Wednesday, 25 November 2015

With Regret

Is it a cultural thing, this need to find someone or something to blame?

Why do we feel the need to find a cause for every effect? 

Is it human nature to lash out at a specific person when we are hurt and angry? Is is somehow normal to find someone we can make responsible for our suffering?

Certainly, there are reasons for things. Global warming contributes to climate change. Drunk drivers kill people. Sex gets you pregnant. Arsonists start fires. It's important to know those things and take responsibility when we are part of the problem.

But often there is a host of complex global factors that contribute to events. In Alberta we are experiencing a serious downturn in the economy due to the the declining price of oil. Who is to blame? Some blame the government or even the premier herself. Yet there are dozens of reasons why this has occurred. The impact of any one individual, even the premier of a province, is negligible.

There are other things that just happen. Things that are are no one's fault. Natural disasters, illnesses, accidents and the unexplained. 

Yet we still want to find someone to blame. We blame our boss, our co-workers, our community, our parents or others close to us. 

And we blame ourselves.
  • I didn't work hard enough.
  • I work too hard.
  • I should have studied more.
  • I should have taken that job offer.
  • I shouldn't have taken that job offer.
  • I'm not smart enough.
  • I never should have gone out with that guy.
  • I'm lazy.
  • I'm a loser for being depressed.
Teachers are among the worst people out there when it comes to blaming themselves. They frequently take responsibility when their students don't learn or don't behave or don't "succeed" yet rarely if ever do they take credit when their students achieve.

You've seen the memes. The memes that tell you everything that is wrong is your own fault. The memes that suggest that the world out there has nothing to do with what happens in your life. It's all on you. 

Tell that to my daughter who wakes up every day wondering if she still has a job in the oil industry. Tell that to my sister who lost her house when B.C.'s coal mines closed. Tell that to the poor of Madagascar who labour night and day for a dollar. Tell that to the Syrian refugees, trapped between their repressive government and ISIL. 

Why do we beat ourselves up in a thousand ways for the things we didn't do that we should have done, the things we could have done better, the things we should never have done? Our self abuse leads to spiraling self recrimination and guilt that causes anxiety, depression and a deteriorating sense of self worth. 

Stuff happens in life. Things that are not your fault. Things that aren't any one person's fault. They just happen. 

Saturday, 14 November 2015

not today

November 13, 8 p.m.

We're walking the dogs.

That's a lot smoke, my husband says.

Haven't heard any sirens, I say.

Then they start. A lot of them. We look up the street. Blue and red flashing lights everywhere.

Uncomfortable silence. We pick up the pace. Even the dogs seem more agitated than usual.

Finally he says it.

That's where the mosque is.

We walk faster. Like there is anything we could do.

The fire trucks come blasting down the highway and turn into town.

The mosque burned down once before back when it was out of town. Arson was suspected, I recall.

In my head ...don't let it be the mosque don't let it be the mosque don't let it be the mosque.

We cut the walk short and head through the park. The mosque is standing. A couple of vehicles in the parking lot.

It's house fire a block away. EMS standing guard at the end of the street gives us the idea no one was hurt. By the time we get home the fire chief has already tweeted the house fire has been put out and all loss stopped.

No one likes to hear there's a house fire. Especially not in my town.

But it wasn't the mosque. Thank God for that.

Not my town.

Not today.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

For Fuzz

Burns Foster
My dad always called him Fuzz.  He never explained why. It wasn't until years later when Fuzz and his wife Kay came for a visit that we learned his name was Burns. Kay did not call him Fuzz any more than my mom called my dad "Ginge"- which was the name Burns called my dad. This was mystifying for us kids because Fuzz was the guy who featured in many of Dad's stories as bomb-aimer of their Lancaster "S for Smitty". Burns was someone else altogether.

My dad was a pilot in World War II. Fuzz was a bomb-aimer who described his job on the plane as follows:

“Fuzz”, Burns Wilfred Foster, Bomb-aimer, probably caused more disturbance than the others. He sat beside the skipper and shoved the throttles through the gate on take-off; took a position beside the navigator and behind the pilot to operate Gee and H2S and pass fixes to the navigator; down to the bomb hatch to fuse bombs upon crossing the enemy coast; drop window (foil strips) to confuse enemy radar, give the pilot directions to the target—steady,steady, left left steady, push the button and wait before calling bombs bays closed. Much the reverse on the way home.
Burns far left and my dad third from the right.

I think about Dad and Fuzz and their navigator Doug as they once were, bright Canadian boys barely out of high school. How young they were. How eager. I picture them flying through the dark skies over Europe, skies pierced by searchlights, holding their breath as they prayed to escape detection by the enemy. As they watched one plane after another fall in front of them, at some point did they think their luck would run out? I imagine Fuzz and Dad and Doug working in a kind of strange rhythm that must have developed over their many missions, reacting to whatever came at them. Hoping their bombs would hit the target. Mission after mission, returning unscathed. My dad's neat notes in his log book tell a tiny part of the story in his own perfect block letters, "FLAK HOLES IN KITE."  "SAW FIVE KITES SHOT DOWN, 2 CHUTES OPEN." On D-Day "GOOD TRIP EXCELLENT NAV. BRIDGE AND HIGHWAY." "WELL PRANGED." Once in awhile "RESULTS DOUBTFUL" and once "WE DID IT AGAIN!"

I imagine the adrenaline rush. The camaraderie. The joy and relief after a safe landing. And I wonder too, did they dare dream of the future that they might never experience?  

These life and death experiences must surely have shaped the men that they became. Confidence, faith, civic-mindedness and compassion were qualities they all came home with. An appreciation for what they had. And friendships that lasted a lifetime. Dad and Fuzz had a special connection in those exciting years in 419 Moose Squadron. Their experiences in the air created a bond as did their time away from their missions. 
The home of Gwen Smith in the Lake District.
On leave they once spent time on an estate in the Lake District. My dad boasted that he had once played on the same pool table as Winston Churchill. I wonder if Fuzz was with my dad the time these gullible young lads met some girls in the pub-perhaps the infamous "Oak Tree" down the road- girls who told them they would meet them in church the next day. The boys showed up and the girls never arrived.

Burns was not the youngest of my dad's crew as I once thought- he says he had five months at least on my dad and Pete was younger yet. He went on to become a pharmacist in Ontario and had a couple of kids and now grandchildren and great grandchildren. My parents received Christmas cards and letters from them every year. Once they came to visit. Years later we drove across Canada and met them. I know very little about him but I know he is a good man who has lived a good life.

Every June 6, Burns used to phone my dad. They talked about their families and their lives. They caught up with stories about the rest of the crew. I don't know if they ever talked about what they did on that fateful day-D-Day-a day that changed the course of history. Did they reminisce about their flight over the coast of Normandy or the bridge they bombed, the night they flew so low they could feel the bomb blast in the cockpit? Did they recall their amazement as they looked down on the ships that filled the English Channel on their return flight? 

I contacted Burns when my dad passed away and every now and again I hear from him. An email entitled, "Love of my life" telling me that Kay, to whom he had been married for 72 years, had died. Another time, an apology, saying that even though his picture had been in his local paper as being a "tech savvy senior" he did not know how to accept my accidental LinkedIn request. More than once he has complimented me on my blog and thanked me for being my father's daughter because "that, of course, is how I make the connection." That is a kindness not many would think of. Burns and I were both excited to hear from the grandson of the one missing member of the air crew. John Knox junior had read my blog. I sent him photos he had never seen. Burns shared stories with him. In my Dad's absence, Burns and I speculated about why their old wireless operator had fallen out of touch. 

Now, every June 6, Burns reads my blog and sends me an email. Perhaps I am the only connection he has to his past: the only connection that remains to his good friend Ginge.

Once in awhile the phone rings and I see "Burns Foster" on the call display. My heart skips a beat and I smile. Yet while he talks my eyes well with tears and I can barely speak because it's like for a few minutes my dad is right there beside me. The emotion is almost overwhelming. I too have a connection, a connection through my dad to a man I have scarcely met and barely know. A connection to the lively young Fuzz who came alive for me through my father's stories. A connection to the much older Burns, a wise and gentle man who is so much like my dad. A connection that transcends the miles and the years. 

Burns Foster. The last living connection I have to my dad and his generation. I am glad to know him.
Dad in the middle at the back, Burns far right front.

Thursday, 5 November 2015


In his letters he called her "Girl". There were many letters. Letters from Sarcee Camp, where he trained. Letters from the front. Postcards from Belgium while he waited to come home. Later, letters from their home to her parents' homestead where she spent every summer. And much later, long lonely letters from the Far North where he worked. He signed himself "Boy" or sometimes just "B".

She told me one day she planned to write her life story.

She never did.

It was an epic romance. A quiet beautiful girl from a pioneer family and a lonely charming British orphan. Wars and hardship. Compromise. A woman in search of adventure. A man who wanted nothing more than a home and family. A love that lasted.

He was a banker in Lake Saskatoon. She wanted to be a nurse, but instead became a homesteader with her family in the Peace Country.

One day he came to call on horseback. The horse bucked him off and he lost his gift of chocolates and mandarin oranges. He said that newcomers found them and felt they had come to a promised land where oranges and chocolates grew.

World War One. He signed up immediately, joining the Peace River Contingent of the 66th Battalion. They were married while he was on leave. He gave her a beautiful ruby engagement ring. She lost so much weight after he joined up that he had a keeper ring made for her, a ring with the number 66 on it. A ring I wear to this day.

He went to war. She followed. I don't know how she afforded passage but somehow she made her way across the continent and onto a ship and into Britain. A couple befriended her. The only passenger who didn't suffer from seasickness, she sat at the captain's table for dinner.

England. Once she got lost in the streets of London. Terrified and afraid of the dark, she ran for miles until she found a familiar place. Her leather gloves were drenched with sweat.
Back row, far left.
She worked in a munitions factory and lived with my grandfather's people. One day the factory was shelled and huge chunks of glass fell onto the women below. Her neighbour, a refugee from eastern Europe, was struck in the back of the neck by falling glass, saved only by her enormous braid of hair which was sheared off completely.

She was good at her job and soon was promoted from making shells to inspecting them. One sits on my desk.  One of the millions of women who stayed behind, trying to do their part in times of fear with limited resources and a shortage of labour. The women of my grandmother's generation didn't just "keep the home fires burning." They kept their country working.

He was wounded and returned to England to recuperate. Soon he returned to the front to fight another day. Then the armistice. It took her some time, after the war, to secure return passage. It took him even longer. But eventually they both made it home.

Delia, Alberta
They moved from one prairie town to another. Their first child was born and then the second. She sewed fabulous dresses and doll clothes. She nursed my mom through meningitis. It was the Depression. She learned to make anywhere she lived feel like home. She picked the gold embroidery out of her gorgeous flapper dress stitch by stitch so she could make a new dress for my mother.

My grandmother loved her two children fiercely in her own quiet way. A neighbour miscarried her first child. "How horrible," the ladies said. "Losing your first child!" "Oh," my grandmother said, "Losing your second child would be so much worse. Because then you know what they are like. You would know what you missed."

Every summer she returned to the family homestead with her two girls by train or by car. She was an excellent driver and could maneuver almost any vehicle out of snow or mud. Granddad remained behind, writing his letters to his darling girl. She rarely wrote back.

In Edmonton
They moved to Edmonton, where he was known to juggle plates for dinner guests, much to her alarm. There were countless visitors from back home, especially when the second World War began. Their daughters grew up, went to university, got jobs, married and had kids. My grandparents retired back to the Peace Country just meters away from the family homestead where she could raise horses and chickens and and cats and visit with her sisters.

My father, before he was my father, came for a visit. "I've never liked the name George," she said. "It reminds me of someone walking on gravel."  And "Never mind about the porridge. If you don't like it I'll just feed it to the cats."

Granddad worried about money. In retirement, he relieved for bank managers across the Far North. Inuvik. Aklavik. Fort Smith. More letters home from "Boy." No letters from "Girl." His letters described his loneliness and asked why she did not respond.

On the farm
Toward the end of their lives, my grandfather wanted to move to town. They rented a suite at the seniors lodge. He loved chatting with the people in the lodge. Every chance she got, she drove back to the farm, once getting snowed in for a week. He relented and they moved back home. To her dying day, she was still searching for a piece of land to homestead on.

On the morning of their 60th anniversary, Granddad was grouchy. "I got up this morning and went to thank your grandmother. I sat on the side of the bed and told her how much I loved her and what a wonderful wife she had been for the past 60 years and she just rolled over and went back to sleep!"  My grandmother smiled. "I didn't hear you. I didn't have my hearing aids in."

My grandfather died. My grandmother stood in the kitchen. Her stalwart pose dissolved and she wept. "Whatever will I do now"? she said. Late one winter night, returning from tea with her sisters, she stepped in front of a truck and she was gone.

My grandparents were married for 62 years.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Granddad in the Trenches

Sometimes he woke up screaming, my mother said.

It was hard to believe that of my grandfather. But World War one left its scars.

He told her that once, when they were marching through the muck and the mud, he fell into a hole and was sinking. He grabbed for anything solid so he could pull himself up. When he reached dry land he found himself clutching a handful of human hair.

He brought back a painted coffee pot from Belgium. Postcards of the sites he had seen. The helmet of a German solider. We never asked him how he got it.
Postcard from England 
He wrote letters home to his in-laws and to his bride, who he addressed as "My Darling Girl". The letters were newsy and cheery. He remarked on people from home that he had met. He mentioned some of the quirks of his fellow soldiers. He thanked people for food parcels. He asked how things were at home. His biggest complaint was loneliness. He did not talk about the horror.

On Remembrance Day we made him and my dad polish their medals and join the men from the Legion as they marched to the cenotaph in Beaverlodge. He hated to wear his medals. He did not think of himself as a hero. He did not talk about the war. But he saved every poppy he had ever worn on a banner in the hallway.

Granddad was a British orphan who came to Canada as a child and worked in a bank in Lake Saskatoon where he met my grandmother. He joined up as soon as he could and was stationed in Edmonton.  He married his lovely wife (who he called "Girl" until his dying day) while he was on leave. According to him, when he returned a day late from leave the sergeant asked where he had been. "Getting married sir." "Good for you Martin," was the reply, "The army needs more brave men like you." My grandmother followed him to England where she lived with his brother and sister-in-law and worked in a munitions factory. A shell from that factory sits on my desk.

He fought at Arras and Ypres. He was wounded by shrapnel at Passchendaele. He was awarded a military medal at Amiens. I never knew why.

He carried a tiny Bible. It falls open to the "Song of Solomon." I imagine him reading that psalm of love over and over again in the midst the grime and the blood and the smell of death. Perhaps it was in those trenches he penned the only poem he ever wrote, an ode to my grandmother.
Granddad's Bible

In the Bible are inscribed the words "Hope shall brighten days to come and memory gild the past."

  • Ypres Nov 10/17
  • Passchendaele Nov 1917
  • Amiens Aug 1918

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Between Thanksgiving and Remembrance

I had a busy week or two. Alberta Showcase followed immediately by the BlendED Symposium, work, a trip to the hospital, a trip to the city. Somewhere in there, the federal election, the news my MLA had been appointed Minister of Municipal Affairs, and the Alberta budget.

Alberta Showcase is a ton of fun. Arts presenters from all over Alberta listen to Canadian performing artists, attend workshops and network with other presenting groups, both volunteer and professional. Our team of Stage North volunteers were there in force, listening, comparing notes, schmoozing with musicians and agents and (because after all they are Slave Lakers) downing the odd shooter. Until I got involved with this organization I had no idea that there so much talent across Canada. The quality of musicians we have selected via the Arts Touring Alliance of Alberta is astounding and we have been able to increase attendance at our concerts from 40 to 200.

Immediately following Showcase I presented at the BlendED Symposium, speaking with the very lame title "It takes a person to personalize learning." Those involved in online education know that there are many corporations out there vying for the education dollar under the idea that by using algorithms, they can "personalize" instruction and assessment for students so they can learn.  My premise is that it takes a human being to engage students in their learning.  I've been working online for 16 years. It was cool to see some younger teachers embrace the use of innovative forms of education to reach their students.

A couple of days getting caught up at work, and then I had the occasion  seek some medical treatment at my local hospital which is a well run place filled with professional, businesslike people providing service with a smile to their patients right in the midst of a major clinic move.

Then to the city to do some shopping with my daughter, see a movie and have dinner with my mother in law.

On the way home, the grey skies turned to rain and then sleet and then snow. The dismal season is upon us. With thanksgiving well behind us, the leaves gone from the trees, the colour gone from the grass, and Hallowe'en over for another year, it is bleak.

My dad's log book and medals including DFC
The next non-work day is Remembrance Day, a time to think of those who sacrificed their lives for our country. It never seems right to decorate the house or celebrate during this dreary time. Instead, I always feel this time of year is in a holding pattern, a time to reflect on what it means to be a Canadian. To ponder just what it was my grandfather and father and other young men and women risked their lives for.  Is this Canada the one they were fighting for?

My experiences last week tell me YES!

First, culture. Isn't it incredible that we live in a country and a province where we are free to enjoy the arts? The arts that bring colour and life and meaning to our world? And the leisure time to do so? The Alberta Arts Touring Alliance receives funding from the government and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts provides our concert series with roughly $5000 per year which allows us to make our performances affordable for all. And this funding is passed on to the musicians who in turn make our lives better.

Second, public education. Not long before I submitted my proposal for the BlendED conference, I heard a podcast on This American Life called "Three Miles".  This was a tragic tale of a gifted student who attended public school in a poor neighbourhood. She had a bright future and a scholarship ahead of her. Then she took part in an exchange with a wealthy private school. The injustice deeply affected her and she quit school. As a teacher and a parent I was greatly moved by this expose of the heartbreaking injustices of the U.S. school system. Our Canadian education system provides opportunities to kids from all walks of life, with disabilities and personal issues. I work with kids with unique challenges every day. My dad and men like him fought for equality of opportunity. I am proud to be part of a publicly funded education system where teachers provide innovative solutions to help all students reach their potential regardless of income level or the neighbourhood they live in.

Third, health care. Our health care system in Slave Lake has gone through many trials and a high turn over of doctors. But I think we have turned the corner. And I love that I can enter a clinic or an emergency room right here in my little northern town and receive excellent treatment and it doesn't cost me one nickel. That is something every Canadian should be proud of.

Pensions. We had a nice visit with my mother in law over the weekend. She's in her mid eighties and lives in her own immaculate home where she is pleased as can be to cook up what she calls a traditional "ethnic dinner" of roast beef and yorkshire pudding for her grandkids. And she can do that because she receives an adequate pension to live on thanks to unionized workers and federal pension funds supported by Canadian tax dollars.

The time between Thanksgiving Day and Remembrance Day is a time for for reflection on what it means to be Canadian. I thank you, Canadians who went before. Thank you for fighting for what really matters. Thank you for the progressive and forward-thinking nation you helped create.

This Remembrance Day, I will remember and give thanks.

My grandfather George Martin, centre.