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Archive for November, 2013

This week’s Kennedy anniversary, the 50th, has me hovering over historical documentaries on television.  I still remember why I first found myself intrigued by John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  My great aunts, the Kelly sisters, Maureen, Norah and Clare (named after the county in Ireland) had saved a couple of old Life magazine issues from the time of the assassination.  When I was a senior in high school, at Marymount College, I took an American history course.  The textbook was smallish in size, paperback, white, with a stylized red and blue eagle on the front.  I loved it.  Actually, I loved all of the history courses I took in high school.  I either had Mrs. Murphy or Mrs. Duncan.  For American history, I had Diane Duncan, who remains my favourite teacher of all time.  Her storytelling skills were amazing, as she recollected the pyramids and their various pharaohs, the War of Independence, the French Revolution, Pompeii and Herculaneum, not to mention the tale of Newfoundland joining Confederation in 1949.  (I have a t-shirt that reads “Free Nfld,” which I bought in St. John’s about seven years ago.  This is neither here nor there….just a reflection of what some Newfoundlanders think of their province, which might very well be a ‘Republic of Newfoundland.’ 🙂

Mrs. Duncan loved the Kennedys.  I still remember the whole unit that spoke to the scope of the family’s influence, politically and socially.  It fascinated me.  What other family, in history, had such an impact on a country and its people, on its very cultural fabric?  They were mythic, larger than life, and so involved in politics.  We learned about Vietnam that year, back in the late 1980s. (I date myself here, but it’s no shock, as I’m just about to turn 43 in a week’s time.)  We learned about how Kennedy was trying to pull American troops out of Vietnam, how he went against his closest advisors, how he was constantly striving for peace.  I also loved the films we saw in class, how eloquent he was, how well spoken.  He had already been dead for 25 or more years when I began to learn about his presidency, but I was intrigued.

We talked about the Zapruder film, the conspiracy theories, the influence of Joe Kennedy on his sons and daughters, and how amazingly handsome John Kennedy Jr. was. . .of course, I went to an all girls Catholic school, so it made hormonal sense that we fixated on the now grown up son who had once saluted his father’s casket, at his mother’s nudging.  Mrs. Duncan spoke of the time she went to Hyannis Port and tried to walk up the Kennedy driveway, ignoring signs, feigning innocence, trying to meet a Kennedy, I think. . .and how she was stopped by a guard who turned her around and sent her on her way.  I loved how spunky she was, how much she loved living history. . .to the point that she wanted to try and see if Teddy Kennedy was home.  🙂

I remember sitting up at my great aunts’ house, 160 Kingsmount Blvd, round the kitchen table, sipping on mugs of instant coffee. It’s where I had some of the most amazing conversations of my life.  Both Maureen and Norah were school teachers, and Clare worked as a secretary at the train station downtown.  The conversations, whenever my sister and I slept over, were peppered with tall tales, family stories, and mentions of Ireland.  On one occasion, I must have told them I was studying the Kennedy assassination.  They rushed off to some small removed closet on the second floor of the house my great-grandfather had built years previous and returned with the Life magazines.  I still have the two of them somewhere here. . . .

I think my great aunts (whom we often just called “The Girls”) felt a kinship with the Kennedy family.  My great-grandfather, James Cornelius Kelly, ran the Hudson’s Bay store in Creighton when it was still a lively mining town, in the early 1900s.  He did well for himself, moving into Sudbury and building a grand brick house on Kingsmount, a hill that overlooked the city.  I never knew him, but his Knights of Columbus cloak used to scare the bejaysus out of me when my cousins and I played hide and seek in the basement.  It was stashed away in a tall wardrobe, next to his ceremonial sword.  There are photos of him in the uniform.  He looked stern and impressive.

My favourite photo of the Kellys is one of my great-grandparents surrounded by all ten of their children in the back garden.  Yes, you read that correctly, they had ten kids.  They were Irish Catholic after all.  🙂  All ten are dressed up to the nines, captured on black and white film, looking like Hollywood movie stars.  They were a good looking crew.  I always have thought of that photo when I think of the Kennedys.  There is the same vast family landscape, always perfectly turned out when they were young and dynamic in the 1940s or 50s, living up to the family name and stature.  This isn’t to say that it was a perfect family; I don’t think you can have ten kids and manage to make them all feel truly loved and cherished.  One was a nun, one a doctor, a few were teachers. . .it was like my great-grandparents had plans for them all, whether they wanted that life path or not.  Those were the days when you didn’t have much choice of a career, either, if you were a woman.  Still, all of the women who were my grandmother Alice’s sisters were strong minded and independent in their own ways.  They certainly knew how to speak their minds and hearts, and they definitely passed it on to my generation.  For that, I will always be thankful.

I think The Girls loved the Kennedys (or maybe ‘the idea of the Kennedys’) because they embodied that same Irish Catholic tenacity.  There was a sense of ancestors, not so far gone, who had come to North America from Ireland just after the Famine.  No one ever really wanted to leave Ireland.  They couldn’t have, or it wouldn’t have played such a large role in their stories of family history.  Maybe they just knew that I ate up stories, or music, or history, but they did tell me fabulous tales of an ancestor who was a gardener at Bunratty Castle, outside of Limerick, who ran off with either a maid or governess.  The story had been passed down forever.  I wish, now, that I’d written down the names and details. . .but I didn’t.  I think they also loved the fact that the Kennedys had suffered, in true Christ-like fashion, and persevered.  There was that odd sense of duty that eclipsed everything else.  They took care of everyone, until one by one left. . .you see, they often, as women, neglected to care for themselves.  That gene is in me, too. . .and now I’m struggling to learn how to take better care of myself, after too long taking care of others.

There is only one of the ‘original’ Kellys left, Clare, who is in her early 90s.  The family has shrunk so much that it’s hard to believe it.  Christmases on Kingsmount pepper my memory and I only wish I’d cherished those family gatherings more back then, especially as I miss them all so much now.  I had close relationships with my great aunts and uncles.  They were all fabulous story tellers and had great wit and compassion.  Of course, I also miss my uncles, Terry, Peter and Jeno.  I’ve learned that people with families are blessed.  I still have one, of course, but it’s all over the place, with cousins all over the country.  We rarely get together anymore and Facebook is the only way I can get a sense of how they’re all doing.  It makes me sad, but I know that time moves forward. . .

So, on this 50th anniversary weekend, I think of the Kennedys, the Kellys, and everyone I’ve been blessed to have spent time with in my family.  I miss them, but I’ll always love them and hold them close in my heart and in my memory.

peace,

k.

 

 

 

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This time of year always tugs at my heart.  You see, I had the sincere pleasure of having a friend who was a WWII veteran back when I worked as Fundraising Coordinator at the Northern Cancer Research Foundation (1997-2000).  His name was Ernie Schroeder.  I suppose that’s why, when the national anthem plays at school every morning, I am strict about my students being respectful and silent.  I even tell them his story, even though he died at least ten years ago.  Maybe if they each had an “Ernie,”  they would understand the sacrifice those men and women made, and the sacrifice that is still made by Canadian soldiers every day.

Ernie was tall.  The first time I met him, I thought, “Wow, he’s tall!”  Then, he told a story and cracked himself up with his own joke.  He was a character, but, above anything else, he was the bravest man I’d ever met….and that is still true all these years later.  He had a kind heart, always thinking of others before himself, and he never turned down lunch with a glass of wine to celebrate his birthday.  🙂  I recall one grand lunch with Maureen Lacroix, who was Chair of the Foundation at the time, with Anna Ranger, who was the Foundation’s Executive Assistant, and with Michele Liebrock, who was the Executive Director.  The five of us had an amazing time, sitting in a restaurant that had wide windows overlooking Ramsey Lake Road.  One  such day’s memory is etched in my heart and mind, as the sun streamed down onto Ernie and he threw back his head as he laughed at another tale he had just shared with us.  It seems, sometimes, it is how I best remember him….looking for the bright side of things, despite the absolute horror he faced in Europe during WWII.

For the time I knew Ernie through my work at the NCRF, one of my favourite times to spend with him was our Annual General Meeting at the Royal Canadian Legion on Weller Street in Sudbury, with its fabulous views of Ramsey Lake.  He always had his uniform on, with his medals all shiny and bright.  Each medal had a story, and soon I would hear one or two that made him cry.  I always tried to sit next to him, because I loved to hear his stories.  Mostly they were stories of his life, his grandkids, his yard work.  He was just a great storyteller, so it was always a pleasure to sidle up and hear the newest piece of news.

One day, though, I had been asked to interview Ernie about his various medals and awards.  He was one of the most highly decorated Northern Ontario (and Canadian, obviously) veterans of WWII.  I had to ask what sorts of action he had seen, where he had been stationed, and what he thought of war.  We met in a board room in the Cancer Centre, but we also had a lunch out together.  It was there that he got very teary eyed.  “You don’t want to know, Kim, what I saw over there….I saw kids, naked, like skeletons almost, walking towards me when we liberated one of those camps.”  He didn’t say which camp; it didn’t matter.  What mattered was that he had seen things that had broken his heart, shattered his soul, and he came back to Canada to live out the rest of his life.  He cried, I cried, and then we hugged.  There were no words to express how awful (and how valiant) his time in Europe had been.  He saved lives, he fought against Hitler, and he lived.

Ernie had prostate cancer and was in remission when I met him.  For the three or so years that I worked at the Northeastern Ontario Regional Cancer Centre, he was well.  His most important day, and rightfully so, was always Remembrance Day.  On that day, Maureen, Anna, Michele and I would pack into a car and sit in the Sudbury Arena to honour our veterans.  You see, the Royal Canadian Legion was, and probably still is, one of the most dedicated donors to the Cancer Centre in Sudbury.  The veterans looked after their own, even as they aged and were struck with a variety of cancers.  I was always amazed at the generosity of the WWII veterans.  Most of them, then, were in their seventies or eighties, but they were so full of enthusiasm when it came to fundraising for the Centre.  It touched me to the core of my heart.

After the ceremony in the arena, we would all head up to the Legion on Weller Street and take part in what sometimes felt like a session in historical time travel.  The veterans were all in their uniforms, their wives dressed up in their Sunday best, and the afternoon of each November 11th was a window into the way in which they loved life, and the way in which they honoured the freedoms they had as Canadians.  I will never forget the big band music, the dancing, the older veterans hitting on any woman under 30 or 40 for a dance, or telling stories of their time overseas.  They laughed, told stories, but there were tears after the beer started flowing.  When Vera Lynn’s “White Cliffs of Dover” or “We’ll Meet Again” came on over the loudspeakers, well, you couldn’t find a dry eye in the place.

If you’re not Canadian, you might like to try reading Timothy Findley’s beautifully written novel, The Wars.  It really captures the turmoil and pain that our soldiers and vets went through….If you’re Canadian and you haven’t read it, you should.  We need to remember not to make the same mistakes twice.  Sadly, we humans don’t really learn lessons of war, I find….you only need to see the evening news to spot the inhumanity done one to another, without a thought.

So, as I listen to Vera Lynn singing in the background, I know I’ll meet Ernie, and so many others, again….until then, I remember them all fondly, my lost ones, but especially honour dear Ernie tonight.

Bless him…and all those who lost their lives, and who still lose their lives, in service to Canada and all Canadians, from coast to coast, to coast.

peace,

k.

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Living in “the hospital area” of town now, I have a whole new drive to work each morning.  I sit waiting, at the base of Boland, to turn left towards downtown.  Often, I seem to hit a red light, so I get to survey the destruction of the old General Hospital.  It has been there forever, in my mind.  That red brick matriarch was like a crown on the brow of the hill overlooking Lake Ramsey.  You could see the building from all around the lake, from its little smokestack, to the silvered cars in the vast parking lot that caught and reflected the sun’s rays, to the helicopter pad that hovered over a stony path through Bell Park.

The sale of the place happened a few years back now, but it’s only just been ransacked in the last couple of months.  Last month, the old Mason Residence wing was ripped apart.  That was the residence where my mum would have stayed when she was a student nurse in the Marymount School of Nursing back in 1959 or so.  Years later, it housed offices and was linked to the main building by a breezeway.  Both the Mason wing and the breezeway are gone now, so that the view, coming along Paris Street from downtown to the south end, is very different now.  There’s a gaping hole, so that you can see the helicopter pad, and some trees beyond that.

This morning, waiting for the light to change, I sat hunched over my steering wheel pondering the façade ahead of me.  The windows to the right of the main doors are all open to the elements now, so you know something there is soon to vanish.  It reminds me of someone who has lost their dentures, holes where teeth used to be, spaces where windows used to be….it just feels bleak and sad somehow.  The passing of an era.

If you think about it, how many of us, as Sudburians, as Northerners, were born, treated or died there?  Hundreds of thousands, at least.  I can’t even estimate a number, but I know how many times I visited friends and family there, and how many times I sat in emerg late into the night, watching the electronic time estimate click away while I waited.  So, now they want to build condos there.  What else is new?  It reminds me of the Joni Mitchell song, about “putting up a parking lot.”  (Not that the hospital is ‘paradise,’ but it has history and mirrors the growth of this northern hub.)  The other thing I think about is why anyone in their right mind would want to buy a condo in a hospital building.  (Has no one watched the BBC’s hit show, “Bedlam”?!)  I think it’s bad karma to have a flat where a number of people may have suffered and died.  There are too many stories of ghosts wandering those hospital halls to entice me to ever want to live in such a place.

Now, I know I’m a bit of a history freak.  I collect royal memorabilia from previous eras, I buy and read historical books with a feverish fervor.  I get it.  I also know that nothing stays the same.  Everything changes.  I think Buddha said something like that, but I daren’t quote him without being completely sure.  🙂  All I know is that, when I see old historical photos of Sudbury, of the old post office downtown, of the old Balmoral Hotel, of the Bell Rock Mansion in its prime, I just keep thinking, why do we not preserve some of these gorgeous old buildings?  I know the hospital isn’t something you’d necessarily want to ‘keep’ as it is, but just putting up condos in its stead seems unsettling to me.

There are two issues here, in my own mind:  one is the fact that our city tends to forget its own history and the other is that everything seems to sell to the highest bidder, regardless of the greater good.  Yes, I’m an idealist and a poet.  Yes, I’m a proud Sudburian.  Yes, I’m torn.  I know the city needs to grow and expand, become ‘hipper’ and more ‘now.’  (But I am wary of hipsters these days….what with their large, oversized black glass frames….)  Still, I think we need to honour our history.  It was good that the amphitheatre was named in honour of Grace Hartman a few years ago.  What a fantastic way to honour our city’s first female mayor!

On another front, a creative group of people who put together the fantastic photography book, We Live Up Here, has been gleefully putting up wonderful murals around town.  They make me smile.  All of the sudden, you’re downtown on Durham and you see, high above one rooftop, in bright colours, the words “You are beautiful.”  Brilliant!  Then, curving around the Kingsway, near the eyesore that is the old Kingsway Hotel, the mural of the little man in his 1920s roadster smiling out at you, with the words “Why the rush?” next to it.  Now, this week, covering up the old francophone centre mural (which wasn’t all that artistic or exciting, sadly, and largely outdated), a series of eyes peer out, each one belonging to a Sudburian.

So, even as our city changes, shifts, morphs, there are some who strive to re-energize and light up our lives in artistic ways.  While the old General Hospital goes down, all of this great new ‘street art’ goes up in random places, so that I find myself delighting in driving around the streets, wondering which mural will go up next, and where….

I just wish we could mind the past and welcome the future….in creative ways.

peace,

k.

 

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