Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Without a History

Me and my mom in Trail B.C.
I've lost some things in the last little while.  My dad passed away; my kids moved on; my dogs died; a third of my town burned down and friends moved away. I miss what I've lost. But more than those- I miss my mom.

My mom has dementia. When I visit, she often does not know who I am. On some days, she doesn't remember who she is. She doesn't know her name. She asks whether she had ever been married and wonders if she had kids.

To help her with her memory loss, I have been working on a book about her life. As I scan photos and read old letters and news clippings and report cards, I wonder what to include and what to leave out. What really matters? What picture will strike a chord? What does she want to remember? What might she rather forget? And think about fact and fiction and memory and the area that lies in between-history.

One of a long line of independent women, second daughter of a Peace Country pioneer and an English banker, mom was an excellent student.  In her grade three report card from Monitor, Alberta, her teacher wrote "One of the best students I have ever seen." She graduated from high school in Edmonton at age 15 but her parents thought she was too young for university. She took a one year secretarial programme, then received a Bachelor of Commerce from the U of A, worked for the American Army during WW II, completed teaching stints in Grande Prairie and Athabasca, got her M Ed and then became girls counselor in Dawson Creek. She married my dad late in life and they raised four kids.
Family Camping Trip, 1967.
My mom was a dynamo when I was growing up. She kept herself busy not just with being a mom and the wife of the high school principal, but also with a myriad of community projects, mostly related to things we were involved with. Masterminding the costumes of the figure skating carnival, running the marshaling area at swim meets, organizing the hospital auxiliary's candystripers, hosting Dad's staff parties and grad breakfasts and countless church events.  She went back to work when I was 16, first teaching ESL, then sewing, law and math.

Dad and Mom
After her move to Tumbler Ridge, she was the school and community librarian. Retirement was embraced with the energy only a teacher could bring to the job, fundraising for a swimming pool, involvement in the arts, horticulture, a new museum, the annual craft fair and whatever else she could think of. She was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Medal. Today Tumbler Ridge boasts Hartford Gardens, Hartford Court senior's housing, and the Hartford Citizenship Award. The Vancouver Province called her a "sprightly octogenarian" -a description that appalled her-when she organized what was then the world's largest potluck dinner.  Shortly after that event, she developed in short order breast cancer, an autoimmune response leading to permanent nerve damage in her hands and feet, pneumonia, and finally had a stroke, accompanied by creeping memory loss. Throughout it all my dad was by her side. When he got sick, they moved to Victoria to be closer to a hospital. Then my dad died. Mom now lives with a caregiver in a house a few blocks from my brother.

These are the facts of my mom's life.  But history is more than facts. History can only ever be a version of the truth, reliant on the perspective of memory. In the absence of my mom's memories, I substitute my own. In that version of my mother's story, she was a brilliant, driven and creative woman. Her exhausting schemes were accomplished through her skills of organization and the ability to delegate- and compensate when delegation failed. We would fend for ourselves when one of her projects was underway, scrambling when we heard the dreaded call "all hands on deck!" She was and is not an affectionate woman. I can't remember being hugged. I know she loved me but she never once told me so. Neither was she sentimental, nor was she introspective. Despite her great talents, she lacked self confidence. She was shy yet frequently pushed my brother and me into situations that made us uncomfortable. My dad used to joke that after retirement people called him "George" while she was still "Mrs. Hartford." Fiercely possessive of her own family, she did not willingly share us with anyone. She never warmed to any of my dad's charming siblings. When one of her children brought home a potential spouse it was never easy.  My husband and I were married for two years before we were given a room with a double bed. Two months after our marriage Mom announced that she'd had a dream in which I had married Stalin.

I miss my mom.  I miss her amazing talents as well as her exasperating qualities. I miss the woman who would switch positions in an argument just to keep things interesting.  The lady who read everything in sight, including cereal boxes and the newspapers meant to light the campfire. The woman who organized spectacular parties for me as a child, but forgot my birthday when I was grown up; the lady who hosted dinners for 60, often leaving the cleanup to others; the lady who sewed me a gorgeous wedding gown, but did not finish it until the guests began to arrive; the lady who would have laid down her life for her grandchild but could never have loved her son-in-law no matter what. As I am driven by the currents of my own history and genetics, I see some of those traits in myself. I am powerless to stop them.

What version of you remains after your memories go? Without your history, who are you? Is it your truest self that is left behind? Or is it some pale imitation of the you that used to be? Is that why we, as humans, strive to preserve our memories in photos, art, literature, film and storytelling? I know, in part, that is why I am creating this book.  My own memories, as well as my mom's, are contained on its pages.
My mom and my sister looking at the book. Christmas 2013.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Give Thanks

I wrote this piece long ago when my kids were very young. It was the first article published in the now-defunct Edmonton Journal column “Voices” and simultaneously, in the Ontario based “Rural Roots” magazine. A lot has happened since then. I no longer live near the family farm; my dad is gone; my mom has dementia and sometimes does not recognize me; one of my own daughters lives in England. Thanksgiving dinners are much smaller. It’s my cousin Kerry who now brings the sweet potatoes, I make the Harvard beets, and there are no homemade buns. And I will give thanks.


                    THANKSGIVING HERITAGE 



Granddad carves the turkey:1959.
Every Thanksgiving weekend my parents used to take us to buy potatoes.  We would drive down a winding gravel road to a market garden not far from my grandparents' farm. Mr Guest would start up his potato digging machine and we would follow along behind, filling our burlap sacks with cold, hard potatoes. The air was crisp and the sky intensely blue above the translucent yellow of the poplar leaves. When the station wagon was loaded and Dad was settling the bill, we would race down to the Wapiti River to skip stones, our hearts full of childish joy. The last rays of the sun filtered over the stubble in the wheat fields as we drove back up my grandparents' place, dreaming of the feast to come.

We don't make the trip to Wapiti Gardens anymore, but this Thanksgiving, family and friends will once again gather to share a traditional turkey dinner. Sarah will bring the sweet potato casserole, Doris will bring her freshly baked buns, Sheila will bring her Harvard beets. We'll exchange small talk and "stuff ourselves most shocking," as my great-aunt Isabel says, just as we have done since my ancestors first came to the Peace Country as pioneers in the early part of this century.

Thanksgiving is not entirely good memories for us, however. Several years ago the customary meal was almost cancelled. Our close-knit family had been struck by one tragedy after another that year. My grandfather had died in the spring, after a long and painful struggle with his heart. A few days after his death, my aunt died suddenly following surgery to repair a ruptured aneurysm. Then my brother, just seventeen, got into serious trouble with the law and was treated most unfairly by the justice system. In late September, my cousin Geordie was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live. He was thirty-four and had two small children.

My grandmother, Marion Martin.
My aunts, who had hosted the harvest meal for many years, decided to not to have it. "We don't feel that we have much to be thankful for," they said. The rest of us agreed, until my grandmother set us straight. Like her Scottish forbears, my grandmother was a woman of few words. She was not prone to emotional outbursts or harsh judgments, but when she spoke, we listened.  "We will have Thanksgiving this year," she said. "Every day is a gift."

I don't remember that Thanksgiving dinner, although we did have one. I do remember Geordie's funeral two weeks later, so many people in attendance they had to stand on the lawn. I remember neighbours and relatives working late into the night in order to harvest what was left of his crop. My heart was full on that day.


My grandmother died the January after Geordie. She was not rich in material things, and I received no cash settlement, no antique jewels, or real estate. Yet this year, as I look at the ever-changing configuration of faces around the supper table, I will be giving my thanks. Not for money or possessions, or the bountiful harvest, not for the pumpkin pie, or the Harvard beets, but for my family and for every day we have shared. That thankfulness is my inheritance from my grandmother, and I could wish for nothing finer.


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

This is what democracy looks like

If you read my June post, you'll know that Alberta Health Services planned to shut down the Slave Lake air ambulance and centralize services to other communities, adding critical minutes to flight times and leaving Slave Lake and area residents with limited ground ambulance services in case of inclement weather.  Our people rallied, sent letters, emails, phoned, and signed a petition.  Our local government repeatedly requested meetings with our MLA and the minister, to no avail.  Then out of the blue our mayor was informed that the decision had been reversed. Were our voices heard?  Or were there inner workings that we are not aware of that led to this decision?

Back in December, there was a big announcement that a number of petroleum producers were donating money to a Slave Lake legacy project that would include a daycare and theatre/arts space.  A couple of weeks ago our local Tri-Council voted on the architect's proposal that included a lovely daycare and an improved Elks hall but none of the features one would expect in a theatre or arts space. Again, lobbying.  This time by local dance, music, theatre, and arts groups as well as concerned community members. Letters were written. Funding avenues were explored. Dollars were pledged.  Needs were expressed. A presentation to town council, then to Tri-Council. Success!

It almost gives you reason to hope. Almost.