In 1972 we were living in a shabby old Anglican Rectory in a village called Chippawa, which is now part of Niagara Falls, Ontario. That house and its yard was paradise for us kids. But then the City, or some other faceless malevolent entity, expropriated our beloved house. We heard they were going to tear it down and build a gas station or a mall. So we said goodbye to the mulberry bush and the chestnut trees and moved into a brand-new split-level in a brand-new suburb.
It was a good house. There was even a woods behind it, and there were friends to play with up and down the street, but it did feel a bit fenced-in. Not like home. We had been living on our own little island at the Rectory, in a way. The crescent we moved to was a positive river of people. People have always seemed complicated to me. Mildly dangerous perhaps. I was a very shy child and even now, my somewhat loud persona is mostly artifice, an imaginary friend I take to parties. I find that nature is simpler than people, even though I know people are part of nature. Animals make more sense, possibly because they can’t make a mess of things by talking, as I so often do. Don’t get me wrong: I love my people, but I sometimes also like some space around me.
When we moved we brought our dog, Sneakers, with us. He did not adjust well to being tied up in the tiny yard, so he went to live with some people we knew on a farm. No, that’s not euphemism, he really did go live on a farm. We got a cat we named Chipper. We tried a couple of other dogs but they didn’t last. Those dogs are a whole other story that might be too maudlin even for me to write, and this story is not about a dog, it is about Rover.
There was a man named Frank who lived around the bend on the next crescent. Frank lived with his mother, and I’m going to guess that he was around thirty. I don’t recall anyone ever telling me that Frank had Cerebral Palsy, but looking back I’d be confident to say that’s what he had. He would go for walks, summer evenings, and he walked with a kind of step-slide, a little like the way Terry Fox ran. Step-slide, step-slide, all the way down our crescent and back up the other side. He would say hello to us kids, out playing street hockey or French-skipping on the driveway, and we would say hello. I was too scared to say more. I’m not sure if he talked more than that to anyone else.
Suddenly, Frank’s mother died. Frank was to go and live with his brother. Frank’s mother had had a canary and the brother and his wife couldn’t take the bird for whatever reason so word went around the neighbourhood: “does anyone want a canary?” The Hamiltons said yes. They took the bird but soon found out their son was allergic. “Does anyone want a canary?” The Beazleys said yes but after a few days found that their son, too was allergic. “Does anyone…”
When the canary came to live with us his original name was long forgotten. We still had a cat, and in order to intimidate the cat, in order to prevent a predatory incident, we named the bird Rover. It was a joke, of course, but I don’t remember the cat ever bothering the bird so who knows? We all wondered if Rover would sing. Days and days went by: nothing.
One day at school I was called to the office, just before lunch. You know the heart-stopping way they call you to the office over the P.A. and you fall immediately into a bottomless pit of guilt for no reason whatsoever, and you (or maybe it’s just me) continue to feel deeply ashamed even after they tell you it’s only a message from your mother to phone home? And then you start to think: why this urgent message? Who died? I phoned home, and she told me that Rover had been singing that morning. Incredible long, beautiful songs that I daresay must have been pretty impressive to warrant traumatizing me by having me called me down to the office.
Okay. I have heard other canaries since Rover. Very pleasant. But Rover was something else. He was Caruso, he was Pavarotti, and all the others are, oh, someone like Michael Bublé perhaps. A pleasant enough voice, but he hasn’t done the training, his material is on the cheap side and there’s really no comparison. Rover would sing, and sing and sing and sing. He had several themes and motifs he would vary and repeat: the long trill, the short trill, the staccato scale, the siren call. He seemed to enjoy mixing it up. You never knew what was coming next. Once in a while he’d throw in a whole new thing, seemingly just for the hell of it.
In a family history that includes five dogs, three cats, a budgie, a pet deer, and a raccoon, if you were to ask any of us who the star pet was it would likely be Rover. He’d make the top three for sure. My brother Lloyd, being a musician, developed an especially close relationship with the bird. Rover’s cage was in a corner of the kitchen and he would often sing when water was running, so doing the dishes wasn’t so bad.
In 1976, my parents decided it was time to move the family back to Manitoba. We packed up everything we had, including some of my Dad’s cherished tropical plants. There were three or four citrus trees my brother Glenn grew from seeds he planted in 1967 as a Centennial project. These were over six feet tall. Dad felt they wouldn’t be safe in the moving van with the furniture, so they were wrapped in splints and laid in the trunk of the Gran Torino. There was still room for an equally tall African Milk Plant. He couldn’t fit the Rubber Tree in the trunk as it was half the size of the living room, or he surely would have brought that too. He did bring a couple of cuttings from it to root when we got to Winnipeg. My Dad could be pretty extreme in his enthusiasms, or what we used to call “kind of nuts.”
Note: I have a ficus, a big fig tree, that I have moved four times. I also build stage sets for insects. (See: The Bug Circus, also on this website, for news about an exciting development in Virtual Theatre.) Who am I to say anyone is “kind of nuts?”
On the day we drove off into the literal sunset, my three brothers folded themselves into the Vega, where they could listen to eight-track tapes of The Who and Jethro Tull. My parents took the front seat of the Gran Torino, and Rover and I took the back. A trunk full of tropical plants. We were practically the Joads. We snuck the bird into motel rooms along the way and hoped he would not sing.
When we got to the Manitoba border my parents stopped to take pictures of themselves hugging the “Welcome to Manitoba” sign. They were happy to be home, they’d both been born on the prairies, but I wasn’t too sure. A little way past the border you come out of the woods and onto the prairie, you know that part? I was watching with growing fascination as the power lines stretched off into the distance ahead of us. I’ve never forgotten the shivery feeling of recognition when I realized that if I turned around in my seat, I would see the same line stretching out behind us. I turned around and there it was, all the way to forever. Some people, many people, say they find the prairies dull. This I don’t understand. All that space and sky? I could never get tired of it. Every small landmark you pass becomes significant, every cloud an event. Just thinking about it makes me feel better. It may be genetic. I could drive a million miles, any time of day, any season. You wanna come? Grab your passport! But I digress…
We don’t know how old Rover was when we got him. Maybe a year or two. We had him for a year or two in Niagara Falls and I am not too sure how long he lived with us in Winnipeg. Something like five or six years perhaps. So he lived to a ripe old age for a bird. He got to looking pretty seedy by the end. He lost the feathers just on the top of his head – the Bald Soprano? – and his claws grew long and curly like those people in the Guinness Book of World Records. When at last one day we found him, feet up and finally silent on the floor of his cage, we were all terribly sad. My two eldest brothers were away at university and we had to call them long distance to break it to them. A pet is a very odd thing.
The tropical plants lived even longer. Some of them outlived my Dad by a good many years. In other news, it turns out they never did build that gas station where our old house was. They demolished the house but the property is now part of the Parks Commission equipment yards. The chestnut trees still line the driveway and it’s nice to go there and wander around. Nobody minds.
Here’s what I don’t know: what happened to Frank?
©2016 by Ellen Peterson. Top photo by Carly Peters.