Memories of my Childhood in the Murchison Home
Capturing Collective Memories continues as Jane Von Bredow recounts childhood memories of living with her grandparents Dr. and Mrs. A.J. Murchison. This beautifully detailed account is the perfect gift of reading during this extended St. Patrick’s snow storm.
When my mother (Isabelle Murchison Johnstone) died of leukemia in 1933, I was sent to live with my grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. A.J Murchison. The house that once stood in the centre of what is now called Murchison Place Park became “home” to me for the rest of my life, even though I was later sent to school in Charlottetown. I returned home to Clyde River every weekend and holiday, and every summer until my grandmother’s death in 1952. I have many happy memories of my life there.
The sign boards in the park give an excellent and very comprehensive description of the house and surroundings, and they include detailed information concerning my grandfather’s life. So I feel there is little I can add, except some snippets that may give a picture of family life within the house.
The sign board refers to the attractive exterior of the house, the lawn with its flower beds, the tree-lined lane and the tennis court, and a child’s playhouse in the orchard. It is a true picture, and an idyllic source of memories for me. But at the same time, I’m afraid it may suggest something finer or more pretentious on the inside than was actually the case. It was, after all, just a comfortable home that had served a family of seven children.
The house was comfortably furnished in the style of the times, but there was nothing particularly notable about the furnishings or décor. There were few antiques and no treasured family heirlooms. The interior was much like the interior of any home of comparable size in the same time period. There were, however, some features that were different because clearly the house had been built to provide space for a rural doctor’s medical practice as well as for family life.
The basic layout placed the doctor’s office in a central position on the south side of the house with one fairly large and one quite small room adjoining it at either end. Both sections had doors to the outside, so that at one end, these rooms served as kitchen and pantry, while at the other end, they were used as a waiting room for patients and for my Grandfather’s “medicine pantry”. (The latter was his dispensary where he prepared and kept medicines, and which he used as a work room where he did some basic lab work.) For most of the years of my grandfather’s practice, the west end was used as the entrance for patients and the east for family; but in 1935, when indoor plumbing was installed, the entrances and their connecting rooms were reversed.
My grandfather’s office was undoubtedly the most distinctive room in the house. In a style rather typical of Victorian offices, it had walls covered in pressed tin. In later years these were painted over and the paint somewhat obscured the design which was embossed into the surface, but either way, it was a sensible feature that made it easy to wipe down the walls in a room that had to be kept particularly clean.
At one end, the office also had a large bookcase built into the wall and enclosed by glass doors, an unusual feature in a rural house. Though useful, and always filled to capacity, the shelving was not deep enough or high enough for Grandpa’s medical books, and so it was used for smaller books of general interest. For the larger books, there was a large free-standing bookcase that had separate glass fronts for each shelf.
There were two tall windows on either side of his large oak desk, both always filled with houseplants. His leather-covered reclining armchair, with wide wooden arms, was next to the desk, and it was not uncommon to find him asleep there in the morning, if he had been called out somewhere during the night and returned too late to go back to bed. When seated in that chair, he could reach for his much worn copy of Shakespeare’s plays, which was always on his desk at his right, or, on the other side, for medical journals and periodicals which were piled on the shelves beneath a small writing desk that was conveniently at hand in its location against the west wall. Underneath that big chair, as well I knew, there was usually a box of raisins which he kept there for snacking, and which I enjoyed with him when he read to me there.
One of the doors in Grandpa’s office led to a small central hall, just inside the main front door. This room merits comment because it had a hardwood floor with an attractive parquet design. Grandpa laid that floor himself, before my time, and it was the only bit of carpentry I ever heard of him doing. He had done it simply as a hobby interest in his spare time. Some extra squares, rather like quilt blocks, were still in the barn where my cousins and I sometimes played,…the design made up of small pieces of special woods and set onto a heavy canvas backing.
Although the furnishings of the house were not at all distinctive, there was a proliferation of books and magazines throughout the house which was rather unique. A bookcase stood in the upstairs hall, at the top of the stairs, just below one of the dormer windows. A big old wing chair there made it a cozy and rather secluded spot for reading. But lots of books could to be found elsewhere, in almost every room. Margaret Dixon, in her memoir, Going Home, mentions borrowing books “from the doctor’s library” when she was a young teacher in Clyde River, 1910 -1911. She is not referring to a specific room that was designated as a library, for we did not have one, but rather to the fact that my grandparents were very willing, even pleased, to share books with anyone who was interested in borrowing them. Both put great emphasis on the importance of education.
I was interested to read about books being borrowed already in 1910, just as in my own time, and even after Grandpa’s death in 1941. Most people borrowed books that were light and entertaining, but my friend, Kit Bick, (nee Katherine Livingstone), did not waste her time doing that. While getting outstanding marks at Prince of Wales, she still had energy and motivation for extra reading on the side, and so, to my amazement, she actually borrowed and read some of Grandpa’s medical texts! It is scarcely surprising that she went on to become an internationally-known neuroscientist. My grandfather, who was much involved at the time of her birth, would have been very pleased and proud!
In the history of Burnside church, my grandfather’s role as an elder is duly recorded, but there were some lesser roles that I remember that seemed to fall upon him partly because of his involvement with the church and partly I think as a result of our location across from the church.
Grandpa brought home the offering every Sunday and let me “help” count it when my contribution involved only stacking the coins according to size. (Some of the old copper “tree cents”, Prince Edward Island’s own pre-confederation coinage, were still in use, along with those of the present size, as well as a few of the small silver 5 cent pieces that pre-dated our later nickel.)
He also prepared the bread and wine for Sacrament services, but I was not allowed to help him. He made it very clear that this was a very serious matter that was not for children.
I remember also my amazement when on one occasion he played Santa Claus and distributed gift stockings filled with candies to the children of the Sunday school. I still believed in Santa Claus at the time and found it strange that Grandpa was wearing his big buffalo coat and masquerading in this way in public! At home, in the privacy of his office, he sometimes covered himself with that same coat, and on his hands and knees, pretended to be a bear…to my great amusement and delight!
Since we lived so close to the church, it became almost an accepted routine that the minister would join us for dinner at noon before moving on to conduct afternoon or evening services at the other points of the charge. This was a time before the Clyde River manse was built, so providing a meal for the minister was a very necessary hospitality: if members of the congregation had not invited him, he could not have found a public eating place closer than downtown Charlottetown!
I imagine it was at least partly a matter of our location that the local school teacher sometimes boarded with us. I personally remember only Winnie Best (MacMacMillan) but there were others in earlier times. Because I knew Miss Best so well, I took part in the Christmas concert in Clyde River School, in 1935, the year before I started school myself.
It was not only some of the school teachers who sometimes boarded at Murchison Place, but at least one minister, Rev. W.J. MacLeod, when he was starting out as a young minister. He later married Florrie MacLean, a great friend of my aunt, Norma Murchison (Brown). Their son, Ian MacLeod, was the lawyer who acted for my cousins and me when the property was transferred to the church.
Another matter was associated with our family’s relationship with the church and community that seemed perfectly natural to me at the time, but which I realized later was a bit unusual. My grandparents considered it important that at quite regular intervals, someone of our family should attend services at the local Baptist church. This idea did not arise from any strong ecumenical feelings, but from a loyalty to the members there who were all Grandpa’s patients. It led to some confusion for me, when, as a child visiting my father’s people, I enquired if I could go to their other church sometime, with whoever was going to be the one to attend it that Sunday!
Living at Murchison Place was a bit like living in a community centre. In addition to patients who came for medical help, there were others coming for a variety of reasons. There were those who came in hope of obtaining a “script” to buy liquor, for these were Prohibition years. There were salesmen we called “drug agents”, who represented various pharmaceutical companies. The public health nurse for the area came to us, and she and my grandfather made the rounds of all the schools within his large practice. It was the custom at the time that doctors would give vaccinations and immunizations at the schools. It took up quite a bit of Grandpa’s time and on those days the nurse would regularly have some of her meals with us.
As I have already mentioned there were people who came to borrow books, and there were pupils of my Uncle William, who came regularly for their piano lessons.
And in addition to those who came specifically to us, there were others who travelled throughout the country, door to door, with their wares. We were by no means the only place they visited, but our central location guaranteed that no one passed us by! There was the “fish man”, the “meat man”, and the people who sold wild blueberries, cranberries, and other seasonal produce. We were regularly visited also by both the Raleigh man, the Watkins man, and the Fuller brush man. There was also quite a progression of young people selling magazines in hope of financing their education. I suspect that word had spread that my grandfather felt strongly about supporting the cause of education and so could be counted on to subscribe to yet another magazine. Our house seemed to be awash with magazines!
And then there were the unfortunate ones who came, sometimes offering to do odd jobs, even though for the most part they were capable of doing very little because of physical or intellectual handicaps. With no welfare system to care for them, they usually lived with the help of friends or relatives who were poor themselves and unable to provide adequate support. These folk did not come to see my grandfather. They came knowing that Grandma would always offer them “a cup of tea”, and then promptly set about producing something really nourishing to go with it.
Family life within our home had some irregularities that may have seemed strange to our neighbours. Personal interests and attitudes may have been somewhat involved, but Grandpa’s life as a doctor played a significant part in this also. Although he had a very busy life, his working hours were highly irregular. There were many times when he was at home during daytime hours while other men in the neighborhood were out working. It was that fact, combined with his deep love of gardening, that made it possible for him to plant and care for the trees and shrubs and flower beds for which he was known.
I very much doubt that he had any strong views on the subject of gender equality. For Grandpa it was simple practical commonsense: he liked gardening and he had the time for it. He did not care that in most rural homes at the time, flower gardens were considered to be strictly women’s work!
Having time and opportunity also made it possible for him to extend that love of flowers to include an interest in wildflowers. I have been with him when he stopped to examine some wild flower he noticed in passing while out on his calls. He would pick one to identify later by looking it up in his books at home. He had a similar interest in identifying the birds he saw and kept binoculars handy, at home or in the car, to better distinguish their markings.
His being at home also gave him time for more involvement with me than was customary at the time. I recall him bundling me up in a warm blanket and taking me downstairs with him when he lit the kitchen fire in the morning. When that was done, he would fix me the “sops” that were standard children’s fare at the time, and we would have a companionable time together over our early breakfast before the rest of the family appeared. It was Grandpa who helped me make paper windmills that whirled when I ran with them, or the circular sort that spiraled round and round with the updraft from the hot air furnace register. I can only guess that it was as the father of seven children that he had developed some of the skills of a kindergarten teacher, but I am sure that at the time there were few men in the country with his level of involvement in child care.
From time to time my grandparents would have a local girl living with us to help Grandma with household work. I have no doubt that these girls reported home about the strangely different ways of life at Murchison Place. High on the list was sure to be the fact that they were forced to listen to hours of classical music every day! My Uncle William who lived at home had suffered damage to his heart through childhood illness and could do no heavy work. He had studied music at the conservatory, and in better times he could have used that training to good advantage. But these were the difficult Depression years and there was little demand for piano lessons. He practiced several hours of every day, concentrating on very difficult works by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt, his particular favourites. It was not always the sort of music that today would be classified as ‘easy listening’!
No doubt people also heard about the strange on-going breakfasts that were quite common at “the doctor’s”. It was a fact of life that our breakfasts often resembled the casual breakfast buffets that did not become popular even in hotels until decades later. It was the inevitable result of Grandpa being called out at night, and my Uncle Dalvey accompanying him as his driver. Grandpa could not drive himself after having had a serious leg injury. If they were out, we never knew when they would return. In those days before cell phones, even the regular phones were used only very sparingly! If they had returned very early, Dal’ would go back to bed and Grandpa would probably be asleep in his chair. No one wanted to disturb either of them, so food was kept warm for them or sometimes produced fresh when they were ready. Others came and went. The timing of breakfast at Murchison Place was a very casual affair.
We did not always have a girl to help Grandma, so I do not know if everyone knew that Grandpa and both of my uncles had no hesitation about cooking something for themselves occasionally. This seemed perfectly naturally to me at the time. They were there. Why shouldn’t they? Later when visiting my father’s relatives on their farms, I learned that my uncles and male cousins knew nothing whatsoever about what went on in a kitchen, and they seemed to think that was the way it should be. Men worked outdoors and cooking was women’s work!
In Grandpa’s case, it tended to happen by chance. I have seen him fry up some freshly caught fish for himself when it had been given to him while he was out on a call. He was hungry, it was between meal times, and he saw no reason to inconvenience Grandma or her helper if they were busy with something. And there were times when he brought home curiosities that he had happened upon in town and wanted to try or to show us…one time a couple of pomegranates, and another time, some eggplant which he sliced and fried.
When glancing over a copy of the cookbook, “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” the following lines caught my attention: “There was seldom a sea-captain who was not a good cook and the recipes he concocted at sea would be brought home for his wife to try.” It made me consider that perhaps Grandpa’s willingness to try his hand at cooking came from having seen his own father do the same. Grandpa’s father was a sea-captain, Capt. Malcolm Murchison. He met and married his wife, Catherine MacDonald Murchison, in Australia, where they lived for 8 years before returning to PEI. They then settled and farmed in North River and later buried in Burnside cemetery.
In Dalvey’s case, there were the snacks he prepared, mostly for himself, on a sterno heater, a tiny campstove, that could be used indoors and which would eventually produce a hot drink or soup on a summer evening when the kitchen stove was not kept burning after supper. But more intriguing were times when he cooked some of the odd vegetables he grew. Dalvey had inherited his father’s love of gardening combined with a general interest in learning and trying new things. Undeterred by PEI’s climate or short growing season, he grew oddities such as peanuts, and though they did not reach maturity, it was interesting to see how they grew. But there were others sufficiently successful that he cooked them so we could try them. As a result I had the experience of eating kohlrabi, celtuce, and some odd kind of radish that had to be cooked. (He found his cooking instructions in the same seed catalogue that sold the seeds.)
I do not think it is necessary for me to give much detail about the specific flowers in Grandpa’s perennial beds for they were the familiar heritage plants of the time. Lucy Maud Montgomery provides several quite detailed lists of the flowers she knew or grew, and they are of the same time period. I regret not knowing whether Grandpa expanded an existing garden, for it would be interesting to know if any of his lovely peonies had been there when he and my grandmother went to live there in 1892. Peonies are tough and have been known to live 50 – 100 years, so it is possible that some might have been quite old. But his lupins, which some older folk in the community may remember, were newcomers. Hybrid Russell lupins were quite new in the 1930’s and Grandpa had quite a large bed of them in unusual warm colours, (not the more familiar pinks and blues), at the far end of the lawn, near the road. Like all lupins, his plants scattered their seed and spread quickly, and so it was not long until they were growing outside our garden fence and along the bank of the road. Passersby would stop to admire this splash of bright colour, and sometimes to dig up plants where they were growing free on public land.
It was Dalvey who grew any annuals seen around our place in later years. He grew many from seed, starting them indoors and later setting them out in his hot bed or cold frame. They added splashes of colour in many different locations. But his specialty was his sweet peas. He regularly ordered seeds for various named hybrid varieties, all of them the old-fashioned heavily scented sort. I heard their names, though they meant nothing to me at the time. It was decades later I remembered and was interested to learn that the “Spencer” varieties he grew had originally been hybridized in the gardens at Althorp, the home of Princess Diana (nee Spencer)!
In the 1930’s and 1940’s there was a very popular radio program, a “soap opera” all about the life of a fictional character named “Ma Perkins”. With the appropriate number of box tops from Oxydol soap powder, one could order the necessary seeds and the design outline to create a garden bed just like Ma Perkins’s garden! I don’t believe my Uncle Dalvey had any interest in the program, but he knew about the seed offer and ordered it. He grew his ‘Ma Perkins garden’ near the orchard and visitors were intrigued and amused to talk with him about it, although the flowers themselves proved to be quite common varieties.
Anyone who visited Grandpa’s office would know that his love of flowers included houseplants. His patients were generous in sharing cuttings of any plants they had that interested him, and he also ordered plants or seeds by mail. I recall a mini rose he grew from seed and which bloomed as a potted plant, a great novelty several decades before such plants became available in supermarkets! At Christmas time each year he regularly had one very special display plant on a single pedestal plant stand in his office. These were beautiful and rather delicate flowering plants, either a cyclamen or an azalea. I remember them quite clearly, but it is a memory that is puzzling to me now. Those plants came from a greenhouse in Charlottetown and I find it remarkable that they survived the trip from Charlottetown to Clyde River, in December, in an unheated car, or worse, an open sleigh!
I was too young to know much about my grandfather’s work as a doctor but I know that for the most part his experiences would be the typical experiences of rural doctors elsewhere at the time. I know he performed his share of appendectomies and tonsillectomies on kitchen tables in the homes of his patients. Such stories have been written about many rural doctors. Perhaps less common was a tracheotomy my grandfather performed on an emergency basis for a woman in Cornwall whose infected throat was choking off her ability to breathe. He had to act very quickly to make the necessary incision into her windpipe, but he lacked the necessary clamp to keep it open until some sort of breathing tube could be inserted. The woman whose life he saved liked to tell how he immediately solved that serious problem by improvising with what was available. He called for an old-fashioned metal hairpin and bent it into shape to do the job,..a procedure he would certainly not have been taught in medical school!
In the course of many years, my grandfather had learned to accept the medical situations for which medicine had no answer. He was a quiet man and he did not speak of the trauma of those experiences, two of which occurred within his own family. What he did express, however, was the helplessness he felt when confronted by childhood illnesses caused by malnutrition, or when the poverty of the times caused people to delay seeking his help, sometimes even until it was too late. He had done his best to establish a reputation for accepting whatever payment a person could make, whenever they had the means to make it. It was the best he could do, but sometimes it was not enough: there continued to be times which upset him, when he was called too late to be able to help.
I do believe, however, that my grandfather was a man who had truly found contentment through a profession that was deeply rewarding, and through his personal life. He cared deeply for the patients he served, and he had their affection and respect. He enjoyed his garden and the beauty of the countryside around him. Murchison Place was the centre of his world, as it was for all of us who lived there. I think he would be very pleased with the way the community is preserving the natural beauty of that small corner of land that he loved so much. He would appreciate how the tall trees are being preserved, and flowers planted, how children can enjoy it as a place to play, and older folks find a place for relaxation. He would be delighted that the people of the community come together there for special events, that art and music are finding a place there, and that it is becoming a living space that nurtures the spirit.
Editor’s note: Those from Clyde River will know, but for our other readers, the Murchison home was located at the corner of the Trans Canada Highway and Clyde River Road. The property has been transformed into a beautiful community park that is popular with children, artists and others taking a few moments of respite to stroll through the gardens. The community also hosts concerts, garden parties and an Art in the Park event. The spirit of the place created by the Murchison family is still alive and we invite you to visit the Park this coming summer. On behalf of the community, we are deeply grateful to Jane for the detailed and visual description of her childhood memories at the Murchison Place. Thank you.