Family Lines

stories for you

Month: July 2014

Not just your story

Friends.

Photo credit: Omwoods

As a memoir writer I recount many, many interesting stories. Stories about growing up in Germany during the Second World War. Stories about conducting surgeries in Baghdad when bombs are flying through the air and could hit you and your patient at any time. Stories about escaping Cold War Poland and building a new life in Canada. What all these stories have in common are they are not just about the person telling the tales and anecdotes. These stories are about everyone who came into contact with the narrator, good and bad.

You might think telling your life story means you’re the sole focus of the tale and it’s all about you. But we didn’t shape ourselves. We had mothers and fathers and siblings and relatives and friends and strangers and even animals help make us who we are. Without these people our memoirs would just be one long stream of consciousness. A bunch of thoughts strewn on the page. A journal entry and not a story.

One of my client’s didn’t talk a lot about her father, who has been dead for many decades. Her dad was, of course, a major part of her life but we only had a few anecdotes about him. Then the client’s husband died in May and through her recent grief she was able to tell me about her father dying, almost 60 years ago. The sadness she felt today let her come to terms with what happened a long time ago. She has told me a lot more about her dad and he’s a major part of her story now too.

The characters in our lives come in all shapes and forms – the kind grandmother, the angry aunt, the mixed-up parent, the sarcastic brother and the thoughtful friend. They all feature in our narratives. Use them to add colour to your tales. They’ll make your stories that much richer.

 

Short but sweet

B.C. ferry.

Two ships passing in the…day. On the way to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island.

I’m in Vancouver for work and yesterday I had some free time. I hopped on two buses and the Canada Line train to the ferry and took the boat to Victoria where I have an aunt and uncle. Now I have some sunshine-filled and homemade date square memories of a B.C. Sunday.

I don’t want to write a long story this morning so I’m going to craft a nano-memoir. A nano-memoir is longer than a six word memoir but shorter than a lengthy anecdote about almost missed buses and the reminiscing over funny family stories with relatives. A nano-memoir is short and focused. Here it goes.

Before my Victoria trip I googled how to get to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal on public transit. I had it all figured out – or so I thought – until a friend (and a local) told me the night before that my route was wrong. To head down to a busy street, West Broadway, to get the bus to the Canada Line to get the Skytrain to the bus to get to the ferry. Locals always know the best ways to get around in their own city.

But the buses don’t stop at certain stops before 7 a.m. on Sundays. Here it was 5:45 in the morning and no public transportation of any shape or kind had rolled past me. I decided to walk ahead to another stop. Just in case.

At 6 a.m. a bus pulled over. Hallelujah! I asked the driver if he went to the Canada Line.

“Nope. Take the Number Nine.”

Yikes! I’m already running late. And a tiny bit panicked. Where is this stupid bus? Then a woman with a large rolling suit case clomped out of the bus door. Her luggage looked heavy but she was smiling.

“I’m catching the Number Nine,” she told me. “You can wait with me.”

We walked a couple of metres up the street and stood at the sign with a big “9” on it. Hopefully I would have noticed it on my own but it was nice I didn’t have to. My companion was a young woman who was going to the airport via the skytrain. She was flying to Italy and travelling around Milan.

We exchanged some notes about pasta and Italian train travel (I had bad luck in that country with trains) and how delicious a chocolate gelato would taste on a warm continental evening (or even the warm morning in Vancouver we were experiencing.) It was a pleasant conversation for an early a.m. and I was reminded that there are friendly people everywhere – even big and busy cities.

I thought about the woman while I was returning from Victoria via the ferry, the two buses and the train last night. It had been a 12 hour day for me and she had probably just arrived in Milan. Hopefully she was enjoying ravioli somewhere with a good glass of red.

When I got up this morning at my friend’s place I noticed a calendar hanging on the wall in my bedroom. It’s from Milan.

Uncovering treasures

Postcard from Gretna Gree.

Postcard from Gretna Green, Scotland famous for runaway weddings.

This past week I was in Burlington, Ontario for work. A client had bought my ticket so I could fly to her home and help her dig through boxes and files and root out any stories that had been hiding. We uncovered a few new adventures by looking at old photos as well as added more details to other memoirs. But I didn’t just unearth her family narratives; I also discovered a portal to someone else’s stories.

Southern Ontario was hot, hot, hot and coming from cold Calgary I was not used to the heat and humidity. While sifting through documents and pictures in the basement kept me cool, coming up to ground level took my temperature a little too high. So we decided to take a drive in the air-conditioned car.

Off we headed into the countryside driving past lush green pastures, grand estates with fountains splashing into ponds and rolling hills that make up the area around and past Milton. It was in Campbellville that we noticed a sign on the right hand side of the road advertising stained glass windows. To stretch our legs we thought we might as well stop in and take a peek.

The Stonehouse of Campbellville has over two thousand windows displayed outside on its grounds. (I was actually afraid to walk around because I was sure I would kick and break something.) Some of the windows are pieces of art with royal blues and ruby reds and sunshine yellows shaped into flowers or people or animals. Some glass is clear in its design and looks just as beautiful as a colourful church window.

Inside the small shop there are more windows for sale and a work room where artists make repairs. But there were also two long benches filled with books. Free books!

“Limit five books per person,” said the sign above the tomes of every size and genre. Perhaps I could get a good novel for the plane ride back? As someone once said, “Never judge a book by its cover,” so I looked for a catchy title that interested me. I picked up a science fiction paperback and opened it – three postcards slid out from the pages to the floor.

I picked the postcards up and took a look. They were all from a mother to her grown child, whether a daughter or son I don’t know. The postcards were addressed to Saskatoon Drive in Toronto, an address that still exists. (I googled it.) The notes on the cards were short but sweet with the most interesting one being written on a picture of Gretna Green.

Gretna Green is a town in Scotland known for runaway weddings. In England if you were getting married and under 21 in the 1700s, your parents could object to you getting hitched. Scotland’s law was more lax then so many minors took off to wed in the safety of Gretna Green. (Jane Austen wrote about some of her characters running off to Gretna Green.) The postcard I found wasn’t from the 18th century – it was sent August 14, 1958 – but there been a wedding.

Postcard.

The postcard was addressed to J.W. Singleton. I googled the name and found a J.W. Singleton Education Centre in Burlington, Ont.

Hello folks,

Just had to send this card. We made a group and had a wedding picture taken. Much love, mother

As Oliver Twist (kind of) said, “I want some more.” Some more details to fill in the story. Was the wedding at Gretna Green? Whose wedding was it? Why didn’t the receiver of the postcard attend? Too many questions and no answers. Just like life.

The postcard is a fragment of a much bigger narrative. A piece of a puzzle that I will never put together. But it’s still a delightful treasure to have found and a reminder that some stories don’t have a perfect ending. I left the postcards and the book on the bench for the next person to discover.

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