Saturday, November 25, 2017

A glimpse into family history


So, last week a long-awaited (16 years!) package arrived at the post office for me. It is a painting that was given to my grandparents back in the '50s that my mother inherited and I in turn inherited from her. But it came with a condition: it must first go to my mother's sister for the rest of her lifetime. Who knew she would be so long-lived (95 years)! She died a year ago so the painting finally became mine, but since she lived and died on the west coast her children gave the painting to my brother (also on the west coast) to take care of sending to me. We dithered for a year about how to do that and finally he put it in the mail a few weeks ago. Surface mail being the cheaper option and an extra week or so of waiting after 16 years not being outlandish, that was how it arrived. Unscathed (we worried about it).

I posted a photo of the painting on Facebook and then in the Comments section my brother and I argued about its origins and meaning. It was an interesting argument that among other things involved internet searches of family history and the posting of various photos supporting our differing opinions. Yesterday my brother sent an email message to various family members seeking further information, it will be interesting to see what evolves from that.

Portion of a wartime letter from family friend to my grandmother, 1916 give or take
The painting supposedly represents a visit to my grandparents' summer place by persons unknown (or rather, disputed). I believe it was painted by our great-aunt Evelyn and that she is one of the figures in the painting. My brother thinks it might have been painted by a family friend representing his visit to our grandparents. The family friend was a wartime buddy (World War I) of our grandfather's with a great sense of humour and cartooning ability. My brother's supporting evidence is the photocopy of a letter written by the friend taped to the back of the painting when he received it. My evidence for supposing that Evelyn painted it is a written inscription on the back of the painting gifting the painting from Evelyn to our grandparents, and another painting I possess that she painted (indicating that she was indeed capable of producing this piece of art).

The family mansion, 1896. My great grandfather and possibly Evelyn sitting on the verandah
In the course of our internet research, we found several photos of Evelyn and our grandmother at the home of their grandparents in Toronto (actually, I think it would have been the outskirts of Toronto at that time). Turns out our great-great-grandfather was very wealthy (the founder of a bank that still exists today) and his home was a mansion that might be considered a Canadian version of Downton Abbey. I have a notebook written by Evelyn in which she describes the life at her grandparents in very Downton Abbey-like terms: servants, stables, governesses, and her mother having no idea how to cook or even hold a broom. And as it turns out, I briefly attended the church (as a child) that stood on land that he donated from his large country estate. That church is a prominent church in central Toronto today.
Evelyn is the young woman in a white blouse standing on the steps, my grandmother is the young girl all in white sitting on the grass. 1900
The thing I found most interesting about all this is that the photo of my grandmother at age 7 or 8 looks remarkably like me at that age. I was not fond of this grandmother when she was alive, but she played a big role in my young life. Among other things my father disliked her intensely and my parents very nearly divorced over that. I remember that period of time too well, it was quite frightening for a young child. However the storm passed, my father did come to terms with his mother-in-law, and the marriage survived. I regret that I did not get to know her better, from what I have learned of her life she was an interesting person in interesting times.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

What we remember

Remembrance Day fast approaches, and with it my conflicted feelings about it. Different years I have chosen to honour or not honour it, this year I choose not to. I was asked to go to the local Remembrance Day service and also to usher for the Soldiers of Song performance (in honour of Remembrance Day). I will not go to the service but I will usher for the performance, mostly out of wanting to remain in good standing as an usher.

I get that Remembrance Day is supposed to honour the fallen soldiers of all our wars, from World War I on. I get that the country wants to remember them as heroes and to portray modern day soldiers as heroes too. I won't argue the point, always good to honour people who represent ideal virtues (courage, loyalty, sense of duty, etc.) However, honouring soldiers is so intertwined with honouring the fighting of wars that I just can't do it.

The men who enlisted for the armies of World War I were sold a bill of goods. That war was all about international politics, nothing more. Not freedom or democracy or protecting the defenceless, just politics. Many soldiers ended up living under atrocious circumstances and dying ignominiously. Those that could not stomach it were condemned as deserters and cowards, the penalty for which was summary execution. The women back home (in European countries at any rate) protested and marched in the streets and the news of that was suppressed so soldiers on the front lines wouldn't know about it. Desertion and cowardice were serious problems. And then of course there was the spanish 'flu.

By the time of World War II, aviation had progressed to the point that bombing entire cities from the air was possible and considered a legitimate form of warfare. Non-combatants were now fair game, in the hopes of convincing their governments to surrender. Atrocity piled on atrocity. Again soldiers were sold a bill of goods, although perhaps not quite as blatantly as for the first world war. There was Hitler after all (one can argue that he was the direct product of World War I but no matter). No one cared about genocide or holocaust until after the fact. The Canadian government had blood on its hands for its policy of refusing safe haven for Jewish refugees, and for its treatment of Japanese Canadian citizens.

It got worse. The Korean War resulted in the partitioning of Korea. The war in Vietnam was just a horror show, millions killed and the landscape destroyed. Each time soldiers enlisted for patriotic reasons fabricated by their governments. Canada did not join the war in Iraq, but in a pact with the devil the Canadian government agreed to pick up the slack in Afghanistan so American soldiers there could be reposted to Iraq. Rape and pillage have always been considered a legitimate compensation for victorious soldiers, only very recently have we thought twice about that. And good luck unravelling the complexities (and atrocities) of Syria, or Palestine, or the various wars in Africa.

Ostensibly wars are fought to protect freedom and democracy and make the world safe for peace. It hasn't happened. It is ludicrous to say that waging this war will end war for all time, or at the very least prevent the next war, and yet that is the justification. Buffy Sainte-Marie (who was in Wolfville the past few days) got it right in 'The Universal Soldier'.

It is sickening. If there were a day to remember the awfulness of war and to promote peace I think I could buy into it. Or what about honouring the non-combatant war dead (as they do in the Netherlands)? They die and are made homeless in far greater numbers than soldiers. Or how about the families of soldiers who must cope with the behavioural fallout of emotionally damaged veterans? Never mind the victims of rape and pillage.

I recently read the poem 'In Flanders Fields' on Facebook, the anthem for Remembrance Day. Ostensibly the poem honours the war dead, but here is the last stanza:

"Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."

In other words, don't let the war stop, or you will be rendering all those soldiers' deaths meaningless. I say, those deaths are already meaningless, that is the real tragedy, and exhorting us to continue the war is just the most awful advice I have ever heard.

Postscript: I wrote this to avoid doing my writing class homework and also because it is a bleak November day threatening snow. In a bleak mood.