I’ve always had a soft spot for Jimmy Stewart, especially because of his role in the 1950 movie, Harvey. In it, he plays Elwood P. Dowd, an amiable eccentric with an invisible friend, a seven-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey.
Throughout the movie, Harvey’s invisible presence shapes the plot, as the other characters go through moments of belief and denial about whether he truly exists.
Throughout my life, I have had a similar companion named Harvey – just not a rabbit. Harvey was my grandfather’s first name, and my great-grandfather’s family name. My identity has been shaped by conversations with an invisible Harvey just as surely as Jimmy Stewart’s was in that movie.
It is easy to see external influences on who we become and how we live, the opportunities and catastrophes that are the large strokes of the axe that hew our character out of the raw wood of our lives. But the fine detail, what turns the crude carving into art, are the much more subtle influences, the quiet voices speaking to us as we make decisions that shape our characters into who we are.
For me, the first was the most obvious. In a family tree that includes few children and fewer males, I got the name. My parents named me Peter, the last name was Denton, and the middle one just had to be Harvey.
No one stopped to think that made my initials PHD. Most people choose to be academics. I was doomed from birth.
There is one family photo of me with my great-grandfather Harvey, my grandfather Denton and me – the consequence of living a Canadian distance away – before death claimed the first. To my recollection, I only saw my grandfather once that I can remember before he died, as well – again, a few pictures at Christmas to mark the moment.
My grandfather loomed larger than life. A Baptist minister, his university athletic records as a runner were challenged but never broken for forty years in the Atlantic provinces. Six months after he was called to a congregation in Halifax during the Second World War, it burned to the ground, so he led the construction of First Baptist Church’s imposing stone building whose large stained glass window was later dedicated to his memory.
Renowned as a preacher, at the end of his life with an illness that prevented further work in the church, he wrote editorials for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. Yet forty years after his death, penniless because money was never something he pursued, I still meet people who remember him. Despite a legendary inability to carry a tune, the music building at his alma mater, Acadia University, was named after him. The first trip I ever took alone with my father on an airplane was to the unveiling of the building, where I was displayed as the (mute) inheritor of his name.
So, each time I speak in public or pick up a metaphorical pen, there is some part of me that acknowledges the heritage and pushes me to do it better than I might and for others more than for myself.
The other Harvey in my life has been more subtle. My great, great-grandfather was also a Baptist minister, at the turn of the twentieth century in rural New Brunswick. By accident or some larger design, the simple parlour furniture he bought to set up house has been refurbished and passed down the generations to the eldest (and only) son and now sits in my front room. On the wall looms his picture, a portrait taken in mid-life. I have bits and pieces of him on paper – post cards, his license to perform marriages – and Julia Sauer used a family story she heard about him to craft the main character in The Light at Tern Rock.
While that invisible Harvey has stared mutely from the wall for many years, it is the small inset picture that tells the bigger story. He sits on a chair, with his wife standing behind him.
It’s been about twenty-five years since my grandmother, talking to another aged relative, learned that Belle Bagley was aboriginal. Throughout a series of genealogies of all sides of the family, my grandmother had no idea.
Likely Passamaquoddy from the area of Maine where she was born before moving a few miles to the small island of Grand Manan, she and my great, great-grandfather would have met as young teens, if I read the census records correctly.
There is a story there to be uncovered and written some day. It would have taken courage and determination for the son of a fisherman to marry an aboriginal woman and set aside whatever the prejudice of the day to embark on a very public career as a minister, seen as a social as well as an intellectual role model in the community.
But when I see their picture together, I am reminded not just of his courage, but of hers. It takes even more strength, and a quiet courage, to leave the life of a small fishing community, where everyone would have known her, to brave an uncertain future among strangers who would not, at least at first, understand.
There were poignant moments ten years ago when I took my own children to see Grand Manan, to find the family tombstones there and in the other little fishing village, Little River in Nova Scotia, where my family lived. To see the names, to look out over the water, to walk through the meadow where my grandfather’s ashes were scattered because he wanted no memorial, to pull stones out of the wall of the old cellar hole built by an earlier Harvey two hundred years before, was to feel an invisible presence.
It was nothing substantial, no apparitions, just a conversation like Elwood had with Harvey. It called to mind the fact that each of us is the result of a long line of people back into the mists of time. There are lessons to be learned from the choices they made, of course, but that is not what the conversation was about.
It is not where you come from, but the choices you make to become who you are, that matter. We don’t make those choices alone, if we listen to the quiet voices urging us in the direction of our hearts.
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