The old Chamber and Mr. Bennett’s blinkin’ begonias

 

Bob Boulton

In difficult times like these I take considerable comfort in small pleasures.

Like the chirp of crickets on an early fall evening, or yellow mums spread out across a garden centre floor. And my memory of Mr. Bennett’s blinkin’ begonias.

Those begonias were like a parent’s favourite children — just as wonderful and just as much trouble.

Officially he was known as Mr. A.W.S. Bennett. His friends called him Bill; we called him Mr. Bennett.

He was the manager of the Sarnia-Lambton Chamber of Commerce and the landlord of the Ontario Driver and Vehicle License Issuing Office, which shared a building on North Vidal Street. He was also our employer, and the only person I knew who voluntarily listened to classical music.

Mr. Bennett hired young teen boys, after school and on Saturdays, to clean the building and tend the garden, especially his begonias. He paid 90 cents an hour.

Residents of a certain age will remember the vehicle licensing office was in the back and accessed through an awkward narrow door. The floor was covered in stained, sisal runner mats we would drag outside on Saturdays to beat semi-clean. I don’t remember much other cleaning, except an occasional sweep of a dust rag along the counter.

One entered The Chamber (as everyone called it) through the front door, with its civilizing touch of dignified brass handles. Inside, on the right, was the boardroom with a bay window overlooking the gardens. We seldom entered except before board meetings to polish the long table and dust between the slatted backs of the solid oak chairs. We would turn the chairs upside down to check for – horrors – cobwebs.

On the left was the carpeted Administrative Office, where Mrs. H. ruled. Smart, capable and assertive, she claimed – reasonably in retrospect, immoderately at the time – that girls as well as boys should benefit from office cleaning employment.

Plus, she didn’t think we boys did a good job. To test this, she once piled a stack of pennies against the leg of her desk. She theorized that, us being us, we would overlook them.

Luckily, however, we did see them and replaced the pennies with a dime and a nickel. We weren’t much as cleaners, perhaps, but we were talented smart alecks. Mrs. H never mentioned it.

Outside, in the fall, we dug up the begonia tubers and laid them out to dry, then stored them in brown paper bags in the basement.

It should be true that our personal memories are inscribed somewhere permanently. But of course they’re not. Still, each fall when I see purple cabbages and flocks of ambitious geese flying in formation, I think about Vidal Street, pennies piled beside a desk, and Mr. Bennett’s blinkin’ begonias.