Family Lines

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Words of wisdom

Family_Lines_Annapolis_Royal

Annapolis Royal, N.S.

Stupid girl

Me at the NWT/Alberta border. I used to live in Fort Smith, NT.

Me at the NWT/Alberta border. I used to live in Fort Smith, NT.

Met up with a friend who was in the city from Fort Smith, NT this past weekend. We got talking about bears and I remembered a story I wrote when I was in Smith and it’s about coming nose-to-snout with a bruin in 2007.

Stupid girl

I went out to the river, alone, last night for an evening photo shoot. I drove to Mountain Portage, which is about ten minutes out of town, into the wilderness and down by the roaring Slave River rapids. I went because I was sad and thought a walk by the water would make me feel better.

When I got to the trail head there was still some fall sunshine but it was slowly being pulled towards the Earth. I put on my headphones and walked down the very steep hill to the beach. I walked along the racing river practicing my sunset shots while listening to opera. Examining everything around me to find the right photos. At one point I glanced at a few dips and ripples in the sand. Notice some marks deep in the mud.

“Are those bear prints?” I wondered for an instant. Then dismiss the thought. Nah.

After about a half an hour of shooting, I turned to go back home. And I’m face-to-snout with a bear. A black bear. It’s only a few metres away and cutting off my route home. I don’t know what to do. It stares at me. Stares and stares.

I’m scared. I’m frightened. I don’t move. I wait for it to leave so I can hike back up the trail, which is in sight. So close. Too close to the animal.

The bear breaks off his or her stare and takes a couple of steps away from me to nibble on some rose hips. I don’t move yet. It’s still too close. Then it walks back to the same spot where I had first met it and stares at me again. Agonizingly, it repeats this pattern of walking to and from me while nibbling a few appetizers and perhaps considering me as the main course.

I’m stuck. I have no where to go. The bear is blocking my path to freedom. I review my other options. I could get in the water that’s on my right and try to swim away – down the rapids. Probably not a good idea. Bears can swim. I could climb the cliff to my left. Probably not a good idea because bears can run. Fast. Probably faster than me uphill. Should I throw rocks at it? Then that might really get the bear’s attention.

bear.

I did take a photo of the bear when it walked far, far away from me. Of course, here it looks like it was the size of a cat. It was not.

Finally, before a better plan than just standing motionless suggests itself, the bear turns and walks further down the beach. And then further and further. And then it’s far away from me. This frees the path up the steep hill. I frantically scramble up the trail – every couple of seconds looking over my shoulder for the bear. It had seen me leave and I’m worried it’s not going to let me go and is chasing me.

I run up the hill as fast as I can and climb into the safety of my vehicle. I’m shaking. I have allowed myself to be scared at this point. When there are steel doors around me. I turn on the van and start the drive home. Towards the safety of pavement and the many people in town.

Snotember

snow.

A Calgary summer day.

A summer snow storm hit Calgary this past week. It wasn’t the pretty pre-Christmas snow that covers up all the dead leaves on the ground and causes kids to rush out to play. No, this was an ugly, messy, very, very cold and very unwanted first week of September snow. Not good at all.

Since all the leaves are still on the trees, the falling snow took many branches along for the ride to the ground. The heavy, wet snow piled up and up and up amongst the green foliage until they went down. All night and day the snap and crackle of the trees could be heard, along with the eventual whoosh of an avalanche of snow and leaves hitting the earth. Now in the sunny aftermath days later, it’s the chainsaws that are making the noise.

City crews and private companies are clearing away the hundreds of pieces of debris strewn across power lines, streets, sidewalks and countless yards. The jagged-edge whir of the chainsaw can be heard just about everywhere above the din of the vehicles and sirens that are usually part of the inner-city babble. The chainsaw sound is more at home in rural areas and I remember it well.

downed trees.

Piles of downed branches. Scenes like this are repeated on many Calgary streets.

My parents used and still use, wood to heat their large two-storey house in Nova Scotia. Evenings were always comfy and cozy beside the wood stove but mornings were another matter. They were cold. On weekdays dad would get up first and get the stove going. On weekends it was us kids who were up first. And freezing. We learned at a young age how to coax the embers of the fire back into a flame strong enough to burn the logs.

In the middle of summer cords of wood would be delivered to our home in the country and stacked on our front lawn. Dad would get out his chainsaw and cut the logs up and throw them into a pile. A pile to be chopped and then in the fall, trucked into our two-car garage. (The garage has never been used for vehicles. Only wood.) When I write “trucked” I actually mean wheel-barrowed in by me and my family: my dad, mom and two sisters.

From ages nine though to 15 I really, really, really, really hated this chore. It wasn’t hard but it was monotonous. Go to the big wood pile, load up the wheel-barrow, walk about 12 metres to the garage, dump the wood, put it on the stack – neatly – pick up the wheel-barrow, walk back and repeat. It was maddening when there were so many other things to do like talk to my friends on the phone.

Later in my teen years I started really liking piling wood. It was exercise and something to do outside when the weather was too chilly for a bicycle ride. As well, teenage years are full of change and piling wood was one thing that always stayed the same. Plus, it didn’t call for a fashion-forward wardrobe.

hearth.

The wood stove in the house I grew up in.

Thanksgiving Day was always the best day for wood piling. Usually this would be the last push to get all the logs needed for winter under the shelter of a roof. We’d start in the morning in the weak sunshine. It was cold but there would be no snow on the ground yet. By mid-afternoon the smell of turkey and pumpkin pie cooking in the oven would waft through the garage door from the kitchen. That would be our reward after a satisfying and good day’s work.

Thanksgiving is several weeks away and winter is supposed to be months away. Since it’s still summer, we’re supposed to be eating ice cream and watermelon and enjoying the last of this season’s rays. Not eating pumpkin pie and shovelling snow. Oh well. Has anyone found any pumpkin ice cream?

A rose (or grocery store) by any other name

Sign.

The Gominion sign. Photo credit: Violet Sky.

Grocery shopping in the late 70s for my family meant going to the Dominion store. I could never understand why it was called “Dominion” when the D was clearly a G: as in Gominion. Don’t you see it?

One of my clients is from Germany and grew up in Hamburg during World War II. She said no one spoke much English in that country then but products being exported from there had ‘Made in Germany’ written on them in English. In German, a ‘made’ is a type of worm found in cheese. My client couldn’t understand why items had ‘The worm in Germany’ stamped on them.

What signs or labels have you mixed up as a child?

Mid-summer memories

Canoe and paddle.

 

A French toot in English

Université Sainte-Anne.

The residence I lived in while at Université Sainte-Anne.

After finishing my second degree I had a lot to think about. I had been going to school for 19 years and now what was I going to do? I graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto with a journalism degree and was wondering if I should stay in the big city and find a job there or go home to the East Coast.

My mother found a short term answer – a bursary to attend a French immersion program. There were a few places to choose from: Montreal, Quebec City or Pointe-de-l’Église, Nova Scotia. I applied for the money to go to Pointe-de-l’Église.

Pointe-de-l’Église, Church Point in English, is a tiny Acadian town on the French Shore of Nova Scotia. It’s also the home of L’Université Sainte-Anne. The university is home to about 500 students and the campus is right on the shores of the Bay of Fundy. The view from the meal hall of the water is truly magnifique.

The bursary provided money for tuition, meals and board for six weeks. Six weeks where I did everything in French. I went to French classes, made friends in French, wrote in my journal in French and even dreamed a few times in French. It was exhausting. If anyone spoke a word of English they got an advertisement – a warning. Three advertisements and you’re out.

Université Sainte-Anne campus.

Université Sainte-Anne campus.

Our instructors handed out these demerits but other people could too. Since the town was small shopkeepers knew who was from the school and who was a tourist. If I had said anything in my native tongue in any store I would get dinged immediately.

My instructor Madeleine was always trying to get us. Especially in the morning before we had breakfast. While in line waiting to be served by the meal hall staff, Madeleine would point to a food item and ask, “Qu’est ce que c’est?”

“Oatmeal,” answered one unfortunate Anglophone.

One warning for her.

By the time I was asked the same question by Madeleine the oatmeal/gruau story had already made the rounds. I was safe with my “sauce au pommes” (apple sauce) reply.

During the last week of school I was paired with a guy in my class to do a project. Shawn and I didn’t really get along and had bickered like brother and sister most of the five weeks that had already passed. I was not looking forward to being his partner and spending more time with him.

That Wednesday he was coming to my residence to work on our assignment. I was the only one in the living room dorm and I just happen to let one. AKA pass gas. Right when Shawn walked through the door. I was mortified. What do I do? I had to get him into the kitchen.

“Hi Shawn, welcome. Let’s go into the kitchen,” I said. All in English.

He looked at me with wide blue eyes, mouth open and said, in French, “That’s the first time you’ve been nice to me. And it was in English!”

Oh mon dieu. He’s going to report me now.

He never did.

The fraying edge of summer

The light has changed in Calgary the past few days, signalling the end weeks of summer. When I left for vacation in the middle of July there were still many sunshine days ahead. Now a chill is creeping into August mornings and I saw my breath yesterday when I went out on to the porch to pick up the newspaper. Summer is fading but I’m holding on to the warmth of my holiday memories. I don’t want to leave them behind. Just yet.

My husband Jason and I travelled to see his family in Toronto. Our flight itinerary put us in Saskatoon for a six-hour layover. I had never been to the flat city before so we thought we’d take the bus into town. Easy. Although once at the airport it was pouring rain. And freezing cold. We ventured out anyway and headed for Prairie Sun Brewery, and a nice respite from the Saskatchewan chill.

Prairie Sun Brewery

The menu at Prairie Sun Brewery. I don’t like beer so I had a pop.

After missing the bus and finally catching the correct one back to the airport, our flight took off and landed in Toronto just after midnight. We had several days of seeing parents and siblings and nieces and nephews and friends. We went to Milton and Waterloo and hit the west end of Toronto. We even had time to relax.

Toronto traffic.

Toronto traffic. Not bad!

Then it was on to Nova Scotia. We were going for a special occasion – to surprise one of my sisters for her 40th birthday. I was so excited about the plan I almost texted her while I was waiting for my luggage to tell her I was home. Thankfully I didn’t and she was shocked (in a good way) when Jason and I showed up on the doorstep.

Blomidon.

Blomidon – the first thing anyone who grew up in the Annapolis Valley looks for on the drive home.

The next week in the Maritimes was filled with party planning, the 40th bash, visiting family, meeting a puppy, catching up with friends over coffee and showing off some of Nova Scotia’s best sights to my husband. Jason and I took a car trip to the French Shore and stopped at Annapolis Royal where Fort Anne sits. The site was established in 1629 and was traded back and forth between the English and French many times during the many wars between the two nations. Annapolis Royal is a lovely town but I don’t think I would have wanted to be a soldier posted there a couple of hundred years ago. Just like I wouldn’t have wanted to be stationed at the Habitation in Port Royal.

Fort Anne, Annapolis Royal.

Fort Anne, Annapolis Royal.

The Habitation was France’s first successful settlement in North America and was established in 1605. I had been to the Habitation years ago as a child and while the replica of the fort is the same as I remembered, there was a lot less activity then in the 80s. Actors used to bring the Habitation alive and fill it with soldiers and bakers and blacksmiths. I guess Parks Canada doesn’t have the money in the budget for that kind of stuff anymore. Despite this, the Habitation is still an impressive piece of history. Its drafty and damp rooms wouldn’t be a place I’d like to stay over the winter. The colonists only survived thanks to Mi’kmaq neighbours. (On a weird note, it was funny to watch some American tourists complaining about the reception for their mobile phones. Man, times have changed.)

Habitation.

The Habitation in Port Royal.

With that in mind, unlike the Habitation settlers, Jason and I didn’t need to hunt and fish for our food. We only had to stop at a restaurant in Digby. My husband ate world-famous scallops and I had lobster quiche. Mmmmm.  We also took a side trip to Bear River. I love this tiny place because some of the buildings are on silts. Bear River is also known as “The Switzerland of Nova Scotia” because it’s in a valley with hills on either side.

Bear River.

Bear River with its buildings on stilts.

Next there was a stop at the Université Sainte-Anne where I went to French immersion in 1997. Sainte-Anne is a small francophone university made up of just over 500 students and the campus is on the Baie St. Marie. We walked around the ground and I found the residence I lived in way back when.

Université Sainte-Anne.

The residence I lived in while at Université Sainte-Anne.

Surrounding the university are the Acadian fishing towns of Clare, Saulnierville and Meteghan –beautiful and unspoiled. It was nice to see all the Acadian flags on the lawns of people proud of their heritage. We would have gone further down the coast but we ran out of time. We will be back. One day.

Puppy.

Quentin, my pup-hew. AKA my younger sister’s new puppy.

Now we’ve returned to Calgary. At the fraying edge of summer. With my memories of a hot and humid July. There were many other things I saw and did on my trip but I’ll save them for another time. Today I’m happy I was able to re-visit history and people from my past and make a connection with them in the present. We have so much to look forward to.

Dykes in Wolfville.

Walking along the dykes in Wolfville.

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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