The Matter of Place

Off the top…a great book recommendation made by Bill MacDonnell, Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama.

From the section of Streams of Consciousness Chapter 5…this preface by Gaston Bachelard.

“I was born in a country of brooks and rivers, in a corner of Champagne, called Le Vallage for the great number of its valleys. The most beautiful of its places for me was the hollow of a valley by the side of fresh water, in the shade of willows…My pleasure still is to follow the stream, to walk along its banks in the right direction, in the direction of the flowing water, the water that leads life towards the next village…Dreaming beside the river, I gave my imagination to the water, the green, clear water, the water that makes the meadows green. …The stream doesn’t have to be ours; the water doesn’t have to be ours. The anonymous water knows all my secrets. And the same memory issues from every spring.”
― Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter

These summarize my general sense of landscape and more specifically, place.

Just as I think that our narratives inhabit objects, and without materialism, contain our affections and memory, I believe that particular places do the same.

On Labour Day, my son and I headed to Magrath, Alberta to say good-bye to a house…my Auntie Ruth’s home…because on September 15, it will be possessed by a new family after all of these years.  James and I listened to CBC radio programming all the way south to Lethbridge.  It seems to me that a story on whistle blowers in places of employment kept us engaged for most of the journey.  The miles, as is usual, went by quickly.  Once traveling the 23 across from Claresholm, Barons was just around the corner and then, with coulees in sight, I felt as though I was home.

Rolling into Magrath, the first stop was the old house.  My cousins have been sorting and downsizing and cleaning…a very difficult experience, as I recall from the days when my parents went through the same process.  As I stepped into the house, all of the memories of childhood and adulthood rushed back to the surface.  There’s just no stopping that particular experience.  I snapped a few photographs…while Auntie Ruth had already moved…she was still absolutely present to my experience of memory and love.

Last week, my cousin wrote that he had found a package of negatives in among Ruth’s things…and much like I do at such discoveries, he set out and had them developed.  Here, is a scan of one of those photographs.  My parents, in 1954, brother John, a year old and one, a photograph of my Grandfather, John Moors, with his dog at Greg Lake.

Read this…on the Poetics of Space. About a house, Gaston Bachelard wrote…

“His use of architectural phenomenology lets the mind loose to make its way, always ready for what might emerge in the process. The house is ‘the topography of our intimate being’, both the repository of memory and the lodging of the soul – in many ways simply the space in our own heads. He offered no shortcuts or routes of avoidance, since ‘the phenomenologist has to pursue every image to the very end’.”

If one does not move carefully through a house/home, one might not capture these bits of magic or ephemera that remain silenced by time and circumstance.  I’m grateful to my cousin who discovered those negatives, flattened amid the bric-a-brac.

From Tim Rollingson Black and White 11From Tim Rollingson Black and White 9

Our footsteps echoed in the house, as James and I traveled room to room.  And while memories flooded my walk, my son James had a completely different experience of place and quietly uttered the words, “This is so sad.”

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I remember the front door always being open or unlocked.  Family came and went.

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My father asked me to take a photograph of the front door.  Several times repaired or renovated, my father had recollection of an incident from his childhood in this part of the house.  I’m publishing that recollection, here, as it was written.

 “Well the problem is Kath this new door had the hole above it fixed. Anyway my dad and his buddies came home from hunting birds one day in Magrath Alberta . Of course they were half cut (as dad told me years later”if you are going to drink just drink good scotch and you will never have a hang over”. Well that day Dad left a shell in his single barrel 12 gauge shot gun. I being an inquisitive young lad wanted them all to know ( Mom and the whole family was in that little living room); anyway I lined up the duck flying above the door cocked the gun and pulled the trigger.. BAM you should have heard the screems and the shot about knocked me on my butt but there was a neat round hole firght through trim at the top of the door which appeared just seconds after a big guy way over 6 feet had walked in. Dad was the only one who got supreme heck for having a loaded gun in the house. Now I have bared my soul to all those interested.PS I was about 7 or so when this happened..”

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I remember fried eggs and bacon cooking….the smell of toast freshly-popped.  I remember my mother’s laughter in this kitchen.  I will always remember where my Auntie sat.

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The back room…I remember the ceiling being lined with cardboard egg cartons.  I remember my cousins and drumming and laughter.  I remember the door from this room out to the back, always open.  I remember summer.

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I remember Linda.  I remember sleepovers.  I remember lots of quilts and pillows.

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I remember food supply.

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Objects of the every day.

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I remember the gardens…the lilies…the geraniums…the hanging baskets.

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More than anything, I remember my Auntie sitting on the front porch.

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From the house, James and I went for visits with both his Great Aunties…Ruth and then Eleanor.  We are so blessed to have these women in our lives, as well as my Auntie Jackie and Auntie Mary.  I lift up prayers for all…for their health and their safety and that we keep memories such as I enjoyed with my son, close to our hearts.

Just this morning, and the reason for this post, I interviewed Auntie Ruth over the telephone, about her home.

Back in early 1940s, my Gramma and Grampa moved to Magrath, mostly in an effort to help their young daughter, Ruth, fight the symptoms of asthma.  The humid air in Ontario seemed to really irritate her breathing and  my grandparents were willing to try anything.

The first home they lived in was rented from a Ukrainian family.  I am in the process of researching their name.  Water was manually pumped from a well on the property.  There was an outhouse and bathing happened in the middle of the kitchen floor in a round tub.  Auntie Ruth remembers the water being heated in a kettle on a wood/coal stove.

Magrath had two stores at the time, the Trading Company and Louis Stevenson’s store.  There was a black smith shop on main street, as well as a show house.  There were no sidewalks in the town.

When Ruth turned 16, she remembers that the family moved into a white stucco house, the very house that James and I visited on September 1 of this year.  She remembers that Eleanor, Margaret and Johnny went off to school in the town, located where today’s school stands but, of course, a much smaller building.  During the war, Ruth worked at one of the blanket-making machines in the Golden Fleece Woolen Mill.  I’m posting a photograph of that particular mill here…it is not to be confused with the Woolen Mill that my grandfather opened up some years later.

John Moors Woolen Mill Magrath, Alberta

Many contracts came in to the Magrath Golden Fleece Woolen Mill during World War II 1939-1945.  My Auntie remembers working there.

A booklet published by the Magrath History and Museum Association and written by John Balderson, explains…

“When in full operation, the Golden Fleece Woolen Mill ran three 8 hour shifts, 24 hours a day.  Twenty-five men and women were on each shift making seventy-five individuals in total.  Two hundred and twenty five army blankets were made each day using 1,000,000  lbs of wool each year.”

Whenever my Auntie speaks about that time, she mentions the Canadians of Japanese descent who shared her machines with her.  She also talks about the shame she feels at how they were treated.  She explained to me this morning that eight Japanese-Canadian women were pulled off the Sugar Beet fields, to work in the mill.  They were all University educated and lovely, however, shy women.  Auntie Ruth  said that their housing was comprised of sheds lined up on the far edge of town, rows and rows of sheds where these beautiful and hard-working people were treated as prisoners-of-war.  My Auntie will never forget the women she worked with on her shifts.

In terms of the house, my Auntie remembers very good and also, difficult times.  She dated my Uncle Roy for four months when they got married and moved to Lethbridge, Uncle Roy worked for Western Drilling.  Ruth was 20 at the time.  Auntie Ruth will always tell you that the Korean War finished off her husband.  And all these years later, having read about the war and discovered the exposure these soldiers had to Mustard Agent and Lewisite as well as the bizarre view of PTSD at the time and the irresponsible treatment of these veterans, it is absolutely no wonder that he and his family, struggled upon his return.

I remember vacation days in both Magrath (at my Auntie Ruth’s and at my Grandparent’s place in front of the mill) and Raymond (at my Auntie Eleanor and Uncle Ted’s place).  In fact, I regret that I didn’t have the chance to grieve the farmhouse in Raymond like I did this house.  I remember much family laughter.  I remember the smell of a slow-cooked blade roast in the oven.  I remember my Grandmother’s laughter.  I remember the smell of wool.

This past weekend, I said good-bye to a place.  That does not mean that it does not remain with me…always.

 

 

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