Family Matters: Rose Clark comes for Easter Dinner

I’ve had this oversize plastic bag with the Zeller’s logo on it for several years now. I think it was given to me when my favourite aunt died partly because I am the family member who keeps track of the family history and partly because no one else knew for sure the identity of the persons whose photographs were in the bag. There were three women and one man. For several years the bag remained in one closet or another and, because it was large and awkward, it would occasionally pounce upon me from above my head as I tried to retrieve something else of more general “use” about the house. Each time it fell I would look inside the bag and think that something should be done about the contents: the pictures were quite old and one or two very badly damaged by water before I even became the guardian and they were becoming more and more brittle and small chunks of pressed cardboard material would break off the corners and edges when they were handled or, more likely, when they pounced upon me.

On one of these occasions I removed the photos (they averaged 15 inches by nineteen inches in size) and tentatively identified the persons. I concentrated at first on the one photo of a young girlClara Steele about 10 years of age: it had been shaded and lightly coloured with pastels and the young lady(see right) looked somewhat dreamy-eyed or romantic if you will. I thought she might be my grandmother but the features were not quite right. The other folks were older: a woman in her late twenties or early thirties perhaps and a woman in her fifties or early sixties and a man probably in his sixties. After searching through the materials I had collected on the family I determined that the young woman was my great grandmother, Rose Clark and the two older adults were her parents. The young girl was a sister of my grandmother and so a great Aunt of mine. I was fortunate to have all their names and their birth dates and more.

So what to do with Rose, Harriet, Robert and young Clara? That was the question. I took the pictures to a nearby commercial establishment that both sold art and did framing. What I had thought might be the best answer was to use a dark oval frame and a convex glass without a matte. The glass would not touch the surface of the photograph and thus protect it from any further damage. This would be a fairly expensive venture: each photo would cost approximately $400 if the same frame and glass were to be used for each. Well, four at once was prohibitive and so I chose to have my great grandmother done first.Rose Clark I had known her personally as she was alive for the first 13 years of my life and I went on Sunday afternoons to visit her with my grandfather. I remember her in her kitchen with the old trap door in it through which my grandfather would go to check when there were plumbing problems or to get wood for heating. I also remember the dining room and sitting there in the winter time and the little desk with a cloth curtain in front of the bottom shelves where there was an odd collection of books and a few toys in a basket that must have belonged to my grandfather’s nephew. I would sit on the floor and go through these items while my grandfather would talk to his mother. I wish I could remember just one of those conversations. I am sure some were about local politics and taxes and such like.

I think these big pictures, at least three of them, might have hung in the front parlour (a quite small room for such a dignified designation) which we never sat in but were allowed to go in and sit on the stiff old horsehair chairs.

I went by the house very recently. It is now unrecognizable except to someone who was once a visitor. It has been completely covered with a light coloured siding and several of the windows have been replaced and trimmed in a magenta coloured paint. On the back of the house there has been a small extension added, probably to make a more practical entrance. Below the house an area has been dug out and leveled and a 2-car garage has been constructed. There was once a chicken/pigeon house although not quite so far from the house as the garage is now. There was no sign 0f it with its Victorian trim around the second story painted in a dark green. It seemed so strange to think that the people who live there or the people who walk by have no idea of how it once looked and how it looks in the photographs I have in my album.

When I left the art shop with my great grandmother wrapped carefully in brown paper, I felt good about taking her home and hanging her up on my dining room wall in time for Easter dinner. I feel especially good about having removed her from the Zeller’s bag and put her back into a family setting. Her parents, one set of my great great grandparents, I will perhaps have packed in acid-free foam board and sealed up to protect them while I gather the financial resources required to get them framed. My great aunt’s photograph(the young lady above right) I will try to pass along to a direct descendant whom I have traced to the town in which my grandmother lived most of her life. I am hoping that descendant will welcome his great grandmother into his home.

Our Lady of the Lost and Found by Diane Schoemperlen

This is one of my favourite all-time reads and I have enjoyed re-reading it again in the months following Heavenali’s Month of Re-Reading in January 2013. One of the epigraphs for this novel comes from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and part of the epigraph is:

“…she was a Virgin of lost things, one who restored what was lost. She was the only one of these wood or marble or plaster Virgins who ever seemed at all real to me. There could be some point in praying to her, kneeling down, lighting a candle. But I didn’t do it, because I didn’t know what to pray for. What was lost, what I could pin on her dress. 

I paint the Virgin Mary descending to the earth, which is covered with snow and slush. She is wearing a winter coat over her blue robe, and has a purse slung over her shoulder. She’s carrying two bags of groceries.  Several things have fallen from the bags: an egg, an onion, an apple. She looks tired.”

And this is from Our Lady of the Lost and Found:Our Lady of

“There was a woman standing in front of the fig tree.

She was wearing a navy blue trench coat and white running shoes. She had a white shawl draped over her hair like a hood. Over her right shoulder she carried a large leather purse. In her left hand she held the extended metal handle of a small suitcase on wheels that rested on an angle slightly behind her like an obedient dog.

Fear not, she said.

I was too stunned to be scared. I put the watering can down on the coffee table and stared at her.

It’s me, Mary, she said. Mother of God.

I must have looked blank. She went on, smiling.”

Her going on consisted of listing a number of the official designations given her such as Queen of Heaven and Daughter of Zion.

And so begins this remarkable one week visit by the Virgin Mary to the home of another very ordinary woman in an ordinary town who writes for a living and lives a quiet, simple life. During the course of the visit, the reader learns a great deal about the Virgin Mary and her position throughout the world in various cultures and of her various appearances such as that to a wealthy widow in Walsingham in 1061, to another widow, Petruccia de Geneo in Italy in 1467 and to twelve-year-old Eugene Barbedette and his ten-year-old brother Joseph in 1871 in Pontmain in northwestern France. The information is presented in very palatable segments labelled as History or Knowledge or Sightings and these are balanced by sections about ordinary shopping expeditions and preparation of meals or about things like the coincidence that both the narrator and her visitor are re-reading The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende. If you are a book person you just have to adore this part about reading a book about two people reading another book that you want to get out immediately and start re-reading yourself! Such a simple joy!

From the book jacket: “An absorbing and inventive novel that redefines our notions of fiction and non-fiction. Our Lady of the Lost and Found is an inspiration to believers and non-believers alike. Perhaps its greatest achievement is that through the narrator’s touching friendship with Mary, we learn as much as she does. We come to understand that in our desire to believe in something larger than ourselves, it is our own doubt and uncertainty that makes us perfect candidates for faith.”

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

Inspiration for this read came from two directions: a month of re-reading in January on Heavenali’s blog and the books selection for this year’s Canada Reads competition as the representative from Quebec. I was pleasantly surprised that it read as easily as it did: it was not as ponderous or pedantic as I expected it to be for some reason. On the Canada Reads debates the symbolism was often spoken of and I came to expect something weightier and less enjoyableTwo Solitudes 220130402_123736 because of that weightiness. I did think that some of the changes over time (there are four distinct sections: 1917-1918; 1919-1921; 1934, and 1939) happened too abruptly and/or the last two sections covered too much in too short a space having captured the reader’s interest in the characters and then tidying up the loose ends in what seemed like a no-nonsense fashion. It is  worth reading for itself and to recognize its place in the Canadian lexicon. My edition was published in 1945 and that gave a special quality to the experience for me.

Because Paul became a writer there are some interesting thoughts about writing:

“There was so much self-flattery in the idea of writing books; it made him superstitiously afraid of telling anyone that this was what he wanted to do. His own voice had surprised him as he made the admission to a girl who was almost a stranger.” (page 279; the girl was Heather)

Also observations on being French-Canadian:

“..a French-Canadian is born in one ( a strait-jacket). We’re three million people against a whole continent.” (page 281; Paul speaking to Heather)

“You don’t have to be a French-Canadian to be born in a strait-jacket. Every girl’s born in one, unless you’re a girl like Daffy.” (page 289; Heather to Paul; her sister is Daphne)

On the title:

“He wondered if Heather had ever felt as he did now. Two solitudes in the infinite waste of lonliness under the sun.” (page 305; Paul)

On grief:

“Her mother felt prostrate with grief, not knowing that grief is always for the self.” (page 321; Heather on her mother Janet’s style of grieving for her grandfather, John Yardley)

On life:

“Yardley had always supposed that if people had been intended to know what they were doing, they would have been created with the faculties to make the knowledge possible.”

On love:

“She loved him so utterly he had become her way of life. For a man it could never be the same. He had his work, he had the ruthless drive inside that would never let him alone.”

Yes, the story is dated but the upside of that is the accuracy of the picture it presents of relationships and politics of the time. The strong characterizations of men like Athanase Tallard, Two SolitudesHuntley McQueen and John Yardley, along with Father Emile Beaubien give a cinematic richness to the story while Marius Tallard and Kathleen Tallard with the young Paul bring in the tension often associated with young men in conflict with their fathers, unhappy women and confused children. All ingredients that result in a strong story. In the later sections Heather Methuen and her sister Daphne and their mother Janet provide very different and interesting portraits of wealthy women in that era while Marius’ partner Emilie and their five children provide a balance to the Methuen family. In many ways, this story is timeless but it is simultaneously a snapshop in time of a period in Canadian history. It reads quickly and takes only a small adjustment to a style of an earlier period. Hugh MacLennan won the Governor General’s award for fiction for Two Solitudes in 1945: another good reason to read it .

Family Matters: Sightings in Grocery Stores

This posting is mostly about a childhood memory, one that is very clear after almost sixty years. My grandparents shopped on the same night every week after the work day was done for my grandfather. Before I was born I know the shopping was done differently because my grandmother told me how she would take the childrens’ wagon and one or more of the children and walk downtown. It was actually a long walk and went down a major hill and then up a major hill. It was definitely a mile and probably closer to a mile and a half. The groceries were brought home in the wagon, of course, and the children probably had to walk beside and prevent things from falling out. In the late forties and early fifties, however, the shopping was done by automobile on Thursday after work (5 p.m.) and I often went along. My aunt worked as a cashier at the A & P store so it was almost a family event. My grandfather carried all the money and always paid the cashier. I don’t recall any disagreements about what was purchased so that is a positive thing. I do remember the rolling hardwood floors in the store and the meat department men with blood stains on their white aprons.

The memory I have concerns my paternal grandmother. My parents had separated/divorced two or three years after the war and my brother, mother and I lived with my maternal grandparents. One day we had done all the shopping and brought our cart to the cash register to be checked out. And suddenly, my grandmother grabbed my sleeve and said in a rather loud whisper “Don’t look now but that is your other grandmother over there.” Of course, I looked.

I can still see her standing there in the grocery aisle. She was wearing a full length cloth coat with a partial fur collar and a hat of felt, perhaps with a veil attached over the front of it. I do not recall a colour although the coat and hat seem to be black in my mind. She was not smiling. She did not wear glasses. She was looking right at me. She had on black heels appropriate to a grandmother in those times. My maternal grandmother was heavier and wore black shoes with heels and laces. I am guessing this “other”  grandmother might have been about 60. If I could draw, I could reproduce the face because it is like a photograph in my memory.

The memory is like the picture of my father that I saw only once: it was like a passport photo and it fell out of a little green strongbox in which my mother kept papers of importance. One night she had it on the bed and was looking for something when I caught sight of the photo. It is engraved on my memory like the sighting of my “other” grandmother in the grocery store. My father had reddish hair, distinctly parted on the left side, a matching moustache well groomed, a medium high forehead and what seemed like blue or green eyes. He was young in the picture and his face was narrow but not too narrow. I think he was wearing a white shirt. I never saw the photo again and I never saw him either. With hindsight, there is a possibility that my mother was searching through her papers for something she needed to get remarried but I, of course,  was blissfully unaware of this at the time.

My father  had a sister and I recall her being outside my grandparent’s house one day; she wanted to see me I believe. Before my parents divorced I imagine she used to play with me and no doubt an attachment had developed. My cousin who was staying with us told me to get under the kitchen table and hide. The atmosphere was one of fear with a dash of excitement but my father’s sister never stepped off the front sidewalk towards the house.

What remains in our memory from our childhood years fascinates me. I can go through old photograph albums and, of course, the photos trigger memories of people and places. But these sightings like the one in the grocery store and that of the small photo lying on a bed amidst other papers or the one of myself hiding under the kitchen table are quite different: they are not concrete items in an album that I can go back to time and time again for verification. They are, however, more vivid than the photos, in fact, they are almost video clips. I have no actual photographs of my father or any members of his family.