Published in the Montreal Gazette on August 6, 2014
Most everyone wants to be remembered in one way or another.
There are numerous ways to achieve this elusive timelessness. Some might choose to pen a book while others may decide to engage in pioneering research; some compose while still others paint. Many people, however, are much more unassuming in their pursuit of apparent immortality.
I came to realise this a number of years ago while cleaning a window in my Victorian townhouse near the city centre. It was springtime, and while wiping dry a particular pane, I noticed that some long gone resident had taken the time to scratch his name, and, as it turned out, that of one of his daughters, onto that same piece of then sparkling glass. ‘A. Hudson and Rose Hudson’ it read quite succinctly.
A little digging in tattered city directories at the municipal library led me to the somewhat surprising fact that this particular history-loving individual had inhabited my home from 1877 – 1881. Indeed, the vintage windowpane had survived all those years – no mean feat for a downtown casement!
When I renovated that same house, I also left details for someone to find in a later, different time. Hidden within the walls and behind the cupboards are photos and other artefacts attesting to my years in Montreal – a sort of private, yet very modest, time capsule.
Nonetheless, simply writing one’s name somewhere, anywhere, is perhaps the most common way of endeavouring to leave behind a hint of one’s brief journey on this planet. By carving a mark on the trunk of a tree in the country, or fingering the same into a freshly poured concrete sidewalk in the city, individuals can catch the attention, albeit temporarily, of others who will, in the fullness of time, stumble upon it.
Not too too far from my former home, and its now illustrious window pane, is found the Church of St. John the Evangelist. The sacred edifice, constructed in 1878, is a jewel of Montreal ecclesiastic architecture and the resplendent creation of Reverend Edmund Wood, the founder of the Anglican parish.
It is widely believed that in the 1880’s the back of this same church was used as a teaching area for St. John’s School, the forerunner to what is now the prestigious Lower Canada College. Little known, however, is that the interior brick wall found underneath the choir loft of this ‘High Church’ carries a modest amount of graffiti from the pupils of that same institution.
Although more and more blanched with the passage of time, the signatures and years of earlier Montrealers are still easily visible to the searching eye. In their own almost circumspect fashion, the mischievous pupils good-naturedly ‘tagged’ well over a century ago both the church and history.
Yet some individual inscriptions found elsewhere intrigue even more than others.
On a recent visit to the Tarquinia National Museum in the Italian city of the same name, I came upon one example that, as a Canadian, especially fascinated me. I chanced upon it in the historic museum that dates from 1924 and which is housed in the beautiful fifteenth century Palazzo Vitelleschi located in the town’s city centre.
The palace’s far-reaching walls and support columns are peppered with the personal graffiti of those who have stopped by the ornate structure down through the years. Most of the ‘tagging’, however, appeared to have been from the first half of the twentieth century, long before the introduction of security cameras to help cope with the ever-increasing phenomenon.
The particular jotting that so riveted me read merely “D. Watters, Winnipeg, Canada”. It most likely dated from the period after the establishment of the museum in the 1920’s, perhaps it was even the work of a Canadian soldier who passed that way during World War Two. However, the wayward Prairie engraver chose not to include a year, leaving onlookers like me even more curious about the individual in question.
When was he in Tarquinia? What took him there? Are he or his descendants still alive today? These are just some of the many interrogatives that come to mind. All the same, Mr. Watters, like my Victorian window etcher of now so long ago, definitely found his own desired instrument of lasting fame.