Chapter 3. Routes and Roots

By the end of the fifties, several Canadian churches had come to realize that they were fast losing the intellectuals and the young people—the very people who would normally become the leaders of the country in the next generation. Great concentrations of these potential leaders were to be found at the various universities. The churches therefore began sending workers into the universities to keep in touch with those who might well otherwise become their lost sheep.

On Canada’s west coast at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, my denomination set about building a church-sponsored residence for men students. They needed a dean to develop this work, and they called upon me to take up the task. Since I myself still had a lot of thinking to do, I would be able to feel like a student among students. The call certainly appealed to me. As yet, no minister of our church had worked full-time among undergraduates, so I would be breaking new ground—all in all a promising adventure.

But becoming the dean of that residence out in the far West would mean leaving our old friends and relatives three thousand miles behind us. In Ontario, “the West” meant the prairies. The West somehow ended with Alberta at the Rocky Mountains. British Columbia lay “somewhere beyond the West,” on the western slope of the Rockies, between the mountains and the ocean. Except for the names Okanagan Valley, Fraser River, Vancouver, Stanley Park and Vancouver Island, neither we nor our acquaintances knew much about what lay out there west of the West. But Abraham had been called by God to move westward to a land which he had never seen. The pioneers, whose courage we had always celebrated, had gone west in much rougher times. So now for the Ross family too it would be “Westward ho!” in a wagon—a station wagon, that is.

Sooner or later we had to decide on the route we would follow. An oil company sent us some maps. At the end of a day, Kay and I would sometimes spread out these maps on the dining room table and dream over them. The names of places on the Great Plain had a magic ring to them, pulling strongly on our imagination. We were looking for the shortest route that offered the most scenic features. The Trans-Canada highway still} had some gaps, so we decided to take an American route. But which one? Only the farthest end of our journey was fixed.

There were many, many ways to get to Vancouver. In geometry, you usually think of point A and point B as being connected by a single straight line. But on a map A and B can be joined together by umpteen different curved or wiggly lines. There are many ways to go anywhere.

Roadmakers, of course, have to contend with big barriers which severely limit their choices of routes. There may be only one pass through a high mountain range, or only one feasible place to build a bridge. But sometimes road builders boldly tunnel through a mountain or under a river. Aircraft, of course, can fly right over all these barriers, but for us economics ruled out flying.

We didn’t complain about having to choose which highways to follow. The first people who explored this continent had only horses, canoes and their own feet. They didn’t have even a road map. It was reassuring for us to know that before us somebody had traveled through that big country out there and come back to tell us by a map that they had found a way.

We lived very close to the main line of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. The station was opposite our house, separated from us only by a street and a narrow sliver of vacant land. The tracks angled across Eighth Avenue about two hundred yards away. Big double-engine freights from the west would hit that crossing at full speed, whistles or horns blaring like all the trumpets of hell. In the dead of a summer’s night our guests would sometimes sit straight up in their beds, sure that some bellowing, thundering locomotive was about to crash through their open window. Sometimes a more docile steam engine would just sit over there on the siding and pant for a while, catching its breath. Those engines always had bad breath! They used to belch streaks of soot over Kay’s clean sheets hanging outside on the clothesline. Once she shrieked at the engineer about his dirty work and shook her fist at him from a distance. He was greatly amused. She has a very small fist, and she doesn’t shake it at all convincingly.

After we had definitely decided to move to Vancouver, the passing trains began to take on new significance for us. When a big freight was going by, its flatcars loaded with very long, straight hydro poles, we would say, “That train probably came from British Columbia.” Somehow Vancouver seemed a little closer to us when we realized that that track out there snaked along northward and westward across Canada to the very city where we would be going. We could personally feel what the completion of the railway through the Rockies had done to pull Canada together into a psychological and economic unity.

Another happy thought occurred to us. That paved street out there, good old Eighth Avenue, led into Highway 7, then into Number 27, and on to Windsor, over to Chicago, and a little farther on, there was Vancouver! Pavement all the way from our driveway to our new driveway in Vancouver! Our new home was just at the other end of that road out there. We were joined together already.

One night at our map-and-snack session, Kay thought of something else. “Notice,” she smiled, “these roads aren’t one-way.” The significance of that observation took a moment to sink in. Neither of us was very happy about leaving behind all our relatives and our many-years-worth of friends. But if the roads on which we drove away from these people were two-way, we could always drive back again to Ontario, maybe many times. Our folks and friends could also make the trip. A happy realization, indeed.

My mind drifted off, thinking about two-way roads. People tend to isolate themselves into separate groupings, each with its own style, each doing specialized things, and using a peculiar language with its own idioms and perhaps its own accent. One profession finds it hard to talk to another. Organizations become so preoccupied with their own interests and goals that they forget to keep in touch with other organizations that are working on other facets of the human problem. Each group tends to become a little world unto itself, cut off and deprived of the others’ experience. Sometimes one association pours its resources into solving a problem that another group has already solved. We need to know what the others are doing, and what they have already done. We need to update and correct our impressions of other people. Whatever they were at one time, they may not be that today. Everyone and everything keeps changing. We need to find out where they’re at now, and they also need to know about us. Two-way roads of communication are highly necessary between persons, organizations and fields of knowledge. If I can come to understand someone else who is open to be understood, then such a person can be helped toward a better understanding of me. We need a language in common, shared experience and a lot of good will.

But somehow many people like to keep “outsiders” outside and at a distance. They intend to keep their secrets secret. Few people bother to open and maintain two-way roads that will link them to more than their own kind of people. Somebody always has to make the first move. It’s always hard to start things, but we still need social explorers, pioneers and wayfinders.

That’s what I was going west to become: a wayfinder, a person belonging to the church but working in association with the university, attempting to bring these two long-separated institutions back into useful communication. I would have to venture into many unfamiliar fields of knowledge to ensure that the church’s message was still hearable and relevant. The more I could understand, say, about the sciences and technologies, the better I could interpret the church to them. My goal was to establish mutual understanding and sympathy at both ends of two-way roads that I might help to build.

A moving experience

Our excitement about attempting a great trek to the west soon gave way to a sobering realization: we had to move. Kay and I glanced around in the house, upstairs and down, in the attic and basement, in the back porch and garage, and despairingly shook our heads. Everywhere we looked was crowded with our possessions. We simply couldn’t take all those things with us, not that whole houseful! Further inspection left no doubt that our big brick house had been a haven for pack rats.

Both my wife and I had come from thrifty families. They had taught us to save anything that might one day come in handy. That we had done. But somehow we never reckoned with someday having to move.

Take my advice. Don’t ever move into a house that is bigger than absolutely necessary—unless you intend to live in that one place until you die. Then, of course, someone else will have to worry about disposing of your accumulated worldly goods. Through the years we had inherited items copiously from deceased relatives. From time to time generous friends had also contributed to our store of possessions from their own overflow. Write it down as Ross’s Rule: The volume of your possessions will inevitably expand to fill the space available for housing them.

We come into this world entirely naked and we take nothing out of it when we die. But in between, like a caterpillar, we spin such a cocoon of possessions around ourselves that whatever we are gets buried somewhere within whatever we have.

Young birds and animals survive fairly well with very little equipment. Our baby girl, Karen, arrived six months before moving day. Soon she was surrounded by equipment. Much of it had been used, it is true, by her brother Martin, who was eighteen months older. But there it all was: baby carriage, crib, Bathinette, changing table, chest of drawers, diapers, diaper bag, nighties, dresses, washing machine, dryer, toys, milk bottles (just in case) . . . and so on. No wonder the national economy unanimously celebrates the birth of a child . . . also weddings!

Their older sister, Dawn, was nine. A piano for her, plus dolls and all things thereto pertaining. Our older boy, Robin, had a bicycle, a room-size electric train layout as well as twelve years of accumulated treasures. Need I mention Kay’s roomful of African violets under fluorescent lights? Or the power tools that I had made out of old sewing machines and other cast-off mechanical items? Everywhere, appliances, utensils, tools and implements reflecting our various interests and our human helplessness without special equipment. The more kinds of things we humans try to do, the more technical equipment we must have. The more dreams we dream and the more hopes we have of some day pursuing some interest, the more paraphernalia we assemble. People are insatiable thing-users, thing-makers and thing-collectors.

As moving day loomed closer, haphazard heaps began to appear in the least-used corners of several rooms. As these surreptitious piles became noticeably more extensive, I recognized them as the first symptoms of a sinister confusion that threatened to pervade our whole household. “We must have a plan for packing,” I said, “before we lose someone somewhere among the mounds.”

It was clear that we had to sort out our possessions into classes, and establish a definite, well-known location for each kind, so that by the grace of God, come moving day, we might be able to get the right things onto the truck and away—with hope of finding them again fairly easily. Our four classifications were as follows:

1. Things to be left behind, whether to be sold, given away, burned or carted off to the dump. (Sort these into subpiles as time permits.)

2. Things we must take with us in the car on our western safari: baby necessities, food, clothing and camping gear. (Note: Get a station wagon soon—a big one, with two spare tires.)

3. Things to go west by moving van. (Oh yes. Arrange soon for the moving van.)

4. Things miscellaneous. (God help whoever has to deal finally with this extraordinary collection of undecidables.)

Category 4 showed me that logic sometimes isn’t much help to a harried hurried human being facing too many alternative maybe’s, perhaps’s and possibly’s.

The hardest place Kay and I had to work was up in our attic. The whole floor there under the high roof was laid out like a warehouse. Almost every box and carton contained precious dreams or cherished memories. All those beautiful magazines depicting house and garden ideas which we might use some day. The kids’ Hallowe’en costumes, complete with three candy-kiss wrappers—the empty remains of last year’s loot. Their special toys, now outgrown. Books that had once helped us to grow, still our friends. Clothes, no longer in style, that had been worn on notable occasions, such as the jacket of the suit I wore when we were married. Kay slipped into her wedding dress and we held each other close. Her “Exhibition dress” was there too: a bold, red-and-white-banded, “having a fling” kind of dress that had once caught the eye of an MC running a spelling match at the big fair in Toronto. He invited our Mom to step right up and take part—she might win a big hamper of groceries! She spelled so well that she won the contest, and we proudly helped her carry away the food.

Over by the window there in the attic, Kay held up a dress that had been part of another adventure. The radio was always dropping the names of fabulous places in New York City and we had longed to see them sometime. After years of pouring oil into our old 1929 Chev, we finally borrowed the money to buy an avant-garde Studebaker coupe, the kind that looked the same both coming and going. When a “perceptive antique-lover” misguidedly bought our old Green Hornet (which the car dealer wouldn’t touch), suddenly we had two hundred dollars. Quite enough to get us to Broadway! (And back?) We took the rear seat out of the Studebaker and ran a mattress back into the trunk. We could sleep in there.

What a glorious week we had! The city of our dreams came alive for us: Times Square, Radio City Music Hall, Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Gimbel’s, the Planetarium, the Museum of Natural History, the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, the Bronx, Harlem, the Statue of Liberty and Grand Central Station—all those and more. It was just great! We ate at the Automat and browsed around in the stores. I saw Kay longingly fingering a sleek green dress. She looked at the price tag, and quickly walked away. That dress was just made for her. On a tour someone gave us two tickets to an NBC radio quiz show. I was picked as a contestant, and I won enough money to buy Kay that lovely green dress. When we crossed back into Canada, we had exactly thirteen cents.

From back in under one of the eaves Kay brought out a shoebox tied with red ribbon—my love letters to the girl I married. These might as well have been pure gold. My pen had somehow performed miracles, turning ordinary paper into priceless treasures. Those letters would be going with us—no question.

Both of us commented on the abundance of “spider webs” in the attic that year. It seemed that invisible lines ran out from nearly every item in the entire attic, tying each of them to every other and to us. All of these things had been part of our lives and of the lives of our dear ones. Lines of relationship, taut with emotion, tugged at our heartstrings.

What are these slender ties of affection that radiate from things that are precious to you? No one but you knows they are there, unless someone threatens to take your treasures away or tries some ill-advised tampering. When they see you gasp and reach out your hand, then they know to whom those things belong. The sentiments attached to a carton don’t show up on weigh scales.

I wonder whether movers quite know what they do. In their vans they are transporting cargoes of life tendrils, invisible filaments and vital couplings. No chemical or physical scientific tests will ever reveal any of these tough but tender relationships.

Physical scientists may try to exclude their feelings from their experiments, but if they didn’t like their work, not much science would get done. Human attachments by emotional bondings are powerful indeed. Take away secret yearnings to have and to hold property, and money would forthwith become useless. If loving and loyalty ceased, if “my,” “mine” and “ours” disappeared from the language, if sentimental memories, caring and goals were all gone, life wouldn’t be worth living. These invisible but powerful ties of affection are the lines and lures of God, and they move us effectively.

Don’t ask me how all those things in our house eventually got sorted out and sensibly distributed. We put in long days, working steadily. Toward the end we were going through the motions numbly and mechanically. One end of what had been our vegetable garden came to resemble Jerusalem’s Vale of Hinnom—its fires went not out, neither by day nor by night. Any tears that fell upon the embers of our former treasures delayed those devouring flames for only the briefest moment. We died many little deaths.


What hurt most—if we let ourselves think of it—was leaving all those great people, our people. Working together through nine long years, a significant portion of lives had been invested in one another.

Sad things had happened, tragic events, like when a fine young man was running a heavy tractor up a ramp onto a truck and the machine overturned, crushing the life out of him.

There had also been many proud times of achievement and celebration. The young people of my little church in Vaughan Township had worked for weeks on a well-designed Christmas crèche, the first ever in those parts. People came for miles to see it—including one crusty old farmer whom no one expected to see around the church, ever.

Our Woodbridge church’s “Fowl Suppers” were renowned throughout the area. A sweating crew of church workers dished out all the magnificent turkey, trimmings and pie anyone could eat. The church kitchen, however, did have certain traffic problems as bustling women rushed to and fro. A hundred or so people out there yet waiting to be fed. I’ll never forget seeing Kay standing beside her pots of mashed potato, trying to extricate someone’s apron that had wound itself up in her electric beaters as the lady who wore it flew past.

Kay had led a group of young “Canadian Girls in Training.” They used to camp at her father’s cottage over on Lake Huron. One hot July afternoon they were to hike several miles upshore to Pine River for a cookout. But nobody wanted to lug all that food and the other necessities so far in that heat. With the self-sacrificing resignation of a noble martyr, I volunteered to take the heavy load away over to the dunes by rowboat. The relieved girls lavished on me their overflowing gratitude and sympathy, which I enjoyed to the full. Unknown to them, however, I had noticed that a fair breeze was just beginning to blow from the south. Long after the CGIT girls had departed, I rigged up an oar in the boat for a mast. Kay’s mother’s hammock on it made a good-enough sail. The girls were waiting there on the beach when at last I sailed up to them in grand style, leisurely leaning on my cushion, steering with the other oar. They gave me a rough time and almost made a real martyr of me. (I had to row all the way back though, against the wind!)

Kay played the organ in that church and even trained the little choir to sing parts of Handel’s Messiah. That old pipe organ had a most beautiful mellow tone. In its later years, however, it developed an eccentric habit of sounding one or other of its pipes unbidden and continuously. I came to know that old organ inside and out—I had repaired it so often with chewing gum, safety pins and patches from automobile inner tubes. The congregation, however, never quite became used to me dashing out of the pulpit in clerical robes during some hymn or anthem when a cipher blared, to put the offending pipe out of its misery.

Eventually, though, the people did get used to seeing their minister downtown in coveralls. Our men, assisted by a few others, built a house for a family of eight who had lost everything when the Humber River flooded. I borrowed a truck, scrounged building materials from local industries, and helped the work crews where I could. The keys of their new house were presented to the family with prayer on Christmas Day.

In the neighboring community of Humber Summit, another set of our people had been building a new church with their own hands. The hurricane rains had washed away bridges and flooded roads in every direction. We were temporarily marooned on an “island.” This was the day we had scheduled pouring the cement floor for the basement of the new church. We went ahead with the project, flood or no flood. We had lots of help for the job, for nobody could go anywhere else that day to do anything else. The main floor of the new church was quickly turned into a relief supply depot for the victims of Hurricane Hazel.

On another Saturday we men gathered to plaster some of the walls. Everybody was noisily joking and wisecracking as we loaded our boards with mortar. We picked up our trowels bravely and stepped up to the wall in a line. Each of us gingerly took up a dab of mortar, raised the trowel to the wall—and froze in that position. Then we all broke down laughing. Each of us was waiting to see how someone else would put the plaster onto the wall without slopping it onto the floor. None of us had ever done a plastering job before.

All of us left our names penciled somewhere in that church, under the floor coverings or behind the wood paneling. Someday, some building wrecker may pause to consider the significance of those names. We built the Church while we built the church. I know too that my name is written in small letters under the name of our Savior in the lives of the people who worked there with me, studied with me and prayed with me, for we saw real miracles happen.

Then there was the night when for the first time the lights were to be turned on in the new church. As the switch was thrown we tried to sing “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” Many of us, who had worked so hard to have a church which would spread light in that community, suddenly developed an unexpected catch in our throats that kept us from singing. But after a line or two we got into it.

Yes, and the day before the church was to be dedicated, when we were uncrating the new baptismal font, a young couple I had been instructing asked to be baptized so that they might become members before opening day. The workers in overalls and aprons put down their paintbrushes and dustcloths to gather around. From the well which the men themselves had dug, someone brought in a bucket of water to fill the hastily dusted font. Never were there more meaningful baptisms. We had refreshments then, and as I prayed a blessing over the orange juice and cookies, it seemed like Holy Communion.

What memories would go west with us! Those experiences had helped to make us what we were, and they have had their part in whatever we have later become. Our recollections remind us that we have long and deep roots. Slender but strong, they forever tie our hearts to the eastern hills we called home.