Dad’s diary includes tales worth telling
KATE GRIGG/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES Jean Sarjeant, an ordinary woman with a not-so-ordinary ability to rise to the occasion, has written a book based on her father's war diary, found hidden in the bottom of a chest. The book will be launched at the History Speakers Evening Jan. 18 at the Orillia Museum of Art and History.
A new battle started when he got back. He’d come home wounded (1945), the second war he’d survived, only to find himself face to face with a fresh opponent. Jean, his only child, whom he’d last seen, age four, dressed in a uniform to match his made by her mother.
No telling the upheaval, leaving his wife and that little soldier, who’d marched down Yonge Street alongside him – James Edward “Tiny” Small, six-foot-four drum major with the 48th Highlanders – carried in her uncle’s arms when she grew too tired to keep up.
He would have held back his tears, a seasoned soldier, a policeman like Tiny. But Jean’s mother cried, wept as the train pulled out of the station and one of Tiny’s fellow police officers walked them away, tried to comfort them as they turned to face life alone.
Only Jean (Sarjeant), cared for by her calm, competent mother and living in a Toronto neighbourhood that happened to be home to a number of policemen (the family later relocated to Orillia), didn’t feel alone. She didn’t mind being practically the only girl, didn’t hesitate to climb trees, play baseball and hockey. Didn’t care how many times she broke her glasses.
If Jean’s mother (busy working at a munitions factory) worried she didn’t let on. Or perhaps she found comfort in the fact that in many ways Jean took after her father. That, like the man who had come home from that first epic battle and chosen to embrace further adventure, walked a beat, rode a motorcycle, worked as a plainclothes detective, Jean was forthright and independent and stout-hearted.
Did all the usual things and things that were not so ordinary. Got a degree from the U of T in piano performance, gave lessons, later sang on radio and television (with the Ross Caldwell Singers), directed a choir (Westminster Presbyterian Church, Barrie). Went to business college, became a legal secretary (working, among others, for Mr. Copeland – striped trousers, cutaway jacket, bow tie). Became a wife and mother. (Jean married Dave Sarjeant, of Sarjeant Co. Ltd., and for a time lived in Barrie.) Became a law clerk, owned a trucking business (becoming vice-president of the Canadian Trucking Association), volunteered in numerous capacities (church, hospital, school, etc.), served as secretary-treasurer of the Simcoe County Historical Society, and then on the executive of the historical society in Orillia.
Perhaps it was Jean’s mother having descended from the early settlers (a blacksmith who arrived in Orillia in 1832), or that old war chest of her father’s containing the physical remnants of world chaos, of the terror and courage of men, or the fact her father had fought for both past and future that made Jean care about preserving history. Made her take in boxes of artifacts (often donated following a death) and store them in her basement. Take in more and more because there was no museum, no repository for local history. Find room at the Orillia Opera House in “a glorified closet,” and then, when an art gallery opened in the Sir Sam Steele Building, scrub and paint the old jail cells in the basement to create archival space, preserving the names scrawled on the ceiling because that, too, was history.
Shocked when she was nominated for Woman of the Year (2003; Krista Storey won). Lots of others, Jean thought, had done important things. And in many ways it had been a labour of love, working to unite the art gallery and the historical society at the Sir Sam Steele Building. A place named after another remarkable soldier and policeman, who, like her father, had spent his life dealing with human turmoil on both a vast and a small scale. A building that, with its defunct jail cells and fine-art collection, reflects the peaks and valleys of human experience.
Perhaps it was that link to her father, consciously felt or not, that made the Sir Sam Steele Building “(her) baby.” And perhaps it was being her father’s daughter, sharing his capacity to serve, his determination, his quiet valour that made her battle on when, in 2002, a financial crisis found her unexpectedly at the helm of a project on the brink of disaster.
Because they’d worked it out, the soldier who came home and started giving orders and the independent little girl who’d managed for the best part of six years without him. They’d grown close. Her father, Jean says, “made up for the years he was away,” became “the best dad ever.”
And when Jean’s son, Michael, happened to discover a diary hidden beneath a false bottom in Tiny’s war trunk, Tiny made up for it even more, gave Jean one final gift. She’d have to write a book, her children said; she’d have to make a record of the history her father had witnessed and declined to discuss.
It took Jean nearly 10 years. Partly because of the scope of the project and partly because it was hard to let go. Poring over the diaries, it was as if Jean marched beside her father again, only this time she understood where he’d gone and what he’d seen. It was as if, writing the final chapter, she stood once more at the train station and waved her father goodbye.
Jean will launch her book, The Secrets in the Chest: The Life of James Edward “Tiny” Small, at the History Speakers Evening taking place at the Orillia Museum of Art and History at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 18.
Kate Grigg is an artist and writer who grew up in Orillia and tells stories of local people in her weekly column. If you have a story you think she might be interested in, email firstname.lastname@example.org.