Saturday couldn’t come soon enough, I woke up bright and early and told my mom I was grabbing a quick bowl of cereal and heading out the door to catch the nine am bus to take me uptown to Sherbrooke and Atwater. Sitting in the bus, my heart was pounding with excitement as I couldn’t believe that these people had taken a shine to me. It scared me to death wondering how I was going to react when I saw them both again. Would I be scared, nervous, worried, excited? All these thoughts were racing around in my head. After all, I was only 15 yrs old. This time I showed up at their door not soaked as I did on the first visit. I knew that I had done my best to appear clean and tidy and not as messed up as I didn’t want to appear poor. I was greeted with Good morning, Kenneth, welcomed into their apartment and ushered into the parlor to greet his lovely wife Margaret. They asked me to join them in the living room and I followed them like a little puppy dog heading to its bowl of food. I was nervous about what they were going to ask me about my family.
It was a tough subject for me to discuss so I thought very carefully and chose my words. They did not pry and nor did they spend a lot of time asking questions. They really wanted to know how I came about working at the cleaning store. I explained how I had searched for an after school job and found this one. They were looking for a delivery boy and hired me. The gentleman finally introduced himself as George Dubois Woods a name that I was going to remember and have great memories of for the rest of my life. A name that is synonymous with history, adventure, journals, writings, books, diaries, music, theatre, travel and biographies. Ironically the middle name Dubois also means wood in French. I was sitting chatting when I heard a loud gong from the very tall Big Ben clock in the hallway. It was a wonderful piece of woodwork and it gonged every half hour. It would take some getting used to, but once I was entrenched in my chores, it became a distance baby gong sound.
My story begins after the introductions and the questions have all been spent. It’s down to business. Mr. Woods asks me if $5 for every visit I make will be sufficient. I almost choked with delight, a fiver to do simple chores when I was used to walking blocks with clothing flung over my shoulder rain or shine to waiting customers. I said oh yes, thank you very much sir, that will be plenty. The first order of business was the crystal chandelier. He had done preparatory work by taking the crystals down and laying them on two huge trays. The task now was to soak them in soapy water, give them a wash, then a dry off and put them all back up in the little holes that the thin brass hooks attached to the crystals would match to. He asked me if I liked music. I looked at him I’m certain in a weird way. I asked what kind of music he had and he asked if I had ever listened to classical music. I said I didn’t know what he meant. I could see the twinkle of delight in his eyes as he asked if I would like to hear some. I said in an uncertain tone, oh sure of course. He walked over to a box lifted up the top to reveal two large round plastic looking wheels sitting in the box with tape wound around the wheels. He looked into a binder, ran his finger down while his spectacles hung at the end of his nose and he blurted out, oh yes this will do. He pressed a button and this loud but easy on the ear sound came from this box I later learned was called a reel to reel tape recorder.
This was the beginning of my introduction to classical music, from Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and many other well known classical composers. I would do my chores to the sounds of strings, horns, tubas, harps while at the same time scrubbing and cleaning crystal, silverware, dishes vacuuming and any other chore that the misses was unable or not willing to do. You see the misses grew up in a home with servants, so house work was not really her style. While we listened and cleaned, Mr. Woods would move to the music and would sometimes dance like he was actually in the moment of the period when the piece was played. I could close my eyes and envision him in finery gliding around a ballroom with his misses. Little did I know that this kind genius of a man was slowly introducing me to the arts? When the first chore was finally done, he asked me to stand back as he pulled open the dining room curtain to let the sun shine flow into the room and bounce off the crystals to expose a magnificent rainbow of colors reflecting onto the ceiling, walls and the glistening top of the mahogany dining room table. I felt like I was in a kaleidoscope of colors. I was stunned by this beautiful reaction the sun created.
Mr. Woods looked at me and said Kenneth; you are witnessing the fruit of your labor. You have breathed life and color back into these crystals that up until this moment were covered in dust. I had the feeling of accomplishment and it felt so good to have earned my first $5 from Mr. Woods and to think there was much more to come. The bong of Big Ben was heard and it was noon and time for lunch. Mr. Woods asked me if I liked spaghetti. I said that I did but my brother hated it. He asked me why. Well I told him that my mum had made spaghetti and my older brother, who was seven years my senior, one time was caught putting his plate on the floor and feeding it to our dog, Blackie, and then quickly bringing the plate back to the table to show that he had finished it all. Little did he know that mum had caught him doing this act? She was down the hall but within sight and saw him feed the dog. Now this may sound cruel what I’m about to tell you, but my mum had a temper brought on by abuse she received from a man in our lives who lived with us and caused a lot of pain. She came from behind my brother and turned the rest of the spaghetti over the top of his head. Well I laughed, as did my sisters, as my brother sat there in shock and surprise. From that day forward, he did not eat spaghetti again.
Mr. Woods laughed, but in a sympathetic tone, and said let’s go in the kitchen and I will show you how I prepare spaghetti. Little did I know that he not only spoke French and English but also Italian fluently? First he prepared a big pot of water with a little olive oil added to prevent the spaghetti from sticking. When the water was boiled, he took a few handfuls of spaghetti and carefully set them upright in the boiling water. I watched as the spaghetti slowly began to form into noodle like strings, he showed me two ways to test if the spaghetti was al dente. I had no idea what he meant by Al Dente. He would take one piece and check to see that the inside still did not have a white ring showing. If it did, it was not quite done. The final test was taking a piece of the noodle and flinging it to a wall. If it stuck, then in his opinion it was done. He then would take a cold glass of water and pour it into the boiling water to stop it from cooking the pasta any further as he turned off the gas. I had never seen how spaghetti was cooked or how fresh tomato sauce was made. Lots of basil, oregano, peppers and some added mushrooms and green peppers would compliment this dish of pasta that was prepared while I watched in amazement. Of course while he cooked spaghetti, he would make sure that the music was Italian to accompany the type of dish he was preparing. An Italian opera was the choice and he would again dance and move in the steps to a tarantella. Mr. Woods loved listening to music while he cooked and as I grew older, I acquired similar tastes in music choice, but also the playing of it while cooking and at times while dining.
The lunch would be served. Fresh Parmesan cheese would be grated; hot peppers would be a side condiment if one so dared to add them. Curtains would be drawn shut, candles lit by me, as that was something he asked me to do. It became my thing to light the candles as well as snuff them out and caress the air with my palm to bring the aroma of the melted wax. I loved that smell it reminded me of church for some reason. Lunch or dinners were never served without a red or white wine being poured into beautiful Waterford crystal. I had no idea at that time in my life what Waterford meant nor for that matter what crystal was all about. The wine of choice for the spaghetti serving was Chianti. Now this was also my first introduction to a glass of wine. Mr. Woods told me in Italy children are served wine diluted with water at very early ages, to get them exposed to the wonderful taste of the vine. I was given this opportunity and to be quite honest, at that time I did not like it but that would change in the upcoming years. I learned very much about the romance of wines and how and where they were grown.
More about that later. It was time to clean up. Mrs. Woods would clean off the table setting and take them to the kitchen through a swinging door, place them on the counter and then go off to her bedroom and lie down. Mr. Woods and I would wash and dry the dishes and crystal and place them all back where they came from. Silverware and crystal had special places. The every day dishes were placed back in the kitchen cupboards, sinks were washed out and pots and pans put down below. This was a common ritual performed in most households, but I bet they were not accompanied by music. Yes, it seemed like a constant companion to Mr. Woods. It made him a happy person and it rubbed off on me that day. After lunch, we would retire to his den/library and here is where the world of books, literature, history, biographies, theatre and artifacts were set out on display. It was a cozy room of old bookshelves with glass doors that you would lift up and slide back in behind the books to select the book you wanted to read. Mr. Woods had them all placed in order of topic. He would ask me what kind of things I would like to read about. I was not a reader and did not do much of it. However I was fascinated by history and soldiers as my dad served in War War11. I liked historical figures and he had some wonderful history books for me to peruse. He started me with Sir Winston Churchill, The War Years. I told him I liked soldiers and battles, so he chose Sir Winston to get me interested. This would be the start of my real interest in reading. He gave me the first volume and told me to take it home with me and keep it in my room and when I had finished reading it to return on my next visit up and the second volume would be given to me.
We chatted for a little while more in the den while he smoked his pipe and I could smell the sweet tobacco scents as the smoke twisted itself up to the ceiling. He had a collection of pipes from various places he had visited in the world. I, too, one day was going to have a smoke from a pipe. I thought the aroma was divine. After we had exchanged a few more thoughts he thanked me for coming up and working alongside him to do my very first chore. Cleaning the crystal from the chandelier in the dining room. He put the book in a brown bag so I could easily carry it on my bus ride back down to The Point. Mrs. Woods came out from the bedroom to say her goodbyes I thanked them for having me up and promised I would be back next weekend. Away I went and took the lift to the main floor and I walked to the front door, I looked up at the dining room window and there they were both of them waving to me. I waved back, thinking I can’t wait to visit again and learn more. This had turned out well. I gave the bus driver my ticket and took my seat on the bus and opened the paper bag to pull out the book and start to read the first chapter of this magnificent work of history. The War Years by Sir Winston Churchill.