A Toronto tragedy put to rest

casa loma

Canadian soldiers destined for war march past Casa Loma in 1914

We took Mom’s ashes back to Toronto a few days ago, to Westminster Cemetery, to be buried with her birth mother Clara, her beloved aunts/sisters Bella and Lila, and her grandparents/adoptive parents, Thomas and Eliza, in the Thompson family burial site.

Our hope was they would all be put to rest and joined together in spirit at last. And if that finally is the purpose of my life, to facilitate a final spiritual resolution to the turmoil and unhappiness of their lives, to give them closure, then I am content.

There is still much to know and understand about the full extent of their tragedy. Perhaps someone else in the family will continue that journey, for the sake of knowing, for their own curiosity, or understanding of themselves. In all family tragedies there are traces that remain, consequences inadvertently passed on through the generations until understanding, forgiveness, and overcoming call a halt to the repetition of the original tragic model: rejection and abandonment.

The Thompson/Tranter families’ New World dreams got off to a good start: Thomas Thompson Sr., the skilled carpenter/cabinet maker who emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1868 did well enough to build a fine, family home on then-affluent Jarvis Street in old, downtown Toronto. ‘The Thompson House‘ is still there, an official, Heritage Property.

However, the Thompson family became much involved with Sir Henry Pellatt, the famed but ultimately delusional and ill-fated Toronto tycoon who built Casa Loma. It stands there still, on the heights overlooking the young city they used to call “Toronto the Good.” Yet, so many secrets belie that expression. Mom’s great uncle Richard Thompson was the head gardener at Casa Loma, famed for its gardens as well as its gold-plated accoutrements. Her grandfather/adoptive father, Thomas Thompson Jr. and, apparently his father, the senior Thomas, also invested heavily in Pellatt’s post-First World War residential development plans.

Pellatt had led a syndicate that built the first hydro-electric generating station at Niagara Falls to supply the power to electrify Toronto. But he lost his monopoly in 1921 when the government-owned Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario expanded its control of the industry. Pellat hoped to restore his fortunes as he continued to build Casa Loma, sparing no expense, after the end of what was then called The Great War, “the war to end all wars.” But, instead of the boom he expected after the traumatized troops came home, there was a recession and Pellatt went broke. He couldn’t pay the taxes on Casa Loma and the city seized it. He was the Home Bank of Canada’s biggest creditor and it failed as a result. The Thompson family, along with many others who trusted in Pellatt’s supposed Midas touch, lost all their money. The house at 50 Melville Avenue, the first one on that street, built by Thomas Thompson Jr. himself, was all they had left, and it had been mortgaged. Thomas Sr. died there because he had nowhere else to go. Thomas Jr., who ended his days working as night watchman at the Massey-Harris factory on King Street West, also died there.

Thomas Iles Tranter, the soldier-of-fortune who came from England to fight for the Union Army during the American Civil War, settled first in New Haven, Connecticut when that war ended. Leaving two daughters married well in New Haven, he moved to Toronto with his youngest daughter Eliza. He became a wealthy ‘man of property,’ in downtown Toronto. Eliza married into the then-affluent Thompson family, bringing with her a sizable dowry. Thomas Tranter must have thought that would help leave her secure enough financially. A widower, he married his housekeeper, Mary, a much younger German woman. They had a son, Thomas Tranter, who served, fought, and died for Canada in the First World War at age 21. He is buried at Bourlon Wood Cemetery in France. At the time of the elder Tranter’s death in 1908 at age 78, his estate was worth enough for Mary Tranter to live on comfortably for the rest of her life. She died in 1945 at age 74. She never remarried. Mom remembered the only Christmas gifts she ever got growing up were brought to the by-then, impoverished Thompson house by the widow Tranter.

After the collapse of the Home Bank, the Thompson family lived in genteel poverty, trying to hide the truth of that reality by struggling to keep up appearances. Newly-elected mayors of Toronto still came to 50 Melville to pay court to Thomas Thompson Jr., who remained a prominent member of the politically powerful Orange Lodge. Eliza Thompson dressed herself up in her faded finery to go shopping for groceries once a week at Eaton’s, Toronto’s once most prominent, establishment department store, now long gone.

But, except for the beautiful garden Thomas Jr. planted in the backyard to keep his spirits up as best he could, it was a dark, angry, and unhappy place.

And that was the house where my mother, Beatrix Thompson (McNichol, Batty) was born, at the stroke of midnight, New Year’s Eve, 1920. Exactly three years later she was abandoned there by her broken-hearted mother, Clara, who sought some kind of refuge in Montreal with a “Mr. Fox.”

Mom always remembered the terrible argument her mother, Clara, and her grandmother, Eliza, had that day upstairs in a bedroom; so bad that as a frightened, worried, little girl she came up the stairs to see what was happening. Her mother told her angily to “go back downstairs.” The argument – one of many, no doubt – happened after Eliza Thompson beat her youngest daughter, Clara’s sister Lila, so badly with an iron frying pan, it left her brain-damaged. The once brilliant, poetic Lila, barely out of her teens at the time of the assault, lived as a recluse at 50 Melville for many years, never leaving the house, until it was sold in the early 1950s and she was moved to a nursing home. She is also buried at the Thompson family site.

After her mother left the Melville Avenue Thompson family home, Mom was adopted by her grandparents, Eliza and Thomas Thompson. She was rejected again, when her birth mother, Clara, suddenly returned, alone and sick in body and mind nineteen years later. She had been living in abject poverty in a Montreal slum under the name Clara Fox, the name engraved on her gravestone. It was said she may have had another family in Montreal.

Perhaps I should not have raised these ghosts here. Maybe they were already at peace. If so, I hope, I have not disturbed that. By taking Mom’s ashes to Westminster I wanted to “complete the circle,” as it were, and set them free at last. It also seemed wonderfully right that Mom should be reunited with her birth mother Clara, her beloved Aunt/sister Bella, and the rest of the family. I believe she would have been happy at the thought, in peace, at last.

When we put her ashes to rest, my three daughters, Mom’s granddaughters, were there, along with several of her many great grandchildren and two great, great grandchildren. Others who could not be there in person were there in spirit. “Grandma” was much loved,

I tried in my way to explain the names on the gravestones of those already buried there.

There were two workmen who waited respectfully nearby. They had prepared the site, dug the hard clay-loam soil deep, leading me to think how it would bring Mom that much closer to her birth mother Clara and beloved Aunt Bella. The two men were not dressed in any sort of formal attire, yet in their way they bore the weight of our world on their shoulders.

I knelt down and put your ashes in the ground, Mom. We all took a long moment of silence to remember you in our thoughts. I put my right hand on Aunt Bella’s name, my left hand on you, hoping it would make a vital connection, or would help, just in case. I thought of our visits to 50 Melville when I was a little boy. I cherish the memory – you’ll understand why – of all the pots of her wonderful cocoa Aunt Bella used to make for me to drink at the kitchen table, beside the window looking out on that beautiful garden, as she and you went into the parlour to talk. I thought of how I used to go out and wander around in the garden your grandfather/father, my great grandfather, had created. He designed it so there was always something blooming in spring, summer and fall. Oh, if only I were such a gardener. I remembered how I used to look up at the upstairs, back-bedroom window, not knowing the damaged Lila was up there. She may have been looking down, her presence obscured by the lace. Was she wondering, “who is that little boy beside the lilac bush?” I named my youngest daughter after you, Aunt Lila. She calls herself Lily now. She’s a lot like you were.

These are the good moments that remain: lilacs blooming in spring, in remembrance of a place far away.

I see you too, my Grandma Clara, long before your heart and spirit were broken: your arms full of freshly-cut lilacs, and you a vision of absolute loveliness, so full of life and spirit, walking along the sidewalk beside Davenport Road to a friend’s house on a bright and warm spring day. You were born to love and be loved. How could any man neglect or abandon such a woman?

Men are such fools, and he most of all: the one who was so famous in his time, the one who meant well, I suppose, but ultimately put his blessed reputation ahead of your great love, a love that could have been written in the stars.

Or did he not abandon you, not entirely? Who was Mr. Fox, after all? And why did you choose to be buried with that name? So many questions still. I wish I knew.

Afterwards, as we were leaving, I went over to the workman who had done the talking, to exchange greetings and thank him and his co-worker. I asked his name.

“Chris,” he said, with a pleasant, gentle smile. He appeared to be in his late 30s or early 40s, or maybe older. We shook hands.

I asked the other man his name.

“Peter,” he said. He was a little taller, with a good head of well-groomed black hair. I don’t know why, but he struck me at that moment as someone who had a history, who was making a fresh start, beginning a new life. I shook his hand too.

I said, “thank you for your help,” to both of them and turned to walk away.

But then something struck me. I turned and called to the first man, “what name is Chris the short-form for?”

“Christopher,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “how perfect. If you only knew, what a story I could tell you both.”

They smiled, those two cemetery workmen, bearing the names of saints. Their smiles were gentle and heartfelt.

And then it occurred to me that they maybe already knew. Just maybe, of course. I wouldn’t want to get too carried away now, would I?


“Grandma’s” memorial apple tree, planted last summer, bearing fruit this year in Hope Ness

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