Friday, 18 September 2020

View From the Crow's Nest: I listen to mom

 In my last blog, I wrote about nostalgia. This week, I’m in the throes of it.

I’ve been translating my mom’s letters which she wrote to her family in Holland when they first arrived in Canada in October, 1949. My grandfather saved these letters and returned them to us years later. What a blessing!

I am using these letters to write some family history, as well as telling my own story. Even though I have few memories of the three years we lived in our first home in Canada, I have heard and read the stories so often that they feel real to me.

This is the second letter they wrote to Holland, describing how they left the ship and had to make their way through New York to Grand Central Station to catch the train to Canada.

In the third letter she writes, I am 16 months old, and there’s a little sister on the way. We have moved into a drafty old farm house outside Smithville in Ontario. Dad is the hired man for a farmer who has his own dairy. They have only a little money, for sure not enough to buy a car. Their whole family is in Holland, so there’s no loving community to support them, no happy visits on special occasions. Dad’s income is $20 a month, 2 quarts of milk a day, the house in which they live, and as much firewood as they need. Electricity is unreliable, since it is on a line from the barn and dairy which gets first dibs, so brownouts happen often. No TV, radio, or phone. No refrigerator. No cabinets or counter in the kitchen. There are two bedrooms, but one is so cold that in wintertime ice forms on the walls and mold grows there as well,so we end up living in three rooms: the kitchen, the living room, and the bedroom, all heated by a wood stove in the kitchen. 


The house, probably built in the 1800s, was very drafty.

I try to picture it – a young family with only rudimentary language skills in English, living in the boonies without a vehicle or communication devices and few amenities. It’s a picture of isolation, economic hardship, loneliness, lack of freedom to do what they'd like, community experienced only at a distance.

Does this sound familiar? This week, I once again read and heard in the news about the deprivations imposed on us as a society by the pandemic – isolation, economic hardship, loneliness, lack of freedom to do what we want, community experienced only at a distance. I confess, I whine about this too. And yet, Mom and dad had been through something like this 70 years ago. How did they handle it?

The first clue, which is a phrase I find in more than one of her letters, are the words, "God has directed our paths, and we trust in this." Mom and dad were looking at the big picture, the long story. Their strong faith helped them survive many disappointments and difficulties. It's something I need to remember when I think this pandemic is NEVER going to end. We are living in a small moment in time; this is not the whole story. That change in perspective makes all the difference. Another clue is that Mom wrote letters, faithfully, every week, to her family for many, many years. So many of her letters begin with these words: “It’s Sunday afternoon, and I have a few minutes of peace to begin a letter to you..” and on the heels of that, her expressed thankfulness for the family letters that we received every week. Immigrants were isolated, but letters were a life-line. In it, they could tell the news, good and bad; they could express their worries and anxieties; they could even tell their family about the loneliness they experienced. Mom wrote, “When I got your letter this week with all the news, I confess I really wished I could be there with you for a little while; I felt sad. But then after a while, I recalled all that we have here, and the new life that lies ahead of us.”

It’s all about communication. In our day and age, we have so many lines of communication open to us, with email and social media, telephones and newsletters, even socially distanced coffees on the patio with friends and family. We have so many opportunities to share our stories, our joys and sorrows, to reach out to those who are lonely. I read again those lines of mom: “I felt sad. But then after a while, I recalled all that we have here, and the new life that lies ahead of us.”

The second clue is that I don’t read much complaining about the things Mom did not have. Instead, I read things like this: “There are a lot of apples laying under the tree. I picked them up and made applesauce. Otherwise, they’d just go to waste.” 

“Mrs. P (the minister’s wife) gave me a man’s jacket made of tweed. I took it apart and made a coat and hat for Jelleke (that’s me!). It will keep her warm this winter.” 

this is the little coat mom made for me.


And this, in the springtime: “For the first time in my life, I planted a garden! It will be so good to eat the fresh vegetables, like spinach, potatoes and beans, that we grow ourselves.” And this: “The neighbours slaughtered a pig, and were going to throw out the head and the trotters. Imagine that! We got a pail full of those cuts they didn’t want, and we will make head cheese...”

So yes, now I’m in the throes of nostalgia and walking in my mom’s footsteps. It’s one way to cope with the pandemic. My children and grandchildren don’t need warm winter clothing, but they do need masks, and I am their production line.

All these beautiful ladies were off to school this week, suitably dressed!

This morning, I brought out the canning kettle and made applesauce, using some of the apples that had fallen on the ground. I took the garlic, onions, zucchini and tomatoes that our garden produced and made tomato sauce. 

The ladle and perhaps the funnel, too, were my mom's.

I draw the line at head cheese...but then again, I don’t know of anyone slaughtering a pig!

So, Mom, it’s been so good hanging out with you today, you, looking over my shoulder and reminding me of the important things. I listened, Mom. You’ve taught me well. I recall all that we have here, and all that lies ahead of us, and I am thankful. 

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

View from the Crow's Nest: I take a walk down memory lane.

My mind has been wandering lately, sorting through memories of simpler times.

As the news keeps telling us, “we’ve never been through anything like this before.” It’s a perfect storm of pandemic fears, political squawking, racial unrest, and climate-change emergencies... enough, enough, we cry, our hands held out as a shield.

We want to go back to simpler times.

And so, in our imaginations, we go back. We ask each other, “Remember when...?” and we are off and running down the road called nostalgia, which means, literally, nostos (from the Gk. return home) and algos (pain) – a painful longing to return home – to better times.

Some of it is nostalgia for things we took for granted just 6 months ago: Remember when you could go grocery shopping without a mask? Remember when the libraries were wide open? Remember when you could take a holiday trip that was limited only by the time and money you had? Remember when you could hug a friend?

And some of it may be nostalgia for a time when we were children and could view the world as a great place to explore instead of a source of anxiety. Remember when you hopped on your bike and rode through the neighbourhood alone without worrying about stranger-danger? 


Remember swinging back and forth over the water on an old tire at the town swimming hole? 

Or our nostalgia may lead us back to times when our children were younger.


or our parents were still alive


or we lived in a different home or town. Ah, yes, nostalgia. And how does that make you feel, as you lean back into those memories? Good or bad?

Nostalgia used to be considered a mental disease – it was a topic of serious medical study. People were placed in asylums, and even died of it. In retrospect, academics now believe nostalgia was misdiagnosed: it was a form of PTSD, which affected mostly people forcibly displaced from their homes – soldiers, housemaids, refugees, for instance. The cure was simple: send the sufferers home again. But often that was not possible, just as it is not possible for us to go back to the way it used to be.

These days, nostalgia is again the subject of serious study. “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety,” reports the New York Times. “It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories.”

This is because when we travel back in imagination to simpler times, or memorable events shared with others, we end up with a stronger feeling of belonging. We remember cherished experiences, and that reminds us our lives have continuity and meaning. 

In this photo, for instance, I am sitting in the middle of a gathering of four of mom's siblings and spouses at the occasion of their 50th anniversary. We belonged to each other. We still do, even if five of them are no longer with us. I am so grateful for this memory.

The research shows that even if subjects were depressed and sad before they indulged in nostalgia, they felt more connected, happier, and optimistic after they’d spent some time sorting through memories. We begin to have a different perspective on the troubles we are going through. We remember that life has not always been like this, and it won’t always be like this. We have hope that we can return to better times. To quote Charlie Chaplin – the “Little Tramp” – who was perpetually down on his luck: “Nothing is permanent in this wicked world, not even our troubles.”

Nostalgia: a prescription for sadness, loneliness and anxiety in these tough days. Take a dose several times a week, say the experts, and you will feel better! You can even play it forward by creating good memories today that will provide raw materials for nostalgia in the future. Building “nostalgia-to-be memories”, it’s called.

In this time of pandemic, I’ve noticed more of that going on. I see parents taking evening walks with their children, and families sitting at the beach together. Teenagers are having a great time jumping off rocks at the local swimming hole or tubing down the river. They are building memories. I see a local senior’s group spaced out in the shade of a tree at a local park, sipping from their thermoses while sharing news, gossip, and yes, probably memories of better times. Early this morning, out on my walk, I saw grandparents playing at the playground with a whole passel of grandchildren, including one toddler still in his sleeper, wearing rubber boots. There's always one in the crowd who doesn't want to get dressed. It called up some nostalgic memories for me, and yes, it felt good!

We  love this photo, which was recreated several times over the years, only with more clothes on the young fellow in the green chair. And since then, two more grandies take part in the traditional photo.

 How about you? Do you have some nostalgic memories that could make your day?