When my dad was almost two my grandmother came across a fantastic bargain in their farming village of Cookstown. It was a bolt of woolen cloth that could be made into all sorts of useful articles so she bought the whole thing. Then she took it to the local dressmaker and asked her to make a dress for John, the baby.
No account was left of exactly what happened next but one thing is certain. This sole photo, left behind in frames, drawers and boxes since the year 1899, has been the source of much glee and many snickers, all at the price of one adorable, innocent little boy. “Jack in the pulpit!” “A man of the cloth!” “Ha, Ha, Ha!”
Grandma Kell was an Irish Campbell and felt entitled to her wit, flash temper, quick steps, reddish hair and freckles. My guess is it was her idea to name my father John Ambrose Campbell Kell and call him by his anagram. Also, she was likely convinced her Irish luck had put the plaid of her ancestors in her path just for her.
Getting back to the dressmaker, there was a misunderstanding. Grandma expected to get back part of the bolt uncut, to be made into other things. Instead, what she got was this dress. As I dig out this picture for Father’s Day, I wonder how Scarlett O’Hara‘s dress would have looked if it had consumed the entire green velvet curtain she pulled down from the window.
What I see is a brave little boy who is caught up in the youngest child syndrome. Fortunately the teasing never became bullying and his ego was never debased. Even at two he could face his bewildering world of know-it-alls with poise. The underlying love, raw humor and discipline even made him stronger inside. Right now his big brothers, sisters and cousins had the advantage of being able to giggle at “Wee John” or “The Runt” but one day he’d have his turn as a somebody.
The dressmaker knew her job. Dresses were worn by both girls and boys in Victorian times. They were the practical solution to toilet training problems in the days before snap fasteners, zippers and velcro. Not until as old as seven did boys wear breeches. She designed father’s dress with overlaps, pleats and folds to allow for several years of growing. The photographer was likely responsible for father’s hairdo and got it wrong. Often the placing of the part was the only clue to whether the child was a girl (middle part) or a boy (side part.) The Duke of Argyll unofficial Campbell tartan has a white stripe added to the navy, red and green to lighten it up.
In spite of the challenging start, father was faithful to his family and always attended reunions of the clans on both sides. As for his vocation, the Little Lord Fauntleroy collar was replaced by a clerical one for 60 years. In 1959-60 he was elected President of the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada and awarded a doctorate of divinity.
Strange to say, I don’t recall my father ever wearing anything plaid, not even a tie. Happy Father’s Day!
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