The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

Remembering Mike Charlton

I first met Mike Charlton 22 years ago (1992) at The Coffee House - an open mic session at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. I was on that side of the Atlantic as an exchange student from Dundee University in Scotland, where I was studying philosophy.

The vast majority of the open mic sessions were taken up with a succession of students playing the guitar singing something mellow and probably about lost love if you were listening to the lyrics.

Then Mike appeared - this big bear of a man who, with the exception of his bottle-bottom glasses, looked to me like I'd always imagined a Canadian lumberjack/wild woodsman to look like. He had a guitar, and boomed out a handful of folk songs. He wasn't shouting - his performance was tuneful and nuanced - but his presence filled the room. He just completely dominated the space.

I'd taken my mandolin across to Canada with me and a friend I was with insisted on taking me over to Mike to introduce me to him. I felt a bit reluctant, not least because he appeared quite intimidating.

And yet, as soon as he said hello and offered a huge paw to shake hands, I liked him. Instantly I saw past this larger-than-life exterior to a warm and friendly guy. We became good friends and over the rest of my year in Canada we played together many, many times.

At that time he was more popularly known as "Morg" - I think it was a nickname he'd had for several years and, if memory serves me right, it had come about when he'd used to wear a cap with "Morgan" on it and the last 2 letters had come off.

Despite the difference in size, we were both round of face and bearded so sometimes he would joke I was his long lost half-twin separated at birth. Up on stage at pretty much every gig he would usually boom at some point, "There are 3 kinds of people in this world - Friends of Morg, Enemies of Morg, and Morg!" After a while, he started adding, "and Kim is the only other person I've met who appears to fall into the last category..."

Truth be told, I think his big gruff exterior led to him being misunderstood by many people who couldn't see past the surface. When he was upset about something he could shout and curse in a number of languages - and with a voice that would reverberate through your chest, the instincts honed by our evolutionary ancestors would want to run for cover. And yet he would just be expressing his frustration at the universe in general - he wouldn't have harmed a soul and would have been surprised if anyone had felt intimidated.

I always saw him as a sensitive, vulnerable and kind soul. The fact he ended up as an elementary school teacher surprised many, but made me smile.

He wasn't a great communicator via email, so I was glad when he joined Facebook and I was able to follow his occasional postings.

I'd picked up hints of something not right with his health over the summer, but not enough to think anything was too serious. Then suddenly today, in my Facebook newsfeed, a mutual friend posted about his passing.

To say I was shocked would be an understatement.

I find it almost impossible to believe it's over 21 years since I left Canada and I've not been back. I always knew I would return, and that would mean meeting up with Mike again and playing music together. We both knew this would happen - it was just a matter of when.

And that when should have been next year. Our mutual friend is getting married and I'm doing my best to try and get over there for the wedding.

We would meet, make silly comments about each other's appearances, he would squeeze me in a bear hug and we would fall into a conversation we left off two decades ago.

But now it's not going to happen.

I'm grieving and it hurts.

Me and Mike playing in Canada

Here he is just singing to camera unaccompanied. Gives a sense of his voice, but it was much better live...


Donna Peters said...

I knew Mike for about 5 years, after he came to work at my Elementary School. And, just like you, I felt his size, his scruff and his deep voice were just a little out of place teaching gr 5. But within a week, his kindness, sense of humor, and his rapport with the kids, melted away the differences, and he became part of our family. Within 2 months he started to let his talents show, from his deep and smooth voice, his incredible knowledge of acadian history, to his collection of costumes and music instruments. In the 3 years he was at our school we grew to love him and his wonderful son Gab, who attended our school, and his littlest fella Owen who visited our school often. In those three years with us, Owen was diagnosed with Autism, his marriage broke up, his father passed away and his own health took several bad turns. We supported Mike though all these difficult times, and last year he finally sold his "fixer Up" house and moved to Annapolis Royal where he was close to his boys, his mom and the town that was just made for him. He sang at the market every weekend, he taught at the school there and saw his boys on a regular basis. Things were looking up.. but he suffered from all the crappy side effects of diabetes.. poor veins, bad circulation and then, finally, his kidneys gave out...
I will miss Mike so very much, and my heart breaks for his sons. Your blog is a lovely tribute to Mike and I loved reading it. Thanks

Kim Ayres said...

Donna - I can't begin to express how wonderful it is to read your words - painting a picture I can so clearly see.

When I'm feeling every inch of the 3,000 miles that separates me from him and knowing I'll be unable to make the funeral, to be able to partake in the shared stories of his life is a real comfort.

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this.

Alan McKay said...

Thanks for a great tribute to Mike. I was in my 3rd year at Acadia - in Willett House when Mike was in his first year there. I knew him well for a few short years and never saw him again after I graduated in 1990. Recently I caught wind of him being a folk performer in his old stompin' grounds, and I hoped that one day I'd meet up with him again. Sadly, this will not happen.

Alan McKay said...

Oh I should add this ... I still remember very well when Mike was teaching himself to play guitar. He went from zero to expert in what seemed like just a few weeks though I suppose it was more likely a couple of months. Nonetheless, it was truly amazing to watch him progress. He really was a natural.

Anna van Schurman said...

So sorry for your loss, Kim. Touching tribute.

Jen Carver said...

I lived in Woflville in the early 90's and Mike was part of my core hang out group. Mike truly lived life to the fullest and was one of the kindest, most generous people I knew not to mention very funny. I was always in awe of his voice and talent. One evening at a wing night in a local bar, it was also karaoke night and Mike encouraged me to go up and sing despite never having sung in public before. That night thanks to Mike's encouragement I found my singing voice and a part of my soul. But that was Mike, always encouraging others to be brave. I will be always grateful to him for that. We have lost such a special soul.

Anonymous said...

That was a beautiful tribute! I only knew Mike as Mr.Charlton, French teacher and mentor to my young son, Cameron. He had the ability to talk to my son in a way that sparked his interest! He spoke TO the kids...never AT them. My son has enjoyed the teachings as well as the music of Mr. Charlton. We spent Saturdays in Annapolis in front of the Old Post Office just to hear Mr. Charlton play guitar and sing. After the sudden and tragic passing of this kind soul, Cameron laid flowers and a card at that very spot in memory of Mr. Charlton, and noted that "he is playing guitar for God now." Thank you for sharing this blog so that my son can learn more about Mr. Charlton. Thank you.

Allen Cress said...

I knew michael for over thirty years and he never changed he met life with ambition and strenght. He never let the bsd show thru. My daughters had the privledge of his wisdom and for that I thank you mike. We lost a wonderful role model but heaven gained angel.

hope said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. Mike had a good friend in you...because you were able to describe a perfect stranger and made me miss him at the end of this piece.

Sean Timpa said...

I met Mike in 1991 or 1992, I'm not sure of the exact date anymore but it must have been shortly after Kim had returned to Scotland. He was living in a small apartment on Prospect Street. I liked him immediately. That was one of his many talents. And thus I became a member of what Mike referred to as "The Mueslix Bowl: a bunch of fruits, nuts and flakes."

A few years later I moved back to Nova Scotia at about the same time that Mike was finishing his degree. We moved into "The Barn" as roommates. It was a converted Victorian-era carriage house and an ideal location for all social occasions. We stayed there until 2000.

In the years that followed we drifted apart, as happens with people who have taken diverging paths in life. Every once in a while I would find myself back in Nova Scotia and would meet up with Mike and renew our friendship. There were differences in our lives now that formed barriers: Mike was a husband, a father, a divorcee. I was not. Yet we'd sit down a chat and half an hour later it was like we'd hardly been gone any time at all.

I have too many memories and stories of Mike to share so instead I'll try some of the better snapshots.
I remember:
- The cursing. Mike did not simply swear loudly a frequently. He did it thoughtfully and dramatically. Too few people give their swearing any real thought but Mike could go on for several minutes without repeating himself. It was a healthy release, venting the frustration that others might express as bad temper or violence.
- The idioms of Morg: "Tinkletorium" (the bathroom), "a pregnant roller-skate" (subcompact car), "slicker than snail snot" (icy weather), "laughing your hole off" are just a few of tamer expressions that have entered the vocabularies of those who knew him.
- Armed Parties, events that combined the best aspects of all the cheap liquor that college students could buy with the sharp and pointy contents of Mike's "It Don't Tickle Trunk".
- The cry "Murder Hole!" an indication that Mike was dropping something down the heating vent that linked his room to the living room below and that anybody luckless enough to be in that spot on the couch had best be possessed of fast reflexes.
- Mike singing karaoke to Madonna's "Like a Virgin" in full operatic baritone. He made it all the way through on the second attempt. His first try was scuttled because he'd forgotten the lyrics "Like a virgin Feels so good inside." whereupon he lost it.
- Long walks on the dykes late at night chatting about just about anything. It wasn't uncommon to do the loop from Wolfville to Evangeline and back and one occasion us in Kentville the next morning.
- Mike carrying Jen back to The Barn after she sprained her foot.
- Mike using an angle grinder to fashion 14 inches of bar stock steel into Pokius Maximus, a Roman gladius.
- Mike's operations to implant artificial lenses in his eyes and his discovery of the wonderful world of peripheral vision.
- Mike and Rachael meeting and falling in love.
- Being introduced to Gabe, a shy boy of three who would later come to love dinosaurs. Later, Owen with his innocent fascination of the most peculiar subjects. Mike loved them both fiercely.

The last memory that I have of Mike comes from little more than a week before his passing. I drove him home from his last round of dialysis in Halifax. We chatted on the drive as we always did, touching on everything from the inconsequential to the Earth-shattering. Things seemed to be looking up for him. His health was poor but improving, he was moving on from the emotional wreckage of his marriage, he had his own place, small and homey, that he was gradually making his own. We parted knowing that we would see each other again soon.

Kim Ayres said...

Allan - it seems strange to think of Mike learning the guitar a couple of years before I met him - the way he played I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd been born with one in his hand :)

Anna - thank you :)

Jen - if he thought you had any talent, he would have nagged you relentlessly to start expressing it. We have indeed lost a special soul.

Anonymous - thank you for a different perspective - I never knew him as a teacher, only as a fellow student, so it's lovely to hear about that part of his life :)

Hope - thank you :)

Sean - I was in Wolfville in the academic year of 92/93, so it seems surprising we missed each other. Sounds like he had a good friend in you. Thank you for sharing :)

Sean Timpa said...

Kim - I was at McGill, home for the holidaze and the summer. I expect you were back in Scotland when I was back in NS.

Guyana-Gyal said...

Kim, I'm so sorry. I started liking Morg just reading about him here, and I feel your loss in every word you've written.

Any man who can be so gentle and kind with children is a wonderful human being. An entire community has lost a treasure.

Kim Ayres said...

Sean - yes, I left at the end of May

Guyana-Gyal - thank you for your warm words

Hindsfeet said...

my dear....came to this post via the suggestion in your email to check out the category in the sidebar of your blog "understanding my place in the universe".......

....somehow I missed this one, Kim.....I'm so sorry Kim, for the loss of this friend and soul mate.....

From the movie, "Tombstone"....

Wyatt Earp's friend to Doc Holiday on the eve of a gun battle against Wyatt's enemies: "Doc, why in the world are you doin' this?"

Doc: "Cuz Wyatt's my friend"

Wyatt's friend: "well hell, I got lots a friends...."

Doc: "I don't."

It's one of the most touching scenes.....that, and at the end, when Doc says to Wyatt "You were the only one on this planet who ever gave me any hope"

Then, on Doc's death bed, he says to Wyatt...."What do you want" and Wyatt tell him, "Just to live a normal life....Doc says, "There's no normal life, Wyatt, there just it for me" and a tear rolls down his cheek.....Wyatt says, "I don't know how" and Doc answers "yes you do".......

hoping comfort for your heart tonight, Kim,

with all my heart,
Liz ~*

Kim Ayres said...

Thanks Liz

Dale said...

I am so sorry not to have met this man. We'd have gotten along.

I regret such waste. I am so sorry for this loss.

Kim Ayres said...

Dale - thanks for your kind words.

Unknown said...

I knew Morg in the early 90s when I was a music student at Acadia. I have wonderful memories of standing in the stairwells of Denton with him and others playing with singing harmonies in the echo-space. He was always a ton of fun. I saw him again years later when he worked at Fort Anne, a job he seemed born for at the time. I know it’s years later again, but I’m shocked and saddened to hear of his passing.

Kim Ayres said...

Unknown - if you return here, please do leave a name. As I was there in 1992, it's possible we met. I remember using the stairwell for the echos - such a great sound.
We are fortunate to have shared time with him.

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