Montana Viewpoint: My Uncle Davey may be face down in his coffin

Jim Elliott

I could write about coronavirus about which I know little, or politics about which I know too much, or the weather about which you know as much as I do, but they are all depressing topics, so I am going to tell you about my uncle, Davey Maitland.

He was my mother’s uncle, actually, and was born and raised on the family farm in southern Ontario with his brother Frank and his three sisters, Robena, Gert, and my Grandmother, Margaret. Their own grandfather had bought the farm in 1837 when he and his two brothers arrived in Canada from Scotland.

He named it “Overhill” after the farm they had left behind in the Old Country.

To be blunt about it, Davey was a rascal. In his youth he drove a fine buggy made by his uncle Jack and would often race others for a wager. My mother’s paternal grandmother kept a hotel right across the High Road from Overhill at which travelling salesmen — drummers, they were called — stayed.

It often happened that some of the neighbor lads would innocently strike up a conversation with one of the drummers and compliment him on his fine looking horse and gig. They would inquire casually if he ever raced it and if he did, they would ask if he would like them to set up a race with a local farm boy. Why yes, he would, and the boys would go across the road and down the long lane to Overhill to fetch Davey. Would the drummer like to put some money on it, and yes, he would, and so the race would be set up.

But it was never a contest and Davey and the neighbor lads would split the drummer’s money and have a drink or two, at the very least.

My favorite picture of the Maitland family is one taken in 1905 in front of the ivy on the porch of their new house. It was not a portrait, but a snapshot or “snap” as they called them. There were the three sisters dressed in their finest skirts and leg-of-mutton sleeved blouses, and then there is Davey in the back in a coat , tie, and flowered vest with a bowler hat tipped at a rakish angle and the devil in his twinkling eyes. Robena is holding an apple. The “snap” must have been taken by Frank because he is in the next picture and my grandmother is not. In this one Robena is wearing Davey’s bowler at an even more rakish angle and Davey is taking a bite from Robena’s apple.

Well, Davey liked a good time and after he left the farm he had some difficulty keeping a job. In his adult years he would take work catch-as-catch-can. One day he was cleaning out the basement of the local mortuary when the Presbyterian minister walked by.

Now, Davey had found a bottle of “medicinal” whisky in the basement which he put to its proper use, and when the minister inquired as to his health Davey said he was fine and that he had decided upon how he would be buried — face down in the coffin. And why, asked the minister, would he want that? “So when they walk by my coffin they can kiss my rear end”, says Davey.

The minister walked on.

When he was seventy-five Davey had a serious operation and was forced to go back to Overhill to live with Gert, the only one of his family left. He dreaded that, because Gert was a teetotaler with a vengeance, and she would have no drinking at Overhill. Nothing daunted, Davey bought a fine gelding trotter and built himself a sulky — a two wheeled, one-man cart — which he then used to drive the seven miles to the Iroquois Hotel where he stayed ‘til closing time, if they let him.

He then either got into the sulky on his own or was put in it by others. He would promptly fall asleep and the horse would take him home. It was fortunate that there were few cars on the highway at that time of night because there was no tail-light or reflector on the sulky to warn a driver what lay before him.

In 1978 Gert, who had never in her life touched liquor, died at the age of one hundred and one. Davey, however, who had touched liquor a lot, paid the wages of sin. He died the following year at ninety-six.

I never did find out if they placed him face down in the coffin, but I like to think they did.