First published in the Westmount Examiner on August 21, 2008.
I imagine that most mortals would have forgotten by now but, oddly enough, I never did. My chance (and now long ago) encounter with her was just too indelible to be disregarded by the passage of time. Do let me explain.
This rather curious tale began in the fall of 1972 when I worked as an enumerator in the October federal election. I lived in a very small apartment on the west side of Mountain Street in the city centre. As a struggling 25 year old McGill University student, I knew that the extra money would come in handy in making ends meet.
What made the enumeration experience particularly intriguing for me was the simple fact that I drew up the voters’ list for the very precinct in which I was living at the time. I went door to door with a woman who was probably forty years my senior and who represented the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (oh, how I miss that compound noun!). Our area formed a perfect rectangle with always – popular Crescent Street at its centre. It was, moreover, truly a hodgepodge of various types of housing and people. As I recall, the enumeration task was carried out over several days and included return visits to domiciles at which we initially received no answer.
When we approached the door of one particular home located on the northeast corner of Crescent and de Maisonneuve, my partner paused. After a few moments, she informed me that the individual living there was a very elderly woman who had resided in the building since her childhood and that, consequently, she had singularly vivid memories of the immediate neighbourhood – going as far back as the late Victorian period !
Although I was studying education at McGill, history was my major during my undergraduate studies so, needless to say, I was elated at the possibility of learning first hand what my neighbourhood was like all those years ago. I believe this eclectic wonder is called ‘oral history’.
Once at the portal in question, we were beckoned in for tea, an invitation I attribute to my associate’s easy familiarity with the aged woman, and definitely not my scruffy (as photos from the period so cruelly remind me) university looks. When I tactfully introduced myself to her, I learned that she was the widow of one Doctor William Wallace Ruddick who had died only a few years earlier. She was clearly well-to-do and very refined, a quality which initially put me somewhat on edge in my free and rebellious student days. However, charming to the point of exaggeration, I was quickly put at ease.
Mrs. Ruddick, a francophone by birth, was perfectly lucid and I quickly turned the conversation towards her earliest memories of the vicinity in which we then both lived. Ironically, the respective buildings which we inhabited (her for so long, me but for a few years) were back to back, separated only by a service lane.
For well over an hour, Dr. Ruddick’s widow waxed lyrically about her childhood, her adolescence, her falling in love with the good doctor, and most important from my viewpoint, the neighbourhood in which she lived which was, in fact, the only locality she had ever known in Montreal.
Measurably excited, I startled myself somewhat when I very assertively directed her recollections to the cricket pitch which was once said to be on what is today Crescent Street. “Oh, yes, my dear,” she exclaimed fervently, “I remember that field, as well as the Lacrosse Grounds which ran up all the way to Sherbrooke Street. When I was very young, my father used to take me on Saturdays to see the various teams which competed on the two fields.”
She then continued with her many remembrances without further prompting from her two now very attentive visitors. Interestingly, she retained a vivid memory of the construction in 1912 of both the Ritz Carlton Hotel and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, both within a stone’s throw of one another on Sherbrooke Street. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Ruddick even recalled visiting the Arts Association building on Phillips Square (the precursor of the MMFA).
The celebrated Victoria Skating Rink (long demolished) on Drummond Street was also the focus of some of her conversation. Constructed in 1864, it was said to be the largest skating rink any where in North America and the site of the first indoor ice hockey game ever played. She easily and enthusiastically revived youthful memories of being happily taken there by her family.
For well over an hour, our most hospitable interlocutor pieced together a compelling personal narrative of what life was like in the neighbourhood in the late Victorian, early Edwardian period. I was both delighted and fascinated with her many colourful and well-articulated anecdotes, made all the more appealing by just a hint of an accent while she spoke. As we left, I instinctively sensed how privileged I was to have had her share with us her invaluable recollections. Quite moved, I promised myself to write them down one day.
Today, Mrs. Ruddick’s former home has, like many in that corner of our city, been converted into a bar – restaurant complex. As such, I think of her and her captivating chronicle when I occasionally dine in the very space in which I sat opposite her all those years ago!