Come From Away

Nfld Wash Day Two - AMc

Newfoundland Wash Day

When 911 happened, 38 airplanes were diverted to Gander Airport in Newfoundland.   The island of Newfoundland is the most easterly province in Canada and generally the poorest, with high unemployment and a mostly rural lifestyle, but Newfoundlanders are also known for their friendliness and down home hospitality and the small community of Gander took in 6500 stranded passengers, supplying meals, beds and entertainment for five days and spawning lifelong friendships in some cases.  The musical “Come From Away”, which debuted on Broadway last year and is currently playing in Toronto, is based on this true event.   The phrase Come From Away, is east coast slang for the fact that you are from someplace else, somewhere other than here.   

       It is human nature to want to help those in need, especially true if those in distress have a face and a name, but what if they come in the tens of  thousands, and we had to help them indefinitely?   Would we be quite as accommodating?  Or what if they were a boat full of 500 Sri Lankan refugees, as happened on the west coast of British Columbia in 2010, people from a different country and language and background?   Ah, it’s getting complicated.     

A overloaded raft filled with refugees sinks and a dead toddler washes up on the beaches of the Mediterranean – tragic.   Angela Merkel expresses sympathy for the families.   Gangs of young men board trains in Germany and swarm European borders, not so tragic – maybe even scary, in the way that  large unpredictable crowds can be.   Now, it’s even more complicated.   

They are all asylum-seekers, but are they “refugees” fleeing conflict and death in a war torn country, or “economic migrants” seeking a better, more prosperous life?   Should people who follow the rules, fill out the required paperwork and wait their turn, be treated differently from those who just show up?    

As a writer with an interest in history and genealogy I have been mulling over these questions lately, because immigration is a hot issue today.   There’s a lot of anger and resentment.   Many people are in search of a better life, whether it is planned immigration, like my Dutch grandparents (see Dutch Inheritance), or fleeing a crisis, like my Irish ancestors (see Irish Roots), during the potato famine when a third of Ireland’s population starved to death.   But it’s also a much more complicated issue. 

When my Irish and Dutch ancestors came here, the country welcomed immigrants – they were needed to settle the wide open spaces.  The immigrants weren’t dependent on the government to support them, because there was no support system, or very little – unless you count that one pound note they received from the government for water transport to their new home.   They lost three members of their party of twenty on the way over, and jumped ship while it was lined up waiting to dock at the quarantine station in the St. Lawrence River, thus arriving destitute but nevertheless alive, although they lost one fifteen year old son in the bush and never found him.   I’m not sure how they traveled from Quebec to Toronto, where they were issued the loan, but as Quebec was swamped with the Irish, as were major US cities like Boston and New York, perhaps there were charities to give them a meal and help them disperse.    Certainly they were penniless, as the record, for the three brothers and their families, referred to them as indigent emigrants – poor and needy.   To put this cost of Great Lakes water transport into perspective, the ship fare from Ireland was 3 pounds per person to Canada, and 5 pounds to the US.    In many cases the landlords paid for the passage, eviction being an established practice.  National Archive Record -

In 1846 much of Canada was forested, and it must have been a daunting task to clear the land of all those trees to be able to plant a small crop.  They arrived in late October and wouldn’t have survived the first winter if the Indians hadn’t helped them build some kind of hut to provide shelter from the snow. 

First Homestead - AMc - 2017

First Homestead 1846

 Their first years were so bad that they gladly would have returned to Ireland, but slowly they started to prosper.  I can follow their prosperity through the agricultural census reports, so many acres farmed, bushels of wheat, livestock etc.    

My mother’s Dutch parents planned their immigration in 1922.   By then, immigrants had to pass a pre-medical and be sponsored by a Canadian farmer for a year.  Harvesting sugar beets in the hot sun was hard work – which they continued to do even after the year was over, until my grandfather found carpentry work building houses, barely surviving during the lean years of the Depression.   Both groups eventually adjusted and assimilated into society and their descendants considered themselves Canadian first. 

Canada is a lucky country in that we tend to have a fair degree of cultural tolerance – yes people can retain their culture here, but they are also expected to become Canadian.   But we have our limits too.  Unfortunately, demands to accommodate customs and episodes of cultural extremism tend to breed intolerance and distrust of all immigrants.   There’s a reason why America was called a melting pot – if people don’t wish to adapt and aren’t willing to abide by the laws of their new society, then perhaps they would be better not to come.   Respect is a two way street – if a country is kind enough to welcome someone in, they should be respectful of the country’s customs too.      

Being from a rural area as white as Wonder bread, I was in university in Toronto in the late 70’s, before I met anyone of a different race or color.  Now I work with so many different nationalities I don’t even think about it, because they are all just Canadians.   A few years ago during a playoff game I saw a TV clip of a group of fans cheering their hometown team in a sports bar in downtown Toronto, truly a multi-cultural city now, and there wasn’t a white Caucasian face among them.   Mind you, they were most likely first generation descendants who grew up on hockey and baseball, but certainly the face of the nation is changing.  (If you come here, you must love hockey – it is the law!)    

A co-worker of mine went through two years of paperwork and red tape to immigrate from an eastern European country.   Neither she nor her husband could work here in their respected careers (engineering, translator), but they came anyway.   They wanted a better life for their children.   They started with modest jobs and a modest home, then got better jobs and a better home.  Another colleague of mine was visiting her sister after graduation and got stranded here when the Croatian war broke out and the borders were closed back home.   She taught herself English and obtained her Canadian license.   Planned, not planned – both of them became excellent Canadian citizens, hard working, educated, the kind of people any country would want. 

But are all educational degrees the same?  Skills, knowledge, ethics?  If a person comes from a country where fraud and corruption is rampant, then they might think those practices are acceptable here?   They’re not.  There has been some talk of making an ethics test a requirement for immigration.  But just how do you go about that?  It’s about as impractical as a test for terrorists.   I’ve often wondered why we letting so many international grads into the country when our own Canadian grads can’t get jobs.  It seems unfair.  Ordinary citizens may find their tolerance slipping away every time they read something negative in the newspaper or experience something themselves, because so many of our opinions are formed by our personal experiences. 

When our prime minister (polite, nice hair but politically inexperienced, champion of women’s rights until one disagreed with him), proudly but  naively proclaimed that Canada welcomes immigrants, he also opened the floodgates to over 40,000 illegal immigrants walking across the Canadian-US border at unofficial entry points, most fleeing possible US deportation.   What he actually meant was applying for it the usual way.   But can the steady stream of people wheeling their over-sized suitcases across the fields near the Quebec and western borders be considered “refugees” fleeing a war torn country, or are they “economic migrants”?   The social services system in the big cities like Montreal and Toronto have run out of places to put them – they are housing them in hotels and calling on federal reimbursement for the millions spent accommodating them, as Ontario is already in a major-debt crisis, (346 billion and climbing, similar to California and Greece).   The refugee claimants are entitled to free social assistance, education and medical care while awaiting their hearing before the Immigration Board, for up to one year but often longer, as there aren’t enough immigration officers to process them all.   They are also allowed to apply for a temporary work permit after the claim is initiated but many have children to look after and who would hire them temporarily?   And just how do you sort out which ones might be ‘undesirables” – perhaps criminals or drug dealers back home.   It must be a difficult process doing background checks, if they can be done at all.   Recently, in an effort to stem the tide, the government enacted legislation to try and deter the “asylum-shoppers” – if they have already claimed asylum in the US then they will be deported back to await a hearing there.      

Years ago, borders between the nations were more fluid.  People moved to where there was work and stayed there.   Most of my grandfather’s siblings went to the US.    In 1913, the big Detroit car factories (GM and Ford) were just starting their production lines and needed workers, so they advertised $5/day, enticing many Canadians to move across the river.  But by the 1960’s, I remember my great Aunt Bea hesitating about visiting the farm in her old age, as she did not have any papers to show the border officer.   Another of my grandfather’s siblings went to Seattle to work in the logging industry in the 1920’s.   When he couldn’t get work the first year, the whole family picked apples.   Now, nobody wants to do that kind of manual labor anymore, so our fruit and vegetable farmers must hire Mexican or Jamaican seasonal workers through a government sponsored program.   My ancestors didn’t settle in the big city, they spread out to the rural areas where land was cheap and work available and settlers needed. 

Both my Irish and Dutch ancestors faced some prejudice as foreigners.  The Irish were universally hated, there were so many of them taking away all the jobs, but now 1/4 of North Americans can claim some Irish descent and no one thinks anything of it.   My mother remembers the teachers not liking the Dutch and foreign kids as the parents couldn’t speak English, one of the reasons most of the new immigrants prefer to stay in the big overcrowded cities.  Perhaps they feel more comfortable with their own kind, but often it is the opposite of what they might expect.   The people in the smaller towns may be more welcoming and the churches who were sponsoring the Syrian refugees and had raised enough money for a year to qualify, were delighted to have a family to help out.      

While Canada did take in it’s share of Syrian refugees, many are still unemployed.   It’s hard to find work when they can’t speak English or their English is poor.  The schoolkids always do better at picking it up.   For some their sponsorship money has run out and others have expressed the wish to return to their own country once things settle down – the winters here are too cold.   (Yes, Canada is a great country, except for the snow and the winters that drag on for six months and the high taxes).   One poor Syrian family lost all seven of their kids in a tragic house fire in Nova Scotia – such beautiful children all perished.   They may have wanted the promise of a better life, but sometimes that promise isn’t fulfilled.   

If a person is destitute they are glad of a safe haven anywhere, but is their new life what they expected?  (My Dutch ancestors stepped off the train in Niagara Falls into a foot of snow, and the Irish crew had heard Canada was a temperate climate requiring nothing more than a straw hat!)   Perhaps their lives are better overall, but are there regrets?   I wonder about the caravans coming over the southern US – Mexican border – if they don’t speak English do they even know what they are facing, or are they just fleeing from a situation which is even worse?   Are they aware they might be separated from their children (like my ancestors losing one son in the bush and never finding him).    Or is the hope and promise of a better life for their children worth the chance?     

In today’s era of entitlement, I have been reminded lately of the J.F. Kennedy quote “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”   While each individual case may be different, the goal is the same for everyone – hopefully each immigrant will become a hard working, law abiding, contributing and tax-paying citizen of their new country. 

Taxes – those necessary evils that help support our enviable social programs, and yes the taxes here (in our cradle to grave social state) can be as high as the snow.    But people can’t pay taxes if they’re here illegally under the radar.   If I wanted to move to Provence permanently as I hear the sun shines there 300 days of the year – and I’m there illegally and don’t pay taxes, eventually I would be sent right back to snowy Canada.  And if I insisted on butter tarts from le patisserie instead of macrons I would be deported tout suite!   

In addition to humanitarian concerns and human rights, each country also has the right to decide their own fate, to have a system in place which is fair and reasonable and not so costly that it deters the country from letting anyone in at all.   Which is what might happen if this heated issue continues to build steam.  The door will be closed to everyone.  You can already see individual countries everywhere (Australia for example where immigrant boats are diverted to an island offshore), tightening up their immigration policies.           

A recent UN survey states there are 227 million migrants in the world, people who have left their countries in search of work, to join their families or fleeing conflict.  There are probably another billion or two who would like the opportunity to leave.   47 million migrants said they would most like to move to Canada, a nation of just 37 million.  (I’m not sure how they arrived at this data other than through extrapolation).    Any country with a good standard of living, offering free social services and health care is attractive, witness the desire for many of the Syrians to travel north to Denmark and  Sweden.   But Canada lets in just 300,000 immigrants per year.   The dilemma is deciding who and how? 

We may want to help everyone, but can we afford to?   We are a big country land wise – maybe we could take in more people if we didn’t have to guarantee them so much for so long?   What if social assistance was limited to six months, could we take in twice as many?   Three months, three times the amount?   Or just open up the border like centuries ago, and everyone fend for themselves?   But what about human rights? 

Immigrants and asylum seekers have rights too, but sometimes they may seem like demands.   Let me in, support me financially while I’m waiting even if takes years, let me stay and let me appeal if you decide to deport me.   Is this a plea, a hope, or a demand?   There’s everything good and decent and right about giving someone a helping hand, a start to a new life, but that’s what it should be, a start.   Our ancestors did it, they had no other choice.     

Fast forward a few decades to the future and the possible issue of mass migration and “climate refugees”.   If climate change evolves, and droughts and flooding and food shortages occur all over the world, will hordes of people be leaving their counties seeking food and shelter elsewhere?  If that happens more prosperous countries will simply shut their doors and take care of their own.  It will be every country for themselves, and every man for themselves.   Our face of humanity will be lost.   It’s going now.  People are losing tolerance and empathy.   The immigration systems are strained and overwhelmed.   It’s something to think about and there are no easy answers, but we need to figure it out, sooner rather than later.       

To sum up, we all came from away at some point, even those white Europeans who came over with Columbus on the Santa Maria, but surely there is some middle ground somewhere, and room for reasonable discussion and action.   We need to learn to balance practicality with compassion, for the storm is coming.       

PS.  Your respectful thoughts and opinions are welcomed.

And because there’s always a book or two in my blogs, may I recommend some excellent reads on the refugee crisis.      

A fictionalized account, the Canadian novel The Boat People by Sharon Bala explores the Sri Lanka refugee boat incident from all angles – the refugees, their history and the workers in the legal and immigration systems who have to decide who can stay.   

Castaway: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis by journalist Charlotte MacDonald-Gibson, first hand reporting mixed with personal stories, told from an observer point of view leaving you to draw your own conclusions. 

Tears of Saltby Dr. Pietro Bartolo – memoir by an Italian physician of his many years of treating the many Mediterranean refugees who washed up on his small Italian island.   

They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky – The True Story of Three Lost Boys of Sudan   –  A  heartbreaking memoir by three orphaned cousins, aged 5 to 7,  who spent over ten years in a refugee camp before immigrating to the US in their teens.

First They Killed My FatherA Daughter of Cambodia Remembers – by Loung Ung  – memoir of life as a child soldier in a work camp during the days of the Khmer Rouge.  

In my shoes

(Next week I will return to my regularly scheduled non-political topics.   Also, when The Tall Ships visit this summer, I hope to blog about the replica of the Santa Maria, of Christopher Columbus fame.)

A Visit to An Irish Graveyard

Ireland church
       
         When I traveled to Ireland in the early 80’s, in the days of cheap Euro-rail passes, I went by myself, which looking back was a gutsy thing to do and certainly out of character for me, a reserved introvert (and I might add the one and only time I traveled by myself).   None of my family or friends were interested in Ireland, but it was one of two places I wanted to see when I graduated, the other being New York city.  Ireland was not then the popular tourist destination it is today.    I remember it as a dismal country, full of small dreary towns, but I had Irish ancestors and even at a young age I was the family historian.   It was the stories that interested me.   In addition to researching the family history, I had booked a week at an English-riding academy, as a promise to my younger horse-crazy self.  This was in the days when Glamour magazine (my fashion bible) had the travel section, which profiled said establishment and promised a glorious week in the Irish countryside (I remember the exact wording) with lovely walks by the sea.   I must have envisioned riding to the hounds or galloping along the cliffs like  Poldark, something which appealed to the poetic me.  After spending a few days at the Dublin Library going through old microfilms of land records (computers and the internet had not been invented), I located a section of Leitrim County where there seemed to be a large concentration of Patricks and Marys and Johns with my last name, spelled with an a and not the more common o.   My dad said it was always with an a, but you have to be careful with genealogy records as variations in spelling can sometimes be the recorder’s honest mistake.    
       My great great grandparents Patrick and Mary had immigrated to Canada  in 1846 at the start of the potato famine and their 14 year old son John came a year later through New York.   For more on their story check out last years St. Patrick’s Day blog – Irish Roots.   
Patrick and Mary

Patrick and Mary – (tintype)

Their son John below, sitting in the chair, aged 80 yr in 1912. 

Family Portrait

John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

Patrick was proud of his Leitrim County heritage and had it inscribed on his  tombstone when he died in 1880, where it is barely legible today.    
Gravestone
After sight-seeing in Dublin, I took the train around Ireland, staying in B&B’s and doing some side tours, the usual ones, The Lakes of Killarney,
The Lakes of Killarney - AMc - 2018

The Lakes of Killarney

the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula (the only sunny day), and the Cliffs of Moher.   Readers of my long-winded posts might find it hard to believe but I bailed out of kissing the Blarney stone. Blarney castle (4)

 The medical me was horrified at the unhygienic aspect, especially considering my general lack of immunity to foreign germs, plus the thought of reclining backwards over the parapets at that height was not exactly appealing.  (see picture under Wikipedia link) 

          It was September and the weather was gloomy – it rained every day.  If it wasn’t raining, it was overcast.  (I forgot to put film in the camera, thus missing a whole role of dull gray skies).   Central heating was mostly non-existent.    I was cold all the time, and wore both of the Irish sweaters I had bought in Dublin the first week.  Cliffs of Moher (2)

It poured rain on the Cliffs of Moher and I got thoroughly soaked, then the bus broke down and we sat for hours waiting for a mechanic to arrive.   It was a scary drive back to Cork in the dark with no headlights.   Fortunately, my very kind B&B owner met me at the station, as she wondered why I hadn’t returned at 6 pm as planned.    She turned on the bedwarmer/electric blanket and after I had a hot bath, brought me tea and cookies, while I sat in bed writing in my journal about my dreadful day.  I guess you could say Ireland is where I first started to write, as I kept a travel journal  and wrote in it at night if there was nothing else to do.   Although it was easy to meet people in the B&B’s, I wasn’t much of a party person and there are only so many pub/Celtic music nights you can handle over a three week period.    Looking back over my journal entries, they’re not half bad.      

       The glorious week at the equestrian centre turned out to be one lesson in a drafty old riding ring, listening to a rude female instructor yell at a group of tweens, horses and myself, in that order.   I wasn’t sitting up straight enough, and even though I have a bit of scoliosis, she showed no mercy.  Towards the end of the lesson, when the horse sat down on me, I got off and went back to the B&B just down the road.   So much for that expensive pair of riding boots I had bought in Dublin.    The next morning I woke up with a terrible cold, but luckily I had a nice B&B to convalesce in.  The proprietress kept insisting there were some lovely walks to the sea (perhaps it was she who had supplied the Glamour advertisement), but I barely left the room, sleeping and reading, and being entertained by their talkative twelve-year old daughter (a carbon copy of Anne of Green Gables complete with red pigtails), who kept me amused with her drawings and music collection.   I would surface for supper with the only other guest, an older lady from Dublin in search of a holiday and some company.   She talked non-stop.   I listened, nodded, and after a spell by the turf fire, went back to bed.      
       When I was sufficiently recovered, I took the train to Carrick-on-Shannon.    Leitrim County (see Wikepedia) is located in central Ireland near the northern border.   It’s definitely off the beaten tourist path, but I wasn’t brave enough to rent a car as there were white crosses on the roads marking the spots where tourists had died from forgetting to drive on the left side of the road.  I  found the local parish and the priest said there was a church in Fenagh and they might have records.  He said he didn’t have any records, that I’d come at the wrong time of year and that the area was ‘polluted’ with people with my surname.  I didn’t have time to reply that it was spelled with an a, before he slammed the door in my face.   (Sigh….they must get tired of tourists).
      While I had been blessed so far with lovely B&B’s, the one I booked into  must have been the worst in all of Ireland.    It was undergoing renovations, there was doggy do-do on the stairs, no hot water or heat, and the not very nice landlady told me I had to have breakfast by 8 or I wouldn’t be getting any at all.    She did however make arrangements for a driver to take me out to the parish church.   There was only one Catholic church in the outlying area  and only one cab driver in the town.    The next morning when the driver (your typical small Irishmen), showed up he was dressed in a tweed suit and tie and not a day under 85.   He looked frail, but the B&B lady had assured me he was in good health, just a bit senile, and unlike most Irish people not much for conversation.   The only word I remember him saying was ‘aye’.    

       It was a very foggy morning as we drove out into the countryside and all I could see were hawthorn trees and piles and piles of rocks, swirled in an eerie mist.    It was the most desolate place ever, and I kept thinking no wonder they left.     The west parts of Ireland around Connemara by the sea are rocky but picturesque – but this was just plain bleak.    When we got to the church, it looked like a new modern church, right in the middle of nowhere.

     An old priest answered the door.   His eyes were red and rheumy and he looked hungover, but he opened the church so I could take some pictures.  He told me the church had been built in 1840, (so perhaps my ancestors had worshiped there), but the records only went back to 1855 because of ‘the fire’.  There were a few Patricks and one John listed in his old book but the dates weren’t right.  The church had been renovated in 1970 and there were about 700 people in the parish.  We certainly hadn’t passed any houses so the parish must have taken up a large area of the countryside.   (We hadn’t passed any cars either, so perhaps I could have driven on the right side of the road).  

       When I went back to the car the driver had fallen asleep, so I woke him up and we drove down to the church cemetery which was about a mile down the road, just outside a small village which consisted of a pub, a store, a few houses and a school.    The church graveyard was at the site of an old monastery (Fenagh Abbey) which originated around 500 AD and held the ruins of two churches which dated from the 15th century.   

Ireland church

     There were some newer tombstones, most with the o spelling, a few Patricks and Johns, and lots of crumbled old stones which were impossible to read.   I wandered around for awhile taking pictures – it was a strange  experience being in the place where your ancestors might have stood and could be buried.     The atmosphere was certainly mystical. 

Ireland church

      Patrick and Mary’s parents, being too old to travel, had stayed behind, and I assume John must have stayed with them when all the others left.   Maybe they died in the famine and so he had no choice but to leave a year or two later.  They  probably wouldn’t have had a proper burial place as in 1847, the worse year of the famine, corpses littered the fields and roads and there was no one left to bury them, nor any coffins to be had.  Tombstones were only for the rich. 

Ireland church

I recently read a book by John Kelly, The Graves are Walking, which details the horror of that era of Ireland’s history.

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People by John KellyMy rating: 4 of 5 stars  A scholarly well researched history of the Irish Potato Famine, this book is an important but disturbing read, especially for those of Irish descent.

 

 

Having read it, I’m having difficulty with the decision of John being left behind, but then they left in Sept 1846 when the potato crop had failed but before the worst of the famine hit, and if it was John’s decision to stay behind and go to school, then perhaps 14 then wasn’t the child it seems today.  Someone must have paid for his passage and put him on a ship to New York, the poor survival rate on the coffin ships to Canada being well known by then.   (NB: there is also a Famine Museum in Roscommon Ireland, a tribute to the national disaster). 

      When I went back to the car the driver had dozed off again and I didn’t have the heart to wake him so I wandered around some more, snapping pictures.  Finally I had to rouse him as I had to catch the train to Dublin.  The fog had burned off by then, so I could see more of the countryside on the way back, poor rocky land, the odd house, a few cows and sheep here and there.   It was September which would have been harvest season if they had been able to grow anything at all, even potatoes.    We passed a small lake, perhaps they fished?  

Ireland church
        The Irish tourism site says that Leitrim County, at 32,000, is one of the most sparsely populated counties in Ireland.   It was certainly a godforsaken place.   At the time of the famine it had a large population of over 150,000, many of whom emigrated.   When we arrived  back at the B&B I gave the driver 15 pounds instead of the 10 he requested.   I was just glad he got me back in one piece – that we hadn’t driven into a bog someplace where I might have been preserved for centuries like the famous bog man in the Dublin museum.  

         Certainly, it was a surreal experience to visit the land of your long lost ancestors.  Now that we have Ancestry.com and numerous online resources, and personal genealogists who will do all the searching for you, I might go back some day, with a more specific plan in mind.   For it has certainly occurred to me, that I possibly wasn’t even in the right place.  A few years ago, a distant relative tried to do further research and came up empty-handed.   There are so few records, that I may have to remain content with my “lost in the mists of time” experience.   

      A friend brought me back some souvenirs from her Irish trip last year, a Leitrim County flag and a miniature bottle of whiskey, which my leprechaun is enjoying here. 

        In the thirty five years since I was there, Ireland has prospered, every small town now a picture of tidy charm.   Her photographs were gorgeous, but then cameras have improved too.   Sensibly, she went in May and had two weeks of solid sunshine and balmy weather.   The clerk in the tourist shop inquired why would you want a souvenir from that place –  nobody lives in Leitrim County.   Well my ancestors once did.   I placed the flag on Patrick and Mary’s tombstone in our church cemetery, as I thought they might enjoy the fact that a great great granddaughter was thinking of them and their old homeplace.    I hope their Irish eyes were smiling down on me. 

Gravestone

A few weeks later, the flag was gone, blown away by the wind, or removed by an unappreciative grass-cutter or priest, someone trying to obliterate the past.   

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Postscript:    When I got back to Dublin, I booked a hotel on Grafton Street which had central heating, plenty of hot water and lots of shopping nearby, then switched to a B&B the night before my flight.   My suitcase was so full of souvenirs that I had to leave the riding boots behind in the B&B.  I simply could not cram them in, so I left them there beside the bed.    I hope someone else found them useful – but I have regretted that decision to this day, as there are many times when I’m mucking around in the garden in the spring when they would have come in handy!  
Irish Cottage - AMc

Irish Cottage

Downton Abbey Revisited

Downton Abbey

‘Village for sale in Yorkshire – property includes a great house with 43 low rent cottages,’ said the ad on the internet.   For only 28 million pounds you could have your very own Downton Abbey, complete with a butler saying, “Welcome to Downton” or whatever you wished to call your estate.  Downtown Abbey

I was late to the British Television drama Downton Abbey, having binge-watched five seasons over the winter of 2015, when it’s ending was already rumoured.   Forty some episodes later, I was addicted, and could see why it was watched by over 100 million people in 200 countries and considered the best drama series ever.   I had heard people talking about the show and had even tried watching a bit here and there but there were so many characters and relationships to keep straight.   The librarian suggested the only solution was to go back to the beginning, so I did.   It helped make a long snowy winter pass pleasantly, as I spend it in balmy Britain in the early part of the twentieth century.   Recently our local Public Television station has been airing the re-runs, which inspired me to revisit the world of Downton and make some observations, focusing on the fun, food, and fashions.

As a history lover, I found the era of the show fascinating, as it was a time of much change and innovation in the world, which is one of the reasons that producer Julian Fellowes chose it for his period drama.    He starts his saga in 1912 with the fateful sinking of the Titanic (and the death of the Downton heir apparent), and subsequently covers WW1 and the 1920’s, all the while working many of the decades most famous innovations into the script – cars, electricity, telephones, early airplane travel, listening to the king’s speech on the wireless/radio plus household appliances like refrigerators, toasters, mixers, sewing machines, typewriters, curling tongs and hair dryers as well as covering changes in women’s fashions, hairstyles and roles.   Looking back, Downton is a strange world in many ways, one many of us may find hard to relate to, especially if you are not British and your only exposure to the aristocracy is a picture of the Queen on your Canadian money.   The show is interesting because it depicts the rigid class structure of the time, the wide gulf  between the social classes and the upstairs downstairs aspect of running a great house, as well as the developing increase in the middle class and the importance of education.  Of course, we would all like to have lived such a life of leisure, and never have to worry about cleaning the house, making supper or childcare – there were nannies for that.   It was an envious lifestyle in many ways, even if they did tend to spend very little time with their children – an hour after tea time, but as the Countess Dowager exclaimed, it was an hour every day!

The Food

While some things would have been lovely, such as having a breakfast tray brought to you in bed, (only for married women, spinsters like Edith were expected to show up at the table) and having an elegant five course meal prepared for you every night, other things like being a slave to the 7 pm gong (dinner at eight seems way too late), and eating in the formal dining room in your best clothes in the presence of the butler and footmen, would have seemed very rigid on a regular basis.   (No sneaking leftover pizza in the kitchen of that household.)   Could you eat when someone was standing there like a statue, pretending not to watch you  or listen to the conversation whilst being ready should you require any attention.  It might be a tad uncomfortable, but maybe preferable to trying to flag down a waitress to bring you a coffee refill.    There was always conversation over dinner, and after they “went through” to the living room, more conversation.   So different from today when so many people dine with their cell phones instead of their companions.  

Downton Abbey

One would think they were a family of anorexic alcoholics from the dining room scenes.   While they served themselves from the platters proffered by the footmen, there never seemed to be much food on their plates, (especially the deserts, and I watched!) which might explain why they were so thin.    They tended to savour small exquisite portions – certainly no supersized meals there. 

Strawberry Trifle

Strawberry English Trifle

And the wine, so many different ones for each courses, but as Carson said, they usually only take a sip.   What a waste of good wine, why not just open one bottle for the meal, and be done with it.    The china and crystal were lovely however – why don’t we use the good china anymore.   It’s so much more elegant – as long as you don’t have to wash the dishes, and why did they never ever show anyone washing all those dishes night after night?Teacups

And the tea – so many cups poured, so few sips taken…but such pretty teacups.  But no scones or treats?   It’s a long way until supper  – ah yes, the crumbs and calories.  Teacups are elegant, but they hold 4 oz at most, and when I want a cup of tea, I want a bracing hot mugful.   Recently I saw a lovely silver tea service at a thrift shop, but it would need polishing and I already own too many teapots I seldom use – no one entertains like that anymore, which is why it was in the thrift shop.     

Downton Abbey The Fashions

Oh, the clothes – that long elegant silhouette, nothing too clingy, or skin tight like today’s fashions with everything emphasized and/or overexposed.    I especially liked the flapper style when they entered the 1920’s, and all the jewelry and hair ornaments….and the hats, so many stylish hats, week after week.    Even their nightgowns and robes were feminine and elegant.Hat

 For a fashionista it was worth tuning in just for the clothes.  The show must have been a wardrobe persons dream job.   The colours and fabrics were exquisite too.   But did they really need a lady’s maid to help remove their jewelry and undress themselves before bed, like a bunch of toddlers?   I found this 1912 book The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes (Julian Fellowes niece) most interesting in explaining the jobs of the various household servants. Downton Abbey

There were chapters on each of the characters, as well as general historical information about the running of such an estate and depictions of common household items.   Downtown Abbey Part of the lady’s maid’s job was to maintain, mend and care for the clothing.   Sign me up – I hate doing laundry and despise that half hour of ironing every week.   Imagine having someone to pack and unpack for you when traveling – it would be pure bliss.   Downton Abbey

While women’s clothing can be delicate and in need of more care, the valet’s role was even more puzzling and seemed to consist of nothing more than brushing the dandruff off the shoulders of the men’s evening jackets and polishing their shoes.  But again, there was the packing and maintenance and plenty of rules for black tie,  white tie and tweeds.   In one of the early episodes, Lady Mary inadvertently insults one of the staff by commenting that he was only a footman, but a staff position in such a great house was a steady and respected job, guaranteed employment and a step-up for many in the village.

Jessica Fellows has published a number of these lavish hardcover coffee-table type books, including this earlier one, The World of Downton Abbey, 2011, with lots of behind the scenes photos.  Downton Abbey      Highclere Castle, where the filming takes place, is a real working estate, and the present day countess, Lady Fiona Carnarvon has published At Home at Highclere:  Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey, which chronicles the food, menus and entertainment of four historic weekend house parties held at the estate from 1866 to 1936.   There seems to be no shortage of books about Downton as recently I ran across this book, Downton Abbey and Philosophy, edited by Adam Barkman and Robert Arp, with contributions by 22 writers, about such diverse topics as the War Years, Master and Servant and Lady Edith and the Trials of the Modern Woman, as well philosophical ventures into morality, manners and socialism. Downton Abbey

The Fun

What did they do for fun?  They seemed to read a lot of books – at least they are always opening and closing them, and wouldn’t it be splendid to have that red carpeted library, although many of the books look like dusty tombs.    The dinners and parties and dances look splendid, especially the waltzes and the jazz tunes on the phonograph.   The fox hunting and horse race scenes were gorgeously filmed as was the grouse hunting in the heather filled moors and the visit to the Scottish castle.   A life of privilege would certainly have its pluses, but would it be enough?   (see the philosophy book – finding the meaning of life in Downton Abbey).    I suppose you wouldn’t question it if that was all you knew, but I am reminded of Sybil’s remark after the war was over, when they had grown accustomed to having a purpose in life (in her case nursing).   Instead of going to dress fittings and endless teas and charity events she said she wanted to be tired at the end of the day, tired from doing useful work.  Well Darling Sybil, I’m sorry they killed you off in Season Three, but work is tiring, very tiring – try it for twenty years or so and let’s check back or let’s change places.   I think I could adapt to being a lady of leisure –  are there any British castles where they will let you sample the life of a lord and lady for a month?     Highclere Castle does host some daytime events and there are cottages you can rent overnight, which brings me back to that ad?    Anyone have an extra 28 million pounds they can spare?    Or if not, then anyone care for tea?   We can always pretend…..

The Cast

I know some people who stopped watching after Season 3 as they could not handle the deaths of two of the main characters, but apparently those two actors had specified they only wanted 3-year contracts.    Maybe they were afraid of being typecast, but having watched Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas, well seriously – Mathew was all I could see.  The story-line of Downton Abbey really draws you in, it is multilayered with many characters.   The scenes are short for the most part, and the pace quick.   Having such an excellent cast of strong actors helps, they really inhabit their roles.    My least favourite characters were Mr. Bates (bad temper, shady past and way too old for Anna), Cora with her breathy baby-like voice and snobby ways, Shirley McClain as her American mother (horribly typecast), as was Miss Bunting (rude and much too short).   I’m glad they ended the show on a high note after six seasons, as I really couldn’t take Bates facing jail time yet again…..and Mary’s multiple suitors were no replacement for Mathew.   Although she did eventually chose one, none of them could ever measure up.Downtown Abbey

In some cases, (the pigs anyone?) they seemed to have run out of story-lines.  But I was very glad poor Edith was happy at last, and ranked higher socially than Lady Mary, (but then I was a middle child too).      Downton Abbey Epilogue:     There are rumors of a Downton Abbey movie swirling, with a tentative release date of Sept 2019, but I wish they had left them frozen in time at New Years 1926.    It ended perfectly, with all the story lines wrapped up nicely, so why run the risk of spoiling it – but then I may be convinced otherwise.   I’ll be watching…..I wonder if the movie theatres will be serving tea and scones?

The official movie trailer: 

 

 

Toys of Yesteryear

        “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo March famously, in the opening sentence of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.   Statistics say that the average child in the developed world owns over 200 toys but only plays with 12 of them on an average day, and only 3% of the world’s children live in the US but they own 40% of the world’s toys.    Certainly we have become a nation of excessive consumption of toys as well as every thing else, but it wasn’t always this way.   Last summer while visiting a local library branch I snapped some pictures of a museum display on Early Toys which I found quite interesting and would like to share….if only to give you pause to think before you buy someone yet another stuffed animal.  (Guilty as charged – but those Panda Bears are so cute).        

Toyland

Early toys simply reflected everyday life and activities.   It was generally accepted that children were attracted to toys along gender lines.  

Toyland

Toyland

Dolls were always popular and were often homemade.

Toyland

Toyland

My mother grew up in the during the 1930’s Depression when times were hard.   Her few dolls were cheap versions with stuffed bodies and porcelain heads and she never had a really nice one, although some of the richer kids in town did.   One of her friends never even had a doll.   She remembers getting a toy tea set one year and they would always receive an orange (which they never had any other time of year), a popcorn ball, some hard candy and candy canes which would be placed on a chair on Christmas morning.   Her brother got a baseball and bat or a hockey stick and puck, and one year a steel car (my dad had the same model so it was probably the Hot Wheels car of the time).    They never had a Christmas tree until the 1940’s – just once in her childhood and then they had nothing to put on it except red crepe paper and a string of popcorn.   I know this sounds like Little House on the Prairie, but there were no Christmas lights until later.     

If you didn’t have money for a real doll there were paper dolls, and I remember playing with these a bit in the 1960’s.    It was fun to change their clothes about but then we played with our Barbie dolls until we were ten or older as most of the fun was in the fashion, including sewing their little outfits. 

Toyland

Toys for boys gave them skills needed for adult life such as building things.    

Toyland

Toyland

Toyland

When my older brother was about ten he got a train set for Christmas.  My dad had nailed the track to a big sheet of plywood and after the supper was cleared it was placed on the long dining room table and all the guys in the family, including the adults, had great fun watching that little train chugging round and round the track, the engine breathing a plume of smoke.  

Books were popular for both boys and girls, and were always one of my favorite childhood Christmas presents.    I was thrilled to get a new Trixie Belden (girl detective) or a classic like Little Women, and could usually be found reading it on Christmas night while everyone was playing euchre and card games with my grandparents and eating Pot of Gold chocolates and chips and drinking Coke.  We never had those (junk food) treats other than on holidays or occasionally on Saturday nights when Hockey Night in Canada was on.   Toyland

Toyland

Even if you didn’t grow up in the Depression era like my parents, children didn’t have as many toys back then because they had to help out with the chores both inside and outside the house.   

Toyland

My dad said when he was growing up, Christmas was just a big meal and going to church.  It was not about presents, because people couldn’t afford them.   His best present was a pair of ice skates he got when he was 13.  He had saved towards the $5 to buy them.   This was in 1939 when the Depression was ending, which was also the first time he saw a movie,  A Christmas Carol, with his brother and sister.   He said they were scared to death, and I remember finding the Ghost of Christmas Past quite frightening when I was a child.   It was always on Christmas Eve and I would go to bed before the scary part came on.   I don’t think his skates looked like this ancient pair – I don’t know how they were attached but my mother says her roller skates had straps to fit over the shoes.

Toyland skates

Skates were always a favorite in Canada, but compare this rusty pair with today’s modern technology of molded boots and super sharp blades which could easily cost several hundred dollars.   While we may have fond memories of skating on outdoor ponds when we were children, will today’s kids have the same fond memories of their video games and electronic gadgets?   They may still have story hour at the library, but I have noticed even the tiniest 4 or 5 year olds are eager to get their allotted time on the children’s computer.

Toyland

But what if you have no toys?   It is a sad fact that half the world is living in poverty.

Toyland

My dad recalled making mud pies in the Depression…..and I remember my younger brother and I lining up the chestnuts we had gathered at Thanksgiving as fields and fences for his farm animal set.   My dad made him a wooden barn one year –  it was painted white with a green retractable roof.  I crept down to the basement a few nights before Christmas while Santa was at work sawing the wood – fortunately the paint was dry by Christmas morning.   Playing is instinctual in a young child, and children are ingenious for inventing games out of what is at hand, which is why you see children in refugee camps playing games with improvised materials such as a pile of rags wound tightly to make a soccer ball.    (see link to last years blog on The Good Samaritan Shoebox Project which sends toys to impoverished countries).   

Who can forget the excitement of lying awake on Christmas Eve and wondering what Santa would bring.   We all have our favorite presents that we remember as a child….and sometimes the worst, like those bunny suit pajamas poor Ralphie got in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. 

Xmas presents (3)

I don’t remember making a Christmas list as a child.   Our parents just bought us things they thought we would like, but can that really be a toy ironing set in that box, as ironing is now my absolutely most hated household chore?    My best ever present was my Skipper doll when I was nine and had to go in hospital after Christmas to get my tonsils out….looking back it was probably a bribe of sorts.   Skipper was Barbie’s younger sister and she had bendable knees.   She came with at least twelve different accessorized outfits which I credit with my ability to coordinate any outfit today (see skills needed in later life).   I can still remember the thrill I felt when I opened that stack of individual boxes of tiny clothes and accessories.   I already had Midge (Barbie’s best friend), who my mother had convinced me was far superior to my older sisters Barbie, in the same way that Chatty Cathy (she talked when you pulled the string on her back), was superior to her boring ballerina doll who never said a word, (lesson learned, it is better to be different and unique and to speak out than to just look pretty).    While money was not as plentiful then, especially compared to today’s standards, and we never got toys other times of the year, my parents always made sure we had a good Christmas, (although I have never quite forgiven my mother for those pixie haircuts her French hairdresser talked her into when all the other girls in the class had long hair and curls).  

How many toys are too many toys?  Can a child really appreciate anything if they have such an excess of stuff.    I once spent a Christmas in a house where the entire living room floor was covered with so many presents it took the better part of the day to unwrap them all and a ten year old whined because they didn’t get the one present they wanted.   It was sold out by mid-November, every parent’s nightmare, a sad phenomena which started with the Cabbage Patch Kids in the eighties and recently those $80 Hatchimals which this year are gathering dust on the store shelves.   It is far better to give a child the one toy they really want than a pile of stuff they don’t, but perhaps that is a teachable moment too?  

 I long for the days when toy shopping was as easy as buying a playdoh set (which is fun for grownups too), but I haven’t toy shopped in years.   This year as I have some little ones to buy for (as in younger than two and more likely to play with the box), I discovered to my disappointment that Tickle Me Elmo does not laugh as much as he used to…..two laughs and that’s it?   He used to laugh so long and hard it made you laugh….we had one in the ER department for prn use if a child was crying inconsolably.   No doubt they have modified this feature for the sake of the parents sanity, but as he was on sale for half price ($20) I bought him anyway….plus some books….you can’t go wrong with books.   If you think a child might have too much and doesn’t need more of the same, a small present to open and money for the education fund might be appreciated……someday.     

Sometimes it is fun to buy toys for the grownups too, as Charles Dickens said in A Christmas Carol, “for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.”  Last year I started someone on an animated Christmas village with an ice rink, thinking she could use it in her waiting room, (I remember the fish aquarium which kept me entertained as a child while waiting to see the doctor), but I don’t believe it ever made it to her office. Toyland

This year I have been on the hunt for a musical carousel, with no luck, as they are all too big or like this one some of the horses are going backwards? Toyland

The Facebook blog where I happened upon the statistic about the number of toys children own, was encouraging parents to buy experiences, family outings, lessons etc instead of things which is a great idea as long as it is something the child really wants as opposed to the parents wanting to re-live or replace something they missed in their own childhood.    Hopefully in the end what a child will remember most is not the toys so much, but the time spent with family.

So whether your Christmas morning is a sea of wrapping paper or a more modest affair like the Cratchits, we should be reminded of the rest of the opening scene of Little Women, because that is what Christmas is all about. 

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

Toyland

My mother’s Christmas Angel Doll

PS.  What was your favorite Christmas present growing up?

 

 

Bronte Country

Heathcliff is dead……again.    This is the third time I have tried to grow heather, but alas, it was not meant to be.   I have resigned myself to the fact that you can not grow heather in North America, there is a reason it is only to be found in abundance on the windswept moors of the UK.    Here is a photo of  Heathcliff (the-Plant-formerly-known-as-Heather), from last June, all healthy and blooming and alive.  

Heather  And here is a picture of him in September at his funeral.    

Heather

 I arranged a few red maple leaves around his skeletal remains, for a more poetic look, otherwise he might have been mistaken for a stringy birds nest which had fallen to the ground.    I had planted him in the same kind of poor rocky soil I imagined on the moors, and basically neglected him for the rest of the summer.   Heather likes full sun, (see care sheet), but the days were cloudy and melancholy and he took up drinking and drowned his roots in sorrow, (kind of like Branwell).    I must console myself though, that while we were not meant to be, he died young at the end of the rainiest season ever.   It was nothing personal, he just did not like our Canadian soil or climate.     

Heather

While doing some postmortem research, I discovered too late that heather likes well-drained acidic soil, and mine is clay and clumpy, so once again I had been lured in by a pot of pretty flowers.   I had thought they were more hardy souls (like lavender), who would grow anywhere.   Apparently there are many different types, and this  Better Homes and Gardens article says anyone can grow heather and heaths……well perhaps not the truly heartbroken gardener like myself who may never fully recover.         

Heather 

I have occasionally seen heather for sale in nurseries here in early spring, sometimes with pinkish flowers.   One July I bought some half-dead half-price specimens from the bargain bin.   I knew when I bought them they were probably beyond CPR, but they were only a dollar.   I planted them one week and dug them up the next.   My other futile attempt involved a specimen which the nursery clerk told me was the only heather they stocked.   It lived one short season, spread out a bit, produced 2 or 3 purplish blooms, then died off never to be seen again.   I knew it was not real heather because the foliage was too soft.    A friend who used to visit Scotland regularly, brought me back a piece of heather once as a souvenir – lucky for him the plant police did not catch him as smuggling plants is generally against the law.   I was surprised by how coarse it was.    I had expected from the pictures that it would be softer to the touch.

The moors must be beautiful in the summer and early fall, with all that heather blooming and the sky a bright blue, very Wuthering Heightish.  

Bronte Heather

Before Heathcliff, my only exposure to heather was from the window of an  tour bus in a downpour.   I was in Ireland in September where it rained every day – so why did my poor heather not survive?    The Irish heather (which was near a bog where they were cutting turf), was not nearly as stunning as the English heather in Downton Abby, the last episode of Season Five where they pack up the whole household and go grouse hunting at a castle on the moors and Mary and Edith meet their future husbands.    (You see, heather does inspire romance).   That was a beautifully filmed scene and inspired my mother to paint a picture called The Moors, which she included in her last art exhibit, (but then she has been known to paint shipwrecks from Poldark too).

The Moors - AMc

The Moors

 Victoria magazine is one of my favorite sources for inspiration, and in this past September issue they had a feature on Exploring the Bronte Legacy and the village of Haworth where they lived.  (September is always the British issue and there was also a Susan Branch picnic party in the Lake District for any Beatrice Potter fans). 

Victoria Bronte

Here are some of the pages, including the famous heather.

Bronte

We have Emily to thank for the popularity of heather, as we will forever associate it with her descriptions of the moorland in Wuthering Heights, as this quote attests,  “I have fled my country and gone to the heather.”   Although I have never been to England, I hope some day to put those words into action, as a literary tour is definitely on my bucket list. 

No wonder the Bronte sisters wrote such wonderful books, having that lovely vista to gaze at during their daily constitutional on the moors.  (Although no matter the scenery, I find that after a particularly fruitful writing session, a little walk can be beneficial for mulling things over).

Below, the steep cobblestoned streets of the small village of Haworth.

Bronte

Here’s the dining room table where they wrote their works of art and paced and plotted how to find a publisher, and no doubt discussed what to do about Branwell. Bronte

 The magazine article mentioned the 2017 PBS movie, To Walk Invisible, the story of the Bronte’s, which I watched and was somewhat disappointed in, although it is certainly worthwhile for any Bronte fan.   In truth I found the movie as dark and dreary as the moors must be on an overcast winter’s day.  There did not seem to be much joy in that household, but maybe I am confusing their rather bleak existence with that of the moors.     

I thought Charlotte and Anne well-cast, Emily miscast, and Branwell just plain annoying.   The movie ends with them walking on the moors after Branwell’s death, so it is not as depressing as if they had ended it later after they had all died.   But then their story is not a happy one.   I wonder if they would have traded their fame for more happiness and a longer life.   

This year is the bicentenary of Emily’s birth in 1818.   Here is Emily’s small and cozy room with a wonderful window view, as befitting a genius at work.  

Bronte

Emily remains the most puzzling one, so reclusive, yet the creator of such a  stormy and passionate tale.   No doubt she drew inspiration from her beloved moors but perhaps it’s very wildness was a reaction to their isolated existence.   She had a lot of time to think and imagine.   Her novel was considered dark and disturbing and somewhat shocking at the time, while Charlotte’s more conservative Jane Eyre was the more popular.    In the movie there was a scene where Emily was talking about where she got the idea for Wuthering Heights, but she spoke so quickly I could not follow, and I have since tried to research it to no avail.  Although googling did reveal plenty of theories about Asperger’s syndrome, as it seems popular these days to slap anyone the least bit anti-social with that label (think Doc Marten).     There are plenty of books about Charlotte, (see postscript), but not so many about Emily or Anne (who I think of as the forgotten middle child).    After seeing disheveled, weak, whiny immature Branwell it seems unlikely he could have been the muse for such a strong character as Heathcliff.    (But would any sane woman want a Heathcliff in real life?  All that anger and rage and jealousy just creates a whole lot of drama and angst, and wasn’t he a bit too possessive?  Somewhat stalkerish?  Better to marry someone more stable and level-headed if you want a happy home life, but I suppose if a wild passionate affair is your aim, then Heathcliff is your man).    

The movie contained nothing new, if you have already read such bio’s before, including the usual dose of family dynamics.   The ending was well done, three bright suns who were expected to dim their literary lights and walk invisible, in order to prevent embarrassment for the male heir of whom much had been expected, but little produced.   As for the issue of addiction so rampant in our modern world, that too is an age old question.  Their clergyman father could not decide whether to give in and supply his feckless son with drinking/opium money or just say no – the parent’s universal dilemma, to be an enabler or an enforcer of tough love?    In the end, it didn’t matter anyway –  TB won out.   Tuberculosis caused by a drafty old parsonage and those windblown moors.   Unfortunately, he took his two sisters with him.    

I have to admit the part I found most disappointing in the movie was the cinematography of the moors.   They must have filmed the outdoor scenes in  winter for there was no heather to be seen, just a bleak and brown landscape and overcast skies.   Perhaps they didn’t  have a choice, or more likely they wanted that gloomy depressing atmosphere, for it all looked as dull and dreary as a November day.           

Now that we are in late November, the weather has grown chilly and darkness descends early, and tonight the winds are howling and there is sleet against the windowpane.   The perfect night to settle in by the fire with a cup of tea, and re-read Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s masterpiece.  Although, I noticed that her name is not even on the cover of my 1984 copy, one of those classic editions with the fancy gold edging that are hard to find anymore.    

Wuthering Heights

I must confess, it has been a long time since that high school book report, and I cannot recall much of the story, other than it was a sad tale with a layered multi-generational plot.   But I do remember the descriptive imagery of those famous windswept moors, and the tragic ending of Cathy and Heathcliff, two star-crossed lovers who were never meant to be, but who remain immortalized forever between a marble and gilt cover.        

Postscript:   Most likely Charlotte, Anne or Emily never dreamt at the time that their books would still be bestsellers over 150 years later.    I wonder how those classics would fit into the Best Seller Code, which I will be blogging about next week. 

Postscript:  A goodreads review of  Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart 

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery HeartCharlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This latest 2016 biography of Charlotte Bronte is well worth the read, even if I do wonder why Charlotte always gets all the attention. I enjoyed it so much, I bought a bargain bin copy. A good choice for fans, both old and new.

Bronte Country - AMc

Bronte Country

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Witch of November

The Witch of November -AMc

The Witch of November

As the genealogist in the family, the small ad in the local newspaper, caught my eye.    A woman was looking for descendants of The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 for a book she was writing commemorating the one hundredth anniversary.     The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 was a hurricane-like gale which raged over five days, Nov 7-11 in 1913.   The weather had been unseasonably warm for early November, but two major storm fronts converging over the warm lake water (also known as a November Witch), suddenly brewed up the storm of the century.  This perfect storm was actually a combination of two of the worst meteorological phenomena, a blizzard and a hurricane, or what is known as a white hurricane or an extratropical cyclone.  The gale-force winds, massive 40 foot waves and whiteout conditions resulted in the sinking of 19 ice-laden ships, the stranding of another 19, and sent over 250 sailors to an early grave.   (For those unfamiliar, the Great Lakes comprise five interconnected lakes on the border between Canada and the US, famous for being the biggest fresh water lakes in the world and important then and now as a commercial shipping route.  Even today, the big freighters ply the waters, although with the milder winters now, shipping season extends later in the year.   Last year they went very late, and the coast guard cutter trying to plow a route through the ice for one straggler, did some significant damage to docks on the Canadian side, a legal nightmare still being sorted out).              

Henry B Smith two (2)

      So, I emailed her that my great-uncle Joe had die in the storm, he had been a boatswain on the Henry B. Smith.   He was my dad’s maternal uncle, and it was a bit of folklore passed down in the family history, that the captain had been drunk and should never have gone out.   (The ship had been in port in Marquette Michigan on Lake Superior, from Nov 6 to 9th, taking on a load of iron ore, so it wasn’t caught out in the storm like the rest of the boats which sank on the lakes).  Here’s more (Wikipedia) info on the sinking of the Henry B Smith.   As it turned out, her great uncle, was “Dancing Jimmy/James Owen”, the captain, of the Henry B. Smith.   Oops.   She was gracious about it, having heard the rumors herself over the years.  He sounded like quite a character, known for visiting dance halls in every port and laughing in the face of danger.   Although an experienced and valued captain, he had experienced many delays on his last voyage of the season, and was under considerable pressure from head office to meet the schedule or be fired.   He was an invincible soul, who like many captains back then, felt no fear – any captain who couldn’t sail in a storm wasn’t worth his salt.   There had also been a lull in the northern part of the storm, before the southern part converged.    Most likely, it was a combination of all these factors.   At any rate, it was a reckless decision which took 25 men to their deaths, and which had far-reaching impact on many lives.   Poor Captain Owen realized his mistake not many miles out and tried to change course, but by then it was too late, the ship had disappeared into a crashing snow squall and was never seen again, although several oars and one or two bodies eventually found drifted ashore.  The ship was officially declared missing on Nov 14 1913.    

She felt it was important to honor the stories of those mariners who had gone down with their ships, so we ended up corresponding over the next year, and she put a short chapter on my ancestor in her book of personal stories.  When I say short, I really did not have much information to give her and none of it a first hand account, but she did a great job considering.  She later invited me to attend her town’s memorial services but as my mother was having hip surgery that November I was unable to attend any services, either there or here.        

My dad’s mother was one of nine children, six girls and three boys, one of which was Uncle Joe.  The other two brothers were Bernard and Leo.   Here’s a picture of my great-grandmother Jane with some of the family, except for Joe who was deceased by then.    Jane lived well into her 90’s and my dad recalled her babysitting him while his parents went to the dance pavilion across the river – he remembered hearing the music floating over the water, (the end of the Roaring 20’s?), as their family homestead was close to the river, and also her cookies.   As a family, they were very involved in the local church which was right down the street and it was the job of one of the boys to ring the church bell on Sundays.    My paternal grandparents died before my parents were married, so the only ones I knew when I was a child were Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Leo, who was as deaf as a doorknob.   Uncle Leo gave up the boats and became a house painter, but he still rang the church bell on Sundays.   (My grandmother is the one with the child on her lap).  

Zink Family

Jane’s husband had been a cobbler, (I have his business card), but died young, leaving her a widow with nine children, ages 1 to 19 yrs.   The girls went to work as maids in the big hotels, or as a seamstress (my grandmother), and the three boys sailed on the boats.   They were river rats.

Here are the girls, displaying a bit of ankle…..what would they think of the fashions today?  Zink girls

And here are the boys.   Joe is the oldest, sitting in the chair,  Zink boys

and here he is later in life, quite a dapper young man.   I am not hundred percent certain this is him as opposed to one of his brothers, (Leo the middle one and Bernard the youngest), but was given the photo by my 97 year old great-aunt Dorothy, (Bernard’s daughter), who was born in 1917 and so never met him, although she was of course familiar with his tragic end.   Cameras were still rarities at the time, so I have very few photos  from either grandparents side. 

Joe Zink Later on, his brother Bernard captained his own small boat, and made trips up and down the river to Detroit.   Perhaps he no longer wanted to be at the mercy of someone else’s orders like his brother had been.  Here’s a picture of some of his family eating watermelon on board his boat.    From the middy blouses and big hair bows, it is probably dated around 1920?

Zink boat

Zink boat

According to the 1911 census, Joe made $500 on an oil barge, while his two brothers Leo and Bernard, worked on steamers, making $450 for a 36 week season.     

Joe is on the far right in this picture of the crew relaxing on deck. Henry B. Smith crew Joe Zink

Here is a photo of the ship leaving Cleveland on it’s last voyage, taken through a glass display case so it is hard to see, but you can just make out the Henry Smith name down in the lower right corner.  I wonder if Joe is in the picture and who are the women on deck saying goodbye?

Henry B Smith

Below are a couple of descriptions of the boat leaving port in the late afternoon on the day of the storm.     

Henry B Smith document one (2)  And another writeup……

Henry B Smith document two (2)

What were Joe’s thoughts on that fateful day?    Were they of his family and his fiancé/sweetheart?  He was supposedly engaged to be married to my dad’s paternal aunt Annie.   Here’s Annie in the middle of the back row, photo taken around 1911.    

Ancestors

How awful it must have been for her and for the families waiting at home for word which never came.    I remember sitting in the genealogy library, back in 2003, reading all the newspaper coverage of the storm on microfilm, and the reports of bodies being washed up on the shore near our area of the lake.  He was 30, and she was 29, and the last of the girls left on the farm.   Options were few for women back then, and after her mother died in 1917 and her brother, (my grandfather) wanted to marry and start a family of his own, she ended up marrying someone else and moved to Seattle where one of her other brothers lived.   They adopted a child, as she was older then and couldn’t have any of her own.   When that child, now in his 70’s, returned for a visit to the homeplace in the 1990’s, intent on researching his family roots, he did not seem to be aware that he was adopted and no one let on.            

The following gives a bit of credence to the family folklore.       

Henry B Smith document three (4)

While there was certainly a significant financial loss to the storm, most ships were insured, and the owners of the Henry Smith ended up with an insurance payout of $335,000.   Total losses from the storm, for lost and damaged ships, were almost 4 million, with another million for lost cargo.   A compensation fund for the families of $18,245, shared by the 250 sailors lost, meant each received $73, (about $1700 in today’s money).   The life of a sailor was cheap.  One good thing to come out of this marine disaster was an improvement in weather forecasting and faster responses to storm warnings as well as stronger construction of ships.

Could they have survived had all the hatches been closed before they left port, and if the waterproof tarps had been placed over them to protect them from flying apart from the force of the pounding waves, a time consuming procedure the captain had not deemed necessary.   There were two theories, the most likely that she took on too much water in the hold and rolled, pouring out the ore through the hatches as she sank, the second that the excess water caused the steel to fracture.   As only two bodies, both wearing life preservers, drifted ashore, it is probable there was little warning and the rest went down with the ship.    But it was not just the wind and the waves which caused havoc in the storm for the temperature had dropped enough to create a full-blown blizzard, reducing visibility so that the ship could not see the shore, and significant icing from the freezing spray weighed it down to the point that they could not even navigate, so the odds were slim, but some ships did make it through, (any port in a storm), although they were badly damaged and encrusted with ice.    Could Joe and his fellow crew members have said no, when the whistle had blown and the boat was already streaming away – not likely they even had a chance.   While working conditions have certainly improved in the past century, are workers today, still being asked to perform reckless duties and actions in the names of corporate profit/greed?    In some jobs cutting corners might mean lives lost, maybe not yours, but someone else’s.   Something to think about if you’re the boss….or a worker being asked to do unsafe tasks.    

Flash forward to the spring of 2013 and they have found the wreck of the Henry B. Smith in waters not far off Marquette Michigan, almost one hundred years after it sank. 

wreck of Henry B Smith (2)

The wheel and bridge of the wreck of the Henry B. Smith

 Here’s a link to a newspaper article with a video of the flying bridge.   And a more personal account of the dive team.    The boat had split in two and was  resting on it’s load of iron ore at the bottom.  Most of the hatches were open.  My author friend emailed me that she had been invited by the dive team to go out on the water for a memorial service the following year.   She was excited that the divers had recovered an enamel coffee pot from the bottom of the lake, a poignant piece of memorabilia, and she was picturing the crew members pouring a cup of coffee from it on a cold blustery night, a night fit for no man.  I have not talked to her since but in the mariner’s tradition, I hope someone rang a bell on behalf of each of the 25 men lost on the Henry B. Smith.   I think Joe would have approved.  

PS.   The title The Witch of November is taken from Canadian folksinger, Gordon Lightfoot’s, song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship which sank in a November 10 1975 gale on Lake Superior with the loss of all men aboard.  In that song, “The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald”.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald 

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T’was the witch of November come stealin’.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the Gales of November came slashin’.
When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’.
Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.
At Seven P. M. A main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the Gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call ‘Gitche Gumee’.
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early!

PS.   There are many books available on the Great Storm, most of them self-published by local authors.   Here is my Goodreads review of one I read last year, and I also attended a lecture by the author, but it is more focused on the sailing aspects of the disaster, as opposed to the personal stories.   The author focused on just a few of the ships and gave a more detailed account.   Still, it was a fascinating read, even if you already knew the outcome.  

Weather Bomb 1913 Life and Death on the Great LakesWeather Bomb 1913 Life and Death on the Great Lakes by Bruce Kemp

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent read about the big storm of 1913 on the Great Lakes. I had a family interest in the subject as my great uncle died on the Henry Smith, which was recently located a hundred years after it went down, and while his boat wasn’t mentioned much in the book, there was lots of detail and research about other ships. Stayed up late two nights reading, couldn’t put it down, even though I knew the sad outcome. Well done.

PS.  While I was preparing this post last week, the Witch of November came calling.   On November 9, the exact date of the sinking, we had our first snowfall of the season with blustery north winds….   

Remembrance Day

In honor of Remembrance Day, I would like to link back to last years blog about my Uncle Charlie – WW1 Vet – a post wherein I was able to trace his path across Europe during the last Hundred Days Offensive of the war, based on his war memorabilia.     I have had many positive comments on this post, and it seems particularly fitting during this, the 100th year anniversary of the signing of the Armistice.    

For those who might have already read the above, I am working on a post about a  WW2 Bomber Tour and Swing Dance I attended last year.  Check it out next week.   In WW1 we may have sent horses to war, but in WW2 we sent 18 year olds up in tin-cans.   I was horrified when I saw what they had flown in….it’s no wonder so many did not return.    Lest we forget.  

Poppies - AMc

Poppies

WW2 Bomber Tour and Swing Dance

         As a fan of Big Band music, I was happy to see the announcement for a WW2 Bomber Tour and Swing Dance last June, an event promising a retro evening of dinner and dancing to a 23 person orchestra in an airport hanger, just like they did back in the wartime.   Tickets were $75 per person, with the proceeds going to a children’s charity, but a bit too steep for most of my friends as it turned out.   While I have “medical/work” friends, (shop talk and free dinners from drug companies), “artistic” friends, (art galleries and theatre), “book” friends ( book clubs and literary talks) and “shopping” friends, I have no one who shares my love of history and museums.    My mother was not interested, she had already lived through that decade once she said and had no wish to revisit it.    My mother had worked in a war plant for two years (1942-1944), from the time she was 16 to 18 years old.   She remembers the young boys in her hometown volunteering for the war effort, and many did not come back.   At ninety, she does not like to go out at night, but she was interested in seeing the airplane as she is always looking for new subjects to paint.    So off we went to the local airport one sunny afternoon, along with a hundred guys, including a whole brigade of firemen on their lunch hour.   There may have been a few other women there, dragged along by their spouses, but certainly we were outnumbered.   My mother was not able to climb the stairs to tour the airplane but sat under one of the wings out of the sun and had an enjoyable chat with the pilot in charge, who was from Mesa Arizona but whose Canadian mother was from her hometown and had also worked in one of the war plants.   Although he had moved to the US when he was younger, his mom had died the previous year at age 89, so he was happy to reminisce about her Canadian roots.        

The Flying Legends of Victory Tour is organized by the Commemorative Air Force Air Base out of Arizona.   Their mission is to take antique bombers on tour around the country, to educate people so they do not forget this important part of aviation history, especially now that there are fewer WW2 veterans left and those remaining are well are up in years.   They tour all fifty states and Canada and you can sign up on their website to be notified if one is visiting your area next year.   The plane they were flying that day was a B17 bomber.  A four engine bomber, they were manufactured during WW2  – about 13,000 were made, about 5000 were lost during the war.  (see Wikepida for more info).   Those are not good odds, although the bomber developed the reputation of being able to bring their crews home safely despite being badly damaged.   There are only about ten surviving in the world which are fly-worthy, restored versions which had never seen action, including The Sentimental Journey on display.   The cost to tour the inside of the plane was only $5, so off I went, leaving mom visiting with her new friend. 

Bomber

Bomber

Before we start the tour, a bit about the crewman positions on the plane.  Here’s a link to a very excellent B17-Queen of the sky blog explaining the various crew positions and also a link to a Wikepedia article with more information than you might care to read.     I wish I had made notes at the time but it was over a year ago, and I scarcely remember what everyone did.  There was no official tour, but you could ask questions if you wished.   Of course, all my questions came later, like how they decided who got which position? 

This B-17 bomber, re-christened Sentimental Journey, had a picture of Betty Grable, a famous pin-up girl from the wartime, painted on the side.   This nose art, as it was called, was designed to boost morale and although the planes were often named after women, sweethearts or wives, other subjects included hometowns, states, cartoon characters, mascots or something designed to scare the enemy.       

Bomber

I climbed the six steep steps to the front of the plane, which gave you a view of the cockpit and the pilot seats, off limits of course.Bomber

They were in town for a whole week, with certain days set aside for touring, and others for flights.   The flights, ranging from $425 to $850 US, were all sold out, and well worth the money for flying fans because when would you ever get such an opportunity again.   I did see the plane overhead periodically during the week, flying low along the river, and once over the farmers market but by the time I grabbed the camera the photo-op was gone.   Even though you could hear its rumbling roar coming, I still wasn’t quick enough to capture it.   It made me stop and think about what an air raid must have been like, the planes upon you before you could seek shelter.    

Bomber

Behind the cockpit, the bomb bay doors were open below, and there was a bridge with ropes you had to walk across to get to the rest of the plane, but with my fear of heights, I decided I just couldn’t do it.   It was not for the claustrophobic either, as it was very tight quarters inside. 

Bomber

Bomber

I exited back down the stairs, and went in the back entrance (below) to tour the rest of the plane.

Bomber

First up after the bomb bay were three seats, two on one side and one on the other, for the navigator, the wireless operator and the bombardier, whose job it was to get the bombs dropped on target.   

Bomber

The next time you are on an airplane and tempted to complain about the seats, think about these.   Note the overall lack of insulation, it must have been cold as hell up there despite their flight suits.    I can’t imagine those poor kids (and they were mostly 18-25 year old’s), spending 12-14 hours in those tin cans, because that’s exactly what they were……pieces of steel held together by tons of rivets.      

Bomber

Next up was the ball turret position, and the turret jettison kit.   Pity the poor soul who got that position.   Located on the underside of the plane it was designed to prevent attack on the aircraft from below and was usually manned by smallest member of the crew. 

Bomber

The left waist gunner below.     I asked a guy to take my picture here but he missed and took the floor instead.   Note the spool of ammunition attached to the machine gun.   There’s a better picture in this article link

Bomber

The rear/tail gunner position was also bad……so exposed, but important for protecting the back of the plane.     

Bomber

For me, the most poignant part was reading the signatures written on the bomb bay doors.  Back on the ground, I looked underneath, where visiting WW2 veterans were encouraged to sign their names and list the number of missions and their crew members.   Here’s a sample, written on July 21 2014.  Earl Morrow, age 93 years old, but still able to remember everyone and their position, and his three crew members KIA killed in action – something you never forget.  The “Delores” was shot down over Germany after 17 missions, POW 5/45.    The doors were covered with signatures from the stops around the country.   I wish I had taken more pictures of these.  

Bomber

Bomber

Back to those rivets, while my mother was not a Rosie the Riveter, she worked on the inspection table at a die casting plant making aircraft engine parts – nose cones similar to the ones in this picture, but she says they were larger. 

Wallaceburg museum

 Her job as part of the inspection team was to check for holes in the unit, and check the threads for any defects.   About 3 in every 100 were sent back.   She left school at age 16 and was lucky to get hired so young, but an aunt had pulled her in.   Coming out of the Depression, money was not plentiful, but her parents and brother had decided to try and save enough to buy a farm.   They worked long shifts, sometimes up to 10 hours if it was busy, barely seeing each other for weeks.   Because of her young age, she was put on the inspection team.   She can’t remember her exact wage, but thinks it was less than $20 a week, or about $1000 per year.    She said some of the farm girls who came in from the countryside paid $35 every two weeks for room and board and their wages barely covered the cost.    She worked there for almost two years, with no time off for vacation, and when they had enough money saved for a down payment they bought a farm several hours away, right across the road from my dad’s farm, so essentially she married “the boy next door.”    The 100 acre farm cost $5000, but with the expense of buying a team of horses and other livestock and supplies, they had to take out a mortgage, but it was a start to a more prosperous life.   

My grandmother worked in the Brass factory, but married women had shorter hours, as this plaque explains.      

Wallaceburg museum  Wallaceburg museum

These pictures are from a museum in her hometown which we visited this past summer.   She had not been back in many years but was showing some art as part of a jury art show in the adjacent gallery.   The museum was just down the street from where she used to live, so we went to visit her childhood home, and the owner let her come inside.   I had knocked on the door as I didn’t want them to think there was some random stranger taking pictures of the outside of their house.   It was quite nicely renovated.   It sold for $1000 when they moved.   My mom remembers my grandmother sending her down the street with a dollar to pay the hydro bill at what is now the museum building.    And now eighty years later, she is showing her art there, which just goes to show life holds surprises, even when you are older.   Like most women of her generation she did not work outside the home after she married, so it’s nice she has this chance at a late in life career.    

The plane tour over, we stopped at the airport office and although I knew all 300 tickets had sold out quickly, just out of curiosity I asked if there were any tickets left for the dinner dance, and it turned out there were two cancellations, so we grabbed them for the following evening, my mother having now been enticed by the prospect of a nice meal and some big band music.  (When my parents were dating they used to go to dances at a venue on the lake, where Glenn Miller and other famous Big Band musicians played).  You were encouraged to dress in the style of the era, (and a few people did), but because it was so last minute, I ended up raiding my closet – thank god for that 80’s closet. (see The Vintage Corner)   I had made a quick trip to the vintage store looking for some evening gloves or a hat, something to make it more retro, but no luck.   It turned out the night was so hot and sultry, there was no need for gloves.   The first thing I noticed near the entrance to the airport hanger was a yellow dress on a mannequin, similar to mine, only mine was a Laura Ashley sundress with a fuller  skirt.   But I do think mine was nicer, yellow is not a color I wear well but the material was so lovely I had kept it, even though I hadn’t worn it in decades.  (I will admit, the waist was a bit tighter than I remembered).   

Bomber

They had made an effort to dress up the space with white tablecloths and chairs and army décor, but it was still an airplane hangar.   The smell of diesel lingered in the air because the side doors were closed to the evening breeze.      

Bomber

Here’s the orchestra setting up, The Toronto All Star Band, none of them over the age of twenty-five.   That surprised me, as I did not expect young musicians to be too interested in Big Band music, but I suppose a gig is a gig.    You could attend the dance itself for $25.    (Perhaps it was a good thing the airport hanger was so spacious, as last Sunday at the International Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to the Big Bands, we just about got blasted out of the back of the theatre, the music was so loud it drowned out the female vocalist, all those lovely Gershwin lyrics basically inaudible.   So this band in the corner was a nice comfortable distance from the tables, with the dance floor up front the way my mother remembered).   The buffet meal was excellent, well worth the price.   Unfortunately, our table mates were not exactly great dinner companions.   Three couples, who didn’t seem to know each other, two of the guys well on their way to being red-faced inebriated.  The guy beside me was a pilot from a nearby city, but that was the only information I got out of him.   His wife never said a thing all evening.    It’s annoying when you sit beside someone you don’t know at a dinner function and they can’t be bothered to make conversation.  I had introduced my mother as a local painter and said she had worked in a war plant – here is a living piece of WW2 history, in case you want to ask any questions.   No one was interested, except in another drink.   And while the music was excellent, no one danced.   I saw the same ten couples on the dance floor all evening.    After the dinner and speeches and silent auction, they opened the side airport hanger doors to let in some air, and a big gush of wind blew all the table decorations over.    There was lightening in the sky and a storm threatening, so we left after the second set.   My mother was tired by then, and wanted to beat the storm home, which we did, barely.   Before I left, I said, goodnight to my table mates and said, hey guys, don’t forget to ask your wives to dance.   You can bet those young WW2 soldiers did.    It may have been one of the last evenings of their too short lives, but I hope they danced.  Lest we forget. 

If you wish to read more about the airplanes of WW2  I can recommend two excellent books.    The first, Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand, was made into a movie a few years ago, directed by Angelina Jolie, and is based on the true story of a plane crash in the Pacific, the pilot adrift on a raft for weeks, and then rescued and held in a Japanese POW camp.   The thing that struck me about the first part of this book, (his training and missions), was the poor condition of the planes.  They knew a high percentage of them would not even return from the first flight, and the chance of death was even greater when couldn’t parachute to dry land……but still they sent them up.   If they came back damaged, they’d repair them as best they could and send them out again.       

The second book, A Higher Call, by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander, is also a true story about a German flying ace who escorted a badly damaged B-17 Bomber (flown by a 21 year old US pilot on his first mission),  back across the English channel to a British airbase, instead of shooting him down.  Flash forward fifty years later, and the US captain sets out to find the German pilot who saved his life, they meet and become friends.   This too may sound like a Hollywood movie, but a similar thing happened to a local man here.   Late in life, he hunted down the POW’s from the German submarine crew his ship had captured in the Atlantic, and they held a reunion in 1992.   He said it was one of the highlights of his life….a reminder of how the world has changed……and how much it stays the same with war still raging.   Lest we forget.            

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irish Roots

Irish Cottage - AMc - 1988

Irish Cottage – 1988

Genealogy websites are full of facts, names and dates, some accurate some not, but what makes genealogy addicting are the stories that make these people come to life.  Often these stories are only of interest to the family members, but even if you are not a big fan of history, viewed in the broader context of the immigration issue, it might be worthwhile to record one family’s struggle to survive, for we all came from someplace else.   The Irish potato famine (1845-49) was a national tragedy.  One quarter of the Irish population either immigrated or died from starvation or disease.   I think of my Irish ancestor’s story whenever I read of newly arrived immigrants struggling to start over or the desperate migrants escaping on those overloaded boats in the Mediterranean Sea, for this kind of crisis is still going on all over the world.  (see postscript)

A few thoughts on my Irish roots, but first a bit of family history….

              The phase the homeplace (the name of my blog), is self-explanatory to country folk.  While you may own several farms, the homeplace is the one where your home is, or the original homestead.  I grew up on a hundred acre farm which had been settled in 1849 by my Irish ancestors who had immigrated from Leitrim County just before the worst of the potato famine. My great great grandparents Patrick and Mary,

Patrick and Mary
Patrick and Mary – (tin type)

 and four of their six children arrived in Canada penniless in October of 1846 with an original party of twenty or more, having lost three on the coffin ship on the way over and one teenage old son in the Quebec bush when they decided to jump ship in the St. Lawrence River during the cholera quarantine.   I have a record from the National Archives of Canada, dated Oct 16 1846, for the three brothers who had to borrow one pound for water transport from Port Toronto to where they settled.   My great grandfather John, who was fourteen at the time, stayed behind in Ireland because he had a chance to go to school with the overseer/landlord’s son.   He came a year or two later on a ship through New York.  An uncle, the single one of the three brothers, was dispatched to pick him up, although he had little recollection of the journey other than it was a long way along lots of water.   His mother Mary, walked thirty miles along Indian trails through the bush to the nearest post office to get the note telling them when and where he was coming.     It was late October when they arrived here, and the Indians helped them build a hut, otherwise they never would have survived the first winter.   Several years later they bought the homeplace farm – for poor Irish tenant farmers to own land was a dream come true.   They prospered, and John married Ellen a schoolteacher in 1870 and they had nine children.

Family Portrait
John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

  My grandfather, who I never knew as he died before my parents were married, inherited the farm, and is the second from the right back row.  The only one in the picture I ever met was my Aunt Bea, the one with the glasses standing on the far right, as she used to come visit the farm when I was a young child but she died when I was eight so my memory is vague.    I have inherited my mass of frizzy hair from the Irish clan, we all have lots of hair, as well as their deep set eyes.   It is interesting to see the resemblance and family traits down through the generations.   I first started doing genealogy in 2003 when I was between jobs and had lots of time, searching paper records mostly, as there was little online then.  Someday I’ll join Ancestry.com and pick up the trail again.   My father never knew his grandfather so all I have are some notes from him and my uncle, and of course the family stories.   (The homeplace was sold and the house and barn torn down twenty years ago after my dad died.   My mother painted it in 2005 from an aerial photograph, which is the picture on the blog home page and below). 

The Homeplace - AMc - 2005

The Homeplace – 2005

Many of us have these family stories passed down through the years, and of course there are also gaps in the tales – missing pieces.   A favorite past time of genealogists is conjecture, which is a way of filling in those gaps.   Some things I have always wondered about.  How did they make the decision to stay or go, or was it made for them?  They left late in the year when it was evident from the potato blight that the crop had failed.  Did they have to pay their own passage or did the landlord pay it for them?   Who did John stay with when he was left behind?   His grandparents had elected not to make the journey as they were too old, but how did  Mary and Patrick feel about leaving their parents behind?  How hard it would have been to say goodbye, knowing they would never see them again.  Did they die during the potato famine as the worst year 1847 was still to come?  Who paid for John’s passage when he came later?  Presumably by then people were aware of the bad conditions on the coffin ships, so perhaps that is why he came through New York.  And how did Mary feel about leaving her child behind?  I read somewhere that the Irish Catholics were not permitted to be educated, so was the golden opportunity to stay and finish school  such a rarity as to justify what must have been a difficult decision.  Or maybe 14 wasn’t considered a child back then and would it be any different than sending your 17-year-old off to school today?  It must have been devastating for Mary to have lost her oldest son in the bush.  They heard rumors that he was up in northern Ontario but by the time they got word to him he had moved on out west.  (I might have a whole other set of relatives in western Canada, or the US as borders were fluid back then).

My uncle had an interesting story about Mary in his notes.   In the spring of the second year a surveyor came through the woods and inquired who they were.   He informed them there was a letter at a community along the river for them, presumably word of where and when John was to arrive.  Mary, reportedly a tall robust woman, set out walking to collect it.  There were no roads then, just a blazed trail with trees felled across the swamp land to walk on.  When she got to the post office six miles away, they told her they had sent it to a hamlet four miles south, so she walked along the river to that post office, where they told her they had not known of any family by that name so they had sent the letter on to a bigger town to the north, so she walked along the river to that town and finally got the letter.  She must have been overjoyed to finally get the letter, although it is doubtful she could read it as she signed the land deeds with an X.   It began to get dark, and Patrick became worried that she had not come home.  He set out along the trail and encountered her carrying a big sack of flour on her head which she had purchased in the town.  All told she had walked about thirty miles to get the letter!    I sometimes think of this story when I’m sitting at my little farm table (1870), which is my computer desk.  Could they have ever imagined a future world of instant communication, Skype and email?

And what about John, how did he feel about being left behind, separated from his family and witness to all those people dying.  Were his grandparents still alive when he left?   Was he all alone on the ship or traveling with people he knew?   Would he have been worried that he wouldn’t be able to find his uncle on the docks in New York, or that he wouldn’t show up at all.   By the few accounts we have, in his later years he was a gruff old man (and he looks gruff in the picture), but is that the gruffness of poor health and old age or from damage to one’s psyche at a young age?   Were the conditions on his ship any better than on the Canadian ships?

For an understanding of the conditions on the coffin ships, check out…..Famine Diary by James J. Mangan, a first person tale of the journey, based on Gerald Keegan’s diary.  (Goodreads link)  A must read for anyone of Irish descent, it is a disturbing account.  There is such a memorable description of the hunger of the potato famine, that to this day, I can not stand to see a scrap of potato left uneaten on a plate without thinking of the heartbreaking descriptions in this book.   Although their tenant farms were small, an acre of land could grow enough potatoes to sell and to keep ten people fed over the winter, but when the blight hit, there was nothing to sell or to eat.   (Another good book is The Coming of the Irish to Canada – Flight from Famine – by Donald Mackay).

And what about that tale of jumping ship?  Is it even plausible?  My uncle’s notes say the ship hit rough weather and head winds and took six weeks to cross the Atlantic.  Ships fever broke out and three of their party died, but which three?  Whoever they were, their burial would have been at sea.  They arrived at an island in the St. Lawrence for quarantine, most likely Grosse Isle.   It was a requirement that all be in good heath for several weeks before proceeding to the mainland, but the immigration post on the island was grossly understaffed, so there were many ships lined up in the river waiting to unload.   First one got sick, then another, and time began to pass.  Finally, they arranged to be smuggled to the mainland from where they promptly disappeared into the bush to avoid the authorities.  This is how they lost their son, as there would have been no way to find him.  But how did he get separated?  Did some of them elect to swim over?  Or did they bribe someone to row them over, seven of the fourteen were children, two young babies, so that is more likely the case.   Is this any different than the migrants now on the boats in the Mediterranean?  You take your chance for survival, for you and your children.  How did they eventually get to where they settled?  They had to apply for a loan of one pound (National Archive record) for water transport, so we know they were broke, and even if they had any money they would have had to pay the smugglers.    I was only able to account for 14 people on the journey, all descendants from the three brothers, plus the 3 who died, so who were the others and did some of the party remain in quarantine.   Why did they come to the area where they settled?  Someone in Ireland knew where to send the letter re John’s arrival so they must have had some idea of where they were going to settle, unless they sent word back home after they were here.  I have tantalizing tidbits about a relative who might have been here already, but I have been unable to trace it further like so many dead ends in genealogy.   Genealogy is like a jigsaw puzzle you try to piece together, but sometimes the pieces just don’t fit.  So many unanswered questions…I would like to be a time traveler for a day to fill in the blanks.

When they arrived here it was October and winter was soon upon them.  The advertisements that went up about Lower Canada depicted it as having abundant food and game and a tropical climate, so they arrived with bare feet and straw hats, unaware that Canada had snow.  The Indians helped them erect some kind of hut to get through the first winter.

First Homestead - AMc - 2017

First Homestead –  2017

They didn’t know the countryside was covered in forest and the drainage poor until they arrived.  They were frequently sick from drinking stagnant swamp water.  They spent the next year clearing enough trees on higher ground to erect a house and permit the planting of crops.  The local Indians were friendly and played a major role in showing them how to survive, although they never knocked prior to entering, so when the men were all out in the fields an Indian would walk into the house and scare the womenfolk, as they had heard many stories of scalping.  (My apologies to the indigenous people but those were the fears at the time).   My uncle’s notes say that at first, they would gladly have returned to Ireland, but after a few years they moved to a different site, (the homeplace), with better soil and drainage, and things improved rapidly to well above what they would have had in Ireland.  They were land owners, and at least there was plenty of food to eat.  I can trace their increasing prosperity through the agricultural census, so many acres cleared, bushels of corn and wheat, livestock owned.  Eventually they must have had enough money to have their pictures taken, the pictures are tintypes, probably from around 1865.   By the early 1900’s, John and Ellen had wallpaper and crystal and monogrammed silverware in the old farmhouse.

Christmas on the Farm
Christmas Dinner on the Farm

 I still have the crystal bowl in this picture, in fact I have several of these bowls from the attic, family heirlooms.

My mother used to make potato soup when we were growing up, which was basically a bland affair of mashed potatoes, milk, a bit of onion for flavor, and salt and pepper.   It was my father’s family recipe, and upon retrospect, that was probably what they ate back in Ireland, nothing fancy.  We thought it was good at the time but had nothing to compare it with.   I still love potato soup but have moved on to more flavorful varieties.   It’s strange but I don’t remember eating potato soup at all when I was in Ireland in the 1980’s.  I had tacked a few days onto a trip to venture into Leitrim County, which was off the beaten tourist path.  After spending a few days viewing microfilm at the Dublin library, I took the train to Carrick-on-Sharon, as I was not brave enough to drive on the left, with all those white cross marks on the road pointing out where tourists had been killed.  I’ll leave that story for another time, as it is long and involves a hired driver not a day under eight-five who kept falling asleep at the wheel, and a foggy cab ride to a churchyard lost in the mountain mists in what I am sure must be the most desolate part of the country.  (see March 2019 blog – A Visit to An Irish Graveyard).    It was a surreal experience, but I could see why they left, nothing but rocks, and not picturesque rocks by the sea like in Connemara.  How could they ever have farmed such poor land?  Sometimes it is better to make the decision to leave for hope of a better life.   Some day I would like to go back and rent a cottage for a month and see if I can find any long-lost kin, as the priest had gruffly remarked that the area was polluted with people of my surname.

My father would always call me on St. Patrick’s Day and say, “Top of the Morning to you,” and I would answer, “and the rest of the day to you!”  It’s a great day to be Irish, but even if you’re not, I hope you enjoy some green beer or Irish coffee.   

Quote of the Day:   “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”    (from plaque on the Statue of Liberty)   

The Lakes of Killarney - AMc - 2018

The Lakes of Killarney – AMc – 2018

Song of the Day:   That’s an Irish Lullaby – Bing Crosbymusic link

Over in Killarney, many years ago
My mother sang a song to me in tones so soft and low
Just a simple little ditty in her good old Irish way
And I’d give the world if I could hear that song of hers today

Postscript:  For those interested in reading more about the very complicated issue of the Mediterranean migrant crisis I recommend two books,  Cast away: true stories of survival from Europe’s refugee crisis, by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, a journalist, which chronicles the journey of several individuals and families, and Tears of Salt by Dr. Pietro Bartolo, a physician’s story of the medical treatment of the refugees on an island off the coast of Italy.   Both are excellent reads.  

Ann and Hugh

Great Aunt Ann and Hugh – (tintype)