Family Lines

stories for you

Tag: memoir (page 9 of 15)

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.

Flooded with memories: new book shares homeless perspective

Rushing river over bridge.

Bow River on Saturday, June 22, 2013. For a link to see the video of the rushing river, click here.

It has been a year since the waters of southern Alberta rose, gained speed and rushed over the land. The floods destroyed lives, property and deluged downtown Calgary. Friends were told to leave their homes and watched while the river took over their possessions. Others came home from vacations to find they had nothing left other than what they had packed in their suitcases. It was a terrible time and everyone experienced it, including those who were homeless before the flood. Now a book, Flood Stories 2013, is telling the tales of the people without four walls pre and post the surge of the rivers.

The flood stories and photos were collected by Calgary organization, This is My City (TMC). TMC brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status. I have been volunteering with TMC for over a year and facilitate four-week, life writing workshops at the Calgary Drop-In Centre and Alpha House. These two agencies are part of the book and some of my participants wrote about their experiences with the rising waters.

This Wednesday evening, June 25, Shelf Life Books (1302 4 St SW, Calgary) will be featuring the book as well as a performance at 7:00 p.m. Flood Stories is a limited edition, hand-printed book and is on sale for $75.00. Proceeds are in support of TMC programs.

Much ado about nothing

Family photo.

My sisters, me, my nephew and my nana. 2004.

There are so many things to write about but I sometimes get stuck thinking about what to write about and can’t come up with anything. Probably lots of people who are looking to record their corporate or personal stories are in the same boat. They don’t know where to start but given a prompt – their memories will be set in motion.

Writing prompts help get your tale on its way. It gives you a focus such as: what do you remember your grandmother saying? This opens up myriad of possibilities for many people and one particular story for me.

One time my nana, my mama’s mama, come to visit us in Nova Scotia from northern Ontario. My family had driven to Canning, a small Annapolis Valley town, to run an errand and we were parked on the side of the street. My mom went into a store leaving me and my middle sister in the back seat with my nana sitting in the passenger chair.

My sister and I were being bad. We were arguing and fighting and kicking the back of the seats. My Scottish nana turned around and said:

“If you don’t stop that I’m gonna hit you in the lugs!”

That stopped us. Dead. Not because of nana’s stern tone but because – what are lugs? (Her accent lugs turned into loogs.)

“What are loogs nana?” one of us asked.

“Loogs, you know, loogs.”

Legs? Is that what she meant? That made us laugh.

“Haha nana. You say legs funny.”

Not the right thing to say and she was furious and sputtered something else at us.

For years my sister and I have thought lugs were legs. Until one day we were watching Coronation Street, a British soap opera, and one of the characters mentioned his lugs – his ears.

My “Stanley Cup” goal

Hockey game.

Fort Smith versus Fort Simpson at the Moose Hide Mama tournament.

I love hockey. Playing hockey, that is. I like watching the NHL. Especially during playoffs. I can imagine the thrill of each goal that brings a team closer to the ultimate shiny target – the Stanley Cup. I’d like to think I know how it feels to be playing your best and out for the win.

My first hockey team ever was the Fort Smith Fury. I had played hockey with my family on the pond growing up in Nova Scotia but it wasn’t until I went to the Northwest Territories that I ended up on a formal team. It was in Smith I learned how to put on shoulder pads and hockey socks and poke check.

I was a winger my first year. My second year I moved to centre – a good position for a puck chaser. Centre is awesome. You’re half forward and half defence. You skate a lot, which I liked because of the exercise, but you also have to have a good idea about what’s going on around you. It’s your job to feed the wingers (and the points) pucks to get the goals. As centre I did put some pucks in the basket but one stands out for me.

Every year Smith went to a tournament in Fort Simpson, a town about an eight-hour drive west. Simpson is a cool place where the Mackenzie and Liard rivers meet and the Moose Hide Mama’s tourney was so much fun. The hockey was good and the party afterwards included the whole town. It was worth the slog along snow-covered dirt highways with nothing to look at but trees and trees and trees.

Fort Smith made the trip to Simpson as did Hay River. Teams from Yellowknife never seemed to make it to anything not in Yellowknife. Smith and Simpson had a friendly joking relationship on and off the ice. Hay River was different. They were our rivals and always seemed to beat us in this tournament and others. Not this year.

Smith had sent a tiny team and we lost one of our players due to an injury. That meant we only had two subs, one for defence and one for forward. We had managed to win most of our games on Friday and Saturday but heading into the final game on Sunday against Hay River we were tired. We had played a lot of hockey in the previous days and, of course, attended the party the night before. Oh well. Time to hit the ice and win.

The first period went OK. Not smoothly but we were getting into it. Then came second period. This is where we had to hold our own. I was on the ice playing centre when the puck was shot from our side down the rink. Icing would be called – maybe. I was taught to skate hard after that puck in case the call was waved off.

Hockey team.

Fort Smith waiting to play in Fort Simpson.

I was deep in Hay River’s zone when the goalie took several side steps out of her net, stopped the puck and…passed it to me.

That’s when I started to feel the pressure. I had an empty net. A wide, wide open net. If I didn’t score on this then I would be scarred for life. I would never live it down if I missed and I did not want to miss this opportunity.

I had to do it. I had to shoot the puck now. For all I knew there were Hay River players about to pounce on me and take away this golden moment. I let the puck go and…she scores!

I did it.

That was one of my most memorable hockey moments. That goal buoyed my spirits and gave me a shot of adrenaline for a few minutes. Then I started to flag as I got tired again. We called the third period of that game zombie hockey. We were so exhausted that we were like zombies. Instead of looking for brains, we looked for the puck.

My goal was not the winning goal, there were far more talented women on the team who took up the score. Despite the game of living dead hockey, we won and were a bunch of happy ghouls.

Quiche and cobblestones

Colmar, France.

Colmar, France

The pastry crumbled in my mouth like a piece of shortbread. The cheese was creamy with just the right amount of sharpness to open my taste buds. A hunk of bacon sliced through the soft flavours and dominated my palate. This was Quiche Lorraine in Alsace Lorraine, where the French pie was created, and it’s one of my most favourite meal memories.

The cup of hot tea that accompanied my meal was parfait. It warmed me up after a morning of wandering around Colmar, France on a soggy sightseeing day. A rainy grey day better fit for staying inside a café until it was time to head to a bar. (But this was France so bars were probably open earlier than in Canada.) It was the end of December but there was no snow. The weather was more reminiscent of spring, like this past Friday and Saturday in Calgary.

I was in Europe with my friend Digger. She was on exchange with a German university and I went to visit her at Christmas in the mid 90s. Colmar was a short bus ride from Freiburg, Germany and we decided to check it out. The French town is picture perfect: old houses and buildings painted with colours you could eat – mustard and orange and lemon. A canal runs through the village and little postcard bridges span the dark water. A French town that you want to take a million photographs of even though you’d never be able to capture the historic shadows of the street corners and building blocks.

Digger and I were both 21 but only one of us was naïve. Almost every man passing us on foot invited us for a drink. At first I thought everyone was so nice to the tourists when I had heard otherwise about the French. Until Digger told me the guys were hitting on us.Family_Lines_Colmar_two

Oh.

It had been raining in Colmar since we got off the bus. Not full-on pouring but more like little drips here and there. Enough to make us cold after hours of our shoes on the cobblestones. We were hungry too and wanted to take a break.

We found a restaurant in the centre of town. I’m not sure how we picked it. The outside was a dark brown, unlike the other bright buildings, and the inside matched. It was dimly lit when we walked in but a fire was a bright spot in the corner of a room. Zut. There were no tables near it.

The place was almost full but we found a small table in a back room. There I ordered my meal – the one I still dream about today. The incredible Quiche Lorraine. But it wasn’t only the lunch. It was the combination of food, company and history. This was the first time I had been to Europe and I was overwhelmed by the antiquity that was everywhere I looked in France, Germany and Switzerland. I was a history major in university and I studied this stuff but to be this close to it was unreal. Everything was so old (not the quiche I had been served) that it boggled my Canadian mind.

After our lunch Digger and I headed outside and back into the rain. We got dessert to take out, chocolate crepes, from a small restaurant down the street. (You know that European way, it’s cheaper to take food away than it is to eat it in the restaurant.) We stood under an awning of a furniture store and dug into the sweet treat. Chocolate spilling out of the French pancake and dripping down our chins.

“Cochon!” yelled someone on the other side of the street. “Cochon!”

He was calling us pigs.

Alors, there was the rude Frenchman that I heard all about.

 

Questionable singing

Old Lady.

Photo source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCaYt1KxZiY

One of my friends had a baby a few months ago. I get to see this little guy several times a month. He’s a mostly happy boy but sometimes, like anyone, he gets cranky and needs a nap. When he is feeling tired his mama sings him songs. Songs I haven’t heard in ages. Songs that always made think when I was a young girl – what is that all about? Songs that still make me wonder the same thing.

Take the old woman who swallowed a fly. Huh? When I was a kid this song made me mad trying to figure out all the things this senior ate. So many large and disgusting things disappeared down her craw: a spider, a bird, a cow. While I appreciate a good steak the whole animal is too much. Maybe the song is supposed to make youngsters think about what they’re eating.

I knew an old woman who swallowed a fly
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly

In my head the old lady swallowed the bigger items like a boa constrictor. Bit by bit, centimetre by centimetre, until the whole thing was gone. Perhaps she’ll die.

Then there’s the old man who played knick-knack on my thumb. What is knick-knack anyway?

This old man, he plays one
He plays knick knack on my thumb
With a knick knack paddy wack
Give a dog a bone
This old man comes rolling home

What kind of bone did he give to the dog? I hope it wasn’t chicken because they’re not good for puppies. Also, why did the man go rolling home? Is his house at the bottom of a hill? This is another song that raises too many questions for me to like to sing it. The lyrics are in the way.

My mother used to sing “Do your ears hang low?” to my sisters and I. Not to put us to sleep but to entertain us. I was stuck on one particular part though, what’s a continental solider?

Dog.

Photo source: http://attackofthecute.com/on/?i=3582

Do Your Ears Hang Low?
Do They Wobble to and Fro?
Can You Tie Them in a Knot?
Can You Tie Them in a Bow?
Can You Throw Them Over Your Shoulder Like a Continental Soldier?

Of course we’re now in the age of the Internet so I googled “continental solider.” Turns out, a continental solider was someone who fought against the British in the American Revolutionary War in 1775. Interesting. Here is it 2014 and we’ve been singing about these rebels for almost 240 years. It’s amazing to think of the oral history still being passed along in certain songs and stories.

Now that I’ve cleared those lyrics up (oh and the song is thought to be about a hound dog’s ears) I don’t have to think about the words anymore. I can share this song with my little buddy. I just wish I could sing.

Moving on in more ways than one

Cabbagetown, Toronto.

Parliament Street in Cabbagetown, Toronto.

I’ve noticed a lot of people moving this weekend. Young people who look around the age of university students. I’ve seen them put clothing and framed posters into cars or trucks and then go back into condos or houses or apartment to get more. When I graduated from Acadia University in the 90s, I had more schooling to look forward to. I went to Ryerson University to take journalism and got another degree. The spring day I moved out of the apartment I shared with two friends in Cabbagetown was an emotional one. Not to mention expensive.

I had hired a moving company to collect my stuff, then take it and me to a storage unit where the vehicle would be unpacked before returning me to the apartment on Parliament Street. The moving company quoted me an estimate for an hour for two guys and it was reasonable. I didn’t have tons of things — just a few items to leave in Toronto for my sister who was headed to grad school in the area in the fall. Two hundred bucks to complete the job was fair.

I met the moving guys on a late morning and saw only one of them was a “guy.” The other was his six-year-old son. How are they going to move boxes and bedroom furniture from the second storey and get to the storage unit and unpack in only an hour? They would need some help.

I did what I could but it took a long time. The day was, as I remember, an OK one. It wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold. Buds were forming on the trees and the sky was overcast. As was my outlook on how the day was going to go.Sign.

There were many other things I had to do to prepare for heading back to Nova Scotia. The big one being spending time with my boyfriend, who would be soon taking off for his home in British Columbia. I wanted this move to go quickly but the packers were moving so slowly, taking breaks and standing around and talking. I mean, the kid shouldn’t have even been there but he was…so get to work!

Two hours later and they were ready to hit the road. I jumped into the cab of the van with them and we drove slowly to the outskirts of TO. There was no choice but to go slow, traffic was bumper-to-bumper and we were forced to crawl down the Don Valley Parkway, an “express” way.

Arriving at the storage unit, we unloaded pretty quickly. But not quick enough to make it under three hours. I was getting anxious as I saw my day creeping by and time flying out the window. Then I saw my money drain out of my not-so-full student bank account.

“Excuse me?” I asked when the mover told me how much I owed him.

The exact amount today escapes me but it was more than what he previously quoted. A lot more. Probably like $400 more. It was not a paid by-the-hour job but somehow it added up to one. Besides, he should be paying me some of that. I did half the work!

I didn’t complain. I didn’t argue. And I don’t know why. Perhaps it was because I was young and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I knew I was being taken advantage of and yet I paid up. Then he had the audacity to drop me and his son at a subway station to get the rest of the long way home. He had another job to do. (The son didn’t come home with me. I also think six is too young to take the subway alone.)

During this ordeal I couldn’t complain to my parents and let them take care of it. I was an adult. I was on my own. Deal with it. This was a first real-world lesson for me. Only a few days out of university and here was reality saying that not everyone is going to be honest or nice or even halfway decent. Although now I know how to stick up for myself.

History is not just in text books

sunset.

Spring sunset

It’s been almost a week since five people were killed in Calgary, each stabbed to death at a party. I have no immediate connection to the victims but I can’t help but think about how their families, and the suspect’s family, are dealing with an immense amount of tears, pain and confusion. It’s a horror I can’t even imagine can be put into words.

Some terrible things can be written down though, perhaps only because of the hindsight of history. I’ve been reading Hanns and Rudolf, The True Story of the German Jew Who Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding. It’s a look into the lives of two men – Hanns Alexander, a German-born Jew who moved to England during the rise of the Nazis, and Rudolf Höss, a German-born man who became the overseer of a horrific concentration camp. The book follows Alexander and Höss from their beginnings as children, to their entry into military service in World War II (one in the British Army, the other as a Nazi official), to Alexander hunting Rudolf, capturing him and making him face justice for what he did – the mass murder of at least 3 million victims.

Three million people died under Höss’ authority. That’s a tremendous amount of souls. The thing that stands out to me in the book is that Höss claims he was just following orders. He did have doubts about what he was doing but didn’t want to appear soft in front of his superiors or subordinates. So he never said a word to help those poor, poor people.

After the war, Höss was eventually captured by Alexander and taken to be a witness at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946. After Höss gave his testimony, he was sent to Poland to be tried for war crimes in that country. It’s here he was encouraged to write his stories. And he did.

In the pages of his memoir he related facts about his youth, his wife and family, his thoughts and deeds at Auschwitz. Throughout it all he claimed to be a normal person – not a wicked one. A man with a heart. Not a monster.

Poland sentenced Höss to death and hanged him on April 16, 1947. His legacy remains as one of death and the ripping apart of families for generations. His stories remain as a reminder to us that anyone can turn against a fellow human.

Alexander, the Nazi hunter, stayed silent about his accomplishments for many years. Until his stories surfaced at his funeral. That’s when his great-nephew decided to pick up a pen and write his uncle’s story. To finally share Alexander’s legacy as a witness to the atrocities with the rest of the world.

History is not just in text books. It’s in our memories. It’s good and it’s bad. With our World War II and Korean War veterans disappearing, there are many more stories to be told. We just need to catch them in time. To let them leave their historical legacies.

“The choices we make about the lives we live determine the kinds of legacies we leave.”
― Tavis Smiley, PBS host

Part with your clothes, not your memories

Garbage bag.

The garbage bag troll ready to eat clothing that I don’t want to give away.

There’s a big black garbage bag sitting in our closet. Actually, it’s not sitting – it’s squatting like a troll at the bottom of the wardrobe. The garbage bag troll has been there for a few weeks and every time I open and close the door, a piece of bag always gets stuck in the hinge. Flapping and waving outside the door every time I go by – reminding me I have to fill it with clothing. My clothing that I don’t want.

It’s not that I don’t want them – it’s that I haven’t worn them in a couple of years and they’re taking up valuable space in the closet I share with my husband. He’s good at getting rid of his old duds and even has room to spare side on his side of the wardrobe. My side is stuffed to the brim because I don’t want to part with anything.

Every t-shirt, pair of trousers and skirt is a story to me. Every lost button and rip and tear is a tale to be told. Every colour and pattern and print is a yarn of days and places gone by. How can I throw out all this material for memoirs?

Take the shirt I bought in Italy circa 10 years ago. I was a bride’s maid at a good friend’s wedding and the day before the big day, we went to the mercato (Italian for market.) There was a stall selling cool shirts for 2 Euros each and I bought three. One I gave to my sister, the other to a friend and the last one I kept for myself. It’s white with a silver dragon on it. Once the dragon stood out proudly on the front, its scales gleaming on the pure snow-coloured material.

When I see this shirt, I don’t just see a shirt. I see a bustling market in a small village. I feel the hot, hot, hot sun. I smell the leather from the shoe booths that line the other side of the street. I hear the lively conversations going on all around me. I can’t take part in them but ignorance is bliss and I can pretend they are only talking about happy things. Because I’m happy in that moment.

Today when I take a closer look at the shirt, I see the dragon is missing bits and pieces of her mythical body. She was once displayed proudly on a white background but it’s now more snow mixed with ash – grey. A sad canvas for a mighty beast.

We have memories to remember things. We don’t need a photograph or a memento or a shirt to be able to recollect specific moments. But it helps. It helps to keep us from forgetting the little things. It helps jog our memories. Alas, all my memories are cumulating into one big pile in the closet. Maybe it’s best I let some go and make room for new ones.

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