My Uncle Lester passed away a few weeks ago. Les was my father’s oldest brother. He was 87. He wanted no ceremony, nothing done to mark his passing. It seems to be the way of my family.
As most people do, Les left behind a lot of things, from kitchen gadgets and a cupboard full of spices (he was an excellent cook) to items he and his wife, my aunt Joan, collected over the years, including a lovely Depression glass dish and gold-rimmed plates that now sit in my china cabinet.
But to me, the greatest treasure is a box of old family photographs. For me, to look at them is to tumble deep into my family’s history.
This formidable couple are either my father’s maternal grandparents, or his great-uncle and aunt. Dad wasn’t sure, but judging from the similarities to a later photo labeled ‘grandfather’, I think the couple are my great-grandparents. Their picture sends shivers down my spine. There’s something decidedly eerie about it.
Then there are these, taken around 1930. The children are Les and a cousin. Dad wasn’t certain which is which. The photos were taken at my great-grandfather Atkinson’s lumber camp in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia, where my grandparents lived early in their marriage.
This was Depression era rural Nova Scotia. The hardships were painfully real, but so was the joy. I smell the scents of damp wool, melting snow and horse. I remember my grandfather’s story about the moose that moved into the barn one winter when he was young. I can’t find words for what I feel – not exactly grief, but a yearning close to sadness – not so much for the people as for their stories. Stories that, ordinary and unremarkable as they are, blend together to make me who I am.
This is a later picture of my father and his siblings, taken in 1941. Dad is the youngest. They were a close-knit family, and they remained so, even though their careers led them to spread out across Canada as adults. They may have had very few material things growing up, but they were rich in the things that mattered – laughter, love and loyalty.
And here is one of my father’s parents as a young couple in the late 1920s or early 1930s. What were they thinking? What were their hopes and dreams? Did any of them come true? I only know that they were intensely proud of their children, who all went on to build successful careers and loving families of their own. I wonder if it ever occurred to my grandparents that their family should be – and was – proud of them, too.
I’ll treasure these links to the past – my past – and when I’m faced with challenges, I’ll draw strength from the strength of those who came before me. Can anyone leave a better legacy? I don’t think so.