Alexander Kerr – by Debbie Ouellet
Dromore County,Northern Ireland. It was February 11, 1903—bitterly cold.
But even more so for Alec Kerr and his brother Samuel as they listened to the minister read their mother’s last rites before her simple pine coffin was lowered into Irish soil. Alec would be eleven in two days, a grim birthday gift for him. Samuel was sixteen. Their father was gone—to war, in search of work, perhaps dead himself. No one knew.
Times were hard for many in Ireland. The streets of Belfast were already crowded with children: orphans begging for a coin, working in the steam and sweat of factories. Something had to be done with the boys. The decision that was made would send Alec across countries, oceans, and cultures.
There is a picture taken of Alec in July of 1903. Alec has his blonde hair sheared close to the head. His face is long, still chubby at the cheeks from boyhood. He wears a simple black jerkin that looks like he might bust a button at any moment. Alec isn’t smiling. There’s a look in his eyes that contradicts his boyish features. It’s old, knowing.
Alec spent a year in orphanages in London. It was not an easy year. Dr. Barnardo’s was a charitable organization that took in the unwanted children of the poor. Alec ate what little was given him, slept in cold rooms, and worked for his keep.
On July 21, 1904 Alec, along with hundreds of other Barnardo children set foot on the deck of the S. S. Southwark. Samuel was already gone ten months. Sent on the same voyage to Canada that Alec now faced. Alec felt alone, frightened; yet expectant too. Something waited for him at the other end. A new home, and if God allowed, a chance to find his brother.
Each child carried a trunk made by the children at Dr. Barnardo’s. It carried what little clothes they owned and a few cherished mementos, a photograph, a letter from a loved one. All Alec carried was the image of Samuel’s face the last time they spoke. He would embrace this new land, work hard, and by God, he’d find Samuel!
Ten days later, the S. S. Southwark finished its slow wind along the mighty St. Lawrence River to land inQuebec. Alec felt displaced and very much alone. Still tired from his long journey, he was herded along with the others into cramped railway cars for the next chapter of their journey.
The train puffed great clouds of black smoke as it chugged along through fields, forests, and towns. It was green here too. Not the deep blanketing green of Ireland, but wilder, with more forests and lakes. And it was huge!
Alec let the wonder of it fill him. It was almost enough to quench the fear. Almost. The train finally stopped in the city of Toronto, where Dr. Barnardo’s kept its Canadian head office. There Alex was processed one more time. He was weary of this—weary of the time ticking past when he wasn’t looking for Samuel.
Alec was now twelve, just coming into puberty, teetering between boy and man. He stood solemnly as he was introduced to Mr. Long, a farmer from Huntsville. He swallowed back the fear and extended his hand. Alec had heard the tales. This man could be friend or father, taskmaster or jailer.
Home child. That’s what they called him. The orphan from Ireland who’d come to Canada to work in exchange for his shelter and passage. Years later a secretary at Dr. Barnardo’s head office would write down this report:
“His conduct was said to be satisfactory and he did well. He had several moves and throughout was said to be a trusty truthful and a well behaved model boy.”
What they didn’t write about was Alec’s vitality, his zest for living every minute to its fullest. He worked hard, yes harder than any twelve-year-old should have to. But he put his heart into it, and earned the respect and love of all who knew him.
There is another picture, this time taken at a vantage point in front of Niagara Falls. Alec’s hair has turned grey. He’s wearing the clothes of a working man; white shirt, no tie, dark pants held up with suspenders-his Sunday clothes. This time he is smiling. His right hand is blurred as he waves it to his wife, Gertie who’s holding the camera. To his extreme right is Samuel, also smiling, and his wife, Berdie. Samuel’s daughter and her husband are in the centre.
Alec was a man many years before he and Samuel finally met again. It was a joyful reunion with happy and sad tales to tell.
Alec Kerr was my grandfather. He adopted my mother. I’ve been told that many of the home children who came to Canada adopted children–their way of giving some back, I suppose. It is estimated that ten percent of Canada’s population, some three million people, are descendants of these home children.
What continues to impress me today is not just the journey made by such a young boy, but the way that he faced life head on, regardless of the obstacles fate set in his way. It would have been easy to be bitter. But Alex greeted each problem with a smile, each obstacle with determination. It was a testament to him and to the welcoming country he now called home.
(Originally published as “The Home Child” in Chicken Soup for the Soul – O Canada, 2011) Author and poet, Debbie Ouellet)
In response to requests from readers, Debbie added the following about how the two brothers found each other, an interesting stand-alone story . . .
Thanks for your comments Anne and June. How my grandfather finally found his brother was an act of consequence and luck (or maybe a higher hand had something to do with it). You see, my grandfather settled in Welland, Ontario and Samuel settled in Huntsville, Ontario. That’s only about 160 kms away, but in the early 1900’s it might as well have been a million.
The story goes that when my grandfather started dating his soon-to-be wife, Gertie, Alec met a visiting friend of hers and got talking about how much he missed his brother and hadn’t been able to find him. He described Samuel and it turned out that this friend knew him, in fact, Samuel had courted her earlier in life. She connected the two a short time later. That was over 18 years after Alec landed for the first time on Canadian soil.
Much of this is relying on stories family told me and notes I’ve kept over the years. My grandfather died on Christmas Eve the year I turned eight. I have such vivid memories of him – he was the sort of man every kid wanted around – funny, a jokester, a tickler. My mother spoke of him often after that, but I always regretted never being able to ask him my questions. I named my son Alexander, after my grandfather and my daughter Sarah after his mother. Here’s a poem that talks about the year we lost him…
A Teary Sort of Tinsel
by Debbie Ouellet
I was eight that frosty Christmas Eve
when pneumonia stole the jokester—
Alexander of the laughing eyes,
It was a teary sort of tinsel we hung that year.
Tarnished, it swallowed the light,
grey like the dawn that hung in stark shadow.
I’m not sure which hurt more—
the absence of the trickster’s laugh,
or my mother’s face
that no lights or holly
I was thirty-two that fulsome Christmas Eve,
when another Alexander, two weeks new,
miracle boy, Santa-suit plump,
called me from the cooking and basting,
to a hidey-hole where he could suckle,
knowing nothing but his need, tiny fists prodding.
I have a picture of that night—
Alexander tucked in my father’s arms.
My father’s smile is warm,
before the Parkinson’s took him
and the shakes and dementia sent him inward.
In Christmas Eves to come,
his grandson playing at his feet,
he’d stare blankly,
cocooned in the prison
of his eyes.
Next story – Cyril William Joyce – no one knew he was a home boy, not even his family, until his grandson, Sean Arthur Joyce , discovered the truth about Cyril’s tragic past.