I am rooting through the beautiful old desk that was my mother’s, and her father’s before that. It holds things that I can not bear to throw away, because she couldn’t either. Expired passports, bank books and wills. Photographs and hand writing. Physical evidence of lives lived. Stories waiting to be told.
I open a drawer and pull out the top layer. A note from my parent’s dear friends, written before they headed home to Kamloops wishing us love, luck and support through Mom’s last weeks. Grammy’s first husband’s drivers licence issued by the French Republic in 1950. His face stares out from a small photo stapled to the front of the card. A wallet holds obituaries of people Mom knew and loved, carefully cut out of the newspaper.
I read the notices, smiling at the memory of those I knew, wondering about the names I don’t. I will never know the stories behind the unfamiliar names. How did Mom know them? Why were they important to her? As I carefully return them to the wallet, I wonder why I keep them.
A New Life
I open a second drawer and see a Moir’s Chocolate box. It fits perfectly in the desk and I am curious about what it now holds. I wiggle off the lid to faces looking up at me. So many photos! Some people I recognize, others I don’t. As I carefully flip through the pile, I realize there are documents in the box as well. CANADIAN PACIFIC 7025. Norkevicaite Miss – my grandmother’s maiden name is written in pencil in the top right corner. It looks like a ticket for her crossing to Canada from Lithuania over 80 years ago, when she left the life she knew to start over. Where she married her husband, had her daughter, met her son in law, and briefly knew her granddaughters before passing in April, 1972 at the age of 62.
I turn the paper over in my hand. More dates. Preliminary Inspection: “Passed, Doctor, 30th Juin 1930” “Dr. Louis Brees” 1 Juil 1930, Médecin de l’émigration. Final Inspection: Vaccinated, Passed Doctor 1 Juil 1930 C.P.R. Antwerp.
I also find her Carte de Transit / Doorvoerkaart which was stamped by Canadian Pacific on 27 Jun 1930 at Kaunas, Lithuania – her hometown. A third card completes the set – her (Third Class) Immigration Identification Card. It is stamped by the Dominion Government Immigration Office, Quebec, July 13, 1930. That means they were twelve days at sea.
I try to imagine what this experience could have been like for her. Leaving her family, her home and everything familiar behind to start a new life, she was loaded on a ship to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. She didn’t speak English or French. Before leaving Europe, she had to be ‘inspected’ by a doctor – not examined – and only after she was disinfected. How do you keep your pride and dignity though that? How do you understand what is happening? I hope she knew some of her fellow travelers, and that they could support each other and piece together what was going on.
Realities of War
A tattered, yellowed envelope catches my eye. It is the size of a postcard. METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY stretches across the front, sitting over a sketch of a building, complete with blue sky and white clouds. The very bottom of the envelope reads Form. 50 (Fr.) September 1941. Seventy-seven years ago. It was printed in the middle of World War Two and three months before my mother was born.
I slide a booklet out of the envelope and see my grandfather’s name and address in Montreal. Ration Book 2. Rations? The first seven pages have been used, three pages remain. Each page holds thirteen perforated stamps, to be torn off and exchanged for food. As I slide the booklet carefully back into the envelope, I realize for the first time that my grandparents’ lives in Canada were directly affected by the war.
This desk in my office holds so many stories. Some I have heard, others I will never know. Photographs of people I loved and who loved me, others who will never be named. The people who knew them are no longer living. So many stories, life experiences, lost forever.