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House in Canada held family stories, secrets

Being able to say you or a relative had a place in Canada, especially over the Fourth of July, seemed to carry cachet. This was an advantage most people didn’t enjoy. Yet, as in everything, there are ranks even in this.

The most desirable, really unattainable beach houses were in Lorraine. The next echelons strung along the shorelines of “the bays” – Abino, Thunder, Crescent, etc.

My wife’s grandparents had a place, now 90 years old, on a half acre between Ridgeway and the truck farms. Though it was a mile from any beach, it was heaven to grandmother Julia Hassett, and her half dozen siblings. It was their dacha.

Everyone was welcome, including cousins to the nth degree, and an in-law, Jack Moran, and his wife, who motored a ponderous black Buick he called “the machine” north from Philadelphia in high summer.

There were also Kellys, Conroys, Higginses, Meeghans and Jesuit Charlie McManus.

They had plenty of places to sleep – at least 16 – because “Canada,” as we called it, was actually two buildings, a relic of Canada’s response to American Prohibition.

Ice tongs dangling in the garage of the smaller building, ice picks and iron tubs suggested a history of trucks furtively delivering beer, and the dozen beds upstairs a chance to sleep it off.

All such places hold secrets and family stories. Here are some about “Canada.”

When my wife’s brother, Peter Hassett, was little, he was looking for his father and uncle one autumn evening. Wondering if something drew his dad and uncle to the small house, he peered into the darkened building from a perch outside the back window clear through to the front. Inside, quietly, his uncle crawled on his knees to the window that gradually grew opaque. The thing groaned, muttered “boo” and young Peter withdrew.

A tiny pantry near that window anchored the house. It was not clear to me what its attraction was until a dinner party during which Jack Moran kept repairing to that room. “Thump,” then “aaagh” and a heavy crash. Down went Jack. Two of the women softly wept. But Jack was not dead.

Relatives dragged Jack, who was 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds, across the dining room floor. The reports, “ka-clunk, ka-clunk,” as Jack’s huge shoes hit every riser, told us, sitting straight-faced at the table, they were laboring him upstairs toward a cot.

The pantry was where the whiskey was kept.

In 1978, we had a real Irish visitor, 9-year-old Roisin from St. Malachy’s Parish, Belfast. She was here for a one-month respite from what was then a sectarian war zone. Very poor, Roisin betrayed a gimlet eye for finer things.

She refused our buns and eggs breakfast claiming, in her thick brogue, she always had “sausage, chops and steaks” in the morning. Her nose turned up at our hand-made scones, saying she usually had currants in them. “I don’t like it,” she would say.

She turned a cold eye on our backwoods house, lobbying us to take her to beachfront places owned by wealthier friends. She learned their names.

One morning our daughter, then 9, had enough. Inviting Roisin outside to look at something, Molly gave her a tutorial in manners with her small fists.

While we all dispersed, the big house – the other house – burned down in the ’80s. Rescued from the ruins, miraculously, were a large stained-glass window showing the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, a statue of the virgin and a charred music box that still played: “If a body meet a body comin’ through the rye.”