Rushing to print is often a mistake.

Rushing to print is often a mistake and I do believe I rushed to print with my last couple of posts. I think that was a mistake. Research can often turn up evidence from the past that makes a lie out of what we thought was true. Does this really matter? Maybe. Not certainly. It depends on what we want to depict, on what we want to understand and have understood.  I could write fiction, drawn from my imagination, enriched by my experience. How would that be different than what I am doing here? The ‘truth’ of fiction is in how believable it is, how sympathetic the characters are and how ‘realistic’ the scenes. In turning my gaze on my family, I enter a very different realm than I would occupy writing fiction. Of necessity, family histories are mostly fiction, the details of lives lived drowned in a sea of unrecorded continuity just as one tree can be made insignificant standing in a forest. Moments that stand out get into the history books.  Sometimes, they are recorded in a photograph.  More often not. When writing about family, the truth sometimes comes out slowly, not always in one go.  Even the ‘truth’ of a photograph, objective as it might seem, can be revealed more fully in all its complexity when the past, present and future of the depicted scene are entertained.

When I look at the picture I analyze in my last post, I am struck by the innocence of the scene, the mundane aspect of it.  The full impact and relevance of the scene cannot be appreciated at first glance. The scene is nothing outside of its living context. The people depicted in the photograph have no idea what awaits them in the near future, the death, panic and sorrow that they will suffer, as well as the love and sacrifice that will energize life and make it livable for them. What can I see in their faces? Nothing that belies their future. My mother would never have dreamed when this picture was taken that within 3 years she would be having a baby with the man standing next to her in this picture, a man married to the woman who stood just on the other side of him, both of whom had been her family’s close friends for years.

Now, I must make a correction to my previous post where I suggest that Yvonne died on June 22nd, 1945, because it was rumoured my father couldn’t afford a transfusion which would have saved Yvonne’s life. That may still be true, but I now know that my father had asked my mother and aunts to give blood to save his wife. Cecile donated blood sometime after midnight on June 22nd, but it was too little too late.   I learned this by looking through calendars my sister Claudette created for us over the years which contain pages from a diary my mother kept for a few years during the 1940s. It may be that my father had to find blood donors himself because he didn’t have the money to buy blood from the usual sources.  I find this difficult to believe because St. Mary’s was a Catholic hospital and I can’t imagine they would let someone die who couldn’t afford a blood transfusion, but no one lives who can set the record straight.  That makes the photo I introduce in my last post even more compelling to me because now, Cecile, my wonderful older aunt, standing on the far right in this picture, is also intimately involved in the final stages of the drama that was to unfold at St. Mary’s Hospital on June 22nd, 1945.  Death in childbirth was not as common in 1945 as it had been in previous generations but everyone knew that it was a dangerous time.  Yvonne was 29 years old, a mother of five daughters.  Such a tragedy.

It seems my mother and her family were very close to my father and his family for some time before they were married.  There was much socializing between the families starting in Alberta around Bonnyville and continuing in and around New Westminster in British Columbia.  My mother’s diary is full of references to visits to my father’s home in the years leading up to June, 1945.  She writes on Sunday, January 7th, 1945: “My day off [from work at St. Mary’s Hospital]. Went to Zenons for supper and a party.  Stayed until 3 AM.  Had lots of fun…”  On Sunday, March 11th, “I went to Zenons for supper then to a card party. I won $1.50 first prize womens. Zenon won $10.00 door prize…had lunch at Fraser Café with Albert and Gill, Mrs. Lagrange and Zenons.” The close familiarity between the Alberts and Leguerriers is evident in the photograph and it waits patiently, silent in the background to give added meaning to the scene for those who wish to know. The events to unfold in the following few months can only be understood in light of the tight bonds that existed in the community of ‘ex pats’ from Alberta now living in British Columbia.

A photograph can hide as much as it shows.  It can give us the impression of time stopped for an instant, frozen in a way that allows us to return to contemplate the moment, to relive the essence of a snapshot, lingering and maybe meditating on it.  It’s an illusion, of course, but that doesn’t prevent us from taking pictures, from trying to momentarily pause the clock. But clocks are stubborn things.  They stop for no one.

I have another photograph.  This one was probably taken on June 25th, 1945, the day of Yvonne’s funeral. She was buried along with her son, Roger, in St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery in New Westminster.  It shows my father kneeling before Yvonne’s grave which is covered in flowers, his five daughters by his side.  The same day, my father asked my mother to quit her job at St. Mary’s Hospital, come work for him and look after the girls.

Life is complicated.

I  don’t mean this series of posts to be or become an exposé of my family’s little secrets. I have not discussed this series with my family members at all.  I’m sure they would have very different memories and impressions of the lives we shared than I do.  I use some of the incidents and events I know about or have some impression of as a means of expressing my sense of the complexity of life and especially of relationships both personal and social.

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Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. People are complicated. Take my father, for instance. He was intelligent, generous, level headed and kind hearted, but at times he had fits of anger that were shocking because they were so out of character for him. He teased us mercilessly, sometimes to distress. He could be, and was, physically violent on rare occasions. We never spoke of such things so I have no way of knowing what were the deep-seated causes of his rare bouts of uncontrollable anger. He was never violent towards my mother that I know of, but he beat my older sisters one time that I recall very vividly. From what I remember, my sisters were whining and complaining about doing the dishes or some such thing, probably yelling and screaming, fighting amongst themselves when my father, for some reason had had enough of it. He let fly with a pot that was handy, hitting them with it repeatedly until they were all cowered on the floor, weeping and in shock. I might have been six or seven years old at the time and I remember cowering myself in the hallway, by the bathroom door wondering what could possibly be going on. To this day as I think about it, I can still feel the sense of fear that overwhelmed me at the time. I don’t recall anyone discussing it much after the fact, but it was traumatic and definitely left an impression. That I do recall.

 

He hit me too on the odd occasion for various reasons. I was no angel as a child and I may not always have conducted myself with the propriety and reasonableness that should, of course, inform the actions of all well-behaved five year old boys. I remember one time when at about six years of age, maybe seven, I smacked a kid (accidentally, of course) over the head with a garden hoe drawing a substantial amount of blood. No serious damage done, but you know how head wounds can bleed. I got ‘the strap’ for that one. When my father got home from work that day and my mother had conferred with him telling him of all the sordid details of my great misdead, his duty (I presume he saw it as that) would be to clinically administer several blows to my open hand with a rubber and leather strap he had gotten from his workplace and which he kept on a kitchen shelf for just such occasions. He did not draw blood, but in his mind I had to learn that there were consequences for what I had done. The logical course of action was for him to hit me, a perfectly acceptable and even expected thing to do at the time.

 

My father was driven by a sense of duty to his church, his family, and French-Canadian tradition. He did not question his duty to have as many children as God expected of him and he took great joy in each of us. He was ill-educated in the formal sense. He never learned to read nor write although he could do rudimentary arithmetic. He might have made it only to grade four in school but it was not because he was incapable of schoolwork, but because he was needed to work on the farm in Alberta and for other reasons not of concern here for the moment.   He seldom drank alcohol and didn’t smoke but he did gamble every once in a while. He was what most people would have called “a good man” in the day. He worked hard and rose to management positions in lumber mills around the Lower Mainland in spite of his illiteracy.

 

I don’t know if what I am about to write is true or not, but it may very well be given the time. It was 1945, June 22nd. The war would be over soon. Normally this day would be a time for celebration, but this day would not be one of those. This day my father’s wife, Yvonne, would die in childbirth. She was an otherwise healthy 29 year old woman who had already given him five daughters. This day, something would go horribly wrong in the delivery room and Yvonne would bleed to death. Her newborn son would also die in the deIivery room. I heard it said that Yvonne died because my father couldn’t afford a blood transfusion that would have saved her life. I don’t know that to be true, but just imagining what he had to go through with his wife dying in childbirth and five young daughters to look after at home I expect that he was wrought with anger, panic and despair no matter how his wife had died. He may have believed that it was God’s will. I’m certain my father thought about that wretched day in 1945 every subsequent day of his life.