A Picture Worth a Thousand
by Patti Desjardins
Young men on the verandah of the general store in Westmeath,
My mother has taken one,
really good, photograph in her life. She was twelve-years-old
when she snapped three men on the veranda of her familys
general store in the small village of Westmeath, Ontario.
It was 1946 and her subjects were two friends who had recently
returned from service overseas. It is well-composed with them
centred in the foreground, an interesting backdrop of a third
man, and quintessential store paraphernalia such as advertising
signs and a screen door. The original black and white photo
is small, about 2 x 3 inches, but it is a picture worth a
According to my mother, the
men are: Willis Hughes against the post, Paul Gervais leaning
against him, and Kazoo Vizena on the bench. The subjects were
relaxed because the photographer was a mere girl. If my grandfather
had taken the picture, they may have stood straighter with
their shoulders squared. If any one of my mothers three
older sisters had snapped it, they may have been cockier.
But my mother was a little girl, a fixture around the shop,
perhaps a wee pest. Her engagement with the two young men
is not even interesting enough to divert the third mans
attention from something farther up the street. The best thing
about the photo is how my mother captured them: at ease, their
bodies touching, their legs a perfect sweep. Their stance
reflects the brotherhood and camaraderie of soldiers; even
their shadows on the shop wall behind evince it. If you look
closely, you can see a medal hanging from Paul Gervais
belt. I wonder if he took it from an enemy soldier, or if
it was merely some of the jetsam and flotsam of war, traded
Both young men left Westmeath
soon after. There wasnt enough work for all of the returning
soldiers in such a small community and many had the wanderlust
mentioned in the tune How you gonna keep them down on
the farm after theyve seen Paree. Some made friendships
and connections with men from other parts of Canada which
lead to employment and business opportunities, others sought
adventure, and still others craved only tranquility. Willis
left for a job up north and Paul headed to the Montreal area,
but both stayed in touch with friends and family in the village.
The chap in the background
is one of those village dawdlers, always parked on a bench
or an overturned crate in a general store or gas station.
Nowadays people may linger over their lottery tickets at a
store counter, but back then, some men spent entire days at
my grandparents shop, especially on Sundays. Nobody
remembers what became of Kazoo Vizena; as part of the village
background, he gradually faded into it one day.
The fact that my mother as
a child had a camera in the 1940s deserves some comment. My
grandparents were two of the bigger fish swimming in the small
pond of Westmeath. They were not well-to-do but, as merchants,
they had certain advantages. For one thing, most families
ran a line of credit for groceries, and as the people whom
others were beholden to, my grandparents possessed a certain
degree of eminence. Also, during the Depression and then wartime
rationing, certain foodstuffs were beyond the means of many
families; but for grocers, everything in the shop was available.
I dont know how she got her camera, but she acquired
many special items as a child such as the first ballpoint
pen in the village, cross-country skis, and a desk for homework.
Salesmen often gave her samples, and my grandmother waylaid
all the incoming products for the store, cashing in coupons,
and nabbing promotional perks.
I am glad that my mother
had a camera on that summer day in 1946 because she snapped
a photograph that captures the essence of young men returning
home. After doing their duty for their country, they were
on the brink of a new future. Yet they still had time to reconnect
with their roots, time to fraternize on the village store
veranda, and time to indulge a twelve-year-old girl.
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 52, Summer 2006. Copyright Patti Desjardins.
TO STORY INDEX
TO BACK ISSUE PAGE