In November 1987 Mary Rauton wrote a long letter to her children about her life at the Ragnarokr leather shop. Mary made copies of the letter and sent it to some 18 people. The following excerpt is from Mary’s letter.
“I’ve been in Toronto for eighteen years. Seventeen years ago, April 15, 1969, little Randy, Phil Mullins, Steve Spring, Frank Tettemer, Marita DeGive and I started a leather shop on Baldwin Street. The leather shop was called “Ragnarokr”. It’s been carrying on the business of making custom leather goods all these many years. For seventeen years we were located on a small side street called Baldwin Street. Last summer we moved our store to a new location in the “fashion district” called Queen Street.
Many people have worked at Ragnarokr at one time or another. Over the years it has netted no great wealth, but it has come to be a small landmark in town and is known as “Toronto’s Oldest Custom Leatherworks”. It is this heritage and my rich heritage in Atlanta and East Texas that I lean on to strengthen me to have enough nerve to think that these ramblings would be of interest to my extended family.
On Saturday nights after we close the leather shop, I collect food for the poor from two stores in our new neighborhood on Queen Street. One is an Israeli cook who runs a sandwich shop nearby, “the world’s best mid-eastern cook.” From my friend, Avi, an array of tasty treats comes forth- avocado sauce, chopped liver, potato salad, pineapple creamed cheese, small pizza like sandwiches on pita bread, humus, the works! His recipes are worth a fortune. The other store is a bakery shop up the street called “Dufflets.” Arleen started out baking French pastries in her aunt’s basement seven years ago and it is now “the place” to get your baked goods. Both stores are low key in appearance, both stores hide their particular pizzazz until it rests on the tongue, then *Wowie Zowie* the news spreads. Both stores are run by Jewish cooks in their early thirties.
What gets me is that when they heard that Ragnarokr had moved to their neighborhood on Queen Street, they contacted us to see if we wanted to once again distribute food that they had left over on the weekends. I have a strong attraction to these two people. Their hearts seem to run the lengths of them. Their “leftovers” go to the Catholic Worker House in Toronto about five miles east of our store. I’m enclosing a recent issue of the Toronto Catholic Worker newspaper. There is good stuff from two young people in their mid-twenties who offer hospitality to the ever-present poor in Toronto. Read first the article by Brit Griffin and then that by Chuck Angus. Incidentally I drew the masthead for “The Angelus” newspaper.
Last Sunday, Phil Mullins and his family drove me out to the Catholic Worker House to deliver the Saturday night “catch” from Avi’s and Dufflet’s. We got there in time to see Rich Hansson wheel past on his around-the-world tour to raise money for victims of spinal injuries. He is healthy from the waist up. Literally, he left Vancouver, British Columbia, crossed the Pacific Ocean, China, the Great Wall, Russia, Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and is wheel-chairing his way back to British Columbia. He clips along at about 15 mph on his wheel chair. I want to do something like that, too. I’d like to walk to Atlanta. I’ve got this urge to walk, to walk to Atlanta.
If I walked 24 miles a day, I could get there in 50 days. 50 nights in a motel would cost $1,000 and food would cost $500 and shoe replacements would cost $150. It would cost $1,650 one-way and take 50 days. It would be cheaper to take an airplane! While Beth was in the hospital having Hannah, I had some free time on my hands and thought about walking to Nancy and Bob Hall’s house, a distance of some 25 miles. I could have done it easily except for the expressways. Expressways are a bummer for walkers. I mean, do you ever see side-walks on express lanes? Never! Engineers have phased out the bike, the horse and the footfalls of sojourners on the major roads. Walkers might easily find themselves “the guest of the city” by walking on I-85 in midday. Rich Hansson has given me food for thought, however, and maybe I’ll travel the waterways south next time.
So on that Sunday I was returning in the car with Phil and his family when it occurred to me to WALK home. I explained this to them and said my farewells to them at Dundas and Jarvis Streets. I got out of their car and began my walk home. I chose to walk alleyways to avoid the exhaust fumes on the busy streets. On my way I ran across a garden of snapdragons which were about to suffer their last frosty night. No one was about so I liberated all the remaining beautifully-colored flowers I could pick. I wrapped the stems in a wide, yellow maple leaf from the garden floor. Excitedly I continued on my way.
When I was just about home, I swung around the corner onto Queen Street from the alleyway when I was stopped in my tracks by a massive, native Canadian, who, through his drunken words, was attempting a communiqué with me. As he reeled and garbled, he kept swinging a rubber band close to my face. Curious to better understand his request, especially since I was convinced by this time that he wasn’t trying to pillage or plunder me, I made no attempt to brush him off but stood my ground close to him at the street corner following his reeling patterns, mesmerized by the rubber band which now swung loosely on this index fingers only inches from my nose.
He pointed to his head and, finally, a light dawned in my own head. This guy is a Native and being a Native, he remembers his traditions, drunk as he is, that his sacred, long hear must be bound. He was clearly singling me out to have the privilege of binding HIS sacred hair. “With pleasure,” I said as smartly as one could as second-in-command. Now here is the point of this “Encounter”, the one thing which stuck with me with endless delight, the one thing that this story has led to. I had in my hand a prize possession of brightly-colored snapdragons, rare for November in Toronto, and I wanted to take them home to the store. If I were to bind his hair, I must first entrust him, blitzed as he was, to very carefully hold my bouquet. He received the flowers with his stiff, bloated fingers while I gave his instructions on how not to crease the blooms in his haste. As he received the flowers, his attention was caught by the colors and stillness came over him. He ceased to reel. The sun streamed down on this close-up, eye-level picture of his large brown, swollen hands gently receiving this gift of Mother Earth.
Forgetting all else, he stared into its wonder. I, too, stared into THIS wonder. I then managed to reach high over the heft of his shoulders, gather his sacred hair and bind it as instructed, to groom him for his pathways into the remainder of the Sunday afternoon. Satisfied, he smiled and returned the bouquet uncrushed. He bowed and gestured to the flowers, turned heel and with a long, sure gait crossed the street against the light. Nothing could harm this man, this Native buck, I mused, except the alcohol that my ancestors introduced to his many moons ago.
This month of November marks the sixteenth anniversary of a farm we started in 1970 on 100-acres of land that we purchased for $35 per acre. The land is located five hours due North by car from where I sit and a ¼-mile in from a gravel side-road. For the next nine years, the people at Ragnarokr took turns going up there and working on the place. Two people would work at the leather shop for three months and then go up to the farm. Two people from the farm would come to Toronto and work in the leather shop. This ideal set-up lasted about nine years. Partly because some of the families’ children were approaching school age and needed to be stable in their school districts, partly because the farm was in a depressed area near northern Ontario and jobs were not available as supplemental or extra income for the growing families and partly because most of us had become weary of the idea and wanted to move to something else, we abandoned the place.
During those nine years we managed to build five houses and a large workshop, operate a small saw mill, develop a maple syrup bush and reclaim a swamp for use as pasture. Now it sits idle. George Mullins and Madelyn Starbuck gave it a name, “Frost Pocket”, back in 1971 and now, in 1987, I’d like to revive it.
Our store was given this name by Randy Rauton and Steve Burdick. “Ragnarokr” was an event that the Norse people looked forward to but which never took place. The Ragnarokr event would be the time when all the bad gods (the gods who made the Norse people feel mean or jealous or full of hate) would go to a far-off heaven and leave them alone to experience life without all these troublesome aspects. This event was symbolized by a serpent eating its own tail thus ridding the world of orneriness. Sounds like a good thing.
Five of us, Steve Spring (who painted the serpent on the front of our new store), Bie Engelen, myself, Robbie Gamble, Rosa Mullins and, sometimes Randy Rauton (he is usually knee-deep in University tomes) work at the new store. Phil Mullins and Morley Yan did all the renovations, which are beautiful. We enjoy the compactness of the store. No wasted space, long work benches, good lighting and good display shelving for the customer’s eyes. By dent of long hours of design, we managed to put the full catastrophe into one long, 12 x 35 foot storefront. We even have a kitchen area in amongst the work benches and we have a long lease and I have a very small room at the rear of the old Queen Anne-style building which looks out onto a very small garden that I’m going to have heaping with flowers come summer. At night, I pull the shades to the street and have a quiet meal, watch T.V. or do some oil painting or, as I have done this past week, write to you.
Actually it has taken longer than a week to write this letter. It coincided with the night, ten days ago, when my T.V. stopped working. So I started writing you this letter. Well, I would work until two or four o’clock in the morning. I’m a slow writer. Now my T.V. is in the repair shop and I can look forward to its droning on and on and lulling me to sleep at a reasonable hour. I love you, Mary.”