Dig through your couch cushions, your purse, or the floor of your car and look at the year printed on the first coin you find. What were you doing that year?
In the desk drawer to my right ~ where I keep paper clips, and pencils and the like ~ there’s a small ornamental bowl where the tiny things dwell. In it I find three coins, and opt to go with the now extinct ~ the Canadian penny.
Poor old penny. A relic from a time when we cared about pocket change.
The date on this penny? Well, there are two. It seems to be a commemorative coin … 1867-1992, it says … signifying 125 years of Canadian confederation.
Since I wasn’t even a hint of a gleam in anyone’s eye in 1867, I’ll focus on 1992 ~ a year on the downward slide, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Indeed, I don’t recall much of it. You know … that dissociation thing.
I was 29 years old and floundering. It was the year my marriage began to disintegrate (the seven year itch is not a fallacy.)
It was the year we tried to have a baby (thinking, at some level, it might help to save the marriage … duh!) Two (or three) failed in-vitro attempts and their subsequent terrible emotional, hormone-induced breakdowns later, my husband’s telling me I belong in the nut house (his exact words) and I’m telling him there will be no baby unless it happens naturally, because I am not going through that hell again.
Well, there was no “nut house” for me (but years of therapy after I left him), and no baby either. Thank god for small mercies. Not that I didn’t want children, just not under those conditions.
Anything good in 1992? Hmmmmm …
I was gainfully employed and on the public relations career track, writing for a living ~ producing a weekly newsletter circulated to a membership of 25,000 realtors. I also produced copy for and edited the monthly employee newsletter and other promotional materials as needed. I loved it! My secretarial years well and truly behind me. This is when I started taking a serious interest in photography as well, as I needed to produce images for these publications.
Musically, I was singing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. I don’t recall everything we performed that year, but there were at least five Handel’s Messiah concerts at Christmas, and four Beethoven Ninth’s in the summer, all with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall. The choir, though dependent mostly on amateurs (who must all pass a rigorous audition process) supported by a professional core of about 16 voices, has upwards of 30 performances a year. So, my involvement with the choir kept me quite busy learning music and attending rehearsals at least once per week. I believe I was also serving on the Choir’s Communication’s Committee.
The Choir was my sanity; the musical panacea for my broken heart. The only thing I had that kept me sound. For, you see, in those days there were no horses in my life. I’d given them up “for good” in 1990 after an incident that stressed me beyond my will to want to ride again. And, though I didn’t realize it at the time, the stress of not being around horses at all was taking an even greater toll.
So, 1992, the year the Cold War officially ended, Prince Charles and Lady Di agreed to separate, the Summer Olympics were held in Barcelona, The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture at the Oscars, Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for the last time and Lawrence Welk died, was a year I’m not inclined to revisit too often.
I guess the best that can be said about this year is that my eye’s were beginning to open … and I had my music.
As George Frideric Handel and the angels would say, “Hallelujah!”
Tell us about a sensation — a taste, a smell, a piece of music — that transports you back to childhood.
One of my clearest and happiest memories of childhood takes place just before my family disintegrated.
As I’ve mentioned before, exposure to classical music was an integral part of my upbringing. When I was five years old the family lived in Toronto while my mother was going to opera school. Because she also worked in a hospital lab by night we rarely saw her. Dad was there for my brother and I, but I have no memories of him being that devoted.
Naturally, because of mom’s career trajectory we listened to a lot of opera. And, I fell in love with it.
Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni) was among my favourites. (Yes, imagine that as a five-year-old’s memory). I can even remember the record cover and studying the intricate details of the graphic design.
However, my strongest memory is powered by the profoundly beautiful dramatic opera, La Traviata(Verdi).
Mom had a record of highlights which I remember we listened to quite often. My favourite soprano aria was, and still is, Sempre Libera ~ Violetta’s big vocal moment. When I hear this incredible aria, I’m transported back to a Sunday afternoon (might have been Saturday) in our apartment living room when my parents were having friends from the opera school over for a visit.
Though I don’t recall exactly how the moment unfolded or even if I sang the whole thing (that would be asking too much), I do remember Sempre Libera playing on the stereo and me at centre stage in the middle of the room, commanding attention and singing my heart out. I believe I even did a little dance toward the end. My own Violetta unleashed.
Of course, everyone clapped and for that moment ~ a rare moment ~ I felt special in the eyes of both my parents at the same time.
As the years went by and my mother’s career blossomed, she performed the role of Violetta in London and beyond. This, naturally, only increased my love for, and connection with, this opera .
The last time I saw/heard La Traviata “live” was in Prague in 2008. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to go and a wonderful production that only added to my special memories.
I would never label anyone as dumb or a dummy. The term is abusive. The very idea of it makes my head spin.
As a certified Equine Canada coach (Level 1), Bronze certified trainer in the natural horsemanship methods of Chris Irwin, and a recent practitioner of Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning there’s one thing I know for sure ~ treating students as reasonably intelligent beings (or at least giving them the benefit of the doubt) and then being flexible enough to teach each one in a way that gives them the best opportunity to learn is, in my opinion, the best way to go.
Why am I so hung up about the culture of dumb?
My late maternal grandfather was a troubled soul and terrible misogynist. He also had a propensity for declaring that all women are dumb, and reminded my grandmother, my mother and, by extension (though I saw him maybe five times in my entire life) me, of this fact on a regular basis.
Naturally this became a canker in the family psyche and the source of much unhappiness and ruinous despair.
My granny, a petite and demure (but feisty) woman of Scottish heritage and from a good family, struggled under his awful tyranny for 27 years. Just before she left him (in 1961 at age 45) she took a beauty course. Grandpa let her because, he reasoned, it would mean that he, a labourer who never held down a job for very long, wouldn’t have to work so hard if she had a steady income.
After graduation granny escaped with her life (she needed police protection for a while), moving back to Alberta and setting up shop in the area where she was raised after her family emigrated from Scotland. Over time she recovered enough from the abuse to be able to build a thriving beauty business. At age 78 she died with a nicer paid-for home, a newer paid-for car and more money in her bank account than my pitiful grandfather was ever able to accumulate.
He died a pauper in northern Montana.
As for his daughter, my mother, despite impossible odds she somehow managed to turn her passion for singing into an international operatic career. A miracle of achievement if ever there was one. Few are aware of the uphill battle she fought to reach the heights of her career with the “culture of dumb” resonating so cruelly in the background.
I admire both of these strong women and the example they have set as I engage in my own mid-life wrestling match with the familial culture of dumb.
So, don’t ask me to educate anyone as if they’re a dummy. I will find a way to teach a person what they need to know in the way they need to learn, and know, it.
In the words of Forrest Gump … “That’s all I have to say about that.”
We are admonished by some that history belongs in the past. And perhaps it does.
I’m here to offer, however, that we ignore history at our peril, especially as it pertains to our family. The people who preceded us were shaped by world events and their experiences. How they were shaped, shapes us.
I believe that if we are to be able to move forward positively with our lives, and leave history behind, it is important to examine the past, how it effects us, and make peace with it.
Allow me to demonstrate, albeit scratching the surface, with my own experience.
I am well acquainted with my family history.
After a considerable amount of time spent in my early 20s researching through old family documents, records libraries and history books (in the days before the Internet, I might add), and with the help of professional genealogists, I managed to trace branches of my family tree back to the Middle Ages. Perhaps, more importantly, I began to see the ancestral story that is the backdrop to my life and learn to appreciate, for good or ill, its impact on me.
I began to recognize the sources of prejudice and the pain, of strength and courage. Began to see the talents and traits that had passed down the generations and landed on my doorstep. Ideas, beliefs and emotions that had been programmed into me and that I could examine, accept (or reject) according to my own sense of truth.
This is the story in a nutshell. You’ll likely notice some recurring themes:
My illustrious German and English ancestors settled in New England in the late 1600s, and made lives as magistrates, farmers and politicians. At the time of the American Revolution my branch of the family tree sided with the British (United Empire Loyalist (UEL)) and fought with the notorious Butler’s Rangers. With all their lands and possessions confiscated the remaining family walked from Poughkeepsie, NY, to Niagara, Ontario (Upper Canada at the time) to start a new life. My direct line ancestor was the first white settler in Middlesex County (the area now known as London).
A couple of generations down the road this family linked up with my Irish ancestors who, in the 1850s, fled the effects of the great potato famine to start a new life as farmers in southern Ontario. My Irish great, great grandmother is purported to have been mad (which looks about right when I consult the old photo in the family archives). Her mental instability left its mark on my great grandfather who grew up to be a rather unpleasant man. The upside ~ being Irish, of course, music was part of the way of life so wherever they settled they became a part of the local music scene. In northern Michigan, where they were farmers for a time, they proudly played in the local brass bands.
A generation or two later, in the late 1800s, the family left Michigan and trekked west across the northern US, helping to build the Great Northern Railway along the way. Eventually they settled in Montana, where the railroad ended, and successfully ran a railroad cafe. My great aunt Margaret, an artist in her own right, studied painting with iconic Western painter, Charles Russell. (A little name dropping never hurts. 😉 ) Her natural forté, however, was apple sculpture.
Around 1920 my great grandparents headed north to Canada, settling in southern Alberta. My great grandfather owned a barber shop and pool hall in town as well as farmed. They did well for a few years before losing everything during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 30s. This took a terrible emotional and financial toll from which they, and their three teenage sons, including my grandfather, never fully recovered. They, like many other families in the area, moved hundreds of miles to northern Alberta to clear more land and start again. Music was the main social outlet and a positive focal point in a home filled with strife. My grandfather, a charismatic (mad) drifter, could play any instrument you handed him.
In the early 1920s my genteel Scottish great grandparents, well into middle age, left their comfortable life in Glasgow, Scotland, to give their eight children a chance at a better life in Canada. (My great grandfather was a retired soldier in the Black Watch.) With a 100-acre land grant from the Canadian government at their disposal they made the uncomfortable journey by boat across the pond and then by train across the prairies to begin a new life as homesteaders in northern Alberta. (I am told that my great grandmother once confessed that if she’d known how hard the life was going to be she would have stayed in Scotland.)
It was a rude awakening from Old World charm to New World insanity ~ clearing fields, building barns and log homes, battling hungry mosquitoes in the summer and enduring long and fiercely cold winters. It was a difficult life that tested the family in many ways. My grandmother, an independent spirit and therefore considered the “black sheep” of the family, adored her horse and sang like a bird. She married the charismatic (mad) musician of Irish descent and endured 27 years of emotional abuse before leaving him and striking out to successfully rebuild her own life. It was at this time she discovered her talent for oil painting. (Theirs is a compelling story that I started to put in a novel some time ago. I might finish it one day.)
They had one daughter, my mother, who excelled as a singer and miraculously found her place on the international operatic stage based in London, England, which is where I grew up. You’d have to know her parents’ story to understand why it was such a miracle she had this career. I wish she’d write a memoir.
My Hungarian roots were planted in southern Alberta in the 1920s. Peasant stock seeking a new life in a new land. Hardworking but dysfunctional. My nagymama was not allowed to learn English. I recall, however (and I only saw her twice when I was a little girl) she had a lovely productive garden, was a wonderful cook and created the most beautiful lace work. Still, like my other grandmother, hers was a troubled marriage. Nagypapa was a troubled soul. My father ran away from home when he was 14. He became writer; a musician; jack of all trades and master of none. A deadbeat dad. (Though I doubt he’d ever see it that way. If he ever disputes me on this I’ll be happy to engage.)
Again, this is the tip of the iceberg but, perhaps, you notice the general themes: a lot of starting over; a lot of emotional and financial hardship. Good, hardworking, industrious people with their share of trials and tribulations. People of courage, strength and character. Music, the panacea; the source of joy, of laughter and relief.
Traces of Me
And here I am ~ a veritable melting pot of all of this, plus everything I brought to the world, plus all the things I’ve experienced since I was born.
The marvellous thing is that understanding my family’s story has helped me to understand myself.
Coming from a long line of musicians, artists and writers has been a great blessing. I have sung in one of the world’s great symphonic choirs. Performed in my own vocal group and recorded three CDs. I have been a commissioned animal portrait artist and produced a number of veil paintings. I have written all my life and presently pour my creative focus into the writer’s path.
I have a passion for the land because it is in my blood. We were never city people. My passion for horses rises from this love of the land.
Several years ago, while I was going through divorce, I had an intense dream about my ancestors and awoke in the early morning to write a 20-page journal entry about family history. In the process I realized my purpose ~ to stop the pain. To give myself a chance of a new life unencumbered by the weight of the past. In the ensuing years I have worked tirelessly to make this happen.
As I have no children (my brother and I are the last twigs on this particular branch of our family tree) my focus must be to blossom to my full potential while reclaiming my right to thrive. To go out in a blaze of glory, honouring my place in the world while remembering those who came before and made my journey on the planet possible, is my sincere desire.
I have worked extremely hard over the past several years to release the past, so the traces of me that live on in the lives of those I influence are positive, uplifting, meaningful and joyful.
My own journey of moving on and rebuilding a life is not, perhaps, the arduous geographic and physical challenge of my ancestors. Nevertheless it tests my mettle and proves my character, and it is my choice to reclaim the triumph of spirit demonstrated by generations past who lead me by their example.
My mother and late grandmother, each in their own way, escaped emotional tyranny to rebuild their lives on their terms. They are my inspiration as I continue to rebuild my life and endeavour to inspire and move, through art, music and the written word.
Traces of me leaving traces of inspiration in others.