Friday, May 28, 2010

The Quilt

It was a glorious piece of handiwork. A work of art, really. And my best gift ever. It was a doll's quilt, about 12 inches by 18 inches and it was stitched together by an "old" lady who lived in the same trailer park I did. By Little Wabush Lake in Labrador, back in 1959.

Our Company trailer park had only five long green (im)mobile homes, all state of the art, with suitably space-age looking front loading washer/dryers (I think) and many stowaway or convertible beds designed with clever Scandinavian style economy.
I lived there with my father and mother and twin brother (and in summer my older brother, Mark, who was attending private (public) school in England.)We were the only kids living in the park.

We had a dog, Spotty, a coon hound(well, at the time she was described as half dalmation, half beagle, but a short surf on the Net reveals this family myth to be incorrect) who was executed by the RCMP. Like all hounds, Spotty liked to roam but one day we were told to keep her tied up. Soon after, she bit a boy, who was popping a blow gun in her ears. (He may have been the son of the company foreman, an American, who live in a spacious log cabin by the water.) However, I can clearly I recall the phone call my mother took, in mid afternoon. I can't recall her words, but they were suitably ominous. Spotty had to be put down.

Anyway, there weren't any girls my age to play with in our minuscule mining community (girls of any age, really) so I spent my days pushing my toy baby carriage around, alone; it was plain brown and beige, an uninspiring toy and my ‘baby’ was one of those hard plastic models, shaped like the real thing, and about as big, with long lashes over souless windex-blue glass eyes, and with jointed limbs and neck but no private parts, (naturally) and a hole from the mouth to between the legs, so you could bottle feed it and also catch its pee in a diaper.

And sometimes, swathed in deep woods OFF, I'd manoever my carriage a few dozen yards over the gravel to talk to this lady, who sat in a garden chair outside her 'front door' about just what it's hard to imagine, as I was four and she was infinitely old. The woman was always working on this doll's quilt (it was a clearly a magical work in miniature that required deft fingerwork and the wisdom of the ages of make) and then one day, with a quick snap of the last thread between her teeth, she just handed it over to me. I sensed this was a spur of the moment decision. She didn't say much, if anything at all, as she pushed the little blanket away into my hand. Then she got up from her chair turned and re-entered her trailer.

But despite this lack of ceremony upon the giving of it, no gift was ever more appreciated. The quilt was simply beautiful for one, designed in a classic diamond pattern in powdered pinks and blues, and violets and yellows (if I recall.)Of a very manageable size for a little girl of four. Soft on the hands, too. And living out there in the wilderness, with the spindly over grown fir trees, dark green, almost black, mangled, mangy and often toppled over at awkward angles, there wasn't much for me to look at.

There was no TV and not much reading material, if I recall, no Dr. Seuss, that's for sure. No picture books with awesome kaleidoscopic artwork and cute animal characters. No home library, no gaily decorated playschool. I was living a 2 year field trip to the wilds of Quebec, and this was an essentially greyscale expedition, if you don 't count the rainbow trout my father caught before breakfast which my mother fried in butter and which I alone ate, if there was but one fish caught that day. Or, for that matter, the colourful flies and lures, with names like Blue Caddis and Daredevil, which was red and white like a barber pole, used to catch them.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was starved for beauty, as that particular stark Group of Seven aesthetic was lost on me. (My mother said A Y Jackson actually passed through and saw my brother, with his big brown eyes and long lashes and told my mother that had he the time, he would paint him. (Not me!)

I wonder how I managed to develop intellectually either. Well, I talked to old people. Like that lady. Like the kind oil man who took my brother and me on his rounds sometimes (our own personal Bob Homme) in his truck with the dangerous doors. "Watch our for your fingers, " he'd say. And sure enough, my brother, caught his thumb in the door. The nail turned black and fell off.

And the very unhappy red-headed Australian woman in one of the other trailers, “high strung” my father called her, who was married to a swarthily handsome, congenial man, a half MA OW RI, who had a ukele and let me strum a tune on it: My Dog Has Fleas.

"This place brings out the best and the worse in people," I think I recall my father saying to my mother, eating his supper of ridiculousy cheap t-bone steak (for the Company butcher was innumerate) and reconstituted potato flakes at the melamine counter in the kitchenette, after a day at work bean-counting for the Iron Ore Company of Canada or EYE OWE SEE as my parents called it. I assumed this couple were a living embodiment of that natural principle.

I spent my fifth and sixth year in that place, a feral creature among many feral creatures, black bears and snowy owls and timber wolves, but, paradoxically, one with little nature sense, certainly no sense of direction, and once like Hansel and Gretel, my brother and I almost got lost in the woods. I panicked and sat down on the rubbery yellow muskeg of the forest floor and cried out for my father.. My twin, much more resourceful than me, looked skyward and spied a thin yellow wire and we followed it back to the trailer perhaps 20 yards away. And there was the time we almost set the trailer on fire grilling slices of white bread on the gas stove, without (as per usual) any parental supervision. My brother suffocated the flames under piles of newspapers, if I recall. (Doesn’t seem right, but there it is.)
Anyway, I kept the quilt for years, and long after it swaddled my dolls in the brown toy baby carriage that I used to push around, when the black flies weren't too thick and furious, during those short Labrador summers before the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the Beatles.

And it is only today, May 26th, 2010, as I sit in my suburban living room, that could be an Edwardian parlour (it's so stuffed with antiques and bric a brac)except for the 50 inch HD TV in the corner and that comfy couch from Sears with the bold southwest indian flavored floral pattern, having just, after much experimentation, 'developed' a couple of pictures(black and white, of course) of Wabush on the scanner, (by leaving the scanner top open and pinning the negative under a plastic CD cover and scanning at a cumbersome to download 1200 dpi) that I summoned my inner child and, finally, after all these years, and put 2 and 2 together.

I recall my mother telling my father, back in 1959, that someone, a neighbour, had lost her daughter, who was hit by a car far away in Montreal. The girl was attending convent school. The SA-CRED HEART. (I recall the queasy feeling the news gave me. I imagined a French girl, a little older than I was, in prim private school uniform crossing the busy city street outside an old and very austere building. I imagined it a gloomy winter day. I imagined death, The end? No more? Like my devoted good-natured friend Spotty had suffered, for my mother, a lapsed Catholic, didn't sugar coat anything about the dog's sad, senseless end.) But she was not a dog, she was a little girl, just like me.

Now there were only 5 trailers in that camp, ours and the MA OW RI's and three others.....Who was this woman touched by such tragedy?

I wonder, now, fifty years on, (inspired by photos resurrected from negatives found in old boxes at my mother's death, last year): Was this woman the very same “old” lady who gave exquisite doll’s blanket that day , and had she been quilting it for her own daughter, but then, suddenly, had no daughter left alive to give it to?

That might explain the odd and sudden mode of presentation. The woman's inability to say anything -or even look at me - as she pushed the lovely quilt into my little hand, made all the more precious for the time it had taken to piece it together and the care (and -could it be- the love and monstrous grief and bitter guilt)that had gone into the stitching of it.

Education then and now

The Crepeaus in 1927ish. My mother is the little girl.

I've been doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that lately, at the temperatures soared and I prepare for my father in law to return home after his stroke.

In June, I start my online course at Arthasbasca, Heritage Studies, intro to Heritage, and the readings have been interesting. I'm also listening to Nana on the Internet. And to a series about the Invention of Childhood on BBC radio seven, which is a repeat from a few years ago.

Michael Morpurgo, a children's author wrote this series and it is interesting, indeed, it's essential listening (or reading) if one is to gain perspective on our own 'family values' whatever they may be. It is unlikely that they spun out of limbo - or that anything about them is original.

In the episode I just listened to, it is explained how as men left home to work raising family became a female thing and motherhood was elevated to idealized status, except that too much "mother" was deemed no good for boys past 5 so Public schools were invented to fill the gap. Masculinity was then defined, and holding in emotions and being good at sport was the measure of manhood.

Well, as I wrote in my story Looking for Mrs. Peel, my father was public school educated, at St. Bees in Durham. He was a special case (or sorts) as he was born in Malaya to colonials and sent away at 5 to England where he didn't even see his parents at vacation time. My father told me this story: at school, where he did excell at sports and was captain of all the teams, another boy came up to him in admiration and said, "I wish I were you." He thought this odd, as he was MISERABLE.

Mothers didn't like to do this, apparently, send their sons away, but they did it anyway, because, it seems, we tend to throw our instincts out the window when socializing our kids. We do what society says. (I guess it is safer this way.)

In the case of (and I am writing a book on this blog called Flo in the City based on the letters on the website from 1910 era) we're talking Scots here, Isle of Lewis Scots. Education was important to them, but public schools (which is to say private schools) were out of the question for their only son, Herb. It didn't really matter as the public school in Richmond, St. Francis Academy, was open to girls and boys and was a fine institution, one of the best, which had been affiliated with McGill university up until 1900.

My mother, at top, attended College Marguerite Bourgeoys, a private school set up to give classical educations to the female children of rich French Canadians. She also attended Sacred Heart. She was sent away to school, as well, if only to Pine Avenue from Sherbrooke Street West. She said her father often visited her, but her mother never. She had to talk on the phone to her.

My mother's education was aimed at making her the wife of a rich man, so she did not have the coping skills to be middle class. She had no idea how to save money. But her excellent education helped when she had to go to work, as a bilingual legal secretary.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

An Education Revisited

Flo, Marion and Edith Nicholson, Quebec teachers. Marion went on to be union leader of PAPT. Flo taught all her life. Edith, without a diploma, went on to secretarial school, but also worked all her life.

I saw the movie An Education twice more last week, as I bought it off satellite and then watched it again with my sister in law. I think I like it even more now, it improves upon viewing. Even the bits I didn't quite like the first time (why was the other girlfriend soooo stupid?) seemed OK. And I like Dominic Cooper. He acts subtly just as Hornby writes subtly (except for the over the top dumbness of Rosalind Pyke's character.)

My sister in law, a contempary of the lead character played by Carrie Mulligan, wondered why the parents of Mulligan, such philistines, wanted her to get an education in the first place. (It isn't indicated in the movie.) Did they think she would find a better class of husband?

Was it just snobbery? It wasn't de rigueur for girls to be educated back then. There were not many work options for them, as the movie states. Emma Thompson's character (the headmistress of the school) has a funny line. "It's not only teaching, there's also the civil service."

No, it wasn't essential that a girl go to college in the sixties and it was positively odd in the 1910's, except for a certain upper class girl, the Wellesley girls, for instance, I mention in my book.

But the Nicholsons did believe in education, even for their daughters. Well, especially. Marion, I suspect, believed in an education as a means to an end and Edith loved to learn, period. (Marion jokes in a letter for Normal School (teaching school) "Most of my fellow students are looking for a pupil of one upon graduation."

Margaret, their mom had another reason for getting an education . "An Education is something no one can take away from you." She was the descendant of Isle of Lewis Scots cleared from the land in Scotland and forced to come to Quebec.

Edith Nicholson was my sister in law's inspiration. Dean (my sister in law)had a learning disability (as does my husband) and her teachers didn't expect much from her. "She's very pretty," they told her parents at parent's day. "She won't have a problem." But Edith, who worked as Assistant Registrar at McGill University and as the Assistant Warden at Royal Victorial College (girls' college) at McGill, encouraged Dean, altready a hard worker, to strive for excellence. Dean eventually got a PhD in Education.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Growing Old Then and Now

Sarah Maclean 1825-1912 in 1912.

It is being reported in the that almost 50 percent of senior Canadians in long term care facilities are depressed. This information comes from a newly released study out of the Canadian Institute for Health Information. I've been reading and contributing to the blogs, because I am, right now, dealing with an aged, debilitated parent. Indeed, my sister in law, my husband and I spent yesterday moving furniture around so that my father in law can have the master bedroom and ensuite. The day before I found a hospital bed for him from the local NOVA (VON), who delivered it in a day with the help of the local volunteer fire department. My father in law who had a stroke, is about to be released from hospital.

This all ties into Flo in the City, my middle school novel about a girl coming of age in the 1910 era based on the letters of because the woman pictured above is Flo's grandmother, who was old and ailing in 1910 and Flo's mom, Margaret, had to sit up nights with her - and this precipitated a feud with her brother in law and sister.

Even back then, aging wasn't any fun at all and the stresses involved with aging parents tore families apart. Indeed, Margaret's situation and others like it in her area may have inspired Mr. Wales, the town tycoon, upon his death in 1917, to leave his money for the erection of an old age home in Richmond Quebec. Margaret's husband, Norman, was the execuator of said will.

The Wales Home still exists up on a hill in Richmond. My husband and I visited it back in 2005, because "Baby Montgomery" born in 1910 in the house beside Tighsolas, was still alive and housed there. She was quite out of it when we visited, sleeping in a chair.

My husband and I found the rest home depressing (as all tend to be) although it had a certain faded elegance. It no doubt was state of the art in the 60's.

I've been busy on the boards, just the other day another report, by the Canadian cancer society, said palliative care across the country was patchwork. My own mother died of bone cancer last year and I was torn apart by the lack of proper care for her despite the great expense. Seems that my mother's situation was not out of the ordinary, not at all. It is a crapshoot out there for people dying of cancer, some get great compassionate low cost care and others do not. The Cancer Society's report outlined what I learned the hard way (and my mother learned the horrible way) that there's little understanding of what palliative care is and should be ideally; that there's a reluctance to give painkillers to dying patients; that palliative care places are good but patients hear about it too late; that home care is sketchy.

We treat animals better than we treat our old people. (I'm not the only one saying that.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Musee Eden, Les Canadiens and Genes

Three Rivers Hockey Team 1904. Hugh Blair at left. I know because he looks like my brother in law.

Hmm. I've been listening to Le Docteur Pascal by Emile Zola on and it's about faith/science and genetics... The doctor of the title speculates on what it is that allows traits, physical and mental to pass down through the generations. He is a scientist, but he figures some mystical kind of material must be responsible.

I want to yell, "Nothing mystical! Just a ladder of beads..Like something a kid puts together, but much longer."

Anyway, the Canadiens have won the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and that is all people care about in these parts. (It's been a long time.)

I think the last time the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup was in 1994 and my son, then a little boy, stayed up until 10 pm for many nights in a row. I worried for his schooling (grade 1) but I really couldn't make him go to bed. My husband and I didn't watch hockey much then, but my aunt had come to live with us for a year or so and at about four, my son had gone into her room and watched the game with her and from that moment on he he was entranced. It's in the genes. He had no peer pressure in pre-school.
(My husband, who edits sports for TV, is now a big fan. I just watched a little vignette he put together using the I Believe song on CTV Montreal.) I was a big fan in my youth, and I remember one year, I think 69, I was living in Rosemere and the Canadiens were in the final and I couldn't watch so I went for a walk, it was May and very warm and then I heard a roar go up in the community. They had won. It's like that now, but the play offs go until June. You can have pool/Stanley Cup parties.

My girlfriend, Lise, is a huge fan. Her uncle played for the Canadiens years ago, so she is 'in the family.' But she gets so nervous she channel zaps.

How does this tie into Flo in the City, my middle school novel about a girl coming of age in the pivotal 1910 era: Well, Norman Nicholson of the website left behind a lot of stuff, letters, ledgers, but mostly lists. He was working on the railway in the 1908-1913 era and he had time on his hands. I also think he made lists for another reason: stress. How do I know? Well, my little son, when he had a fever, used to make lists, once of all the hockey players in the NHL. GENES again.

Oh, and I've been watching back episodes of Musee Eden. It is getting quite interesting, actually. And Eric Bruneau, who looks a lot like Colin Firth, had a nude scene and he is, yes, a beautiful young man. Even lying on his back. Well, especially lying on his back.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My Edwardian Living Room PLUS

Tea party 1908 circa

I have an Edwardian living room, since I inherited a lot of furniture from the era. I have a comfy Sears couch and loveseat, tho, and kept the uncomfortable elephantine 1900 sofa (such a soft sounding word for such a hard thing) downstairs in the family room.

The other day tho I had to laugh as I came into the room. My laptop was open on the coffee table, my son's too (as he's back for summer from school) and there was a small screen tv on another table, right in from of the huge HD TV screen, for my son, who uses it to play video games, while his girlfriend watches the TV and they cuddle on the loveseat.

Modern Togetherness.

There was another lap top on the dining room table, the one my husband uses to pay bills. My son's iPod was on the coffee table too.

We certainly can't live without our gadgets. Not today. Yesterday a friend was telling me about a family, parents and kids, that moved back home with the older parents (as happens and as happens a lot in bad economic times).

My friend commented that this family would rather move in with Mom than give up their expensive gadgets. So true. We're all hooked on our iPods and laptops, and they cost money. Big money. (I'm flabberghasted by how much my husband pays for our satellite TV, 1000 channels and nothing to watch (except 30 Rock, How I met Your Mother and Big Bang and Turner Classic Movies and Flashforward.) These gadgets are also fast becoming a necessity - as is the usual case with new technologies. First they are frivolous toys then they become useful and then plain necessities of life. But what happens when a family, once solvent, gets into financial trouble? Will they give up food before their iPods?

How does this fit into Flo in the City, my work in progress about a girl coming of age in the 1910 era based on the letters of
Well, the Nicholsons (the family in the book) were very well off in 1900, an upwardly mobile middle class family. But they lost all their money in around 1905. They didn't want to give up their lifestyle either, although they were very frugal. But they didn't have the 'necessities' we have today. Even the plain old telephone wasn't much of a necessity, YET. (AT and T was trying to make it one, with an ad telling Moms that they can keep in touch with wayward children with the new gadget.)

Big, fashionable hats were a necessity. In 1911, Edith Nicholson buys a hat for 7.50 and she makes only 200 dollars a year.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Excuses, excuses

Marion Nicholson and Hugh Blair 1912-13

Gee, I haven't been editing Flo in the City, my middle school novel about a young girl coming of age in the pivotal 1910 era. I haven't even been adding to this blog lately.

Family stuff. My father in law is still in hospital and they are evaluating if he will be able to come home. Whether he can walk and such. It's been 6 weeks. The nice francophone doctor who talked to us yesterday admitted that there's a HUGE problem in our area, no English services for elderly anglos. Of course, you can't complain or even talk about it. Taboo.

But it gets worse, the francophone only nursing home in our area only takes very sick patients, she said. It doesn't take older patients who need extended care but no real medical interventions. For that you have to find a private place. And they can cost a fortune and as I learned last year, you do not get what you pay for. These private places are money making establishments that hire staff on the cheap and make you pay for everything extra, all these add on costs.

The only hope is the Veteran's Hospital, a great facility, and nearby, but as I wrote their long standing policy is not to accept veterans who didn't go overseas. There are exceptions, however.

Perhaps we will bring him home, hospital bed and all, as I work from home and we've been giving him assisted care for years anyway. Perhaps if the CLSC can give us help. Oh gosh. This doctor told us the same thing a registered nurse told me last year, when my mother was dying. We boomers better prepare to pay a fortune for care in our old age.
Pretty grim.

Anyway, I had a fun thing happen. A forensic artist contacted me to use some of the Tighsolas pics for her research. Some people today actually have interesting jobs, it seems.

My son is in Greenwich England, decompressing from his final year at school, considering grad school, likely in Europe, and waiting to visit friends in Munich later in the month. I asked him, since he was killing time, to go to Bloomsbury and take a picture of Virginia Woolf's desk, and to go to Chiswick and buy something from Colin Firth's Eco-Age store for Mother's Day, but he politely declined, not wanting, I guess. for me to live my life vicariously through him. "Sorry, he said, I forgot to go, but nothing stops YOU from getting on a plane and going to visit the UK. It's not that expensive." (In fact, it is cheaper to fly to Europe than to other places in Canada. Ridiculous.) I had to smile. Nothing stops I can drop everything and go hostelling...and live on bread and cheese and beer and not visit all the relatives... oh, to be young.

Monday, May 3, 2010

History Redefined.

Tighsolas porch circa 1900, Richmond Quebec.

Today, it was reported in the Montreal Gazette, and only the Montreal Gazette from what I can see, that Canadians, today, aren't big into History.

Very few Canadians read history books, or scope websites about history.

No real surprise here. Not if the poll defines history in the traditional way.

Of course, if you include 'genealogy' in history, and movies etc, it's a different story.

As I continue to procrastinate on editing my novel, Flo in The City, about a girl coming of age in the pivotal 1910 era in Montreal, based on the letters of, I am always thinking about history. But not so much wars and such (since my story takes place in those years before WWI) but about fashion history, technological history, women's social history, the history of medicine. EVERYTHING is history. Anyway who collects things is an historian of sorts, a curator.

The problem is traditional history books are boring. They are written by scholars and not writers. (Pierre Berton was a notable exception.) Historical writers tend to put story above facts. I just watched Young Victoria and and it was girly fun but who knows how close it was to history. I imagine a young pre-Victorian (tsk)teenager, even a princess, would have acted very different from the girl in the movie.

Anyway, I must get to writing. I am thinking of making this blog bilingual. But my French....

Aujourd'hui on a publié une sondage dans La Gazette qui disait que les Canadiens ne sont pas les grands consommateurs de l'histoire. Aucune surprise ici, mais je me demande, c'est quoi l'histoire? Est-ce que la genealogie est l'histoire? Bien sur. Les flics? La mode? Pourquoi pas? S'il les Canadiens n'aime pas lire les livres d'histoires, c'est par-ce que la plupart de ces livres sont ennuyeux, écrites par les academiques et pas par les écrivains.