Thursday, August 13, 2009

Back to the Future

A few days ago, I showed you a picture of this guy, my "little brother," being inspected by my granddaughter, and I warned you I would come back to think more about why it was my favourite photo of a wonderful weekend -- and why did my brother's face fascinate me as much as it did Nola.

Besides his fabulous nose, a tribute to genetics and to a lifetime of rugby, I see in Joel's face a mix of intelligence and physicality that has played out across many generations in our past -- while we are solidly middle class right now, life was often challenging for our grandparents and for earlier generations, marked by hard physical labour. Joel, who retired just the day before the reunion after more than 35 years with the same company, honoured this background by his commitment to his union and to the men on the floor. Rather than advancing into management, he chose to put his energy into union service. His always-Labour-voting English working-class predecessors would have been proud.
At the same time, neither my father nor either of Joel's grandparents could easily have understood his commitment to rugby -- their lives never permitted such an indulgence in leisure time (albeit very hard-working leisure!). Our dad would come home from very demanding work, not just physical but with a stressful supervisory element (he was Food Services Supervisor in a large penal institution) to help my mom put their large family to bed. Occasionally, they would have an evening out or perhaps attend a PTA meeting together, and once a month or so he would go to a Knights of Columbus meeting, but otherwise his big indulgence would be watching hockey games on TV.
Here he is, cuddling a very tired toddler me, on his first visit back home to Middlesbrough, Yorkshire -- he would have been just 28 then, and although he might not have known it in the photo, he would not get back home again until the late 60s. This trip required a drive across Canada (Vancouver to Montreal) and passage on a passenger/cargo ship; with two youngsters, my brother still a baby, this must have been a challenging few weeks for my parents, especially since my mother was seasick for most of the crossing. All worthwhile, this photo says, capturing his contentment singing along with the welcoming crowd at home in England, old family and new one integrated for a short while.Several years after this, my English grandma and grandpa came to visit us in New Westminster, BC -- they crossed the country by train, so that again, between boat and train, they would have been many weeks in transit. I have a few faint, impressionistic memories of my grandfather. I know he walked, for example, with his hands clasped behind his back -- my neighbour, Carol, sometimes adopts a similar position and reminds me of that, although I've never mentioned this to her. We walked together, my grandfather and I, at least once (in my memory, we did this all the time, but it was perhaps only once) to "the old library" -- the one way down the hill -- he was so impressed that I could remember the way, at four or five, but it was a well-worn route in our family, even then. Here he sits at either Crescent Beach or White Rock beach, reading, reading -- he may have worked 47 years at the Iron Foundry, but he was a reader nonetheless. Family legend tells that in their cramped council home (almost identical, except that my grandmother kept it so well, to the one Billy Elliott's family lived in), the front sitting-room was sacrosanct when my grandpa was in there reading -- not to be disturbed! and his ten children would never dare bother him if he was sitting with a book or newspaper.I never saw my maternal grandfather, pictured above, read a book, although occasionally I'd see him with the paper. I remember him writing, though, but on wood with his thick carpenter's pencil. My grandfather, born in Bay City Michigan in the 1890s, was placed in an orphanage along with three siblings when his widowed mother remarried. He was three or four at the time, and as soon as he was old enough to do various chores, he was "placed" in various "homes" where he worked for a place in the barn and food that was primarily bowls of porridge. Physical abuse, at least, was part of the package. I'm not sure how much education he had a chance to pick up along the way, but he ended up putting his natural intelligence to becoming a jack of all trades. His engineer's mind manifest itself in the way he helped my dad lift my parents' first house to put a full basement in it.
Some of our musical ability comes from my Grandpa L. -- he could play the piano by ear, but loved to sing along when I played from an old Golden Book of vaudeville-era songs. Even better, he'd haul out his "bones" -- large, ox-ribs, polished by decades of use, played in the same manner as spoons -- and his harmonica. His tough upbringing and a lifetime of hard work had apparently left my grandpa with a temper, and most of his ten children had resentful memories of him, but as you can see from these photos, he'd mellowed by the time I came along, and I have many happy images of our time together.
When I look at Joel's face with the layers of interest time has added to it, as it has to mine, my fascination is in seeing glimpses there of my father and both my grandfathers. I can sometimes just barely discern, as well, the face of my co-conspirator from so far back. Look at us smiling here together, not much older than Nola is now. I think this is also what draws me to that photo of Joel and Nola -- it catapults me back more than 50 years to a time when he and I were young together, but it also sends me forth in my imagination to her future. I suppose that's why, looking at the image of the two of them studying each other, I dug out these photos, buried away since dad gave them to me ten or so years ago, and resolved to write something about them. Who knows what parts of her past will be important to her by the time she's my age? I wish I could be there . . .

12 comments:

  1. What a lovely tale of your family. I was shocked when you mentioned your brother's age (well, indirectly). He appears quite youthful. What a great weekend.

    And now, I'm off to meet DF's extended family this weekend, a Flan amongst the Italian Americans! Should be fun!

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  2. I think your brother's face is fabulous (tell him I have a bit of a crush on him)! And what an interesting story about your family. I lived in North Yorkshire myself many years ago, so I can really imagine the kind of life that your grandparents must have had there. Just thinking of 10 children in one of those houses (the typical 'two up, two down', I expect) makes me realise how very fortunate we are these days ...

    And the tragedy of children being sent to an orphanage because their mother remarried - it's heartbreaking.

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  3. What an amazing family history. Your grandfather's story is so tragic, yet he probably became very strong because of it. I love seeing these old photos; it's amazing the stories these images tell, and the memories they bring. Your brother is a handsome guy!

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  4. Wonderful stories. I wonder what your grandparents would think if they could see your life now. I think they would be pretty pleased.

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  5. I love the way photos connect past, present, future. Reading this really made me wish my "baby sister" could have made it over. One of my favorite things in life is getting to know my siblings as adults, parents, friends. Thanks for helping make this a little easier by inviting "the gang"
    Hilary

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  6. Nancy: He does look great, doesn't he! And of course that's without bothering with all those night and day and eye creams that his big sisters slathers on . . .
    Have fun with your Italian-American family -- there'll be great food, I'm sure!
    Tiff: And the toilet out at the end of the yard -- that's what I was so pleased/surprised to recognize in Billy Elliott.
    My brother's going to get a swelled head if he reads these comments, but yes, he's pretty cute, isn't he!
    And thinking of my grandfather's childhood never fails to move me, even so many decades after his passing.
    Pseu: The old photos really are a treasure and I realize that many of the stories are being lost or forgotten -- and these people's strength deserves being retold, I think.
    Lesley: I thought especially of my maternal grandpa, Ulric, when Pater dug out the pond by hand (well, by shovel, but you know what I mean) and had to figure out how to extract an immense rock -- he came up with a system that Grandpa would have approved of, involving wedge and lever and brute strength . . .
    Hil: Baby sis's life is full of challenges at the moment between her recovery and B's illness, but I hope she gets a minute eventually to catch up with all our photos and stories and posts. And I especially hope we can find dates for next year so their family can be with us as well.

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  7. Good one mom.
    Thanks for hosting this weekend and for keeping the family as close as you have.
    Love you

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  8. Every family is a drama and yours is played with a large cast! It is valuable to record these stories, rich and compelling. When I visited my mother in her retirement home, the very old would scold me to ask questions, capture stories: "Do you know why your grandparents moved from there to here? How your parent met?"

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  9. Girlcook: What do you think? Can you see any echoes of any of your grandpa and great-granddads in your uncles' faces?
    Duchesse: You're right -- and we get so busy we forget to pass along what we know, or we assume that we have, forgetting that our kids were so young when we first told them that the stories need to be told again.

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  10. It must be such a treasure, to have this wonderful family and decades of memories. And decades more to come.

    It's stories like yours' that make reading blogs worthwhile.

    And, ack, due to a neck injury that has partially paralyzed my left hand, I have not been able to finish one knitting project. I'm hoping I can make a lace scarf soon, just to get back into the fray. And I still build my stash because hope springs eternal. My husband however, is tired of the stash, and is threatening to take it to my LYS and have them knit a few things. But for me, the process is more fun than the product. I do love the product though.

    Christine

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  11. I love this post with its history, multiple generations, and reflections on family. I see something of the previous generations in your brothers face, which is so strong and filled with character in its own right. Or perhaps I just want to see it there, and in little Nola's face as well.

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  12. Thanks, Christine, and yes, I feel very blessed.
    Sorry to hear that injury keeps you from knitting -- I've had to slow down this past year, with a wrist-elbow-shoulder issue in my right arm -- primarily caused by mousing, I think, but exacerbated by knitting. But NO ONE touches my stash, and I hope your husband stays away from yours ;-)
    Mardel: I know I really want to see the continuity of generations in Nola's face as well -- and the way my family's and Pater's intermingle there along with her dad's family's generations.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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