In a highly fictional past, at an uncertain place on earth (as depicted in the movie “Quest for Fire” ):
Naoh has been sent to find fire. He succeeds, but upon his return the flame extinguishes before he can hand it over to his tribe. They are crushed. Then Naoh announces (translation), “I can make fire!” The tribe stares at him like he’s crazy. But sure enough, fire gets made.
My sister Mary and I, and our twenty-something niece Tamara, are hanging out at the trailer. Mary has pictures on her phone that we want to send, but there’s no Wi-Fi. We are crushed. Then Tamara gets out her phone and announces, “I can make Wi-Fi!” Mary and I stare at her like she’s crazy. But sure enough, Wi-Fi gets made.
Between one epoch and the other, some technology happened. The consequence is that we went from wanting a constant supply of warmth to wanting a constant supply of communication.
A lack of warmth and communication came together for me and my small group of cyclists one cold summer day in 1973 on Highway 6 somewhere near Pugwash, Nova Scotia.
My group consisted of me, my two older siblings, and a neighbour boy from our relatives’ Tidnish cottage. We were having some trouble. The technology that my group needed was a Star Trek-style communicator so that we could contact our place of safety and demand that it yank us from our trouble. In this day and age, we call that a cell phone. Back then, we had to settle for the office phone at a Bible camp.
Our trouble was the rainy day, and the fact that we couldn’t find our parents and younger sister. We had all set out on bicycles together from Tidnish, along the Sunrise Trail, for an overnight expedition to Pugwash. But we – the sure-of-themselves 11–15-year-old crowd – bicycled fast and arrived at a fork in the road sooner than the slowpoke adults and mere child. Impatient, we struck off on what we knew to be the correct road. Later that day, the adult-and-child group arrived at the Pugwash campground and the teens weren’t there.
When my tired, wet, chilled group saw the Bible camp, we hoped it was our destination. It wasn’t. But the kind people there let us use the office phone to call the Tidnish cottage, which my parents had already phoned from the Pugwash campground, so the cottage phoned the campground who told my parents where we were, so then my parents called the Bible camp who told us to wait there. That’s how it was done in those days. My Dad bicycled over to get us and show us the way.
Since ages past, the technology was there for my parents to make a fire and warm their soggy group of deflated teenagers. But what they really needed at that moment was the ability to make Wi-Fi ─ and gleefully send a picture of us to the relatives at the cottage, so that they could share in the moment.
In 1972, my Dad and his sister Anne went to Ireland to visit their cousin Basil. They stayed on Basil’s family property near the town of Clones, in the far north of Ireland, anxiously close to the border of troubled Northern Ireland. Basil suspected that his farm foreman belonged to the IRA. One evening, Dad and Aunt Anne decided to walk over to the village pub. Basil warned them not to talk about the upheavals in Northern Ireland. At the pub, he said, you didn’t know who was on which side and it was best to just not bring it up.
So they didn’t. Instead, there in that border pub, the eager Irish patrons were full of questions for Dad and Aunt Anne. They wanted to hear all about the troubles in Montreal.
They were talking about the 1970 October Crisis, when the separatist group Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped two government officials. Details of this event, and all the controversies that went with it, can be found in other places. Canada’s brush with serious internal terrorism was blessedly brief. It began that October and was over by the New Year. But it lasted long enough to claim a victim, which was unspeakably sad.
I’ve heard the stories of those who were adults at the time, about how it felt to live in Montreal when the War Measures Act was invoked; for some it was a non-event, for others, whose relatives were picked up for no reason by the police, it was the stuff to make one angry. My 9-year-old memories just feel surreal: soldiers patrolling the streets near my house. It was unnatural, although there was actually nothing frightening about them. In this account of the event, I can relate to the casual collection of curious children in the photo.
It’s great to be able to say, about the place you grew up, that the presence of soldiers was unnatural. It’s a good thing to look back and see that a local crisis was so fleeting as to not define your whole childhood. Because meanwhile, children living in Belfast northeast of cousin Basil’s farm were not so lucky.
My family attended St. Barnabas, St. Lambert’s Anglican Church. Sometime in the late 60s, my two sisters and I decided to join the junior choir. This choir, made up of children and teenagers, sang the full Book of Common Prayer liturgy, led the congregation authoritatively in all the hymns, and performed a weekly anthem in four parts. The St. Barnabas junior choir was not just cute kids singing “Jesus Loves Me.” This was a working choir; an integral part of the service.
No sooner had the three of us been to a couple of practices than we were suiting up on a Sunday morning – red choir robes and a white surplice – to process down the aisle behind the crucifer and sing for the Sunday service. But it hadn’t always been this way.
Once, not that long ago, there had been such a thing as a “practice choir.” A new junior choir member spent months in the practice choir, never appearing at a Sunday service until they were deemed ready to sing with the real working choir. The real working choir once filled up the three rows of choir stalls on either side of the chancel.
But now, there weren’t enough children for two choirs – there were barely enough for one – and so, although we were new, we were allowed to sing with the real working choir right away. Our choir director, Hilda, theorized that the three of us wouldn’t contribute much to the singing, but at least we would fill up the gaps in the choir stalls.
And so my sisters and I discovered the privilege of arriving late to the Baby Boomer party. Before our post-1959 crowd was starting to make its presence felt on the planet, a population bulge had filled choir stalls to overflowing with children. When the occupants of the bulge grew up, they left behind a ready-made outline into which my sisters and I stepped unhindered.
We stayed in the junior choir for over a decade, beginning, yes, as bench warmers, but eventually becoming useful singers – well trained by Hilda – in the St. Barnabas junior choir.
On February 15, 1965, the new Canadian flag was raised for the first time on Parliament Hill. Of more immediate relevancy to my family, it was also raised – later in the year – over the Sarnia city hall. That’s where we lived. On that summer day, Mom and Dad and their four little children, all dressed up from having been to church, walked over to the town hall where a crowd had gathered. Mom found it very moving to see the new flag raised.
There had been great controversy over the Maple Leaf flag. Some war veterans had fought under the Red Ensign, and they didn’t want to see it changed. Mom was asked by a reporter what she, a member of the University Women’s Club, thought of the new flag, and of the controversy. Mom gave her opinion: since our country wasn’t defined by war, there was no need to keep the former flag.
When I read Nasreen Pejvack’s short story collection Paradise of the Downcasts, I was struck by the fact that one of Nasreen’s characters sees that same Maple Leaf flag, several decades after it was first used, and comes to a similar conclusion.
This character is looking for a place to land; the flag signals to her that Canada is that place. When she arrives, she settles happily into the regular life lived by most of her fellow citizens, but soon discovers there are aspects of this Maple Leaf paradise that aren’t all they should be.
Nasreen’s stories are fictional, but based on true events. Our character who followed the Maple Leaf to Canada is one of many ordinary Canadians whose lives we glimpse as the stories unfold; and it’s their very ordinariness that makes me sit up and take notice. In my experience, an ordinary Canadian life means that all is well: easy access to education and health care, and a certain level of prosperity. But this is not the experience of this cast of fellow citizens. They face challenges that I never faced, and the solutions are often out of their control.
There’s an underlying tone of cheer to the stories. The characters seem to enjoy getting to know each other; I, the reader, also enjoy it. These people find ways to help each other, while at the same time calling out that which works against our Maple Leaf paradise.
Canada has been defined by our current flag for the last 53 years. There’s a lot about our country to be proud of, but it’s too easy to get complacent. We sometimes need a reminder of things that we’ve forgotten about, or perhaps never even knew existed. Paradise of the Downcasts provides that reminder, helping us along the very important road of being actively involved in establishing what, as people of the Maple Leaf, defines us.
My Mother-in-law, Ruth Rath, wrote this article for her church newsletter 14 years ago. I’ve always liked this interesting peek into the kind of Christmas her Welland-based family enjoyed.
When I was growing up in the ’30s and ’40s, our Christmas routine never seemed to change.
Amid great excitement on Christmas Eve we each searched out and hung on the ends of our beds the largest stocking we could find. Come morning, we early risers would wake up the sleeping sisters as we jumped on their bed so we could see the treasures in our stockings. We would be rewarded with a simple toy or game, an apple (rarely an orange) and candies with a picture in the centre. When we couldn’t contain ourselves any longer, the four of us would converge on our parents’ bed and then be allowed to go to look at the tree and presents… but not to touch!
Ours was a family with limited income—a fact that I realized many years later—but there was always something waiting for each of us. The parents finally would arrive and gifts were given out—always a new pair of slippers, hand-knit mitts and one other gift for each. I remember that it was always a happy time.
In the late morning, we would load up the sleigh and hike across town to my father’s parents’ house. There, we would be greeted by the smell of a very large turkey roasting.
Slowly, aunts, uncles and cousins would gather and the fun began. 25 to 30 people would crowd and mill about, singing from the kitchen as they worked to finish off the meal.
My grandmother would choose one of the grandchildren to program the day’s entertainment. After we ate, all were expected to sing, play or recite whatever they could. A sing-song always finished this off. My grandmother played the fiddle or piano. She was also well-known in our church as a great one to recite.
An old Santa suit was put on the fortunate child who had been chosen to play Santa. The gifts, again simple treasures, were given out. “Pit,” a favourite noisy game, was played on and on until the adults couldn’t stand it any more. Families started drifting away before supper as the dark closed in.
Our family usually stayed on for a bite to eat before setting out on the long, weary walk across town. We would look for the trees and lights in people’s windows…a cheery sight. Then to bed…the end of a perfect day.
My friend Soffie Smith was a little girl when she came to Canada. Her parents arrived in Toronto on March 6, 1968, and worked for 9 months to save money so their children could join them. In December, Soffie’s father flew to Guyana and brought her and her two older brothers back to Canada with him. They arrived on Boxing Day. This is the story Soffie posted on Facebook in November, 2015:
So if Ottawa is preparing to receive at most 2000 Syrian refugees, that means that in a population of 900,000, a community of about 450 should be able to invest in the caring of one individual each. That is a good ratio. When my parents immigrated to St. Jacobs over 47 years ago, the village was only about 300 people. We were the only immigrant family for several years. We arrived with no appropriate clothes, shoes etc. We had no idea how to brave the winter. It was the Mennonite community that reached out to us and showed us how to live and eat. Kind people allowed us to rent part of their houses.
There were three houses where I remember living and when my parents were able to purchase their own house, we still went to those friends’ houses for tea and to celebrate their birthdays and I even remember attending their funerals. I remember calling them aunt and uncle.
There are people everywhere who do not have family near or living. Adopting a family from another country is a wonderful investment. I have so much to be thankful for. Oh and did I mention that my parents brought us out of a country that was in a lot of turmoil politically and socially? So glad I did not have to grow up in fear of someone robbing or killing, of not being able to get enough food or of a corrupt government. No we were not refugees but we were – we are – immigrants.
My mom is a Muslim and understands the traditions of Canada because people invited her to their homes and showed and taught her Canadian culture. My mom never demanded anyone respect the culture that she came from. She is thankful for the life she has here. And when she gets together with her Guyanese friends, she loves to talk about the old days. But she doesn’t live like she is in Guyana. She is Canadian now and helps everyone around her because that is what community does.
Mary, Kathleen, Murray, and Jean Hill with their Grandpa Herbert Christie
Me: Mom, was the Volkswagen in this picture ours, or was it Grandma and Grandpa’s?
Mom: I don’t know; does it have a rusted-out hole in the floor?
Tales of Transport: the People’s Car
Our Volkswagen Beetle did the job of people-moving for many years. At the farthest corners of my memory is one small incident. I’m sitting with my little sister Mary in the back pocket of the Volkswagen Beetle. Older siblings Murray and Kathleen are in front of us in the back seat, and Mom and Dad are in the front seats. Suddenly there’s a tremendous noise. All our luggage, which had been tied to the roof (there was no room for it in the car), flew off.
This incident ushered in the era of my family’s last and best vehicle: the Volkswagen Bus. Our “new” used bus was once owned by a rock band. Ripped fabric was stretched across the ceiling. This, our parents told us, is where the hippies hung their guitars.
Road-tripping without Guitars
For several years in a row, during a whole summer month, my parents packed us all into the bus and pointed its nose at some faraway place on the continent. Mom outfitted us in dark-coloured clothing and cut our hair short; then, all set for simple living and uncomplicated fun, we hit the road, the highway stretching enticingly in front of us. To this day the Woodie Guthrie lyrics “As I was walking that ribbon of highway; I saw above me that endless skyway; I saw below me that golden valley…” take me back to the feeling of travelling.
While the bus was on the road, my three siblings and I played, coloured or read books on the blanket-covered middle floor (the bench seat that normally occupied that spot spent the month in our garage at home). Mom reports that we never got too ambitious during our journeys: we’d eat breakfast at our campsite picnic table surrounded by the scent of trees, water and the propane stove, and then hit the road for a few hours, stopping for the day when the next promising campground presented itself.
Lunch and bathroom breaks occurred at simple highway rest stops beside streams and forests; Mom or Dad would open the bus doors and we’d jump out and run like crazy. At breaks we got store-bought cookies! This was a vacation-only treat, and the four of us kids took turns being the ones to choose which kind we bought. I tended to go for the creamy centres.
If an attractive enough sightseeing opportunity presented itself, we’d stop;
…otherwise we kept moving until we got to our campground, where we’d jump into whatever body of water was on offer.
At night, our pup tent served as the annex to the bus.
Dad, Murray, and Kathleen slept there; Mom, Mary, and I slept in the bus on the piles of blankets. We bus-dwellers were subject to mosquito bites, but we also avoided the scenario in which Dad leaped into the bus in the middle of one night during a downpour, declared “we’re swimming in an island of water”, grabbed a bunch of towels, and leaped back out.
We repeated the daily pattern until we arrived at our destination: the east coast one year (there were relatives), the west coast the next (relatives there too), and then south to Florida (a big rocket ship there).
Florida Road Trip (Not a Disney Story)
In 1969, I was 7 years old and Disney World was still two years from opening. I remember this trip better than the others. I remember the sightseeing stops we made, like Colonial Williamsburg with its costumed occupants and Cape Hatteras with the giant waves. The closer we got to Florida, the less we had to worry about mosquitoes as they were dealt with by the DDT-spraying airplanes that buzzed over our campground.
On this trip I became aware of those other Volkswagen Buses: the brand new shiny ones with sinks, stoves, and cloth-covered bench seats that could be turned into beds. Some of them even had canopies that opened on top and served as skylights. These vehicles were splendid and comfortable – and full of children that were not me. Yes, I was jealous of such luxury.
Once we reached Florida, we spent several days camping in the subtropical heat among lush subtropical vegetation, enjoying the daily subtropical downpours and swimming in the campground pool. Then one day we drove to a large flat place and parked – along with hundreds of other cars as far as the eye could see.
Far away, across a large body of water, stood the Apollo 11. And beside us in the giant parking lot was one of those shiny Volkswagen Buses! That one splendid vehicle holds as strong a place in my memory as the big rocket ship.
I think we must have waited there in that bright, unshaded space for a long time. At countdown, every parking lot occupant was perched on the roof of their vehicle. Hundreds of radios broadcast the countdown, and when it reached its end, the splendid rocket across the water rose in a cloud of steam.
We watched it until it was out of sight, and then kept watching for a long time hoping to catch a further glimpse.
I suppose the next thing we did was inch our way out of the massive parking lot. I only remember what happened four days later when the moonwalk was scheduled to happen; for the first time in our travelling lives we stayed in a hotel: my parents were there for the TV… I was there for the slide into the swimming pool!
Late that night the six of us, tucked up together in the two beds, watched the moon walk on TV. Mom had to elbow me awake so that I could see “…one giant leap for mankind.” But I did see it; I actually do remember the grainy black and white image of a man in a spacesuit climbing down a ladder onto a surface that I knew to be the Moon. I saw as much as I needed to, and then descended again into sweet dreams of more time in the swimming pool.
The Last of the Family Vehicles
At the end of our Florida trip, the bus broke down, causing a delay that resulted in Mom and Dad taking turns driving day and night to get Dad back on time for work. My siblings and I slept on the bus floor while we travelled. A couple of years later, on a cold night in Old Montréal, the bus broke down for good. This ushered in the era of the no-vehicle family. In a city with a good Metro, in a suburb where everything was walking distance, in a family full of growing kids with strong legs, my parents quickly concluded that we didn’t need a car. Planes, trains, and rental cars became our vacation vehicles from then on.