I am not going to ‘review’ Ross DeMerchant’s book 26 Letters, so much as tell you about it and perhaps share some of my own memories. The reason is because Ross is my cousin and I likely wouldn’t have ever read this book ( which is part memoir, part self-help, part spiritual) if not for that fact.
My dad, Edgar, was the youngest of four. He had three older sisters: Alice, Dorothy and Barbie. There was eleven years between Barbie, the youngest daughter, and my dad, which meant that most of my cousins were a lot older than my brothers and me. They also didn’t live near us when we were growing up, so unless we went back to my dad’s home town we didn’t really get to see them very much.
L-R: My grandmother, Muriel; I am not sure who the lady is just behind Grammy; my Aunt Barbie, with her arms around my dad; Aunt Alice; Aunt Dorothy. I am going to say this is the mid-forties as my dad was born in 1937.
My father grew up near a really small town about four hours up the St. John River from where I now live. Ross explains that “On one side of the river was one community called Perth. On the other side of the river was another community called Andover. Obviously, the two communities became joined by a hyphen, making it one town called Perth-Andover.”
I always remember thinking of it as Perth and (wait for it) over. Ha.Ha.
My dad grew up just outside of Perth-Andover on a farm in South Tilley. Although I am not sure of the history of the exchange, the farm came to be in the hands of my Aunt Barbie and Uncle Bernard and so that is where Ross and his siblings Douglas, Diane, Mark and Paul grew up. Mark kept the farm running until 2013, but it’s a tough business and he just couldn’t do it anymore, so he sold it.
When I was a kid, going to the farm was magical. Back then it was hundreds of acres (they farmed potatoes) and I have very specific memories of visiting. I remember that there was a one room schoolhouse at the end of their driveway and that is where my aunts and father attended school. My cousin Diane had a sweet little playhouse filled with miniature dishes and furniture and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. There was also a sort of attic (although I may be remembering that wrong) filled with books like The Lennon Sisters and Cherry Ames. If we were lucky to go there in the winter, we could go out on the snowmobiles. That was a blast because there were endless fields to ski-doo through. My Aunt Barbie was a great cook. I specifically remember these raspberry squares she used to make.
My dad, me, and my younger brothers, James and Mark at the farm.
One of the things I was most looking forward to when I picked up 26 Letters, was Ross’s recollections of growing up on the farm. I was hoping for some stories that I might have remembered, too. I guess I am at the age where I am feeling sort of nostalgic about these special places and people from my childhood.
Sadly, Ross’s stories were mostly unfamiliar to me with one notable exception – the accident his little brother, Paul, had as a toddler.
It was during the potato harvest season when life is incredibly busy exciting on the farm. Potatoes are hauled from the fields and placed in large holding bins within the “potato house.” The in-ground bins were twelve to thirteen feet deep and large enough that trucks would actually drive onto the platform over the bins and unload from there. It was in that setting that Paul wandered unnoticed onto the platform of the bins. Someone noticed that Paul was missing, and the frantic search by the entire crew began.
Paul was found at the bottom of one of the empty bins. He remained unconscious for two weeks, and as Ross tells it “his first word was in response to me standing at the foot of his hospital bed. He looked up and said, “Ross.”” He had to have a metal plate put in his head and I remember that we were all told we had to be careful around him when he was a kid.
L-R: My cousin Mark, me, my brother Tom (in the brown suit) my brother Mark, my mom tucked behind, Aunt Dorothy and her daughter, my cousin Brenda, my grandmother, Muriel, Aunt Barbie and Uncle Bernard.
Some of Ross’s stories conjured up memories of places in Perth-Andover. Everyone knew York’s for instance. It was world famous for its food, a zillion courses of home cooking. I don’t recall ever once going there as a kid, though. It was too expensive and we never had any money.
I loved his description of how directions work. “In those days,” he says, “mile markers were such things as barns, railway crossings, houses known by the family’s last name and unique places you wouldn’t find listed on any map, like “the gravel pit” or “the four corners.”
That reminded me of a summer many years ago, when my kids were little, and we’d planned a family reunion at the farm. I was confident I could remember the way, but I got us totally lost and we eventually had to stop in a little country store and ask for directions. We weren’t even on the right side of the river and we arrived at the farm at least 45 minutes after everyone else. I was the butt of everyone’s joke that day.
My children loved the farm. They loved Mark’s son, Mitchell, who back then was probably 13 or 14. He was a beautiful kid with white blonde hair and a dark tan that can only come from spending hours working in the sun. He was sweet to my kids, too.
My daughter Mallory and son Connor with Mitchell at the farm.
He took them on the atv and the tractor and taught them how to dig potatoes.
26 Letters is Ross’s way of encouraging people to have meaningful conversations with the people who matter in their lives. He’s spent his career working with young people and adults.
“We don’t talk well in our culture. In a world of unparalleled convenience, we struggle more than ever to communicate with each other, ” Ross says.
I don’t disagree. And worse, our shared history is often lost. That’s why I love spending time with family. My cousin Suzanne was home from England a couple summers ago and she, her brother, John, and I went up to Fredericton to visit with our cousins Diane, Brenda and our aunts Dorothy and Barbie. We laughed a lot that afternoon and my aunts shared stories, many of which I had never heard before. At one point, Barbie started to play the piano. John and I looked at each other, stunned.
“Did you know Aunt Barbie could play the piano?”
“Nope. Did you?”
I am fifty-five. John is older than me.
Ross’s motivation for writing 26 Letters was “so that I could leave for my children and grandchildren my understanding of those things that helped shape the person I am.”
I can think of no better legacy than the stories we share with the people we love.
Back: Brenda, Diane, Grammy holding my brother Tom, Douglas holding me, my cousins Colin and Ross.