piano was sold and a radio replaced it. Clela loved the soap opera Stella Dallas and would listen, faithfully and tearfully, every day after lunch. (The show, I have since discovered, ran from 1937 to 1955 and is available as a podcast.) The oak floors were the same, but instead of being varnished they were waxed. Clela used a push polisher, which little Madeleine rode on to give it weight.
We moved through the dining room, Madeleine pointing out the changes—there had once been a plate rail like at Pearl’s house, for example—to the kitchen, which in Madeleine’s time had had checkerboard linoleum, also like Pearl’s. (It may still be there under the asbestos-smeared plywood that someone without the benefit of foresight once laid down.) “The stove was here,” she said, gesturing to where we have cupboards and a built-in 1980s oven. It was an oil stove and one of Madeleine’s chores was to fill the empty receptacle from the oil barrel under the veranda. Clela canned and cooked and baked, never consulting a recipe.
“What did she bake?” I asked.
Matrimonial cake, Yorkshire pudding, banana loaf, Eccles cake. The stove heated the whole kitchen and during the damp winter months, they shut the furnace vents to save on coal and practically lived there. A lot of people lived there in its fifteen hundred square feet: Clela, Bea, Gertrude and Douglas, who was fourteen years older than Madeleine. At one point a friend of Madeleine’s, Betty, who was adopted and being mistreated, lived there too. Gertrude and Bea eventually married, Bea eloping because Clela didn’t approve of the man. Then Gertrude divorced her husband, whom she’d met at the None Better Dairy, and moved back to the house with her son. And, of course, Walter lived there.
Until this point I felt I had been right about Clela. She was exactly the competent, radio-listening homemaker I had imagined, though this hardly makes me perspicacious. Homemaking was most married women’s lot. Not until 1934 did the city directory even include Clela, which had led me to assume, incorrectly, that that was the year Clela and Walter had married. They’d actually been married at least fifteen years by the time they moved to Vancouver in 1926.
Madeleine and I were still walking a circle through the main floor of the house and had now reached the back bedroom, my son’s room. Madeleine said, “This was Walter’s room.”
“Just Walter’s?” I asked.
In an instant their imagined devotion went the way of their imagined Roman Catholicism.
With my fiction writer’s bias, I had thought the way I had imagined the Scotts would be more interesting than the truth. In this case, especially Walter’s, it turned out to be the other way around.
Walter Scott’s first venture after moving his family to Vancouver was Canada Produce. Mainly a cheese-importing business, it didn’t last and Walter ended up in egg candling (the Scott’s Produce listed in the directory). Egg candling is a method of inspecting eggs for imperfections, performed by beaming a high-powered light through the shell. All eggs sold in Canada are candled. Who knew? Walter’s was a family operation. He would collect eggs from farms in the country and bring them back to Vancouver to be candled, graded, packed in flats and delivered to stores. Son Douglas helped with the deliveries while Bea and Gertrude candled. The business operated until 1953, when Walter had a stroke. During the time Scott’s Produce was active, Walter opened the None Better Dairy on Granville Street, where Gertrude and Bea also worked and to where Madeleine would ride her bicycle for ice cream. Yorkshire Smokes came much later, in 1950, purchased with Walter’s brother, much to Clela’s disapproval.
These ventures were probably the family’s mainstay, but they were not Walter’s passion. He had both an avocation and an alias that are nowhere listed in the city directory: Walter M. Scott, salesman, was also Milton Walter Scott, magician.
In the same low-ceilinged concrete basement where the shrine now hangs, Madeleine used to roller skate around cages of doves and mice and pigeons, and other props her father used onstage. One of the pictures Madeleine brought showed a youthful, tuxedoed Walter posing with the arcane paraphernalia of his trade. Shackles and chains, a severed hand, a single egg on a black cloth. Once, when Madeleine was playing with a friend in the basement, she tripped over something concealed by a cloth. They lifted the cloth and discovered a pair of rubber legs jutting from a wooden box. Screaming ensued. When Walter found out about the incident he delivered a stern warning: “Don’t you dare tell anybody!” A magician relies on secrets. No one was supposed to know about the magic storehouse in my basement, just as Walter’s alias and his performances at the Orpheum Theatre, his tours of the Pacific Northwest, seemed deliberately kept out of the city directory.
I was thrilled to be in on the secret.
Like the None Better Dairy and Scott’s Produce, Walter’s magic was a family business. Bea was his assistant, the one who huddled in one end of the wooden box after supposedly being cut in half and, with her arms, reached down into the hollow legs and wiggled the toes. Madeleine’s tap lessons were to prepare her to join Milton Walter Scott onstage, though this never transpired. Madeleine told me with some pride that her father, who used to come up behind her and produce a dove or a rabbit out of nowhere, was trained by Blackstone, the legendary American magician, who had his own comic book series, Blackstone the Magician Detective Fights Crime! and a radio show, Blackstone, The Magic Detective. (Like Stella Dallas, it is also available on podcast with even heavier organ accompaniment.) On YouTube you can watch Blackstone’s son, Harry Blackstone Jr., perform one of his father’s signature tricks, the Floating Lightbulb. Walter Scott was originally from Providence, Rhode Island, and probably met Blackstone in the States before emigrating. His famous mentor’s influence is obvious in Walter’s debonair tie-and-tails costume and his talent for sawing females in half.
First the shrine, then Walter’s magic. Now there was another secret Madeleine let me in on. When Walter was in town, he would be out all day at the None Better Dairy or the egg candling operation. In the evening there were performances and parties. As a teetotaller and anti-smoker, Clela couldn’t in good conscience accompany Walter socially, so Bea did. They, or Walter alone after Bea had eloped with her inappropriate man, didn’t return home until ten or eleven o’clock at night, just as Madeleine, a teenager by then, was standing on the porch saying goodnight to her boyfriend. Walter would retire to his room at the back of the house until the next morning, when he ate breakfast and left again. Not until 1953, after his stroke, walking unsteadily with a cane, did he really come home to stay, forcing Clela to put up full time with the drinking and smoking that were so repugnant to her. Walter had not been an alcoholic, Madeleine assured me. It was just that to Clela, even a glass of port was “terrible.” I wondered if the reason Madeleine never did tap dance in her father’s act was because Clela wanted to protect her, her youngest daughter, from the “social ills” her older sister had been exposed to. There are shades of Stella Dallas in this scenario, for the show was about a mother and daughter. Each episode opened with, “We give you now Stella Dallas, a continuation on the air of the true-to-life story of mother love and sacrifice…”
If Walter had magic as his secret passion, Clela had her own unsecret one—her only son and first-born, Douglas. Popular and charismatic, Douglas managed the Kerrisdale Hockey Team and was a star player himself, and an avid golfer. With Walter so often away on tour, Douglas stepped in as substitute father and man-about-the-house. He put the hard wax on the oak floors for Clela. He and Madeleine did the dishes, snapping the towels at each other and often chasing each other around the block. Douglas bought Madeleine her first signet ring, her first bicycle. He paid her a nickel apiece to polish his white golf shoes. The highlight of the week was the hockey games at the PNE on Sunday night when Douglas crammed his car with friends and Madeleine had to sit on someone’s lap.
All this ended when World War II broke out and Douglas enlisted. Madeleine showed me a photograph of Douglas looking pudgy and uncomfortable in his uniform, as though the wool itched him. Clela was holding his arm, much how I had imagined her holding Walter’s arm when I first read their names in the city directory. Her expression is complicated, part concern for the camera, part pride. She does not know that within a few years she will experience a tragedy greater than the marriage of incompatibles.
When Douglas went overseas, Clela’s own true-to-life story of mother love and sacrifice began. It took the form of door-to-door corsetiering for Spirella Corsets. The job served to get her out of the house, where she couldn’t stop fretting about Douglas, and her beat was the nearby upscale neighbourhood of Shaughnessy. Not business-minded like her husband, she consistently failed to collect what was owed her. Madeleine knew this because she did the bookkeeping for her mother. Clela would say of some client in arrears, “I feel so sorry for her. Her husband won’t give her any money and she does need this garment so badly.” Madeleine suggested monthly installments, but since Clela’s real motivation was distraction, shenever followed through.
Douglas returned safely from the war, a married man with a son he named Walter. Six years later he died of kidney disease. I visited his grave in Mountain View Cemetery, one in a long double-row of veterans who also died in 1951, as though they’d earned a temporary reprieve that so many soldiers hadn’t. The cemetery is vast, over a hundred acres, with many of its headstones laid flat, so that in the middle of it away from traffic, you feel disconnected from time. I would not have been surprised to run into the grieving Scott family around Douglas’s grave that drizzly morning.
I brought him a plant.
After Madeleine’s first visit, we kept in touch intermittently by phone, mostly to talk about Pearl, whom Madeleine was concerned about living on her own. In 2007, I invited both women over for tea so I could listen to them reminisce. By then Pearl was ninety-three and extremely deaf. She seemed to have given up her hats, and her scalp showed through her fine white hair. Stooped in a cardigan she’d grown too thin for, she was fragility personified. As she refused to have our conversation taped, I took some sketchy notes. Milk used to be delivered by horse and wagon and, in winter, by sleigh. Also blocks of ice for the iceboxes. A man called Yip would drive his truck through the alleys peddling groceries. There was the Watkins man who sold spices and extracts door to door. Whenever he came by, Pearl’s mother, Estelle, would invite him in for tea.
Then Pearl piped up about New Year’s Eve, how the firehall across the street used to blow the siren at midnight. Whenever the fire truck went out, Madeleine said, she and her friend Betty would rush over to the hall and slide down the pole.
As they were leaving, Pearl said to me, “Caroline, you’re a brick!”
The next day she dropped off a card. Thank you for the lovely lunch & box of goodies. It was so pleasant in your house full of memories. Best wishes for your happiness. Your old neighbour, Pearl.
Around that time I made other enquiries about the shrine. Pearl gave me the number of Philomena Henderson, who had moved into our house in 1967. She knew nothing, but when I asked about the people they’d bought from, the Kerk-Heckers, and whether they might have put up the shrine, she offered an anecdote. Shortly after the Hendersons moved in, Jean Kerk-Hecker phoned to ask if she could dig out one of the two magnolia trees in the backyard. Her father-in-law had passed away the year before. They were supposed to have scattered his ashes in Stanley Park, but it had rained so much that year that Jean got fed up and dumped them under the magnolia. Now his widow, Rosemary, had found out and was livid. She wanted that tree and she got it. To this day the other clouds our yard with white blossoms every spring.
My most memorable exchange with the Lampas happened a few years ago. Cleaning the cupboards in my son’s room, I discovered a dead space just large enough to fit a hand. And I actually thought, “This would be a perfect place to hide jewellery.” I squeezed my hand in and felt something—a cosmetics case. It was indeed filled with jewellery, coral and ivory and jade. A very grateful Ivana told me it had belonged to her mother. She’d put it where I found it for exactly the reason I thought, then had forgotten all about it.
Pearl King died in 2010 at the age of ninety-six, leaving her house to American relatives. Four houses in a row on our street had been built by Mr. Quinnenville. One had already been torn down when we moved in. The one next door to ours was recently gutted and renovated beyond recognition. Now Pearl’s museum, purchased in 1925 for $5,250, was sold for $1,633,000 and slated for demolition. It was as if Pearl were dying twice, that her stories and secrets, which were intertwined with the stories and secrets from my house, would be lost forever when the house went down. These old houses are repositories of narrative. Not only do they contain the histories of all the successive owners, but also they carry the history of all the materials that were used to build them. The original drain tiles, which we had to dig up, were made of terra cotta, each one stamped Italy. The floors are oak and fir. In what forest did they grow? From what mine was the gypsum extracted to make the plaster? Does anyone even know how to lath and plaster a wall any more?
Early in 2011 an orange net corral appeared around the tree in front of Pearl’s house. They do this in Vancouver when a house is going to be demolished. The trees are protected, but not the houses. Walking past, I remembered listening to an episode of Blackstone, The Magic Detective called “The Vanishing Pearls,” in which Blackstone catches with a fishing rod a live goldfish in mid-air. The trick segues into a story about Blackstone visiting the home of a rich woman with a fish pond who is having her pearls X-rayed for insurance purposes. In the middle of the process, the pearls vanish. Everyone is searched, but no pearls turn up. Then Blackstone executes his trick, reeling a goldfish through the air. Under the X-ray machine, the pearls are discovered inside the fish.
Madeleine Scott, the daughter of a Blackstone protégé, came to live in my house when she was six months old. Seventy-three years later, my son also moved in when he was six months old. Today he goes to the same school as Madeleine and Pearl, a block away. He plays in the same neighbourhood, but so much has changed, even in the dozen years that we have lived here. One by one the old houses are vanishing.
I saved as much as I could from Pearl’s house. I took her cast-iron grates and her light fixtures. I took her black wall-mounted rotary dial phone. Now every child who comes to our house is challenged to phone home on it. So far only one has done it without instruction. “I saw someone do it in a movie,” he said.
My neighbour carefully pried Pearl’s plate rail off the dining room wall while I removed the nails and, piece by piece, carried it three doors down to be resurrected one day in its sister house. No one was interested in these things. No one wanted Pearl’s sewing kit with its wooden spools of thread, some with the price tags. Woolworth’s 55¢. 13¢! No one wanted her hatbox or her baggie full of old watches. No one felt the stories sparking around them, so I took them.
On February 7, 2011, Pearl’s house came down. I forced myself to go over and watch. There was some delay at first, something about asbestos. It gave me the chance to talk to the inspector, who told me forty or fifty of these old houses are demolished every day in Vancouver. He said he himself, just one inspector, approved about forty a month. Finally the all-clear came and the bulldozer rumbled as it started. It seemed prehistoric, like a slow-moving dinosaur. If I were writing a story about Pearl’s house, I thought, I would run and stand in front of it. I would not write how the machine head-butted the kitchen wall, punching it in, how within minutes the whole back of the house crumpled under this assault. I would not describe the bucket rearing up and the jaws opening and biting down on the roof, or the sound it made, which was like ripping. A few bites later, half the top floor had been torn open so you could see inside it, like a dollhouse. I wouldn’t put that in the story. I wouldn’t say how the exposed banister at the top of the stairs was identical to ours.
How terribly fragile these houses actually are, though everyone says they are better built than the ones that replace them. It was over in less than half an hour, then I turned and walked back down my street. But will it still be the same street when all the houses have been replaced? The Quinnenville houses have vanished. Ours is the only one left. Ours is the one with the shrine protecting it.