We lived on top of a mountain. It was a small mountain compared to those towering peaks in the Rockies but in our area it was and still is a scenic treasure. It’s part of the Niagara Escarpment, one of Canada’s most significant landforms and a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. From our vantage point the view was awesome. We could see the town below, the blue waters of Georgian Bay, the curve of the shoreline and many islands in the distance. Few people knew of our little community hidden amongst the foliage so it maintained a remote country character all it’s own, unique in a four-season tourist area.
My place was a week-end retreat but my next door neighbor was a permanent resident and had been for many years. His home was an alpine style chalet set on a large corner lot. It guarded the entrance to our little hide-away. Wilf was near seventy years old when we met. He was a wiry, slight man of average height, always clean and neat in his appearance. My early impressions were of a kind and tender man who had found his utopia in this quiet setting, close to all that nature had to offer and distanced from his perceived restrictions of town living.
He loved his simple home and was always working on a project. The garage had been converted to a workshop and he had every manner of tools, ladders, ropes and garden equipment all neatly arranged and conscientiously maintained. A simple space heater allowed him to work in his shop even through the cold winters.
During those winters he relied primarily on his fireplace to heat the house so during the fall months he built his supply of wood. I would see him hook his small trailer to the back of his little Honda and head for the woods. He would load it with timber, haul it back and then set to chopping it for firewood. It was a tedious and long project but he never wavered. The result was always a huge pile of logs stored at the back of his home. Most would be out in the open until moved into a covered space for drying.
Wilf and I became friends. He was not a social person and stayed mostly in his own space so this was special. I was a single Mom with one nine-year old son and this nice man became our guardian angel. My marriage had failed, my workload was intense and I needed this retreat; a place to spend quiet time with my son – where we could talk and do things like walk in the woods, play a card game, listen to music or simply cosy up in front of a blazing fire. My parents were not far away so spending time with them would be easy. As soon as I bought the place I took a week off work to do some necessary repairs and decorating … to privately rejoice in my decision. Of course I didn’t have all the tools, ladders or know-how to fully execute my plans so that’s when our friendship first began. Wilf became my teacher, supplier and critic.
Over the years I learned more about this solitary man, mainly from observation. He didn’t talk about himself very much. He was married when still a young man, in the early 40’s. He and his wife had two daughters. The impression I got from his one daughter, was that his wife, a pretty girl from an upscale family, was used to a very social life. Perhaps as a young man Wilf fit into this life but something changed. He went to war. It was not too long after his return the marriage failed and he settled alone on top of our mountain. Occasionally his daughters would visit and bring the grandchildren. This was always a treat and he would eagerly anticipate their arrival.
I can only imagine the impact of the war on this gentle man. He was in an Army Munitions Unit. He wouldn’t talk about it. Only once I got a clue. It was Veterans’ Day and I asked him if he was going to the services in town. It was a brief reply. He said he didn’t want to remember – there was nothing good about that time. Those friends he lost were always with him so he didn’t feel he had to pay public tribute.
Below the surface, well hidden, there was a competitive streak in Wilf’s personality. It was evident in the only two sporting activities he pursued. Skiing was his big love. He had a pair of old, long alpine skis with strap supports. No fancy, automatic release gear for him. His boots were also vintage style with little or no ankle support to protect him. He would walk from his front door to the top of the ski run, point his skis straight down and gain as much speed as he could on the downhill run. It was as if he was challenging the mountain. Weather conditions didn’t seem to bother him. If he felt like going he went. Bowling was his other interest. He would drive from the top of our mountain into town every Thursday to play in his Senior’s League. He was very serious about his bowling and proud of his various awards.
Wilf was a loyal friend who didn’t lack for courage. One Friday night I was driving up from the city loaded with food and supplies, my son and the cat. It was the middle of winter and a major ice storm had blanketed the area all day. As we approached the mountain I had some concern about navigating the climb so I called Wilf to let him know we were on our way up, the back road. It was a little less steep. If we didn’t arrive within half an hour he could assume we were in trouble. About half way up a truck approached with lights flashing, obviously signaling us to stop. The driver simply wanted to tell me the road was impassible. Since we were on sheet ice and we’d lost our momentum our only choice was to turn around, carefully, and return to the bottom of the hill. By the time we got to the base I realized more than half an hour had elapsed and Wilf would be on alert. As soon as I could I found a telephone and called to say we were okay but his granddaughter who was visiting answered and said he’d already left to find us. Time passed and now Wilf was the concern. A police cruiser stayed with us at the bottom of the mountain as we searched for lights and debated our next step. And then he was there. It had been slow but he’d come down the back way with no problem. Regardless of the conditions we all wanted to get home so decided to take a run at it. Wilf led and I followed and we never looked back, or slowed. It was after two in the morning when we finally parked in our respective drives and fell out of our cars into the huge snow banks. For all the danger it had been a rather exhilarating experience.
Wilf’s daughter was visiting one summer and she’d organized a small group to go to a local dinner dance. She invited her Dad but he didn’t want to go as a fifth wheel and he didn’t know anyone to ask. The solution was to urge me to be his date. As much as I liked Wilf the idea of spending an evening at a dance with a man twice my age was not appealing. I loved to dance and to sit all night and watch would be very frustrating. I used every excuse possible to gracefully decline but undaunted by my hesitancy, this willful lady kept the pressure on and finally the date was set. Wilf was a handsome companion dressed appropriately for a night on the town. I’d never seen him in a suit before. Dinner was lovely but as the music started I settled back to survive the next few hours. The other couples left for the dance floor and Wilf asked if I’d like to join him. It only took a moment. He was a wonderful dancer. His hand was firm in the center of my back and we moved to the music as naturally and smoothly as if we’d been dancing together for years. He did a two-step he expertly adapted to almost any rhythm and it reminded me of my Father’s style on the dance floor. I couldn’t resist asking where he’d learned to dance and was not surprised to learn Wilf, like my Father, had spent leave time during the war in the dance halls of London. It had been many years since Wilf danced and he too thoroughly enjoyed the evening. We never left the floor. Not long after that evening Wilf began to date a local widow he’d met in his bowling league. During the ensuing years we’d often see them at dances about town. She was a soft-spoken, gracious lady of the same era and their mutual love of dancing was evident as they moved in perfect unison to the familiar big band sounds.
This gentle man is gone now but to be his friend was a privilege.
The pleasure he took in the basics of living had an influence on both my son and me. His keen appreciation of the simple things in life; of home, of nature, of family and of our friendship is a legacy we will carry with us always