Postcards from Katherine

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Postcard #37, From Canmore: When We Were Young


Postcard #37-Sparkie

One night when my mother was about eighty-five she gathered us – the daughters, their partners, a few of the grandchildren who happened to be in town – and got us to sit in the dusty pink upholstered chairs and on the flowered sofa in the living room. She stood in front of the fireplace facing us. She loved speeches. She wanted us to know about all the jobs my father had held in his life. She wanted to pass on the list before it was too late, before she forgot. She would never have admitted, however, that time was getting short. Although she died at ninety-five she was not old. Old was not in her lexicon.

She began to recite.

Butcher’s delivery boy. Drugstore delivery boy. Sparkie at a logging camp. (The sparkie’s job is to make sure any spark from a machine or a cigarette is put out before it starts a fire. See above.) Grave digger.

Grave digger?

Mostly for babies, Dad said. That was in the depression when he was at university and couldn’t get a job in Vancouver and he’d gone up the coast to Powell River where things were even worse.


The other guy was an older man, he said. He liked to do the back slope of the roof because it was out of sight and he could drink and fall asleep. Dad worked on the front where the owner could see him.

Barrel-washer at an oil refinery, logger, lab assistant. On it went. It humbled us, sipping wine in the house that was built in the sixties and is now considered “mid-century modern”. The list went on to the jobs we knew about. Modest as ever, Mum failed to mention her own jobs, which were traditional, ongoing and had included, when the youngest of us was six, going back to school and becoming a teacher of Canadian literature.

I am not standing in front of the fireplace but sitting in front of my computer screen. It is the last day of Canada being 149. Are we getting old? Surely not, but it does get harder to remember the past. Before they are forgotten I want to list the jobs people in my family had, going back to Confederation.

A widow of fifty with five children was the first to come here. She left a couple of them in England but the others she brought, because otherwise, how could they make a life? I’m not sure how she survived. Then farmers. Failed farmers. Bachelor farmers. Farmers who moved to the States. A ship’s carpenter in Parry Sound, a job which led to death at forty from rheumatic fever. Legacy jobs, I think you’d call them. Do people do them any more?

Another widow, teaching “difficult” children who could not fit in the school system, for a dollar a year per student. Music teacher. Clerk in a general store. Owner of a general store on the prairies. Mayor of Eyebrow, Saskatchewan. Bankrupted owner of a general store. Station master on the Canadian Pacific Railroad, a runaway from the United States. School teacher, again. Lots of school teachers, the only job a woman could get.

Moving on a generation or two: importer of fabrics, nanny, cook and housekeeper for four orphan siblings who came from Yorkshire. Landlady. Menswear salesman. Carpenter. House-builder. Soldier. Reporter. City editor. Hat store owner.

On again, another generation, as the family joins the seated classes. Professor. Civil servant. Again teachers, writers, engineers, artists.

All that work from the beginning, jobs done with blood, sweat, tears and the firm belief in “getting ahead”. This week I heard a dozen immigrant women talk about why they came to Canada. Some were running away from conflict and poverty, but most were running to this country to find freedom and an education for their children. The particulars are different; the need is the same.

It is fashionable to say we are all immigrants. We are not. The people who immigrate are immigrants. They alone go through the shattering and transformative experience. In years past they took generations to get comfortable. The status of immigrant is not something bequeathed. What is bequeathed is this other thing, which is not without its challenges, this responsibility to cherish and improve the country they helped to build.


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