Toronto Star

Calling all readers hailing from the Rock

- Joe Fiorito

Who am I?

The question is one of those latenight interrogat­ions of the self, arising from the darkness when we cannot sleep; some of us are also haunted in the daylight by the absence of an answer.

On the surface, we are the product of those who came before, just as we are a product of our own gifts, unwrapped in space and time. But can we really know the truth of those who came before?

That is how I came to meet Carolyn Muir Helfenstei­n in the Great Hall at Union Station on a recent afternoon; she was passing through, and she had questions, and she wanted to talk.

Carolyn Muir Helfenstei­n was born in Newfoundla­nd. She has no idea why her parents left the island when they did, in 1944. Her father was a lawyer; he died a couple of years after the family arrived in Sarnia.

Carolyn left school early and became a teacher.

Later in life she married a farmer and they raised dairy cattle. Still later, she and her husband bought a local newspaper, the Teeswater News, and she became an inkstained wretch.

She still reads the papers, and she saw a piece of mine recently in which I mentioned children and poverty and how little we’ve done to solve the problem in the last hundred years. She frowned. She has always felt drawn to Newfoundla­nd, where she was born, but her knowledge of the place is defined more by what she does not know than what she knows. She knows this:

Her mother was Mrs. Muir. And during the Depression, in the days of bleak starvation prior to Confederat­ion, Newfoundla­nd was run by a Commission. Carolyn’s mother, Mrs. Muir, was smart and university educated and so she was put in charge of the dole office. Welfare, to you. Carolyn rarely heard her mother speak of those starving days in Newfoundla­nd, and Mrs. Muir never talked about her work.

The strange thing is that, after she left the island, Mrs. Muir never went back to Newfoundla­nd for a visit, not even for the funeral of her father. Hmm. Carolyn grew up with no real connection to her past; there were no letters from aunts or uncles, nor does she remember any phone calls to or from relatives. But even though she is a Sarnia girl, she felt the island’s tug.

She ended up taking a course whose self-designed curriculum was the search for who she was; University of Waterloo, three years. Carolyn wrote a novel based on some of her research.

Eventually, she turned up some documents about her mother, and even a play in which her mother was a featured, and a much-reviled, character.

From the documents, she learned that while her mother was in charge of the dole, there had been riots — people wanted more coal, more food, more clothing — and Mrs. Muir was the focus of the riots; they called her a “professor in the science of starvation.” Mrs. Muir eventually resigned. In a document produced years later by the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundla­nd, Mrs. Muir is referred to as “this evil woman.” As for the play, it is a painful slander. Was that why her mother left? Was that why she never returned?

Carolyn was so shocked by what she read that she could not cry.

“How dare they say that about my mother?” The only thing she really knows for sure about those old dole days is that her mother organized the Boy Scouts to collect donations in St. John’s for distributi­on to the outports, and that she was awarded a medal by Lord Baden-Powell for her efforts. Carolyn still has that medal. Her reaction when she discovered the vilificati­on of her mother? She is both hurt and philosophi­cal: “If she was really bad, I’d have known.”

I think that Mrs. Muir was stuck with a dilemma — 15 mouths to feed, and only food for five.

But Carolyn wants to know more about her mother and those days — not hearsay, not gossip — and certainly not fiction taken up over time as fact.

Can you help? Joe Fiorito appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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