Embracing a special day in October

Have you had the experience of meeting someone and knowing you would be changed in a profound and inexplicable way; and some part of you would be better for it, that you would experience a healing of sorts?
That happened for me one day in October not so long ago.
It was a crisp fall day in Victoria. The arbutus trees stood around with their peculiar twisting trunk, turning towards the sunlight with their red shedding bark—trees that never lose their leaves, evergreen deciduous trees, standing out in the crowd, unmistakably special, like so many things that day.
David and I were meeting this man for lunch at The Empress, a noble and stately hotel built in 1908, an iconic symbol of the majestic city of Victoria. I sat fidgeting like a nervous child, too keen to be patient, too excited to be calm.
We arrived early at the hotel overlooking the Inner Harbour in the heart of the city. We found our seats in The Bengal Lounge, a room with ceilings that reach skyward, huge framed windows that let the sunshine in.
I disappeared into its large stuffed leather chairs.
The décor of the room is Victorian Colonial Indian, honouring the fact Queen Victoria was the Empress of India until her death in 1901. Well-dressed male servers moved silently around with crisp and precision-like manners, quiet yet efficient, friendly and welcoming without a lot of fuss, guiding guests to the Indian curry buffet—a feast for the seasoned pallet.
I busied myself admiring the masculinity of the place, imagining gentlemen a hundred years ago meeting at lunch to discuss politics and fine cigars, arguing that the hotel didn’t require a sign above its entrance because, as one gentleman apparently said, “Anyone who doesn’t know this is The Empress shouldn’t be staying here.”
The place just evokes those thoughts; thoughts of indisputable respect.
I saw Al at the doorway. The maitre d’ extended his hand respectfully as though welcoming Al in to a private club. “This man is no stranger,” that small gesture said.
He had on a cotton fall jacket, his hat sitting ever so slightly to the side. He was smaller than I imagined, a fine but fit frame. He looked at me and his blue eyes were crisp and clear.
I jumped to my feet wanting to throw my arms around Al; wanting to claim him as my own family, as my uncle. He had lived across the street from my father when they were children, had played hockey with my father, had planned their futures together in the arena called World War II.
And I thought meeting this man would bring my dad back to me, even if only for a minute, for a story, for a moment, to a place where I could almost touch him.
I wasn’t disappointed.
David introduced me. I may have gushed, almost cried out, exhaled notably. Then we sat and for the next couple of hours, David’s uncle shared his stories of travel during the war and later in his employ with Air Canada and life with “Ollie,” the love of his life since they were “kids”—the kind of love few get to witness; even fewer get to experience.
The trees outside the window seemed to lean in, close to the glass as if they, too, wanted to hear Al’s soft voice, a voice with a chuckle behind it, a grateful giggle flashing in his blue eyes.
He told David and I of the adventures he and Ollie shared, the getting married impulsively before he was sent overseas, the grabbing hold of moments, seizing the day, the dancing, the laughter and the fun, letting go the hurts of life.
And Al told me about my dad, about hockey and ice cream and pranks. I gathered up each word and tucked them into a safe place, so I could pull the stories out later and savour them.
Al sipped his martini, confessed his love of peanuts, and let me crawl inside his memories of my father as if they were my own.
That very day I claimed Albert Ward as my family—and I am better for it.
wendistewart@live.ca

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