Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Lock Seven

When Elaine Jakes was in her thirties—those days were as vividly vibrant with the colors of the late 1960s/early 1970s as Elaine was vibrantly vivacious—she twice took a summer vacation with Sheila and me to Canada. Sheila, if peradventure you’ve read the Curious Autobiography, you’ll recall was my mother’s closest friend in those days. They lived together and jointly raised me when I was but a lad, as difficult as such a proposition may then have been when a nontraditional family structure was viewed with great suspicion.  “There’s no man in the house,” some could be heard muttering.  “How will that boy turn out to be a man?”  I will, however, set their complaints about the lack of a male role model aside, as there were, in any case, a number of men who served as positive role models, prominent among whom was my grandfather, Harry Reed Jakes.

Permit me return to the aforementioned twofold Canadian excursions. As a school teacher, Elaine did not have a great deal of money, especially in those days when teachers were not just underpaid[1] but grossly underpaid.  Still, she could make her rent most months, if not always on time,[2] and even afford a small summer vacation—a few days in Canada—in an era when small summer vacations were still affordable.

And the primary destination for her in those days was not a grandiose hotel in Montreal but the far humbler “Lock 7 Motel” in the perhaps surprising destination of Thorold, Ontario. That now refurbished and finely updated structure is currently known as the Inn at Lock Seven ( from the back balconies of which one could see the large ships that had travelled down or would shortly travel down the St. Lawrence Seaway make their way between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie through the series of locks that connected those lakes.  It was then, and is now, not so much a thing of beauty to behold the ships as it was a thing of majesty, for cargo ships are, in their own way, majestic.  And one could wave to those ships’ sailors who, in those days at least, would most often wave back when they saw you.

Yet there was something more than mere majesty. There was a lesson in beholding those great ships stuck in those narrow locks. It was the lesson of patience and grace under fire.  More often than not we find ourselves stuck between things. We’re hoping for something, looking forward to it, as we wait for our figurative lock to fill up, as if whatever it is that we are seeking could alone bring us happiness.  Now sometimes, of course, there is a modicum of happiness attached to that new thing, that new phase of life, as it must have been happier for the sailors to be on the open sea (or at least open lake) than carefully maneuvering the slender confines of the lock system.  But even in the narrow maneuvering, there may well have been for them some fulfillment qua sailing, for it was chiefly in the locks, no doubt, that they had the chance to prove what good sailors they actually were.  They waited patiently between locks and gracefully discharged their duties of steering the ships carefully between those narrow ducts.  And to some extent, I imagine, they were the happier for it, for they were doing what they were called in this life to do.  And even here, I fancy, you could say I had male role models, for all the sailors I saw were men, if role models only at the great distance between the motel balcony and the ship’s prow.

And so it may well be for us: when we are in between things, when we are constricted and confined in ways that seem to take away some of our freedoms, maybe that is when we have the opportunity to prove ourselves as human beings. Maybe we were created for such days as those.  And, if we are good at navigating this human experience known as life, maybe, in the midst of our busy activity, we will take a moment to give a wave and a smile at the little kid who is watching us from life’s balcony.  That, at any rate, is what the sailors did for me as I watched in amazement the majesty of those ships and indeed the sailors’ own navigational majesty, all those many years ago in Thorold, Ontario, from the balcony of the Lock Seven Motel. 

[1] While I despise white-collar unions, I nonetheless deeply sympathize with the teachers in Oklahoma who are protesting unfair wages.

[2] For an amusing story of Elaine being late with her rent, see the Curious Autobiography, pages 124-129.

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