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Open Features: Finding Frank

...Frank sat at the head of the of the beautifully, and specially, laid table and when we were all settled, bowed his head and prayed thanks for our safe arrival and the meal to come...

Derek McQueen sheds tears for a wonderful man he only met once.

“I’ve just ‘phoned Claire’s Mum and Dad in the States.” It was our son Chris in London. “Claire and I have decided to get married and I asked Don for his blessing on the idea”, he said.

I was taken aback, to say the least. The call was late and the message totally unexpected. “Fine”, I managed. “What brought that on?” Then, a little more generously "Congratulations.”

Chris did well at school – had a disastrous interview at Oxford and then got a place at the London School of Economics. His mother had died that summer, after a long illness and Chris left for university a month later. The family was exhausted emotionally – it was not going to be easy for him leaving home for the first time.

By the time he had a job with BP, as a management trainee, Chris had met Claire, a young student from New Jersey. She was on a one-year secondment from a New York college when their paths crossed in London. The courtship was both frenetic and expensive, after Claire returned home, with three day and sometimes, even two- day trans-Atlantic crossings. Despite, or maybe because they were both only twenty-two, marriage seemed like a better option. BP had no way they could transfer Chris to their New York Region and were annoyed when he left so soon after joining them.

We took him to Gatwick to get the new Virgin Airlines flight to Newark and a new life in the United States. There were a few lumps in throats that day.

Chris still hadn’t found a job despite pounding the streets of New York following up leads, when we flew to Kennedy for the wedding a few months later. As we made our travel plans, Anne had suggested that we use the opportunity to find Uncle Frank and Aunt Elizabeth who lived on the outskirts of Toronto. We had their address of course but not precisely where this was.

Anne was the one person in her family who kept in touch with them, exchanging letters a few times a year and making a special point of sending the Sheffield’s Golden Frame’ calendar. Frank and Elizabeth loved the photographs of Derbyshire especially. The letters back were warm and loving despite the distance and their having met Anne only once on a visit to Yorkshire years earlier.

Colin Woodhouse was Anne’s uncle – her dad’s brother. She moved to live with his family after losing both her parents at a tragically young age. Colin had progressed through the Sheffield Twist Drill Company, to become Sales Director and went abroad regularly on business. He knew that a relative of his had left England for Canada as a young person and on a whim decided on the long shot of trying to find him. There was a suggestion that Frank may have been in Ontario somewhere but as far as family in England were concerned, he had disappeared a very long time ago. Incredibly, there was a response to the advertisement Colin placed in a Toronto newspaper and Frank was reunited with a family he had never known.

Now, our wedding party of four – two friends had asked if they could travel with us – set out to find him once more.

The four of us hired the lowest cost car available at Kennedy Airport and slowly and carefully shoehorned our plentiful luggage and ourselves inside. Only the driver had the luxury of a suitcase-free lap. Our host was looking out for us as we arrived in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. She looked on in astonishment as the car doors burst open and we, suitcases and bags spilled onto the pavement. “You guys should have picked up the Kennedy – Newark helicopter.”She called helpfully.

The Curtis family were very hospitable, insisting that we stay with them in their large modern house in the run up to the big day. As part of this welcome to the McQueens from England, Don and Joan treated us to dinner at the famous Rainbow Room at the top of the Rockerfeller Centre. The views of Manhattan from the 70th floor were breathtaking. Chris had a huge smile on his face that night. Half way through the meal he announced that he’d been offered a job that morning. He was now officially a ‘Second Degree Alien’ with a card allowing him to work in the US on a permanent basis. The big day was only just over a week away – it had been a close call.

There was much to do, as is the way with weddings, and our plan to leave for Canada for a few days was a good fit with all the excited comings and goings of that final week. After pouring over unfamiliar maps, we headed the Compact Sedan, that’s America speak, North into New York State for what promised to be a very exciting trip. Two stops were planned – in Rochester, home of Kodak, on the way up and Niagara Falls on the way back. We would look out for a motel with waterbeds in Niagara. I shared the driving with Gordon, an advanced motorist who took his driving very seriously indeed. There were highways en route stretching to both horizons but Gordon stubbornly kept the needle at 49.9 miles an hour to obey the US limit. Maps were another of his idiosyncrasies – he wouldn’t use them to find the way on the very few occasions we were lost. “I prefer to navigate my way out of trouble using the Sun.,” he said, as we all raised our eyebrows behind his back, for the umpteenth time. It was coming dusk as we approached Rochester. Even without the luggage, the journey was tiring in our bijou vehicle and Gordon, now deprived of the sun, would have been stretched to find the route to Niagara. It was time to stop. On cue a Holiday Inn sign shone out in the gloom and we gratefully swung into the driveway. The rooms were expensive but all had two king size beds.

We quickly conferred. ”One double please”, I said. “Was it just the one room sir?” the desk clerk enquired, “Certainly”, I answered, avoiding eye contact. “Were all brothers and sisters travelling to an important family reunion in Toronto”? “Thank you sir, I’ll locate you on a top floor.” He smiled helpfully. “We have a Pentecostal Church Convention in the hotel just now and the gospel singing doesn’t suit everyone.” We thanked him, handed over the Visa card and headed for the lift and room 542. A rota was established for ‘the bathroom’ and ‘undressing’, to ensure total decorum. Ladies first was agreed and Gordon and I looked in on the choirs, in full voice on the second floor, for the agreed fifteen minutes.

We just had to have a stop for a couple of hours at Niagara before pressing on to Toronto. We all marvelled at how close we were to the main Falls as it thundered over the drop, throwing up hanging spumes of sun sparkled turquoise and white spray. Seemingly touching distance from where we stood. We all agreed, a memorable and breathtaking experience. How fortunate that we were able to come back again in a few days.

Our instructions, after Buffalo, were to drive by Lake Ontario on Highway 2, until we hit Yonge Street, the longest street in the world, in Toronto and then head North to Queensville where Frank and Elizabeth lived. The weather was cloudy so I had to drive using conventional map navigation. And then miraculously or so it seemed at the time, we were there.

The old rustic brick house was a delight, straight out of the Andy Hardy films and surely this must be Frank in the blue and white rugby shirt, on a mini tractor mowing the grass. Only Anne had seen him before and that just once, many years before. He jumped down, with remarkable agility and greeted us with enthusiasm, singling out Anne for special hugs and kisses. Anne was his only connection with England and his mysterious early life. He was small and trim, frail looking, with a pale, deeply lined face and dark smiling eyes. He seemed thrilled that we had come to find the place where he and Elizabeth had lived for forty years or more. He hurried us towards the house to meet Elizabeth and our second warm welcome of the afternoon. She too was in her late seventies and spoke to us very quietly, almost in a whisper. She radiated a calmness and serenity that we felt immediately and we were relaxed and at home from the start. The kettle was on and very soon we were enjoying tea and heavenly home made buttered scones. It was a freshly made buttered scones kind of home.

Frank called his place ‘The Farm’. It had eight acres of grazing land, which he rented to a farming friend these days and also a number of rare black walnut trees. They built a bungalow across the lawn for Carol, one of their two daughters, when she married and we were to stay with Carol, her husband, Andy and two rather ugly and fierce looking bull terriers. Carol was a concert pianist and later would play for us but for now we unpacked our bags and smartened ourselves for dinner back at the main house. Frank’s huge white Chrysler was on the drive and he tossed me the keys. “Take it anywhere you want, whenever you want “, he said. “I don’t drive far these days; nearly eighty you know. Be a change for someone to drive me. Elizabeth don’t, you know; never did.” The accent was strong and the delivery belied Frank’s years ; we were captivated.

Frank sat at the head of the of the beautifully, and specially, laid table and when we were all settled, bowed his head and prayed thanks for our safe arrival and the meal to come.

The days slid by all too quickly and we wished we’d allowed more time. Andy took us out on his boat on Lake Simcoe, in Indian Territory to the North, a good drive in the Chrysler. There was a full day in Toronto and the top of the CN Tower and now suddenly and sadly we were Frank and Elizabeth’s guests at the Toronto Prince Hotel. It was our last evening with them. The hotel staff had known Frank a long time and the treatment was special. He had used the hotel for customer entertaining before his retirement as Sales Manager of a laundry equipment manufacturer.

One evening Frank had opened up a little about his career and fascinated us with catalogues full of old fashioned washers, dryers and myriad laundry products sold mainly to Chinese customers in the early years. Long before that, we knew he had been a preacher travelling around Ontario on horseback but there was much more that we wanted to know but hadn’t got the courage to ask. We didn’t get another opportunity.

Anne said “Look, don’t lets go over the top ordering the meal. Frank is proud to be playing host to us but I’m sure he’s not all that well off these days.” “That’s alright – no problem,” we said, and stuck to the modest end of the a la carte. Meanwhile, Anne, at Frank’s right hand, is being persuaded that she must have the best the hotel had on offer. “Try their fine point oysters Anne; you’ll love them. The salmon with prawn garnish is good too,” It was time to raise eyebrows again as the rest of us pushed on with soup of the day and pork fillet.

Tears were shed as we said our reluctant goodbyes. It had been a remarkable and memorable four days. The four of us crammed back into the shoebox hire
car and mouthed odious comparisons with the Chrysler. The wedding lay head and before that another brief stay in Niagara Falls. Much was to happen before we arrived back in England but that must wait. This story is about finding Frank.

The following year I answered a call from Frank. “Derek, Frank here, Canada. I’d like to speak with Anne please.” “ I’m sorry Frank,” I said; “she's out at keep fit class.” “Oh, that’s a pity.” Then, “It’s going to be fifty cents to speak to me from now on Derek. I sold the farm.” “ Oh no - Frank,” I said. “Yeah, I sold it for a million dollars. Elizabeth and me can both stay on in the house in our lifetime free of all taxes. Not bad eh? I started out with empty pockets you know Derek? Be sure to tell Anne when she comes home.”

What we knew and, what Frank would not say was, ‘not bad for a Dr Barnados boy eh, Anne. He died a few months later and the thought brings tears to the eyes as I write and that for a man I met only once.


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