Bag of Marbles

It was a Seagram’s bottle bag which I used to store my marbles when I was a child. Not surprisingly (to those who know me well) it was not the game of marbles which attracted me; rather, the marbles themselves. I liked the variety of colours and sizes, their universality, weight, endurance, singularity and ambivalence. Some were exceptionally beautiful. They were perhaps my first noticeable introduction to art. Storing them in the bottle bag may also have been my initiation to a developing need or desire for accumulation and its corollaries of segregation and demonstration. It amuses me that to this day I haven’t a single marble.  I’ve literally lost my marbles.

The Seagram Company Ltd. (which traded as Seagram’s) was a Canadian multinational conglomerate formerly headquartered in Montreal, Quebec. Originally a distiller of Canadian whisky based in Waterloo, Ontario, it was in the 1990s the largest owner of alcoholic beverage lines in the world. Toward the end of its independent existence, it also controlled various entertainment and other business ventures. Its purchase of MCA Inc., whose assets included Universal Studios and its theme parks, was financed through the sale of Seagram’s 25% holding of chemical company DuPont, a position it acquired in 1981. The Seagram Museum, formerly the original Seagram distillery in Waterloo, Ontario, was forced to close due to lack of funds in 1997. The building is now the home of the Centre for International Governance Innovation as well as Shopify. The two original barrel houses are now the Seagram Lofts condominiums. There were almost 5 acres (2.0 ha) of open land, upon which the Balsillie School of International Affairs was subsequently built; construction began in 2009, and was completed in 2010.

The reappearance of marbles arose as an unpredicted theme early this morning. I thought of them as a manifestation of those whom I have known. Like my marbles what remains primarily are reminiscences, the colour without the detail. Years ago I suspect to have briefly sought to recover the artistic allure by purchasing a millefiori. That I still have and relish. No doubt it too would be objectionable to Oscar Wilde though I excuse its functionality as ornamental only; the characterization of people as diverse marbles in a bag is far more punishing.

One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar.

Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

Accounting the performance, success, gravity, levity, appearance, disappearance, reappearance, value, cracks, patina and beauty of marbles is a reminder of the fluidity of life itself, the exposure to damage and loss, the lingering meaning of some but not all, the inevitability of separation, loss and accommodation.  For clarity I thought I would make a list, not a categorization, just a punctuation and abbreviation of life to date, going back to my earliest days of playing marbles in the sand. These then are the marbles in my bag, illustrated from start to end, first to last.

Though I do not to this day particularly like red heads for that reason alone, my first companion in the circle game of marbles was a five-year old red head.  His skin was very white, almost pallid. By contrast he wore a swim suit made of some synthetic shiny (gem coloured) blue (turquoise) and he was rather chubby. We played together among the enormous pine trees in our expansive backyard on a hill in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, building forts and hiding under the picnic table.

Classic Marbles: This is the easiest of marble games to play and the one you’ve probably played a million times. Draw a playing circle (use your finger in dirt or carpet or use sidewalk chalk on the concrete) and dump all your regular sized marbles into the circle. Players then use their larger marbles and take turns bouncing or rolling them into the circle to try to knock marbles out of bounds. Any marble that is displaced from the circle is theirs to keep for the game. The game is over when there are no more marbles in the circle and the winner is whoever collected the most.

The Mobsters:
These boys (there were two of them) did not treat me well in the end.  They punched me in the stomach and I folded without repercussion. They did however alert me to the mechanics of stealing bubble gum from the nearby corner store. Our initial alliance apparently grew from a mutual mockery of girls who played “horse” on the playground of Horace Mann School in Washington DC (probably prompted by the current popularity of Black Beauty); and, a withdrawal from anyone who wore dark coloured socks instead of pure white ones.

Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse is an 1877 novel by English author Anna Sewell. It was written in the last years of her life, during which she was bedridden and seriously ill. The novel became an immediate best-seller, with Sewell dying just five months after its publication, but having lived long enough to see her only novel become a success. With fifty million copies sold, Black Beauty is one of the best-selling books of all time. While forthrightly teaching animal welfare, it also teaches how to treat people with kindness, sympathy and respect.

Visceral Enchantment:
The first woman (girl) to whom I was drawn was named Merrill. We were in the same class in Red Deer, Alberta when I was in Grade IX. We sparked our congruity at a social gathering of classmates.  She was pretty with blonde hair; and, popular. Nothing of significance transpired from the relationship but it constituted my introduction to society. Instead I aligned more provocatively and genuinely with a chap who 15 years later I revisited in Almonte, Ontario for an unanticipated but much cherished evening of liquor and laughter.

The name Merrill is a girl’s name of English origin meaning “sea-bright”. Merrill, once fairly common for males, is rarely used for girls (or boys either, for that matter) with this spelling.

Mr. Cool:
My first roommate at boarding school was a chap who distinguished himself as Captain of First Hockey and later translated his advanced achievement to a repugnance of social snobbery (which he labelled as the preserve of the “Citizens”). For reasons I have never understood (other than my unqualified appreciation of him), he surfaced after boarding school in my first year of undergraduate studies at Glendon Hall.  He arrived there on a motorcycle and sped me around nearby Park Lane Circle and High Point Road in Toronto, stigmatizing and cajoling spider-like heavily-rouged women in their Cadillacs. No one wore helmets in those days.

Midnight Rambler:
In undergraduate studies we prolonged our boarding school associations more out of convenience than anything else.  Incrementally the old alliances melted away and were replaced by more unpredictable stimuli. One such convention arose unwittingly late one evening on the campus quadrangle as we both stumbled across one another. He was in my year of studies (I cannot recollect his name) and I knew that I had admired him from a distance; but we had never spoken before.  Until that night. It was nothing but a nod to one another in the dark.  But importantly it was instinctive and unblemished. It strengthened my capacity to overcome social restraint. We never spoke again.

Maritime Sway:
There were so many memorable people whom I met at law school at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia that I can only account them as unparalleled ingredients of my life: Everything from expansive to intellectual to chronological to social to evolutionary. These were indeed a mixed bag of marbles! It was my first time removed from the strictures of Upper Canada, thrown upon the rocky shores of the North Atlantic Ocean where I was an unknown. In the end I owe it to the Dean (Murray Fraser) of the law school for holding me there instead of returning to Ontario. But it proved to be a broken chain (though without regret).

Devonshire House:
Paradoxically it was also the Dean (Charles Lennox) of Devonshire House who instilled the mountain of memories I have while fulfilling the mandate of bar admission at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. My one-term acquaintance with this crew of notables will forever linger. Indeed it has again extended to Almonte and survives to this day.

The Professionals:
My introduction to the practice of law in Almonte, Ontario was at the outset similar to the fraternity at boarding school and undergraduate studies. It began with lawyers and progressed to judges, medical practitioners, dentists, chiropractors, business, religious and social leaders. But I was personally draw out of that mix into the equally flavourful community of long-standing local personalities and new discoveries (some of which hearkened back to boarding school). The risks however were indisputably more critical (though only as crucial or pivotal as desired). Choice became instead the operative motivation. While there were treacherous waters everywhere the passage was shallow enough to permit avoidance if one preserved a balance and wore the proper footwear.

Exactly 20 years after my arrival in Almonte and almost 30 years ago I was overtaken by Serendipity. As the word suggests, there is no explaining the causality or fortuity. Nor have I any intention of characterizing it otherwise.  The confederacy has brought me to the summit of my entire life, the sequel to my exploits and ambitions, the favourable regard of all that I think and see.

The Popsicle, whose origins go back to San Francisco where Frank Epperson, age 11, accidentally left a mix of water and soda powder outside to freeze overnight.


Post Scriptum:

June 10, 2024
Toronto, Ontario

In reference to your previous screed regarding marbles and the Seagrams.  You may remember that my travel company was called Seagram Pearce Travel and one of my partners was Richard Seagram of that ilk.  He was a huge asset in bringing in Toronto’s well-heeled, old money clients which gave us a lucrative livelihood.  I too have those wonderful purple and gold Seagram bags in which I keep my excess silver.  When we moved last year, I did a massive inventory of silver to decide what to keep, pass on or sell.  I had over 350 pieces, most of it all family silver with initials and/or crests some of which went back to the early 1700s.  Needless to say, my son’s generation are not interested in the upkeep required but I’ve put aside a couple of sets for my two little granddaughters because I found what goes around comes around and while I will be long gone before they become interested in such inherited items, they may want to have that piece of the past.  I kept enough for our daily use and for dinner parties of up to 12 people, and the rest I sold before we moved.  And, I don’t mind polishing my silver in the slightest – a very zen pastime!!

Fiona St. Clair