Preserving the Story: Elizabeth Mellow

Writing Sample: Memoirs

The following excerpt comes from a portrait of the Mellow family in Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada. It was prepared by Linda Revie, a writer and researcher living in the Peterborough area. Ms. Revie prepared this at the request of Elizabeth Mellow. While the Memoirs are based on family papers, family recollections and independent research, they have been written up in a personalized, literary way, centering on the main narrator Elizabeth who wants to relate this story to her daughter Laura.


Memoirs of an Ontario V.O.N.

About ten litres of gasoline will take you away from the bleak city skyline into a rolling wooded landscape that makes up the back roads of Durham County. There, on the edge of the Oak Ridges Moraine, creeks and rivers, century farmsteads, hills and hollows. Continue through the valley past the last isolated stand of trees, swing in a wide sweep northeast, then dip down one more time toward the town. Although a busy thoroughfare now, the main drag has managed to retain its village flavour. At one time it was one-horse-town and this road, if it could be called that, wended through thickly wooded pine land.

The town is called Uxbridge. It’s a little jewel encased in memory and it’s located in south central Ontario, Canada. Canada, of course, occupies a sizeable portion of the world, with borders on three oceans; Ontario is but one provincial slice of the huge Canadian pie. The southern part of the province dips below the fabled 49th parallel, and in a triangulated space between Lake Simcoe (to the north), Lake Scugog (to the east) and Lake Ontario (to the south), you’ll find Uxbridge.

The name alone is typical of the way the Empire influenced the colony’s sense of place. Its sister town in England was known through time as Oxbridge (15th century), as Woxbrigge (12th century) and as Wixan’s Bridge (7th century), the Wixan being a Saxon tribe who built a bridge over the river Pinn and farmed the region that became Uxbridge, West London.

In the old part of Uxbridge, Ontario, close to where the first settlers built an “ox” bridge, there’s a distinguished Classic Revival style home. It’s still there, with the grey siding, cream gables, decorative gingerbread and large sprawling verandah. The house’s current owner steps up to the front door. She’s driven all the way from Peterborough County to take a few last photos of the property. She aims her smartphone, videos the yellow door, lifts the phone higher to catch the name—Dr. MELLOW—etched into a golden window. The door itself is fitted with more stained glass that acts as a cloudy mirror. Between the colourful circles and ornamental inserts, she sees her own reflection in the glass. Taken aback by what looks like her much younger version of herself appearing out of the depths on the other side of the door, she steps away, spins around, continues videoing across the open space of the verandah, across the lawn and the FOR SALE sign, toward the driveway and past the houses farther up Main Street South.

She is, it turns out, Elizabeth Mellow and this is where she spent much of her life. She has driven back to Uxbridge with her daughter Laura to share a few final memories of this beloved ancestral home. They are also here to witness the removal of an antique medical device—a one-tonne solid oak electrostatic generating machine, about the size of an upright piano. Neither Elizabeth nor Laura was in the picture when this electrostatic machine arrived in Uxbridge, but both have heard family stories about how this legendary Waite & Bartlett medical generator came via train and wagon from Long Island, New York. The machine still generates electricity—they’ve tested it, quite recently. When a wheel at the end of the device is cranked, two glass disks inside the case rotate, moving some copper brushes, creating pale blue sparks and an ozone reek. When put into action as medical therapy, the blue electrical spark was either applied directly to a patient or the charge was stored up in condenser jars, and then used to power other procedures, including early x-rays.

Soon, the whole antique gizmo will be boomed over the 2nd floor balcony by a crane, swung into the back of a moving truck, and gently taken to the Museum of Health Care in Kingston, Ontario  Like the iron lung, this relic comes from an era when medicine was lurching toward modernity. When Elizabeth’s grandfather Dr. Mellow purchased it around 1915 for his home clinic, it was considered cutting edge.

Image from Museum of Health Care, Kingston, Ontario.

The “zap” was useful in treating many ailments including gout, rheumatoid arthritis, acne, epilepsy. The invisible beam, the start of medical imaging, allowed him to see inside the human body. And the fluoroscope, well it should have doubled as a ghost buster—the house sure needed that! They’ve heard all the stories over time about Dr. Mellow’s “assistant” Dorothy, in her oversized white lab coat, haunting his lab from the get-go, posing as a nurse when really she was the housemaid. There was also the other former Dr. Barnardo Child, Milly. Very beautiful and an epileptic. Sadly, Elizabeth’s grandfather found Milly dead one morning, in the maid’s room. Seemingly, she’d had a grand mal seizure and choked on her tongue. Thereafter, the dogs could sense that, and they always shied away from the back corridor where the maids—in human form and in spirit—continued to go up and down the stairs. Ears flattened, barking madly, those dogs would make a mad dash to the front of the house.

By that front door, a Town of Uxbridge Centennial plaque explains almost everything about the house, except how it got to be haunted. Elizabeth is looking at the plaque now, reading the backstory about the town’s earliest settlers, filling in the blanks too about Quakers who escaped religious persecution in the United States by coming north. History reveals how they travelled along a network of trails made by the Iroquoian peoples; by 1806 they’d made it all the way to the Uxbridge area. Mid-century, when the village was incorporated as a municipality, Uxbridge was thriving. It’s interesting that many of the earliest industries had a direct relationship to horse power. There were two wagon-makers, five blacksmith shops, two carriage-makers, two harness shops, four shoemakers, a few tack shops. Along with those early businesses at the main crossroads, Uxbridge hosted a few hotels that served as liquor outlets, a brewery, distillery, Dirty Mary’s illicit hooch hut, a tannery, saw mill, woollen mill, carpet factory. And, sometime in 1863, a doctor moved to town, setting up a practice in this very house on the west side of Main Street South.

The original house built by Dr. Joseph Bascom in 1863 was a 1-½ storey clapboard structure. Sometime before 1886 the roof was raised. With the second storey addition, a physician’s office was added to the north side. This is where Elizabeth’s folk come into the picture. Her grandfather Dr. Frank Earnest Mellow bought the residence and practice from Bascom’s nephew, Dr. Horace, in 1912. Elizabeth remembers her Grandpa as a frank, earnest and very mellow man—obviously his name was a perfect fit! But he was also a paragon of modernity in an area that was no-nonsense, conformist. Dr. Mellow loved his gadgets, had a thirst for knowledge, was always self-educating. Anything new and innovative, he had to have it, like the electrostatic generating machine, or the latest anatomically innovative forceps.

When her Grandpa Mellow purchased the house and practice there were no hospitals in Uxbridge. He was one of the few resident doctors in the region and he travelled by horse and cutter to visit patients spread far and wide. Along with the rest of the world, Dr. Frank Mellow experienced a brief moment of innocence before the Great War started. His wife Daisy had a son, Ross Carmichael, born in Uxbridge in 1913. Ross would grow up to be a physician, like his Dad: a medical officer during WWII; an army base surgeon during peacetime. Afterward, Dr. Ross Mellow went into private practice in Stoney Creek, eventually retiring to the Uxbridge home. He was instrumental in having the Bascom-Mellow house at 38 Main Street South recognized under the Ontario Heritage Act: Elizabeth remembers when it received the LACAC designation. The Spring of 1988, if memory serves correctly. Apparently, it was the first residential property to do so in the Township. That status ensures the new owners cannot change the outside of the building, meaning after it is sold people will still be able to recognize the home from the street for years to come.

Elizabeth walks along the porch to the north front office, opens the red door, joins her youthful self in the house. As daughter and granddaughter of doctors, she seemed destined to wind up in the family business. Medicine was part of her DNA. Her Grandpa’s brother, that would be her Great Uncle Sam Mellow in Port Perry, was a physician. Her maternal Granddad Peter Thornton Meek also trained to be a doctor in Edinburgh. He didn’t finish his degree; instead, he found the calling and went directly into theology. Still, he had an abiding interest in medicine.

From day one, though, her Grandpa Mellow was her idol. Her Father, Captain Ross Mellow, a real military doctor-hero, also shaped the nurse she would become. And thanks to her mother Elizabeth Meek, an artist in her own right, she was introduced to drawing, painting, sewing and unconditional love.

Inside, the house used to be full of solid objects belonging to her Grandparents and, later, the ephemeral clutter added by her Mom and Dad. Bolts of cloth and stacks of papers would contend for space with antiques of various sorts, some related to medicine and some, to the non-medically inclined, of obscure function. Early in her childhood, Elizabeth would often find this waiting room foyer occupied by her Grandfather’s patients. The rest of the bottom floor of the north section of the house contained two offices: the consultation room and the dispensary. There’s nothing left of the exam room, and in the dispensary, Grandpa’s favorite place, such a wonderful world of things and smells. As soon as that door was opened, it was Friar’s balsam, ether, ethanol and great whiffs of Dettol. She’s always loved the smell of Dettol, even at hospital-strength. It really does it to her.

It brings her back, that familiar pine castor caramel reek; Elizabeth swears it still lingers in the corners. She can almost visualize her Grandfather’s apothecary right here, with the organized racks of glass stoppered pharmaceuticals and basic compounds. His medicine chest used to be in that corner. Open the lid and there were rows and rows of well packed bottles all explained through written gummed-down labels in Grandpa’s spidery script. For her, they spoke the wild-sounding poisonous hymns of pharmacology: belladonna, arnicum, digitalis, opium. He would encourage his granddaughter to stand beside him while he weighed out the powders with scales and measures—by the scruple, by the dram—before doing a mortar and pestle to press them into swallowable pills.

This used to be the library filled with all kinds of texts from his university days. At a tender age Elizabeth would sit in front of her Grandfather’s old Underwood typewriter, her feet up on the desk, perusing the likes of Obstetrics or Labour & Delivery, gaping at all the abnormalities that can occur. Siamese twins. Medical monsters. Also sharing space with the books, the requisite human skull, a baby’s partial skeleton, and some surprised-looking stuffed owls. Now it’s just rows of dusty shelves, empty, and over here the cabinet once chock-a-block with bottles of ipecac, liquorice, sassafras, calamine and other unguents and ointments of the day. He’d sharpen his own needles using a medical sanding stone that sat on a counter over there. She remembers how patient he was, showing her exactly how it was done. He’d draw the bore across the edge of the bevel, just so. Then, taking a pair of tongs, he’d lift a glass syringe from the double tray sterilizer, carefully set it down. Using smaller grips, he’d insert the sharpened needle back into the syringe, just so.

In the back corner of the dispensary there once was a tiny sink for hand washing. Next to it, a slant top wall-mounted desk for quick Rx transcriptions. Later, this was where her Father kept his WWII Luger pistol. It was always a shock, finding a German gun in the desk drawer! Up that adjoining very narrow stairwell beside the dispensary, a second floor toilet. Down the steps, a workshop below, with jars and jars of violet black solids used to treat skin inflammations, and huge Hartz demi-johns with dark blue vitamin solutions. Grandfather would unscrew the top, use the glass finger hold and tilt the demi-john toward a funnel in order to decant into smaller apothecary jars.

All of those corked vessels, gone. Dr. Frank Mellow and his wife Daisy have long since passed away. Dorothy, the Barnardo maid, who came to think of herself as one of the family, is long deceased.

Grandma and Dorothy by the fountain in the back garden of the house.

Dr. Ross Mellow has been gone twenty years and his wife Elizabeth (Meek) Mellow died in February 2001. Oddly enough, both of her parents exited this world at age 83. Elizabeth herself has recently retired from a long nursing career first at Hamilton General, and then with the Victorian Order of Nurses. In her capacity as a visiting V.O.N., she had the occasion to go into many homes in Hamilton City and Hamilton Mountain, in the Kawarthas, the Haliburtons, and Victoria County. All the while, though, the architectonics of this wonderful Uxbridge house—part mausoleum, part dramatis personae—was imprinted in her cells, coursing through her veins.

Through the window at the far side of the dispensary, she spies Laura in the back garden taking pictures with her cell phone. Looking over that long extension out back, seeing in her mind’s eye mirages of the old stone fish pond, vegetable garden, rose garden, and the Yankee-themed red, white and blue phlox border. The smell of phlox anywhere in the world always brings Elizabeth right back to this remembered spot. Beyond the border of phlox there used to be a lawn bowling green. There’s a photo of it, she’s seen it recently, remembers the huge square of grass, lattice painted fence, wooden arbour to admit the bowlers onto the green. High above the four corners of the staked-off lawn, four gas-lit lamps. From this far away in time, there’s yet that sharp smell of cut grass. So wonderful to the nose. She can almost see the guy with the monster ride-on gas powered roller. She watches as Laura aims her camera in the direction where the club house used to sit. At some point it was converted into that two-car garage. When Laura’s gaze wanders back toward the dispensary window, Elizabeth catches her attention, beckons her daughter inside.

It still feels so immediate, the past, her parents, grandparents, Dorothy even. Elizabeth vividly remembers coming home to Uxbridge during summer holidays, at Thanksgiving, birthdays, Eastertime, for the Christmas break. Everyone fawning over her, glad she had arrived. Even now, the memories! She wells up, reaches out, squeezes Laura’s shoulder.

“This is my story to you, darling daughter.”

It’s an upstairs downstairs blend-of-voices story—a mother’s poignant gift to her child. It’s also a collaboration between fact, fiction, writer (Linda Revie) and memoirist (Elizabeth Mellow). In this little vignette in time, real events have been salted with legend, and nursing experiences have been kneaded with lore, to make this Canadian V.O.N.’s life into a modern-day Florence Nightingale tale.