Tag Archives: grandmothers and granddaughters

Needle and thread: the need to connect

honestMy grandmother’s gloves are coming to me in the mail. They’ve spent some time at Honest Ed’s, “the world’s first true bargain store,” a fixture in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood since 1948. The shop seems a strange place for the elegant gloves, but they were part of a Koffler Gallery exhibit called “Honest Threads” by Toronto artist Iris Häussler. Participants donated an item of clothing that had special meaning for them, along with a passage explaining the item’s personal history, and a photograph showing the chosen piece. Visitors could then borrow and wear another’s garments, literally stepping inside someone else’s experience.

It seems to me that these kinds of shared stories are especially popular right now. On our website for The Occupied Garden, we invite readers to send anecdotes and photos of their own family’s war experiences, and a year after the book has been out, they still keep coming in. Last year, my husband Jeff Winch, a visual artist, did a video installation documenting the high and low points of the lives of some thirty people. Viewers were moved to tears by some of those stories, which lasted no more than a few minutes each. There are countless other examples, such as the Pier 21 site, where immigrants from various eras and homelands post stories of their arrival in Canada; or the wonderful Pocket Stories blog, which states “the doors of The Gallery are opened each time an object is removed from a personal space such as a pocket, a wallet, or a handbag and a story is revealed.”

Here’s what I wrote about my grandmother for “Honest Threads”:

doris-and-bill

These are my grandmother’s gloves, worn on her wedding day, September 22, 1934. Her name was Doris Lillian Deverill and she was born in London, England. Eighteen months later, her father stood talking in the kitchen with his foot on a chair, his elbow on his knee, when suddenly he fell to the floor, dead at 42. Five years later, with WW1 raging, Doris’s mother died of cancer, and Doris wore a black poplin dress and a white felt hat with a ribbon to the funeral. By then she was a student at Charles Dickens School, a detail I love because I’m a writer. She was taken in by Bebbie, a family friend, and they sometimes stood on the balcony together and watched the flaming Zeppelins fall from the sky. Eventually Bebbie brought Doris to Canada, leaving her older brothers and sister behind. How must it have felt, at 9, to cross the ocean and leave everything she knew? Bebbie had a weak heart, and soon working became impossible. The only option was for Doris to leave school – a smart, 14-year-old girl who loved learning – and go to work at Kellogg’s, the cereal factory. She was devastated by the loss of possibility, but after a few years her life looked brighter – she fell in love with a young university student named Fred, and hoped to marry him. But Fred had a brain tumour, and died – and then Bebbie died one evening at dinner, collapsing, grabbing her chest. It’s hard to believe that my grandmother could experience so much tragedy in a mere twenty years – and harder still to cram so much tragedy into a single paragraph about gloves. So I’ll end with this, the point at which my grandmother’s life took a beautiful, ordinary turn: at Kellogg’s, Bill, a cheerful young man working the bran dryer, had been watching Doris for some time. It’s him you see in the picture beside her. Besotted – absolutely smitten. They were married for more than sixty years, and as a kind of evidence, there exists a scrapbook of Valentine’s cards from him to her, each one signed with a “?”, though of course the sender’s identity was no mystery. I think a lack of mystery can actually be the most wonderful thing. When Doris died (an old lady by then), rheumy-eyed Bill would often smile and shake his head, thinking of her. “She was one heck of a lady. I miss my Dory.” He died not long after, happy to go, believing they’d be reunited. These gloves make me think of both of them – one hand holding another.

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Strength, tenacity, and the stranger you know

img-behind-coreng1Last night we did a talk about The Occupied Garden. Our middle sister, Heidi, came along with us. A lot of people say she looks strikingly like Oma in this particular picture.

Had she lived, Oma would have celebrated her 10oth birthday in January, so it’s interesting to see how some sense of her stays alive through this book, but also through the simple fact of a granddaughter looking like her grandmother.

Heidi told me a story just the other day, of an encounter she’d had with a woman who looked so much like Oma that she felt compelled to say something. And when she spoke to the woman, she discovered that the woman was not only Dutch, but had come to Canada in the 1950s, as Oma had. “Just Dutch genes working their magic,” H wrote. I love those moments of familiarity with strangers — sometimes it’s less obvious what the connection is, but you feel it in your bones. As if you know the person.

I’m continually amazed by the stories I hear about women of Oma’s generation. As a child, I had known my grandmother as a reserved, strictly religious woman with a tight bun, big nose, and tube-like polyester dresses. I was astonished to find she had the strength, tenacity, and courage I can only dream of. And hers is only one story.

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Oma in Canada, 1951

A while ago I got an email from a man who said that his mother had read our book and wanted to talk to us. “She doesn’t have email,” he said, “because she’s 93. But could you call her?” The conversation we had was lovely. She told me she had lived in Amsterdam during the war, and that she’d given birth to the son who’d written to me by the light of one candle late in the hunger winter. “It’s amazing we both survived,” she said, and I told her how I just couldn’t imagine what that must have been like – that as easy as my life is, comparatively speaking, I was a little paralyzed by motherhood for that first bit. I could hear her shrugging.

“You just do what you need to do,” she said. “You just keep on.” She told me that during the war she had seen people dragged from their houses, crying and screaming. “That’s a sight I won’t ever forget,” she said.

And it struck me that these are the reasons we need to tell stories of all kinds: to put the world in perspective for each other.

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