Jour­ney Into the Past

Dis­cov­er­ing an old pho­to­graph trig­gers a flood of mem­o­ries for one con­trib­u­tor.

More of Our Canada - - Contents - by Mar­cia Forsyth, Cal­gary

Ire­cently came across my child­hood jew­ellery box and among the trea­sures in­side was a small photo of my par­ents taken on their wed­ding day, April 16, 1960. They are flanked by both sets of their par­ents (my grand­par­ents) and, oh my, they all look grand! Those were the days when ladies wore hats and gloves to events, even an af­ter­noon wed­ding. As I gazed at the six of them look­ing much younger than I had ever known them, I re­al­ized that they each held a spe­cial place in my heart. Only my mom is still with me but some­how they all are, be­cause I re­mem­ber how they loved me and how I still love them.

The next thing that struck me about the photo was their ages. My mom was 21 when she got mar­ried and her mother, my “amma” (Ice­landic for grandma) must have been my age now. How could this be? How could I be as old as my amma was on my par­ents’ wed­ding day?

GRANNY & GRANDPA

As these ques­tions ran through my mind, I be­gan to be flooded with mem­o­ries of my child­hood. I re­mem­bered my granny ( my dad’s mom) put­ting me and my brother down for a nap and sing- ing Ice­landic psalms over us, lib­er­ally in­ter­spersed with her favourite song ” Frog­gie Went A-courtin’.” I felt so safe that I never once ques­tioned her choice of songs, I just fell asleep.

I also re­mem­bered my grandpa (my dad’s fa­ther) let­ting me sit on the back of his arm­chair and comb his hair, which he didn’t have much of, and put lit­tle bar­rettes, bows and braids in it. What pa­tience he had. And how I en­joyed it. And him. Then we’d play check­ers.

AMMA & AFI

I also have many mem­o­ries of spend­ing time at my amma and afi’s small house on the farm. That house was about 500 square feet with few mod­ern con­ve­niences, but it could hold so many peo­ple. Amma could feed 20 hun­gry fam­ily mem­bers a com­plete tur­key din­ner, or en­ter­tain neigh­bours for cof­fee at any time of the day, but es­pe­cially 10 a. m. and 3 p. m.— cof­fee time. Amma al­ways had some­thing baked, usu­ally squares or cook­ies, to serve these reg­u­lar guests. Of­ten they would gather around the kitchen ta­ble and speak Ice­landic so we kids couldn’t un­der­stand what they were gos­sip­ing about. Af­ter years of prac­tice, there were a few words we could pick out. For in­stance, we knew the swear words be­cause they were spo­ken in ei­ther a ve­he­ment or very hushed way that no other words were. Those made us laugh. And we un­der­stood the word babysit­ter, be­cause that meant they were go­ing out to have fun with­out us and we would have none of it!

Re­cently, I re­mem­bered a few of the terms of en­dear­ment they used, es­pe­cially on us chil­dren, and I tried a cou­ple out on two of my Ice­landic friends. They ex­claimed and laughed, but I think I saw a tear in one’s eye. I get it. Couldn’t we all stand to have some­one call us their el­skan min (my sweet­heart or dar­ling) right about now?

That lit­tle house on the farm didn’t even have drink­ing water on the prop­erty. It was a treat to go on an out­ing with Afi to a neigh­bour­ing farm sev­eral miles away to get a big pail of drink­ing water with which to fill the lit­tle pail on the counter so we could use the dip­per to have a drink. Some­times we’d get in­vited in for cof­fee and a treat while we were there. It was also a treat to get in­vited out to the barn to see the sheep shorn or, even bet­ter, to bot­tle feed the baby lambs. That only hap­pened once, but it was won­der­ful!

That barn seemed huge and empty when there were no more an­i­mals in it. I’d sneak over to the door­way and peer in to try and see some ves­tige of the lives that had once been there. I’d also creep in to the smaller out­build­ings and just stand look­ing at the old un­used tools and jars of parts, while the sun­light shone in through the cracked win­dows, mak­ing the dust in the air swirl and dance be­fore my eyes. I won­dered who had used those tools, what for and how long ago. What had life been like back then?

FAM­ILY LIFE

More mem­o­ries be­gan to flood through me, such as when Lawrence Welk was on TV and the liv­ing room fur­ni­ture would be moved back against the walls so the adults could ball­room dance. It was mag­i­cal! They were clearly en­joy­ing them­selves and we were thrilled to watch them. Some­times they tried to teach us some steps. That was fun, too.

I also re­mem­ber that whether at home or vis­it­ing rel­a­tives, we gar­dened. We pulled weeds, har­vested car­rots, shelled peas, husked corn and dug pota­toes. I was sur­prised to learn that my cousin, who is only six years younger than I am, had never gar­dened in her life and her kids thought pota­toes and car­rots came from the store, not the ground. My mom promptly ed­u­cated those kids by let­ting them pull car­rots and pota­toes from her gar­den and wash them in the work sink. They had a ball! And she got her veg­eta­bles in and clean. Smart lady.

Go­ing to dances at the civic cen­tre is an­other won­der­ful mem­ory. It was about fun and the joy of learn­ing to ball­room dance like the grown-ups. They were so smooth, it looked like they were float­ing on air. In those days, I’d dance with my brother and cousins— wait­ing for a boy to ask me to dance only came later, in ju­nior high.

Those were sim­pler times in many ways. I’m sure there were prob­lems that I was un­aware of or don’t re­mem­ber, but I en­joy the feel­ing of home I get when I al­low my­self to be swept away by the mem­o­ries.

GO­ING HOME

Last sum­mer, I drove alone through that area of Saskatchewan, and re­al­ized that the scenery was very fa­mil­iar even though it had been decades since I had last been there. I could al­most hear the voices of fam­ily mem­bers and the names of their friends and neigh­bours from so long ago. And then I heard it. The train! I was sur­prised at my re­ac­tion to it. Sud­denly, I was that lit­tle girl run­ning out the back door of Amma and Afi’s house, across the yard and through the trees to stand in the gar­den and wave at the en­gi­neer and con­duc­tor as they went by. Oh the joy of hav­ing them wave back! Or bet­ter yet, blow the horn—oh the in­ten­sity of that mem­ory.

I be­gan to won­der what it must have been like for my great- grand­par­ents as im­mi­grants to this for­eign and frigid land. How they man­aged to live and work and raise their fam­i­lies here. No won­der they tried to pre­serve their cul­ture by speak­ing their na­tive lan­guage. No won­der we cel­e­brate Christ­mas even now with Vi­narterta and Pon­nukokur ( prune cake and crêpes). No won­der they hud­dled to­gether in small towns across Saskatchewan. They needed one an­other and the fa­mil­iar­ity of their cus­toms.

PROUD LEGACY

Those com­mu­ni­ties have grown and changed but we de­scen­dants of those set­tlers still iden­tify with them. We still in­tro­duce our­selves as Ice­landers and get to­gether in clubs across the con­ti­nent to share our roots and our sto­ries with pride. In fact, my own 25- year- old daugh­ter will visit Ice­land on an ex­change pro­gram that prom­ises to try to con­nect her with dis­tant rel­a­tives and her an­ces­tors’ pasts. What would those im­mi­grants think of that? I think they’d be proud that we still re­mem­ber and want to re­visit the land of our fore­fa­thers. I think they’d smile at how a big- city kid longs to visit the land that they grew up in. I think they’d laugh at her leav­ing this land of plenty to go to the land they were forced to leave be­cause of a lack of op­por­tu­nity.

I think above all they’d be proud of the way we’ve car­ried on in their foot­steps and pi­o­neered our own lands and raised our own fam­i­lies, all while re­mem­ber­ing them and their sacrifices. ■

Photo of Mar­cia’s par­ents on their wed­ding day, flanked by both sets of her grand­par­ents.

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