Posts Tagged ‘family history’

Formality

June 26, 2009

When Mrs. Beeton lived, new industrialists were buying up houses from impoverished aristocrats. The parvenues were looked down upon by the lofty elite because they didn’t know how to behave in the world to which they aspired. They didn’t know how to manage their servants; they didn’t know what fork to use at the dinner table; they didn’t know what wines went with which dishes at the dinner table. Simply put, they didn’t know the aristocratic rules and regulations.

Mrs. Beeton to the rescue!

When the Industrialist Ecks Whyzed married the eighth daughter of the Earl of Whatnot, the rich esquire needed serious polishing. He was not alone. While the aristocracy declined, the upper  middle class arose. They could buy their way into country houses but they couldn’t buy their way into becoming blue blooded. Marrying into the upper crust didn’t help these new barons of industry integrate, but their progeny were quick to learn; and they coulc more easily mix and mingle.

Recognizing that this emerging class needed to be told what to do in order to fit in, Mrs. Beeton wrote a hugely successful tome called The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress which spelled out the various functions in a large household – the housekeeper, cook, kitchen maid, butler, and dozens of other household positions.  (see Wikipedia). The book is a collectors’ item now, and if ever you get the chance to read through it, it will tickle your funny bone. Some of the directions seem hilarious in our current day mode of informality.

Similarly, when North America was populated with Europe’s almost-starving masses in the huge waves of migration that took place in the mid-1800’s and the early 1900’s, a common desire of these people was to rise out of poverty through education.

The first generation of immigration was bound to work in conditions that we would find intolerable now. Many of the immigrants had no idea what conditions they were coming to. They expected that they would find accommodations when they came, but instead, they found there was practically nothing.  The land had to be cleared. Houses had to be built. Farms had to be fenced and fields created then planted. Many on the prairies began their North American life in sod houses dug down into the ground, or in tents in cruel weather conditions.

Nevertheless, the immigrants could own land – something most of them could never aspire to in the Old Country, which ever one they came from. They were free, but they had so little that it hurt. In the first generation, acquiring a stability of home and occupation had to be the first goal. In the second, the immigrants were able to educate their children and education was a way out of poverty and subsistence living.

My grandfather on my mother’s side came to Canada with nothing but his youth and enthusiasm when he was seventeen, a younger son of a large family. He profited from the offer of free land and homesteaded in Plumas, Manitoba. The details are fuzzy. Did he sell his land and buy another or homestead another? There is no one left to ask. In any case, the homestead from Plumas was traded up for one in Gladstone, Manitoba. Then eventually, he was able to buy a piece of land in Winnipeg and build a house on it.

By the time he was thirty, he had bought two more pieces of land in Winnipeg and farmland outside the city limits that he rented to a farmer. It was planted with potatoes. He went home to England and proposed to Grandmother.

She arrived in 1900 to a small house on the largest of his properties.  Envisaging a large family, he built a two story house with prosperous amenities – gas light, indoor plumbing and telephone.He had come up in the world by dint of his frugality and hard labour, his entreprenerial spirit and his guiding vision. He wanted an education for his children and a much better life than that which he had come from fifteen years before.

During the Depression of the ‘Thirties, he was able to rent out the two houses he built on his properties. They paid for the taxes on all his properties. The living was not rich; but a certain stability and ease had been acquired.

(Get to the point! I can hear you all thinking)

My Aunt became a teacher at the age of nineteen. My mother was too young when she finished high school to go out teaching. She was the last child, brilliant, and having skipped two years of school, she was barely sixteen when she graduated. Grandfather found a way of sending her to University and she had her first degree by the time she was twenty. Then she taught school until she married.

My father similarly came from very modest beginnings, grandfather having also immigrated and homesteaded. His father, too, was adamant that the children acquire as much education as they could afford. Father became a Civil Engineer  and when he got his first long term job, he asked for Mother’s hand in marriage and got it. Soon he was teaching at the University of Toronto.

In one generation, both families had moved from the labouring class to the educated class.  This is not so remarkable, in many ways, because our family was not the only one with these aspirations and these success stories. Many of those pioneering families went on to produce architects, doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, scientists, et cetera, et cetera – in a word – professionals.

Akin to the Industrial Revolution, the Educational Revolution had people moving out of their sphere of comfort in the social world.

Emily Post to the rescue!

Like Mrs. Beeton, Emily Post wrote in magazines of the day – and in books – about how one should behave in polite society.  My mother live by Emily Post’s rules.

One never telephoned before ten o’clock nor after eight at night. When setting a table, the knife blade is always turned inwards. The handle ends of the cutlery should be placed one inch from the edge of the table. If you are having a multi-course meal (soup, dinner, salad, dessert for example) then your cutlery is arranged from the outside inwards in the order that you eat your meal. Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right.

So that means, starting from the far right, soup spoon, dinner knife, plate; and from the left, dinner fork, salad fork and dessert fork.

Ladies remained seated when a man came into the room; men rose and waited until a woman, coming into the room, was seated. Men always took their hats off then they came inside. Women wore their hats at luncheons. The rules were legion. If you wanted to succeed, you learned them. If you didn’t, nobody but Emily Post would tell you and you might easily be ostracized for a slip of the tongue or an incorrect deference to some aspiring-to-be notable person.

My generation never lived through all the aspiring. It’s that third generational thing about fortunes. When we were young, we never understood the passion that lay beneath the desire to succeed to high places. All we saw were the formalities that were like ligatures on one’s freedom of activity.

“It’s just not done!” my mother would admonish me. “What will people think?”

I saw her write and rewrite  her replies to invitations, to tea, to weddings, to showers, to convocations. They had to be flawlessly spaced, flawlessly written, flawlessly composed in her flawless, Maclean’s handwriting.

I rebelled.I went Hippie. I swore (Bon Dieu! What would people think!”). When I lived on my own, all the niceties of table setting and invitation making went out the window – and I wasn’t alone. I’d taken my gloves off. I no longer had a hat. Peace, love and liberty.

The third generation has children. I wasn’t alone in rejecting so many formalities of the ‘Fifties and the  “Sixties. From my loft age, now, I look upon the upcoming youth and am often appalled at their language. How can we blame them? Almost every television program uses the language that a sailor would have been unable to say in decent society.  The formality has gone almost totally from our lives.

Mrs. Stepford, my next door neighbour, and I are the same age. We both still like to set a good table. We still go to theatre and concerts, but we no longer dress up. The only hats we will wear are for going out in the sun, and that’s more likely to be a straw one. Gloves are to keep the hands warm, not a de rigeur part of evening dress or luncheon garb.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” says Mrs. S when I come to visit. It comes in a mug with a shared spoon for sugar. We sit at a table strewn with the detritus of our daily occupations – the newspaper, a book of telephone numbers, bills and letters, advertising to be scanned and chucked, this morning’s dishes, if there hasn’t been time or inclination to get to them. I do the same.

And so, last Sunday, I went to see some of Mother’s aged friends – young in spirit; friends who were faithful visitors and supports of my dear Mom as she lay dying. These same friends living by that generation’s style and code of behaviour, invited me to tea.

As I sat at their maple dining table covered with a lace cloth, I had spread before me two plates of cheeses cut and arranged beautifully on the plate; another plate of Turkish Kisses, small drop cookies with dates and coconut; a long bread plate with two kinds of crackers; and a plate with pecan tarts. All the china matched. It was Royal Albert’s Old Country Roses.

“Would you care for a cup of tea?” she asked so naturally, so politely in her soft, gracious way. It came to her as if she were born with the formalities and had lived them all her life. I was born to them and had struggled against them all my life.

“Please, help yourself to some cheese. Take some crackers. ” She poured the tea holding the lid with one hand, the other tipping the pot towards my cup and saucer. Each one of us had a little spoon for sugar and a little knife for spreading the cheese. I smiled.

Here was a way of life dying out. Or maybe, just dying out in my sphere, and I missed them. I momentarily thought of my mother and her pernicious attention to details.  (Oh no! Not those serviettes! They’re the wrong size! the wrong colour! They’re too frivolous for the occasion. Kay! Just what could you be thinking!)

I thought of her life-long passion for the formality that allowed her to become a matron of academic society. I had absorbed the upbringing and could function within the same spheres, but for myself, I had let go so much of the time intensive formalities and was glad, because I had been able to forge a different life, a life in art and creativity. I had been able to pass through many doors, both high and low, and manage.

After our little tea, Mr. White said, “Will you play the piano for us?”

I’ve never liked playing for others. I always have this sense that mother is standing two feet behind me criticising my mistakes.  But Mrs. White added her plea to his.

“It doesn’t matter what you play. Don’t worry. We just had the piano tuned and we’d like to hear someone use it. Pam (their daughter) comes by every weekend, but she doesn’t usually have time to play.”

So I sat on the adjustable piano stool – one of those ones with a turned post that you can twirl up and down for a change in height. I played one of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, probably the only piece that I know by heart. They made appropriate ooh’s and ah’s. and asked for more. I played another and got stuck in the middle somehow going round and round because I had no music to go by. I played Bumble Boogie until I got lost in it somewhere on the fourth page. I tried another Fugue and started the Raindrop Etude by Chopin but couldn’t get past the first page.

I finished the last bit with something I made up since I’d lost my place and couldn’t do otherwise. I turned on the stool. They were sitting side by side on their French Provincial settee, leaning forward to hear every note, holding hands so sweetly. I could have cried.

It was time to go and I did. They stood at the door  waiting till I got to the car. I got in and they waved me off as I drove away, thinking of the value of formality.

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Quite a day

June 12, 2009

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For a woman who usually rises at  nine, the seven thirty wake up call came too early. Despite all my early preparations, I was not functioning well enough to get out of the house before ten, and even then, I missed the self-imposed deadline because I took a phone call when I could have let it ring through to the answering machine.  At ten thirty, I started the car in the driveway, only to shut it off again and return to the house. I had forgotten to put the box I was delivering to the Historical Costume society into the car. It was the principal reason I was going to Vancouver for the day.

I went back to the house, turned off the alarm, picked up the box and returned to the car. Then I dug into my bag to get the directions only to find that I had taken it out just before I left in order to use a phone number on it but I  hadn’t put it back. It too was in the house.

I felt like I needed one of those rote punishments we used to get in school where a miscreant had to write a hundred lines:

I will not forget the box. I will not for get the box. I will not forget the box…. I will not forget the phone numbers and the directions. I will not forget the phone numbers and the directions. I will not forget the phone numbers and the directions.

I took all of mother’s precious dresses for them to preserve and use for their purposes of displaying and educating in the field of costume and fashion.

Cathy was waiting for me on the roadway when I got to their offices. They are situated in Burnaby Village Museum in the attic of a house built in 1926. Quarters are quite cramped since most of the space is taken up with storage. One room, about 1o foot by 12, previously a small bedroom, contained a table and two chairs. There were five us – myself, Cathy, Bill and two other women  – watching as we unpacked Mother’s pale blue wedding dress complete with matching gloves and veil; a ‘Forties little black cocktail dress in faille; a black velvet winter dress with a handmade lace collar; her pink ball gown from the ‘Fifties, lined with taffeta, but missing the crinolines that would have made it flare out. It had a sheer pink bolero jacket to match; a stunning white ballgown  all made of lace and silk netting, with a little jacket to match; and a jacket with real jet beading and sequins on silk netting.

This last one, they determined was pre-1900. It couldn’t have been Mother’s but it might have been Granny’s. Not that she would have worn it. She had no opportunity. Bill said it was common for the women of great houses to give the maids clothing once they were finished with it, and this was likely how it came into the family treasures.

There was a little netted hat and a pair of fine, fine silk stockings. There was a white ruffed collar in cotton that had been smocked at the neckline and hand-embroidered below that with little white apples. The lace on the bottom was also hand embroidered over cut-work.

They were thrilled with their new acquisitions. I was thrilled that someone was actually going to care for and preserve these lovely clothes.

Afterward, Cathy, Bill and I went for coffee and bite to eat, since it was noon already. There is a little Ice Cream Parlour in the Historical Village. They had soup which is right and good for lunch and I would have too, but I was felt instantly dessertish as soon as I saw their three berry pie and I don’t regret it one bit. It was a home made pie with plenty of berries, topped with ice cream.

Next stop was Vancouver to visit Mother’s old friend Gordon who is ninety-six this year – his birthday was in May. He’s getting frail but his mind is so clear and bright. Doreen, one of our mutual friends, came to visit as well.

When I told him of Hugh’s experiences at his conference in Vienna he began reminiscing then caught himself and apologized. He had rambled on, it’s true; but it was fascinating. He had been part of the UN Committee that was looking into the effects on health, in the early 1950’s concerning the atom bomb and nuclear disarmament. We could not persuade him to keep on talking about it.

Looking at it from his perspective, it was just something he did. Nothing special. But looking at it from my perspective now, it seem extraordinary that I was sitting in the room with a respected scientist who had formed part of that committee at a time when atom bombs were in their infancy.

Doreen hoped he had written down some of the marvelous things he had done, but he just chuckled deprecatingly and said there was really nothing to write down. It was just committee stuff.

The meter in the parking lot was ticking away its last minutes. I had to go. Heather and her husband were coming to stay for a few days and I had to go get something to feed them.
As I drove down the on-ramp to Highway One, cars were streaming from all westward directions. It’s a four lane highway at that point and there’s a lane for the on-ramp besides. There are cars that are trying to juggle their way to the right, to  the off ramp. There are cars merging on the right trying to get to the left-most lanes – the High Occupancy Vehicle lane and the fast lane, beside it.

Despite all the merging, rush hour traffic was proceeding at a slow but steady pace.  I managed to get into the low lane. It was then that I saw the mama pigeon sitting on the asphalt with cars racing over it, but missing it. The poor thing must have been terrified.  With the press of cars and the volume of traffic, it seemed no one was going to stop and rescue the poor bird.

Then the traffic slowed and someone was able to see the bird before having to swerve around it or smack-dab-in-the-middle go over it. It was a miracle it had not been hit, or for that matter, maybe it was there because it had been hit.

The car stopped. The pigeon got on its two wobbly feet and then walked three or four steps. It tried its wings and got lift off. It flew onto the scorched grasses of the the median and was safe

The rest of the day (once I got home) was ordinary. Tidying, watering plants, making dinner.

Reflecting back through the day, I want to talk to Bill again. I said little about him, above. He is a retired milliner which is unusual for a man, I think; and I was quite fascinated as he talked about his passion for fashion. I’ll write more about that another day.

Yard Sale

June 10, 2009

Her friend, the wheelbarrow, had been doing the hard transporting of goods but it was a shape not conducive to carrying boxes with its small rectangular bottom and widely sloping sides. The boxes lay on it at precarious angles and threatened to fall at the least irregular movement.

Kay felt weariness supersaturate her muscles and her bones.  It was the penultimate load of things to bring back in the house. The wheelbarrow would be no use to her for the remainder.

There were empty frames. Biggish ones. There were tubes of posters in a tall plastic container that might once have been a laundry basket. It had a fretwork of aeration holes going down two sides of it. When Kay tried to balance it on her friendly wheeled porter, the tubes of posters slid out. Impatiently, she removed the awkward container and picked up all the posters again. It wasn’t heavy. It just was, well, awkward. There was no other word for it.

“Bite the bullet.” she berated herself. “If you leave it now,  you’ll never have the courage to finish up. And it’s going to rain tonight.”

She dragged them to the back stairs below the porch. It was only two steps down to the basement door but they felt like Mount Everest. Every re-packed box needed to be brought in and placed back into storage.

Kay dropped a heavy carton into place and straightened up creakily. She stretched her muscles, twisting and straining to the left, trying to pull them out as far as possible and then she did it to the right. The muscle spasm in her lower back would not disengage.  She straightened, leaned her head back in another stretch, twisting her neck from side to side, joining her hands at her back and pulling her shoulders up and back.

As she continued to pull, she heard it. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

“What on earth?” she asked herself. She tendered her ear to listen more carefully.  And then she remembered the little girl. She was seven, maybe, dressed in a practice costume for ballet school. It was a body suit made in a tender rose colour. It had spaghetti straps and  a little transparent over-skirt that fluttered, barely covering her buttocks. Her hair was tied back in a tight pony tail with a frilly hair decoration in tight curls of bright rainbow colours .

Sweet as a button, she kept pulling on her father’s arm to help him look at the dazzling array of Kay’s merchandise.
“Daddy, Daddy! Look! Here’s a box that looks like a heart!”  It was one that Kay’s  aunt had left to her, crocheted in perfect kitsch and starched ro sugared  into box-like submission.  What it ever could be used for was beyond Kay’s understanding.

“Daddy, Daddy! Look!. ” She tugged on his sleeve. There was square travel clock, shiny with gold. It was the wind-up sort and Kay activated it to prove that it worked. It was now buried in a box and still ticking.

Bantering as she always did, Kay asked the little girl, “Did you just come from a ballet lesson?”

The bright coloured ribbons in her hair nodded. There was no answer; the girl had turned shy.

“Can you do a pirouette?” Kay insisted, trying to get the girl to respond.

“Or an arabesque?” The girl tightened her hold on her father’s arm.

“Show me what you can do,” Kay persisted.

With one awkward bent knee pointed backwards in the air, the girl balanced rockily on one foot then she fell, almost, catching her balance and then jiggling in frustration.  She tried again with the same results.

“Wonderful!” Kay encouraged her. “You just did a wonderful half-pirouette!”

The child seemed happy to be praised. She tugged on her father’s shirt.

“Daddy!” she insisted, “Now it’s your turn. You do it!”

Kay laughed, but the child was serious and pleaded. “Come on, Daddy. You can do it! It’s your turn.”

The tall, heavy man, looked down and smiled, “I don’t think so”.

Some how he diverted her and, on Kay’s suggestion, she tried an arabesque. Again the leg went out awkwardly, backwards. She toppled after a moment of concentration.

“Would you like the clock?” Kay said, realizing the father needed a way out from his child’s insistence.

“No clock today, ” replied the father and he leaned down to his daughter. He explained they had to pick up the mother. She would be waiting. And they were gone.

Two young Phillipinos arrived on bicycles and examined the merchandise with particular care. They conferred in whispers and seemed be very serious about their purchasing. They selected a lamp which Kay was pleased to have go to a new home for a dollar; they looked at some cutlery and rejected it; they seemed to be looking for household goods.

He picked up Kay’s folding chair and started to inspect it. It was new and in perfect condition.

“It’s not for sale,” said Kay hastily forestalling an offer. “It’s for me to sit down.” He looked puzzled and Kay realized he barely spoke English. She pointed to herself and the chair. He backed away in a nervous gesture, nodding that he had understood and he had not wanted to offend.

Kay proposed a shower curtain. “It has never been opened,” she said, encouraging them. “For a dollar?” and they took it. There was a large red carpet. It was a beautiful one but it was no longer fashionable with its low shag pile and bright red colour, but it was an excellent quality. All wool. Lovely red leaf designs in a Scandanavian aesthetic.

The two  looked at each other, their eyes questioning a hopeless assent from each the other, but the young man shook his head and pointed to his bicycle.

“Is it because you can’t carry it?” asked Kay.

“We have a bag,” he replied. But obviously not for the carpet. It seemed that it was not the right size for their house and they declined. They picked up one other item, a little gewgaw ornament of no consequence.

“Fifty cents?” he offered.

“You can have it,” she replied. It wasn’t the money. It was the the de-cluttering that was important. Besides, who else would want it, she thought. The free item unleashed their smiles and the couple recovered their bikes and took off.

It was a perfect day – not too hot. Not too cold. The heat, earlier in the week had been searingly hot. It had been forty degrees Celsius on Wednesday, thirty six on Thursday. Now rain was expected in the evening. The temperature had dropped to twenty three and it was warm and comfortable.

Kay had spent two days of sorting through books, pulling out items she wouldn’t read. She had taken several tours around the house looking for things that she didn’t use and wouldn’t use. While sorting out old books, she had found a box of classics – Shakespeare’s plays; Faulkner; Tennyson and Keats. She set aside the  Letters of Cato and two books by Balzac and put the rest in the sale pile.  She found a box of Mother’s favorite recipe books and culled them.

The  advertisement in the paper had announced the sale from ten until two, but on Saturday, people began to arrive at nine-thirty. It had taken two hours to set out the goods on the front driveway but  from nine-thirty onwards there was a  steady stream of six or seven people. The boxes had not been undone. One woman helped to put out the treasures onto a scrap piece of carpeting that kept breakables from the asphalt surface.

It was only an hour later that Kay found a perfect rose, a deep red rose, dried and still intact laying on the carpet where the goods were arrayed. At some time in her early love life, she had carefully kept this one rose, but who had given it to her? And for what occasion? It was a mystery. She picked it up and the petals fluttered to the ground one by one.

“How much are the books?” called a woman who was bending over the boxes of pocket novels and the old books.

“Everything is one or two dollars, except the one you are about to pick out It will be twenty dollars, so please make sure to ask. ”  The customer looked baffled then realized it was a joke and she joined the common chuckling.

Vans and trucks, Suburbans, SUVs, new cars and old came by. Some slowed while the occupants made a quick assessment of what they could see from the road. Others sent an emissary. One woman came and surveyed the offerings then left just as quickly saying, “my husband will want to see that.”

Husband and son descended from their van and the young man discovered a survey measuring tape bound in leather.

“A dollar?” asked the man. Kay’s heart fell. She shook her head.

“It was my father’s. I couldn’t let it go for just a dollar.” A silence fell between them. She didn’t know what price to say. She couldn’t keep everything. But what was it worth? To her? To him?

“If it was your father’s you should keep it,” he replied. He had given her permission to retire the item from the sale and she did so, gratefully.

“He was a surveyor,” she explained. “And an engineer.”

“My father is an engineer,” he replied pointing at the elderly man standing beside me.

“Really, you are an engineer?” she said. “What kind?”
“Electrical,” replied the father.

Kay picked up an ebony coloured object. It had two parallel bars with bits of brass that allowed it to swivel. Whether closed or separated, the bars always remained parallel. She handed it to him.

“Tell me then. What’s this? I know he must have used it for drawing but I can’t figure it out.”

“You’re right. It’s for drawing. It’s for writing the list of materials or directions down the side of a blueprint. It keeps the lines equidistant and parallel and all the right length.” He looked at it with some fondness, as if he had found an old teddy bear.

“Would you like to have it?” she asked, and his eyes shone but questioned her. “It’s yours. It’s a gift, ”  she said and he took it willingly.

Meanwhile, people were picking up items and turning them over, feeling edges for chips, looking for cracks, missing pages, faulty bits or other defects. In the Free box, a man lifted a round black container with a grill on it.

“What is that gizmo,” Kay asked. She’d found it in the basement and had no idea what it’s use might be.

“You put crystals in the little wire cage here” he said pointing out the little basket under the lid. It’s a chemical and it absorbs the damp from the air. Later, you find that the crystals are gone and the the bowl is full of water. You can buy them at Canadian Tire in sachets. ”
“I’d better keep it then,” said Kay. “When I found it, it was full of water. I must have damp in the basement, ” and she put it in the box that was gradually filling with things that she had reclaimed from her sale.

“Was your mother an educator?” asked a women as she held out a little blue book in one hand while proffering a dollar with the other. “My friend and I both thought the title was hilarious – “Tests for group intelligence” and someone has written a whole book about it.

“I wish mother were here. We used to come to garage sales together every week. She would have bought something. She always did,” a fortyish woman sighed in remembrance.

“Mine complained when I brought things home”  Kay countered, and thought of the countless times she had sneaked things in carried in her large black tote – mostly books.

From the first customer to noon, there was no stopping and then there was a lull. Everyone must have gone for lunch. Kay brought out her sandwich and gratefully rested in the folding chair. She had been on her feet  since eight. But it wasn’t long before she was back on her  feet, re-deploying her wares, consolidating the empty spaces, mentally sorting how the remainders would go back in boxes or be packed in the trunk of her car to be taken to the local thrift shop.

After one o’clock, a few others came, looked and went. Vini, vidi,Vici, thought Kay. I came, I saw, I conquered, as Julius Caesar purportedly had described one of his victories.  She wondered what the Latin garage sale would say. I came, I saw, I bought? Or, I came, I saw, I mocked?

The afternoon clients were not talkative. The good stuff had gone. There was now more junk than treasures. The curious were more critical, more disdainful and less apt to find something to take away. There were more pot-bellied men with long, greying hair, tattoos and leather jackets, their tee shirts proclaiming affiliation with Harley Davidson groups. Even the women were more casually dressed.

Kay had started to box the items for the thrift store when an elderly man with a hint of a German accent asked in a deferential manner, “Did you learn German from this book?”

“No,” replied Kay, ” it was my mother’s. I tried to read it when I was young, but I couldn’t read the Gothic lettering. By the time I was in school, the Gothic text was no longer in use for text books. ”
Kay proceeded to tell him how Mother had taken her last German lesson when she was sixteen; but when Kay had taken her to Europe and they had visited with a German family, Mother, at the age of  eighty-nine, had still been able to carry on a conversation with the man of the household. ”

He was a soft spoken man and when he wasn’t talking, he was listening intently. No one was about and so Kay stopped her labours and they talked. He was a carpenter who had immigrated when he was twenty, never returning to his home in Austria until after his Grandmother had died. They talked about craftsmanship and other lost arts. They exchanged memories of times gone past. He had selected one of Kay’s posters of Jean Millet’s painting, Vespers. It pictures a woman holding a  scythe in her hand and that reminded him of his family’s farm, of simpler days more in tune with nature, he said.

He turned the little Gothic German primer in his hands. It was for his grandson. He hoped it would make him think of his Austrian heritage, how things had once been. Kay silently wondered how such a messily marked up school book would mean anything to a teenager; but the man had a steady presence and gentleness about him and so she did not voice her doubts.

It was four o’clock, two hours past what she had foreseen for her sale. Her packing was partially done when Mirabel from the little white house with awnings, directly across the street, came darting across the busy road.

Though Kay had owned her house for two years, she had never spoken to this woman whom she saw out in the garden from time to time. Lively and talkative, she introduced herself and apologized for not coming over sooner. They complained about the neighbours, the new temporary residents of the house that was to be re-developed. She complained about their lawn which had been allowed to grow to three feet in height.

Mirabel was ninety-two, still driving, still doing her own gardening and house maintenance.  She recounted that, one evening while watering her plants at  early dusk, a young man  quite bizarrely dressed had insisted that she give him candy. He was speaking  weirdly and aggressively. She had been very nervous but had joked with him, mocked him, so as not to show her fear. It was just two weeks ago. She now was very wary. feeling vulnerable and frightened about living alone.

The conversation went on and on. Kay was so pleased to have met her but was anxious to finish with her day, to clean up the yard and put away the remaining debris. It sorted out without a hitch. A mother with her handicapped child came, another neighbour, and the conversation shifted. Gradually Kay resumed her packing and the other women did not seem to notice as she withdrew.

At last Mirabel called, “I have to go now. I bought a blower and I’m going to clean out my garage with it this afternoon. Come over and have tea with me sometime!”

What a marvel, thought Kay, as Mirabel darted across the busy street again. Within minutes, Kay could hear the blower droning as her elderly neighbour chased cobwebs and dry leaves from her garage.

In earnest, Kay began to haul away the boxes to the back yard with her trusty wheelbarrow. She filled the car with things she would no longer need – not even to plump up and fill out her next yard sale.

She returned from the back to see a lady standing with a small hand made pottery jug. “I don’t have any money to pay you for this, ” she said.”I’m just waiting for a friend to go walking so I didn’t bring any money.”

“The sale is  finished,” said Kay.  “Take it with you. I don’t want to pack it or keep it. If you really want to pay me for it, leave me a loonie in my mail box up there on the porch some day when you are passing by.”

It was six o’clock before the last trace of the sale was removed from the yard. Exhausted, Kay’s spirits sank when she thought about going in to make dinner. She was famished. And then a luminous idea began to grow.

Here she was with a bundle of new found cash! She could pay someone else to cook dinner! And the last we saw of Kay that day was her driving down Dewdney Trunk Road heading for Austin’s Fish and  Chips cheering up considerably at the thought of crispy battered cod, their fresh light coleslaw and book to keep her company.

The shoe box

September 20, 2008

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.

The blue scarab

July 15, 2008

Kay lay steeping her sore muscles, soaking in the hot water that surrounded her. She leaned her back against the sloping tub side, a green terry face cloth the only thing between her wet skin and the hard almond colored enamel.

“It feels so good,” she said aloud, although no one was around to hear her but herself. The pleasure of the heat caressing her skin pleased her no end. She contemplated a nice relaxing bath snooze and let herself sink into that half-consciousness. As long as the water stayed hot, she would stay in, she promised herself. It was her reward.

It was her reward not only for a day of digging out a long neglected flower bed but also for her successful navigation through three weeks of preparation for the Art Fair, two weeks of house guests and a week away at the Music Festival. Six weeks! Six long weeks she had been driven to do things that had to be done. Now she had time to luxuriate. She had time to contemplate. She had time to listen to the silence. Everyone was gone.

Kay dismissed the thought of the visitors. She preferred to luxuriate in thoughts of her day digging up the weed encrusted soil, running her fingers through the silty silkiness, tearing the clumps of grass or buttercup apart to release the precious earth from between the roots, and sifting the soil to remove stones and rogue roots that, if left to their own devices would simply procreate a whole new vigorous weed-plant. The buttercup was the worst. Just a tiny quarter inch of fresh root could regenerate a new plant. It was a vital, eager and aggressive reproducer.

As Kay reminisced her day in the garden, she entwined her thoughts of it with the papers she had stumbled across only the night before. Kay had been trying to reduce the mass of family records still encumbering the room she used as an office. She had selected a storage box with her father’s professional papers, thinking that she might be quite successful in throwing them out, reducing volume. But it hadn’t been so.

True, there were files that were beyond her understanding, rich with scientific detail, complete with explanatory drawings. The drawings were made in an extremely precise manner, in her father’s hand, illustrating his hypotheses for his thesis in Engineering. Although she couldn’t understand them, she couldn’t simply toss something that had been hand drawn by him. Somehow, it kept him close, though he had died almost twenty-five years before.

Amongst the files was one that held horticultural notes written in a fine, even script in an ink that had faded. Or perhaps the ink had been diluted to make it go further. The document had been written in tougher times when cash purchases were a luxury, an impossibility. Ink could have been one of these.

Kay ran her fingers lightly over the unlined paper. Each of the written lines was straight; the height was consistent. It was a real find, she thought. It was only the second hand written thing that she had from her father’s father. On her mother’s side, there was nothing written by her grandparents at all.

Kay marveled at the writing that had no hesitations, no erasures, no scorings through words. She marveled at the elegant word choices and the careful structure of the essay. It was his second language, Kay thought, “and yet there were no grammatical errors, no spelling errors“. She sighed as she felt the fragility of the acidic paper that was browning and drying out. With just a little bit of handling, it wouldn’t last long.

Grandfather on her Father’s side had come to Canada when he was only seventeen. He had worked on the railroad just like her Grandfather on her Mother’s side. He and his brother worked, frugally saving every possible penny, until they could afford to homestead. Kay’s father was born on that homestead in the Interlake district of Manitoba, many miles north of Winnipeg.

Kay’s grandfather’s family had always had a teacher in every generation and held a high respect for education. And so, after a long day of working to create a farm, to tend to the fields, to tend to the farm animals, to tend to the family of six children, her grandfather studied. By correspondence, he studied English until he had it to perfection and Agriculture and Husbandry to ensure better yield from his crops and the health of his farm animals. By correspondence, for his pleasure, he took an Art course and a sign-maker’s course.

No television for that one, Kay reflected wryly.

The text was entitled “Fundamentals in host” and it explained the importance of preparing the soil for planting; recognizing the various soil types; improving the soil with manure or chemical fertilizers; cleaning debris and old roots out the soil; and tilling and harrowing the fields to make them even and free of depressions. In the same file, there was another shorter essay, “Shrubs and Flowers for the Home Grounds”, describing the planting of perennials to landscape a home garden.

Kay spent a few hour transcribing the found texts onto the computer, checking the spelling of the plant names through the Internet, especially the ones she hadn’t heard of before. Delphinium, Columbine, Gladioli, Tulips, Mock Orange, Lilies and Day Lily had been familiar. Trollius or Globe Flower, though, was new to her until she researched and found it was in the family of the Buttercup; and Evonymous, too, was unknown to her.

As Kay luxuriated in her warm bath, she relived her efforts in the garden. The massed Iris had formed a solid clump of root. The shovel would not go through it and when she thought of bringing out the machete to cut through it, she rejected the thought. She hadn’t the muscle to make it work. She tugged at one peripheral root and yanked it. It separated from the mass and brought a long trailing root with it. With the persistence of a dog worrying a bone, she separated and pulled the roots one by one until the mass was reduced from an umbrella sized plate to the size of a dinner plate. Finally, with one good thrust of the shovel, she had been able to liberate the recalcitrant mass of roots and wrest it from the soil.

” I wonder what kind of soil this is?” our amateur gardener pondered. It was dry and finely textured. Its brown silkiness slid easily through her fingers like warm beach sand. Beneath the root mass, there were no weed roots nor rocks. The soil had retained no moisture at all. But if one did not know what loam, peat, sand and clay soils were, then what good did it do her? How was she going to improve it?

As she raked the remaining soil with her hands, her fingers lodged against a tiny, bright blue object. Her archaeological find was a very rare species of scarab, Scarabaeidae plasticus from the late 20th century, a child’s toy. It was not the first artifact that Kay had found. She still had the yellow and black dump truck from the sand box where she had been preparing grass seed for improving her lawn. In the Hosta bed, she had found a cup with a broad red band of forest green on the bottom and a slightly smaller red band on the top and she had found several tiny confetti angels seeded in between the raspberry canes. Juvenile Humus sapiens had lived here before.

Kay shifted in her bath, stirred the cooling waters, drained an inch or two and added hot. She settled back into her reclining position and closed her eyes. The sultry waters lulled her. Was it imagination or reality? In her somnolent state, the tiny blue scarab was traversing her clavicle, feet so lightly tripping rapidly as if to sneak across without being felt. She shifted and opened her eyes. It was a spider! A tiny white spider no larger than a pin head was barely grazing her skin. It must have hitched a ride in her hair and now had completely lost its bearings.

Kay submerged herself and the spider floated away on the surface of the bath water. It was time to get moving, she thought, and she pulled the plug. The water receded. In seconds, an eddy had formed at the drain hole. She rose and dried herself, pitched her work clothes in the laundry basket and went in search of a whole set of clean ones.

“A final thought” she said out loud to no one in particular; after all, the house was empty of anyone but herself, the pin sized spider and the blue scarab.

It was a quote, the ending line from her grandfather’s essay on home grounds:

“Whereas the love of money often separates people, the love of flowers brings them together”

With that, she donned a summer dress, her new tan sandals and went looking for her new white straw hat, looking like the only time she had spent time in the garden was for an afternoon of tea and biscuits.