The shoe box

My childhood drawing – looks like flowers and butterflies.

When I sat down this morning to write, I intended to tell this story. Wordy person that I am, I ended up writing two posts about Whistler. The first was meant to be a preamble, but it took it’s own direction and I just had to finish my thought, so it went it’s merry way without me really having to work at it. It got too long, so I wrote a sequel which should have been the short preamble, but it was not meant to be. That diversion that I took just kept me travelling down that same road with Whistler.

What I really wanted to say was this:
Whistler and I were watching television. Numb3rs, to be exact. I like the program and rarely miss it if I have my way, each Friday night.

In the way that Whistler reads while watching television, I need something to occupy the other side of my brain. I’ve been wanting to interest Whistler in the family history, so I pulled out some of the archival material that has become my Nemesis. It came with the boxes and baggage from my mother’s Estate, and as executrix, I have to determine what is kept and what is disposed of.  Over and above that, I’m at the age where I am curious about our family origins, as far back as we can gather from living members and from deductions from primary sources – letters, bills, addresses, photos and the like.

I thought that Whistler might like to dabble in some of my preparations of all this stuff and so I brought out the document that I’ve created to date which contains all the photos and as much description as I could muster and let him peruse it.

I sat with three boxes of the collected jumble I’ve inherited and started to sort.

First of all, I had a box of Father’s technical documents complete with transparencies he used in teaching Surveying and other university Civil Engineering subjects. I’m looking for things I can throw out and yet, I look at these things and they are the only tangible records I have of my beloved father. It’s his handwriting. His oh so careful, oh so precise mechanical drawings.

I pondered as I went through them, how I might do some work of art with these images as an element in them. That kind of activity would have to wait until later. I need to get this stuff sorted and away unless I want to still live with ceiling to floor boxes.

The only file I found that could be chucked was a file of applications by students from other disciplines requesting admission to the Surveying course that he taught. It contained school records, dates of birth, copies of diplomas. In these days of Privacy Laws and identity theft, it was incredible that he had kept these at his home and now, thirty years later, I was looking through these records and thinking, these men who applied graduated from University the same year that I did! And then, I reflected, there were no women applicants. How different the world was, in just 30 years.  When I left work at my Property Management company, most of the new engineers coming in were women!

I took and shredded that file batch, but there was precious little else that I could let go. It went back into a new and rather spiffy box that I will be able to tolerate looking at if I have to store it for long.

Next I tackled two boxes of Mother’s things. There were the usual things that Mothers keep. I found my Piano Certificates from the Toronto Conservatory of Music and transferred them to a box for me. I found several drawings I had done as a child, several invitations to various shows I had had in my career, and a notice of a class that I taught a UBC Continuing Education. I found letters from Lizbet and Heather and put them aside to give to them later.

Some had already had been sorted. There was still room in that box for more but one of the sub-boxes, a black and redshoe box marked VERY OLD ADDRESSES in fat red felt pen. It was filled with old addresses and it was not going to fit, as was, into the remainder of the new spiffy box everything was to go into.  As a result, I decided to dig in and see what could be chucked.

I had a first thought to just chuck the works. After all, even Mother had marked this box “very old addresses”. Historic sleuth though (that’s me) could not just do that. Maybe there was something important in the box. Maybe just maybe there would be a tidbit that would trigger some memory that would turn into a family story or would help define a family tree member that was otherwise missing. If nothing else, my mother was a thorough soul. When she was afraid of forgetting something – a birth date, a spouse’s name, a brother’s anniversary date, a child’s full name – she wrote it down.

I found several of these for her side of the family.  I found a good treasure trove of addresses that I lived at that are beginning to slip from my memory if I have to come up with them in a hurry. I found the same for my siblings. I had a horrible thought when I found cards given to her at the time of her mother’s death and then was assuaged that I had actually done the right thing when I found letters written to her by all of us siblings. Mine was a hand made card on brown Canson paper with a gold design on the front that I had done myself. Even then I was outraged at the price of store bought cards.

I did find records of  my uncles’ and aunts’ birthdates and their progeny, complete with those life altering dates of births, marriages, deaths.

I kept these and I kept anything that mentioned her life long friends – ones I recognized, ones that might trigger stories about her life or fill in blanks.

And then I settled down to the serious business of going through her address card file. Now, card file is only a way of speaking. While many of the addresses were written on the back of a series of black and white postcards I had produced in my youth when I had dabbled in the gallery business – a one-summer-long store in the resort town of Garden Bay, B.C. , many were on legal size charity envelopes. These were folded to postcard size. I challenge you to try it. The folds were many and the thicknesses cumbersome.

Some envelopes simply had a pre-printed address, the kind you get through the mail with every fund-raising group that has garnered your address legally or otherwise. There were stamps on these going back, the oldest to 1972. Now, those aren’t ancient stamps, but they still will look good in a stamp collection, so I tore those out before chucking the address, if that were its fate.

She had addresses for friends and family. I had moved around often, from Pender Habour to New Denver, to France, moved twice in Rheims, and then back to Vancouver and then to Burnaby with three more addresses before I came to live with her,  twelve years before she died. Three cards were stapled together for me and they included the business cards I had used for the Antiques store my spouse and I had in Rheims and every new business card I had with the large Property Management company I had worked for when I came back to live in Canada.

Lizbet had a smaller collection; Heather as well. Funny, I’m just thinking, I never saw one for Otto. Perhaps he never wrote a letter to her. He wasn’t the literary type to do so.

As I went through, I saw names and sometimes clues, for the hundreds of addresses she had collected:

Bishop, Bialecki, Bicklehaupt, Blum, Nurse Bauer (now there was a clue!) Sinke, Dodworth, Chronell, Byle, Chilton, Carrick, Fawcett.  Who were these people? I knew none of them. I thought I knew so much about my mother and here were people, significant enough to hit her address collection, and I knew none of them.

There were addresses for institutions – University Women’s Club, Faculty Women’t Club; University of Manitoba, Grace Hospital, The Red Cross, a Life Membership certificate for the Christian Blind Mission.

And back to names – Hergest, Hobek, Halford, Kanseth, Kaser, Melhorn, Moshoeshoe.

Moshoeshoe was from Africa and there was a fine stamp attached. The letter was still within and it began with an apology for not writing followed by an explanation – she had written but the letter had come back to her. She must have had the wrong address, or missed a number. That was the entire letter.

There were several other letters still enclosed. Of these, there were a significant number of people whom she had met on her travels through tour groups. One told of her dissatisfaction with Maupintour and how she had been sent from pillar to post in her search for satisfaction, then dropped. No satisfaction at all. Another requested that they plan a tour where they could meet up again. This one was written from the other side of the continent in Alabama.

There were two complete letters from Norah, the black woman she had met in Columbus Ohio while whe was taking courses towards her Masters degree in the teaching of children with disabilities. Norah was a Minister’s wife and it brought to mind the day Mother, Father and Lizbet were invited to join Norah at her church on Sunday for the regular service. It turned out that Martin Luther King was murdered, assassinated, that same week and my parents were fearful that they would be the only white family in a church entirely composed of blacks.  What might the reaction be? Might it be unwise to go?

They checked with Norah. Norah assured them that everyone would know that they were connected to the minister and his wife. There would be no risk. No need to worry. So they went.

I don’t remember Mother telling about the service. It’s not that that stuck in her mind. It was the fear and the uncertainty that she felt about going. It was April 1968. There were other protests throughout the country. At Kent State University, students had been killed during a demonstration. She felt vulnerable and unprotected.

She and Norah corresponded for twenty years and then the letters from Norah stopped. I remember her very sadly saying to me one day, “The worst thing about getting old is that your friends disappear and you never know what happened to them.” Norah was one of those. Probably no one in her family knew she corresponded annually to my mother and wouldn’t think, even so, to send a note of her death. Certainly, if she had been put in a retirement home in ill health, nothing would have been sent at all. There was a stigma to that. One did not easily send bad news to almost strangers to the family.

And so it went. I found other letters but I didn’t have time to read them. As it is, I’ve reduced two full boxes to one and I’m happy about that. I’ll be shredding and recycling the paper from them for the next few days. There’s quite a pile of it.

I’ll read the kept letters later with a bit more leisure. Right now I’m trying to find space and visual tranquility in my office and writing space. So, onwards and upwards, it’s time for coffee and a bit of a Klatch with Whistler.

I’ll get out another box to sort while I’m at it.

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