This summer we vacationed at my childhood farm in Southwestern Ontario, along the shore of Lake Erie and nestled in by a hedge of field corn, overgrowth, humidity, and the intense, throbbing hum of cicadas and crickets.
People are often quite surprised to discover that I am from a farm. My dad was born and lived his whole life on the same farm. In August, we convened with my parents and “far-flung” siblings, to quote my brother, and our 8 children under 7 years old. We spent lazy mornings playing in a pile of sand, splashing in the velvety lake sand, or playing with all our childhood toys and games. The delight of Lite-brite, Viewmaster, Little People, and Connect Four were not lost on the next generation.
But at night, I quickly unearthed a box full of old letters from my grandfather’s sister to her parents during her year at Normal School, 1939-1940. As always, I became engrossed in the details between the lines. If I were to write a book set in that time period, I would have pages of details about the movies showing, the prices of gas, hotels, eggs, and flannel, and the kinds of things a rural girl cared about in those days. Being on the farm, outside the same sleepy hamlet where my ancestors’ farm days were lived out, I cannot help but be fascinated and feel a sense of connection with the past.
I brought home more journals, ledgers, letters, and some other trinkets: a bone dice that has to have been handmade, some belt buckles, a brooch, some pocket mirrors, a metal toy pig, and a renewed interest in writing. Another notebook is filled with recipes for cleaners and home remedies.
What is it in me that finds this stuff so fascinating? Partly it’s the mystery – as a child, I spent hours exploring the barns and former site of “the old house,” hoping to find a secret room. It occurred to me that rather than reading 70-year-old letters, I should be asking my living relatives to share their own stories and memories.
On my last day in Ontario, I rediscovered some of my Great Grandma’s journals, and my dad and I enjoyed going over them for details of his birth in 1945, and also the accident when he was 10, when he was hit by a car quite seriously. Dad’s sister eagerly shared a number of her memories of their childhood, which mean a lot to me since he doesn’t recall some of those things. I love hearing the stories of how the farm used to be in several phases over the past century and a half.
I am home again now, shaking off the lazy mental state of vacation and time travel. I picked up the Elizabeth Hay book, “Alone in the Classroom,” and engaged by how similar parts of her story are to the kind of novel I was cooking up while reading my stash of old journals and letters – a similar time period, also about her aunt who was a teacher. It will probably be a few years before I can develop enough of a plot to write my own book, but it’s nice to be thinking about writing again.