April 28th was an important day for some men, historically-speaking. In 1770, James Cook, British captain of the Endeavour landed at Botany Bay in Australia. In 1789, the mutiny against Captain William Bligh of the Bounty erupted, led by Fletcher Christian. And in 1905, E.A. VanSickler completed this piece of calligraphy:
I stare at this piece every day. Ernest Albert VanSickler is my maternal grandfather. And, this is the only thing I have that once belonged to him. It’s a treasure. Imagine the hours he spent perfecting this calligraphy; the intensity of detail, the focus of eye, brain, and hand, the discipline to avoid a smudge and perfect each stroke. His energy and his DNA are both trapped behind the glass; though the man is something of a mystery to me. He was born November 7, 1889 in Toronto, Ontario; which means that Ernie was sixteen years old when he completed this work. I wonder: did he ever want to become an artist or a writer or a monk?
Ernie was twenty-two when he married my grandmother, and twenty-seven when he signed up to fight in the First World War on Spring Equinox 1916. He is listed as a roofer-contractor on his attestation papers.
So much for the pen being mightier than the sword.
I don’t think it was entirely his idea. According to my aunt, Ernie and his father went off and got drunk that night and both signed up together. My grandmother was furious. In the five years they’d been married, they’d created four children: Jim, Grace (my mother), and Ernest and Arthur, a pair of delicate twin boys. His namesake Ernest Albert, actually died less than two months later on May 11, 1916. Had he shipped out already? And Arthur (who we called Tiny Tim) was forever sweet and fragile.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother, a twenty-five-year-old woman left with four children to tend while her husband went off to war. Cora was strong. I remember that. And she had her mother-in-law, tiny Annie, who kept her husband in line with an iron skillet; a trick she must have learned during her ten years of maid service (14-24) in England.
We know that Ernie’s father was a drinker, and somewhat tricksy. On his attestation papers, James VanSickler claims his birthdate is August 20, 1871. He was actually born in 1862, but had he attested to the truth–that he was 54–he likely would have been rejected. And the thought of war abroad was too great an adventure to risk that.
James is described as being 5’11”, dark complexion, dark brown hair, and blue eyes. His mother was Tuscarora (the sixth Iroquois nation); his father a Dutchman from a colony in New York. The family homesteaded in Michigan for several years. It was the frontier; a wild, dangerous place. When he was only ten, James’s father was killed in a bar fight. When his mother remarried his killer, James and his younger siblings ended up living with their grandmother back in Ontario.
Later, the VanSicklers, father and son, ran one of the first gas stations in Toronto. They had an auto body and paint shop, and grew mushrooms in the basement. My mother refused to eat mushrooms ever after. The VanSicklers held dances for their customers.
Here they are throwing a party for the returning war heroes. It’s remarkable these two came home unscathed.
I would have loved to live in this house–sleep in that turreted tower. What stories are trapped beneath those shingles?
The pen is mightier than the sword.
These words were first spoken in Richelieu, a historical play written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839. Richelieu says: “The pen is mightier than the sword… Take away the sword; states can be saved without it!”
I think I understand why sixteen-year-old Ernie would choose this adage. I see him as a warm, sweet, sensitive, happy-go-lucky guy–quite unlike his father. I see it in the twirling fronds, in the passionate precision he uses to highlight:
Surely, this was a man of the arts, not of the gas station. Could he have painted something other than cars? Still, country and family come first. I wish I had known him better. Wish I could remember more. I was just a kid when he passed away. But, perhaps he is with me still, whispering in my ear, breathing through his pen.