Powers of Observation

John-DunnI got a start observing Nature and things of that like in the summer of the year I turned five.  I was standing by the hitching post; the horse and buggy were all ready to go, just standing and waiting too, outside my father’s office door, when the door opened and he came out with the crushed black leather satchel in his hand, and the fedora on his head.

“Would you like to go out for a drive in the country?” he asked, and, with a boost I landed on one half of the buggy seat and we were off.

Movement is precious produce to feed the sense of curiosity in kittens, puppies, and in small boys too.  The buggy seat offered me great lumps of movement — the britchin’ strap on the horse’s rump, slipping one way, sliding back, slipping again, slidin’ back.  My earliest observation of Nature and its ways couldn’t get enough of slip-slidin’ as we got half-way up through Irishtown.

There another observation jumped out at us from the sidewalk and added mystery to what I had already learned about habits of men from the year before.  It was this: all men wore hats, usually fedoras, or wide-brimmed straw hats in summertime, and they lifted their hats in deference, first, to women on the streets, second, in reverence to the deceased in a funeral cortege, and, usually, to His Reverence, the priest.

In driving through Irishtown, however, my father seemed to know everyone on the sidewalk, both women and men, and though women bowed slightly in acknowledgement of the doctor in the buggy, men lifted their hats!  A youngster as close as I was to the britchin’ strap at age five observes things that folk do, but questions not why they do it.  That day, observation stored away that mystery in memory, leaving it there to mingle with other puzzling scraps for almost fifty years.

Until what?

Well, until after Mass one Sunday morning on the steps at the front door of St. Mary’s Church where clumps of people stood to greet friends and gather news of others.  I was in a clump that included Mrs. Patrick Rooney, Sr., who, in a momentary lull in the conversation remarked to me, “Young man, your father will never die as long as you are walking the streets of Almonte.”

Her powers of observation, sharp in her memory, even after many more years of learning than mine own, had led her to this remark, and it was some ten years after my father’s death.  After making allowances for the well-known figurative bent in the language of the Irish, and, realizing at the same time that years of philosophy and logic at university had left in me one unbending principle, namely that “all men are mortal”, I responded by saying that indeed my father had done a lot of good in his ninety years of life, of which some sixty years were in medicine.  Truly, a lot of good, and, for a lot of people, and in a lot of varied ways, but, after all, he was but a man, like the rest of us, not an object of veneration, just a mortal man.

Mrs. Rooney was unready for compromise.  With lower jaw jutting out in a pugnacious and menacing way, she drove me back, saying, “Look here, young man: if your father, the doctor, had told me at eight o’clock at night that I’d be dead by morning, I’d have got down on my knees at that very instant to say my prayers, knowin’ it’d take me all night to finish them ’cause I’d be dead by daybreak.  An’ that’s for certain sure.”

It is then, time for another principle: a community extends trust without let to the doctor, for a patient’s life is in his hands.  That degree of trust was known to ancient Greeks as heroic, that is, belonging to the hero, whose status was far greater than mere human, but not quite up to that of the gods.
Sort of half-way between gods and ordinary mortals.

A second principle follows.  It is this: the community tends to take on a custodial attitude towards a doctor’s house.  In earlier days before communities built hospitals, the doctor’s house frequently and regularly filled other roles; a place of refuge for the afflicted and wounded, dispensary for pharmaceuticals, and, lying-in hospital.

The residence of the first permanent physician then in the community becomes a monument of notice because of the community’s perception of the doctor and of his home.  It is this which brings us round to the doctor’s house on the corner of Queen and Clyde Streets, a monument which dates in use from August, 1869, and the doctor who built it.

John Dunn