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.

I have an old photograph.

I have an old photograph. I don’t know who took it and I’m not sure exactly when it was taken, but it must have been sometime in 1944 because in the picture my father is holding in his arms my step-sister, Denise, who was born on January 10th, 1943. In the photograph she appears to be a year old or so, which would mean the photo would have been taken sometime in mid 1944. Given that my father’s first wife, Yvonne, died on June 22nd, 1945, it stands to reason that the photo was taken sometime in 1944. It doesn’t look like Yvonne was pregnant at the time with Roger, but she may have been.

There is no obvious way to tell where the photo was taken, but the ground is dry and there’s no snow. I’m guessing it was taken somewhere in or close to New Westminster, British Columbia. Actually everyone in the photo is dressed for a nice, warmish spring day, and they’re all standing in front of my father’s 1929 Ford Model T.

In the photo, my father’s first wife, Yvonne, is farthest on the left. She is standing just behind my step-sister, Lucille, who at that time was two years old or so and she has her hands resting on Lucille’s shoulders. Next to her on her right is my father and he, as I said, is holding Denise. Standing next to him is my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier at the time. Next to her is Rémi Leguerrier who married my father’s older sister, Isabelle, and farthest on the right is my aunt, Cécile, mother’s older sister. Uncle Rémi, standing between them, has his arms around the shoulders of my mother and my aunt. He’s smiling too. The children are not smiling, neither is Yvonne although she may have been suffering from morning sickness and that might explain why.

Who could know when this picture was taken that my father’s first wife would be dead within the year and my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier would be his new wife within two years. So, here we have my father flanked by his wives. Never would he have guessed at that moment, smiling for the camera, holding his youngest daughter, that Yvonne would be gone and that he would be scrambling to find a way to look after his five daughters while still going to work. The picture tells nothing of the sorrow to come.

As it turns out, my father and Yvonne had over the years since moving to British Columbia in 1936 made friends with the nuns who ran St. Mary’s hospital in New Westminster where all their children would be born. Apparently my mother had worked there for a time and it was they who suggested, after Yvonne died, that my father ask my mother to come help look after the children while he went to work in local sawmills. That wasn’t a stretch, because the Albert family knew the Leguerrier clan when everyone was still living in the vicinity of Bonnyville, Alberta a few years before. So, my father knew my mother’s family before a number of them migrated to BC during the Depression looking for work. My father was resourceful and capable of doing various kinds of mill-related work so he was able to find employment. My mother too.

When Yvonne died, my father asked my mother if she would help and she agreed that she would. Months later, actually it wasn’t too many months later, my father had my grandfather and grandmother come to New Westminster to look after the children because my mother had returned to Alberta unexpectedly it seemed. It turns out that she had returned to Alberta anticipating that my father would join her shortly so they could be married in Alberta at Fort Kent and both return to New Westminster as husband and wife.

Now my step-sisters had a new mom. My mother was only twelve years older than my oldest step-sister, Hélène. That caused minor friction to start with because when Yvonne died my father had told Hélène that she would now have to be mommy to the four younger ones. Now, she was being displaced as mother of the family but that animosity soon dissipated because my mother had lived with them for a few months already giving time for attachments to grow between them.

I cannot imagine that my father was not steeped in pain and sorrow during that whole time, but he had no other choice but to carry on.  Sorrow must give way to children and their needs.