Family Lines

stories for you

Tag: memoir (page 2 of 15)

Frozen in time: lives behind photos

My grandmother as a toddler with her aunty, Scotland around 1924.

My grandmother as a toddler with her aunty, Scotland around 1924.

The little girl in the photo on the left is three years old. She’s my grandmother. The child’s joy with being outside with her aunty is frozen in time. But the 94 year-old’s memories of that moment are fresh in her mind.

I took the photo and restored it as best I could. I covered the holes, brightened the image, framed it and then gave it to my grandmother last September. She smiled and smiled and smiled when I handed it to her and she couldn’t stop looking at it.

My paternal grandmother lives in Thunder Bay and I don’t see her often. We talk on the phone and correspond through letters but nothing beats seeing her in person. Nothing beats being able to hear stories and ask questions and more questions and see her eyes brighten when she tells me about her past.

The story behind this photo starts in Scotland. Grandma was playing with her Aunt Elise Booth, a favourite relative. The picture was taken three miles from Huntly, in Aberdeenshire, at the farm where my grandmother lived with her parents. Beyond the haze of the photo are trees and a church and an ice cream shop run by Italians were grandma used to get sliders: ice cream sandwiched between cookies. Beyond the photo are scenes of life and living long gone — but alive to my grandma.

Then, she spoke English in a “Scotch style,” a Scottish dialect.

“Foo are ya the day?”  How are you doing?

She had quite the accent when arriving in Canada at age 7. She won a public speaking contest at her little school in Saskatchewan but lost at the regional event. The Saskatoon judge marked her down for her brogue.

On her Canadian farm, grandma was needed for the thrashing in September. She didn’t work outside with the threshing: 12 men did that hard work. She was in the kitchen in the heat of cooking and baking non-stop. Breakfast was at five in the morning and that meant she had to fry potatoes and bake ham. There was also a lunch in the morning, around 11. Dinner was at noon: meat, more potatoes and pie. Grandma says sometimes a man would eat a quarter of a pie. At 3 in the afternoon, sandwiches and big squares of cake were sent out to the field with coffee in the cream can. At 7, supper was served. Grandma says food tasted better back then.

This is the original photo. I restored it by covering the holes and making the image brighter.

This is the original photo. I restored it by covering the holes and making the image brighter.

Back then, my poppa wasn’t allowed in the delivery room when my uncle and dad were born: delivered by their grandfather, who was a doctor. Grandma and poppa and the boys moved from Saskatchewan to northwestern Ontario where my dad grew up. Where my grandma is today.

When I talk to grandma she opens up another world to me. It’s a world my ancestors walk in. I’m the link between their world, grandma’s and mine. Without her stories, they would fade away.

Shared stories

ebook cover.

Cover by Eveline Kolijn.

Stories bind us. Words tie society together with strands of familiar narratives and shared experiences. Not all stories are happy ones but there’s value in listening to how people are dealing with tough times. You may also learn others are more like you and me than you know.

I heard a lot of these types of stories when I was a volunteer artist facilitator for This is My City Calgary Art Society (TMC). TMC is a not-for-profit organization that brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status.

The following is a story I wrote a couple of years ago after a memoir writing session at the Calgary Drop-in and Rehab Centre.

Shared stories

Today only two participants showed up for my last life writing workshop at the Drop-In Centre. Two regulars. Four other people were in the same space painting and drawing and playing the piano.

I was disappointed one man hadn’t made it to my class. He had been to the three other sessions and was an active learner. He asked a lot of questions and even wanted homework, which he always completed. I asked the other writers where the man was.

“Cheques are out,” one participant told me. “He usually disappears for a while after he gets his money.”

At first, it was a let-down that the man was missing the class. I liked him and having more than two people in my workshop made the low numbers easier to handle. Nevertheless, I gave my lecture like I have the other times. The two men were just as interested in what I had to say and asked questions. They took part in the writing exercises and wrote interesting and compelling memoirs. It was a lesson to me about numbers and participation. Even though there weren’t many people, two people wanted to learn. Wanted to write. And now have stories to share.

A collection of stories by the authors above as well as Alpha House and the Women’s Centre is now available for sale: http://bit.ly/2jHfyvu Profits from Voices in the Wind fund TMC artistic workshops: http://bit.ly/2k4Wymv

Lost Andy

Andy talks and talks and talks. Talks and talks. Then talks some more.

“At school we painted pictures,” he says.

“I can make super-sonic laser beams come out of my eyes.”

“Can I take Jasper out for a walk?”

Andy is annoying me with all his talking. I want to tell him to shut up but I won’t. He’s only seven years old.

Andy is my foster brother. He stays with my family on weekends. Mom and Dad decided to become foster parents since all their kids have grown up and moved away for university. I admire the fact that my parents are doing something for children who need help and love but it’s Christmas. I don’t want Andy around. I want my Mom and Dad all to myself because I’ve been away for four months and have a lot to tell them.

Andy never stops chattering. He follows me around telling me about his latest ninja adventure.

“Me and the ninjas hang out a lot. We just went and beat up some bad guys real bad. They’ve got blood coming out of their noses,” he says.

Andy’s mum doesn’t like him. In fact, she hates him. She never asks how school was or looks at him or kisses him goodnight.

He likes coming to our house because we don’t hit. He said that once. He likes coming to our house because we don’t ignore him. He said that too.

A friend and I were catching up during that same holiday Andy was part of my family. After Katherine and after our coffees, we found a kitten behind the café. It was a freezing cold Saturday and it took a long time to capture the baby. Every time Katherine and I got close she would dart into the brambles.

I managed to catch her when she climbed a tree and was too weak to get very far.

I put the kitten in the car and she howled all the way home. She was starving and wild and scared. At my house I gave her some warm milk and mush to eat. I cleaned her up and she’s beautiful. She tried to snuggle into my collarbone. She looked up at me asking for love with her enormous eyes. She made me cry. She made me put Andy into perspective.

Andy is like the kitten, abandoned and scared. He wants attention and love, except he’s not cute and cuddly. He’s a skinny little boy. He can’t fit into the nook of my shoulder. So he talks constantly to get people to notice him, even if all they’re going to say is be quiet.

After this revelation I try to be nicer to Andy. We walk through the woods together. I show him how to play the piano and how to build a house out of Lego. But he still keeps talking.

Laughing at life

Hockey jersey and high heels.

Funny photo: hockey and heels.

“Ha ha ha.”

That’s me laughing. To myself. I constantly crack myself up. But while I think I’m funny, it sometimes doesn’t translate well onto the page. However, I can’t always write about serious life lessons or sweet little moments because life makes us laugh too. We need to inject humour into our memoirs.

Writing humour is tough but it’s a best-seller once it hits the shelves. Writing a poignant, heartwarming story is a lot easier than writing a comedic memoir. Why? Because we all have different senses of humour.

To some writers, being funny on the page comes naturally. Just read this sentence from Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love.

Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit.

That’s so true and hilarious at the same time. She is taking something that’s an incredibly big commitment and making us think about it in a different way. She’s making us look at having a baby in another light. Writers are always looking for ways to describe things in a new way. Gilbert did it here. (No pun intended.)

Life isn’t only a series of ponderous thoughts and events. We have laughter and comedic relief every day. Even in our darkest moments there’s a dot of light. The other day was terrible for me. There were so many things going wrong — and not going right — personally and professionally. I just wanted to get home from the gym and drink the extra-large tea I had just bought and not talk to anyone.

I pulled into the garage and parked in my designated spot. Then I grabbed the tea by the lid and … splash. Hot tea spilled all over the tops of my legs: the burning liquid quickly soaked into my gym tights. I hopped out of the car as fast as I could and wondered what to do. Should I stop, drop and roll? Should I take off my pants in the garage where anyone might drive or walk in? Ouch! That tea was boiling.

A few seconds later, my legs were no longer on fire. The tea was tepid and I was left with an empty cup and feeling more miserable than ever. Oh the tragedy of being upset and being doomed to have nothing ever go right.

Cat in a drawer.

Tomas being funny.

Right. Stop taking yourself so seriously.

“I tea-d myself,” I said aloud to myself. Then I started laughing. It was funny. We’ll all need to laugh once in a while. Why not start with me?

Jokes

Some people find me funny and others might just find me funny-looking. However, I did win first prize at a joke competition in a Revelstoke bar a few years ago with a laugh I wrote. I won’t repeat the joke here as it’s a bit racy but I do have two others I created and can share with you.

Where does Batman go pee? The batroom.

Where do enzymes go to work out? The digestive tract.

Gifts not presents

Woman sitting in Fanas, Switzerland.

My big ugly coat I can’t find. I’m in Fanas, Switzerland here.

Christmas is on the horizon and for many of us, that means lots of cookies and eggnog and family time. My immediate family (and family-in-laws) don’t live close enough to us to hop over for some seasonal cheer but my husband and I consider our friends as extended family.

It’s a gift we have these people in our lives in Calgary. This week though — this cold, cold week — I’ve been thinking about other gifts that I’m grateful for: and not expensive presents.

It’s super-duper freezing outside and I walk everywhere (most everywhere). Somehow, I’ve lost two winter coats. Oh I know they’re packed in boxes but I’m not sure which boxes. I didn’t label them when I loaded them full of housewares and clothing and knickknacks in preparation for a move. Well, that move hasn’t happened yet but winter has. I did know where one special winter coat was put and dug it out.

The special coat was my Nana’s. It’s pink and pure virgin wool (so says the tag) and has a fur-lined hood. Nana lived in northwestern Ontario and it’s cold there. The coat must have worked because she used it for a long time and then handed it to me before I moved from Nova Scotia to the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) about 10 years ago. I never used the vintage coat in the N.W.T. because I had a black, puffy parka that looked like a sleeping bag on steroids.

Now I can’t find that black coat nor another black parka that looks almost the same. I had to start using my Nana’s coat. I put it on today and walked downtown in the -33 (with wind-chill) weather. It worked! I was warm and cozy in the wool coat and I even got some compliments on it while I was shopping in the mall.

I never saw Nana again after she gave me the coat: she died soon after I went to the N.W.T. Her gift is finally being put to use 10 years later and I’m grateful for its warmth and the reminder of her as a flesh and blood person. She wasn’t always an old woman. She wasn’t always my Nana. She was young and had ideas and dreams and perhaps, in her coat, she lived some of them.

Cold Calgary: view from Nose Hill Park.

Cold Calgary: view from Nose Hill Park.

Another gift is the gift of nature in the city. Like I said and many of you know, it’s freaking cold. But have you seen how beautiful it is outside? The fog rolling off the Bow River in the morning turns everything around it silver. The fresh snow covering the brown leaves on the ground and ugly grey pavement convinces us that the streets are pretty and Christmas is just around the corner. At night, when the festive lights are turned on, they still can’t compete with the stars. The clear cold air only accentuates their brilliance, reminding me that I’m one small person on this large planet.

With the holidays comes goodwill. People hold doors open for me. They stop their vehicles to let me cross the street. They put down their mobiles to engage in conversation with me, a stranger. This is a great gift and I wish it continued all year long because this is an important gift: the gift of time. Taking a couple of seconds to be friendly doesn’t take much and you’ll never know how deeply your kindness was felt.

“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Staying ahead of competition

People running a race.Capital Ideas Calgary is a community that links business owners to an important resource: other business owners. Each week, Capital Ideas puts out a question that’s answered by entrepreneurs based on their experiences.

Last week, Capital Ideas Calgary asked businesses: What market research helps you stay ahead of your competition?

Here’s my answer (along with other business owners): http://capitalideascalgary.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2016.12.01Final.pdf

I always answered June’s question: How do you maintain life balance as an entrepreneur?

Here’s my answer published in the Calgary Herald on June 16, 2016: http://capitalideascalgary.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/CH-0616-final.pdf

What would you answer to the questions above?

A banner day

Girl drawing.

A loon scene.

Revelstoke, B.C. has a wonderful tradition: hanging hand-painted banners to deck the streets of the mountain city. The community-based program lets artists (and non-artists) paint their impressions of the town red. Or green, or brown or purple. After some prodding from friends, I put paint to canvas and helped create a flag for one of Revelstoke’s light poles.

The street banner program has been part of Revelstoke for many years. It’s hard to miss the flags hanging around the city. They wave hello and goodbye to people coming and going and brighten up dark November days when the snow has yet to make it all the way to the ground.

Revelstoke is more than a place for tourists to ski or go mountain biking, it’s a community where people have jobs and kids go to school and life is lived. I called Revelstoke home a few years ago and still have friends there, artistic friends. A couple of weeks ago I was visiting one family when it was their turn to create their banners.

Next year is Canada’s 150 birthday and the Revelstoke’s banner program is celebrating the milestone with the theme “Canada’s 150th — Strong, Proud and Free.” On that note, banners this year had to represent Canada and you could only use red, white or black paint. Hmm, in that case I think I’ll paint Canada at night.

Girl drawing.

A squirrel and a fox scene.

As a writer, I rely on words to paint pictures. I cannot draw or paint at all. (Okay. I can draw brown trees without leaves and blue ponds with grass.) Thankfully, my friend Pauline and her two daughters are accomplished artists so I had a lot of help. Pauline put together images of a heron standing in water ripples. She borrowed some elements from First Nations art and designed an extraordinary piece.

Next, I had to trace the design onto a thin sheet of Mylar, (plastic about as big as a piece of paper). Then we took the sheet to the Revelstoke Visual Arts Centre where the Mylar was put on a projector and the image shone onto a white waterproof canvas framed in wood. I traced the outline of the heron with a black marker onto the banner. The canvas was laid down on a table and Pauline and I got to work filling in the heron.

For me, painting was hard work. I didn’t have the patience or the creativity to colour inside the lines. (I was a terrible colourer as a kid. Always straying from the boundaries of the picture.) I took lots of deep breaths and concentrated on not making a mess. Pauline and her daughters gave me tips on how to move the paintbrush.

Outline of a heron.

Hello heron – tracing the outline of the bird onto the banner.

“Use your whole arm, not just your hand.”

“Slow down. You don’t have a deadline.”

No, there was no rush but there was pressure, pressure to make something that people would look at and not wrinkle their noses at. Pressure to have a banner that would represent Revelstoke as well as Canada. Pressure to not screw up.

With words, you have the freedom to move them around and change them. With the click of a button, the flick of a wrist, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, disappears. Painting is more permanent. Splash some red on the white canvas, like I did, and it’s not easily washed away. The red, diluted by water and detergent, turned pink. It changed the scene on the canvas, and made the heron seem like it was looking at an early sunset. That wouldn’t happen with words. But it’s sometimes good to know you can’t change things. Even if you paint over the sunset, it’ll still be there.

Heron painted in.

You’ll have to go to Revelstoke in the spring to find the finished oeuvre.

The business of art

family_lines_artThe Department of Canadian Heritage is looking to hear from you about Canadian culture. What are your views on our arts scene? What’s important to you about our culture – is there even a Canadian culture? How do we support Canada’s artists, content creators and cultural entrepreneurs in order to create a cultural ecosystem in which they thrive… Here’s my answer: http://bit.ly/2flj74E

The Forgotten War

Korean War photos.

Korean War photos. Photo Credit: By All photographs are works of the United States federal government. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nicknamed the Forgotten War, the Canadian participation in the Korean War is overshadowed by our efforts in the First and Second World Wars. I barely knew about the Korean War when I was in secondary school. My only connection to it was the names of the men who fought in that conflict being called out at every Remembrance Day ceremony in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. When I moved to South Korea after graduating university in 1997, this all changed.

I was an English teacher for half a year in South Korea. My first post was in Puyo (Bueyo), a rural town about three hours south of Seoul. When I wanted a taste of the big city, I took a bus to Taejon (Daejong), about an hour northeast of my Korean home. In the middle of the trip, the bus passed a war memorial. Huge bronze soldiers hoisted guns into the air on a gravel patch beside the highway. No one on the bus or in Puyo could ever tell me what the monument was for but it brought the Korean War to the forefront of my mind.

Twenty years ago it wasn’t hard to remember a war had been fought all over the peninsula. Sure, South Korea was a bustling place with lots of trade and tourism and great food. But there were signs that it was still on alert, ready for action in case the North decided to attack. There were armed soldiers at train stations, bus stations and sentry points on beaches.

The war between South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) started on June, 25 1950 when the DPRK invaded South Korea. In February of the next year, Canada, as part of a United Nations (UN) force, entered the war. Around 26,791 Canadian military personnel took part in combat as well as observer roles after an armistice was signed in July, 27 1953. The two Korean countries have been in an uneasy ceasefire ever since.

During my teaching stint, I hopped on a bus and took it to Inchon (now Incheon) to visit a fellow English teacher, Niki. In 1997 Inchon was a growing city. In 1950, it was an important port for Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and within striking distance of North Korea. It was also the scene of the Inchon Landings in September 1950 where the UN forces recaptured Seoul and delivered a tremendous wallop to the North Korean Peoples Army (KPA). It was a strategic and crucial victory for South Korea. (UN forces began hitting the KPA from the sea. The Royal Canadian Navy was a part of this attack.)

When this Canadian got off the bus in Inchon forty years later, I didn’t have to contend with shells going off or bullets whizzing by me. There were ROK military all over the place, an obvious sign of lingering tension, but I left that all behind once I left the station. I met up with my friend and we went for a hike in the hills of Inchon. It was New Year’s Day and sunny and bright. The temperature hovered just around zero and it was perfect for a jaunt outside. We walked up and up through a patch of fir trees tree and then waded through tall golden grass. We could see the ocean, the blue Yellow Sea, as we ascended higher into the hills. Soon we were walking along a ridge strewn with broken barbed wire. Along the way were worn concrete bunkers and broken down sentry posts. Were these remnants from the Korean War? Had we stumbled upon history? I’ll never know.

That’s the problem with being a traveller sometimes. With no one around to tell us what we were looking at or signs to guide us, we had no idea if these ramparts were from the war or just part of everyday life on the south side of Korea. I later asked my Korean friends about the military ruins but they didn’t have any answers. Neither did the internet, then and today.

Modern-day Incheon (the spelling was changed in 2000) is the site of an international airport. My husband and I landed there when we went to Korea this past May. The city has exploded in size, both population and square footage, and is the third most populated place in South Korea. I wonder if the remnants of what I had seen so many years ago still exist. The war certainly does although you wouldn’t know it. Seoul is a cosmopolitan city and no different from any other city in the world even though it’s just over 56 km (35 miles) from its enemy. There are no longer soldiers patrolling the train and bus stations because technology (CCTV) can be everywhere at once. That all changed when I went to the DMZ.

View of downtown Seoul, May 2016.

View of downtown Seoul, May 2016.

North and South Korea are separated by the demilitarized zone (the DMZ), that’s only about an hour’s drive from Seoul. The DMZ acts as a buffer between South and North Korea and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. My husband Jason and I signed up for a DMZ tour and left on a bus one morning to get a glimpse of the other side.

As we headed out to the demilitarized zone, we began to see the markings of a country on guard. The highway skirting the river leading to the Yellow Sea had barbed wire wrapped around the guardrails and every few metres there were covered platforms with soldiers stationed in them. In some of these little houses, I saw the soldiers hunched over their guns pointed out to the water, ready to fire at any moment.

Guard post.

At the DMZ, the tension is high. We’re told when to take photos and not to make any gestures or faces towards the North Korean side. In one of the buildings on the South Korea side, there’s a plaque honouring the Canadians who fought in the Korean War. The bronze marker is one among 15 other United Nations countries that fought alongside South Korea and Canada. Five hundred and sixteen Canadians died in the Korea War, far less than the First and Second Wars. But they still sacrificed their lives for peace.

Plaque at the DMZ.

Plaque at the DMZ.

It’s only writing this blog piece that I learned that the first Canadian infantry unit to take part in the Korean War, the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), was trained in Calgary. Another connection to the Forgotten War, this one in Canada. Lest we forget, the Forgotten War.

A Wilde ghost writer

family_lines_ink

What do ghost writers have in common?

They all use invisible ink.

Happy Halloween!

The ghost above is Oscar Wilde. He was an Irish writer who wrote in the 1880s. You probably know The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest: these are just two of his works.

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