This past year I decided to take a DNA test, even though I had a pretty clear idea of what the results would reveal. As expected, predominant strains of Northern European, mostly Dutch and British, confirmed my lineage. Yet I was intrigued to see an unexpected strand of heritage.
As a traveller and someone who has lived a global life, I’m a passionate collector of histories, people and places. I’ve gleaned stories from bustling bazaars and affable street vendors, from sacred temples and on slow-travelling trains. It is the weaving of human interactions and narratives that inspire and fascinate me. They also humble me and time and time again, I’m reminded of just how similar we all are.
Is this not why we travel and step out beyond our comfortable boundaries? Is it not to rejoice in the connective tissue that we all share, the common pathways of humanity? The lives of many people have intersected my travels and the places I’ve called home. These tendrils of connections, some long-lasting, others more fleeting, are always meaningful and have changed me in often imperceptible ways.
During these past twelve months or so of the pandemic, many of us have dearly missed traveling. We yearn to stride through the airport, passport gleefully in hand, excited to once again traipse through familiar or unexplored streets in distant places. I also believe there’s an innate desire to feel tangibly connected to the world, to affirm our place on this earth we call home.
Which leads me back to my unexpected strand of DNA. It is Scandinavian and perhaps part of me had hoped for this. While working as a tour guide in Norway, I wove stories and historical tales while often secretly imagining a link to my Dutch mother’s lineage. Perhaps my genes are drawn from one of the many Norwegian sailors who sailed southward to join the Dutch Navy in the 1700’s. Young women also joined that migration, some following their sailor, others in the quest for employment. While some thrived, others found themselves destitute in an unfamiliar, foreign land. Nonetheless, I would be proud if any part of my heritage owes something to their courageous spirit.
Of my own personal odyssey, I’ve come to appreciate that my joy of cultural nuances has actually revealed a common humanity that is stripped of boundaries. There have been times during these enriching experiences that I have felt as connected as if they were family… as if of my own tribe.
During my time in Qatar, there was slim chance of claiming a long-lost ancestor. Yet once, in the desert under the fullness of the new moon, I was invited into a ladies’ Arabian tent. Settling onto lush carpets and plumped cushions, the diminutive, abaya-wrapped matriarch slowly removed her veil. After a welcome of warm frothy goat’s milk, the matriarch took my hand in hers. Her eyes were lively, recalling those of my own grandmother, honest and warm with a playful hint of mischief. With the help of an interpreter, our woman and motherhood united us while moon-shadows danced over the warm glow of our canopy.
When I taught English in the Sultanate of Oman, I certainly didn’t share the same historical lineage as my students – many a blend of Zanzibari and Omani – but the humour and gentleness with which they enveloped me was as welcoming as the warm Indian Ocean surrounding us. They treated me with genuine respect and affection, revealing their proud and generous culture. I was invited into homes, into yet more majlis tents, invariably with the traditional welcome of incense and strong coffee. And to my surprise I was gifted fine delicate filigreed silver – still displayed in my home today – precious tokens of treasured time and acceptance by my Omani friends.
Over the years, this chain of connections has grown, link by precious link. Years later in the south of India while searching for what would become our last overseas family home, we gazed out towards lush coconut palms and profuse mango trees with our prospective landlord.
We learned that his son had attended my hometown college/university in Canada and delighted in ‘what a small world it is.’ We chatted about the vibrant neighbourhood, the monkeys we might glimpse from the terrace, when the mangos would be ripe for the picking.
“I’ve wanted someone to live here who felt like family,” Nando said fondly. And over the next two years, we became just that, family, friends, neighbours, in the bustling heart of Bangalore.
Decades earlier in that same country as twenty-something backpackers, my husband and I happened to meet a teenage girl on a barren plateau. She had exited her remote tumbledown hut, her eyes gleamed with curiosity, then with hospitality. Insisting on preparing chapatis and chai over the smallest of fires, we crouched in the sand and shared the simplest of meals. I still cherish her generosity and wonder about her well-being.
Yes, I can recollect so many caring gestures of humanity.
The gift from a friend – joining her in a hushed tea ceremony in Japan under a fragrant canopy of cherry blossoms.
The caress on my cheek in Slovenia from a vivacious grandmother as we communicated in a common language of gesture and pantomime.
An ebullient greeting in Kazakhstan from a market stall-keeper. “Welcome, welcome to my country,” she boomed as she wrapped me in a warm bear-hug. Or in a boutique where I was entreated to try-on a kamzol. “If you live in Kazakhstan, you must have worn our traditional jacket at least once.”
And an impromptu encounter on a Victoria street corner with fellow Emily Carr admirers, who at once became friends as our mutual interest in this iconic artist blossomed into a beguiling conversation.
As my mind dances, conjuring fond vignettes, I reflect that while genetics may tell us where we have come from, our human connections say the most about who we are. We are challenged more than ever during isolation of the pandemic to sustain and grow our connections, but still with a yearning for those serendipitous moments that bring colour and warmth to our everyday lives. For someone who treasures the unscripted happenstance of travelling, I miss this dearly. Yet perhaps, in the present confinement of our horizons, our ties here at home have become even more dear.
The term ‘weak ties’ was coined by the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter. He referred to weak ties as ‘acquaintances and people you encounter infrequently, strangers with whom you share a familiarity’ – perhaps at your favourite coffeeshop, on the cross-country ski trails, even mutual acquaintances on social media. These more fleeting tendrils of connections also shape our lives, in fact the essence of community building grows from subtle feelings of connection, shared interests, common pastimes, even a subliminal sense of being.
I see this clearly in the small Canadian mountain city that I now call home. On those days when I dream of a faraway place, a friendly exchange reminds me also of the power of belonging and the desire to be connected wherever you live. These ‘slender tendrils’ are indeed the roots of humanity itself and nurture us all.
One could argue that we’ve never been less connected physically, and yet we are more virtually connected than ever. So connections? Let’s gather and treasure them, share them freely and generously… they are the strands, the tendrils that give meaning to our lives, even now, most especially now.
Eleonora di Toledo marked the passage of the months with epicurean delights. In April, asparagus from Milan and healthy doses of oysters. June was graced with figs, peaches, Venetian pears, and olives from her father’s Spanish vineyard. And as autumnal weather cooled Tuscany, feasts of salted cod, artichokes and pheasants were abundant. The setting, after all, was an illustrious Renaissance court; not just any court but that of the Medici’s. Eleonora was the wife of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. Yet it was no secret that Eleonara had married beneath her.
Born in 1522, Eleonora was the daughter of one of Spain’s wealthiest and important families. When Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, made her father Viceroy to Naples, Eleonora couldn’t know that she was destined to take the path of a political marriage to Florence’s all-powerful family. And some argue that Eleonora was among one of the first modern ruling ladies, a political advisor to her husband, commissioning and curating the arts, purchasing a palace with her own funds… and giving birth to eleven children. She was beautiful, intelligent, pious, and without a doubt, influential in helping guide the relatively new Dukedom of the Medici’s.
The Medici’s were not descended from power or royalty. Born in Florence in 1360, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, one of five sons would inherit very little. Yet he would establish two woollen workshops and after securing a job in banking, set up the vastly influential Medici family bank in 1397. Branches were soon established throughout Italian city-states and beyond. Giovanni’s son Cosimo, then his grandson Piero, and in turn his great-grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent, would through the decades– except for two short interruptions – be the defacto rulers of Tuscany. They would endow Florence with patronage of art and architecture, helping facilitate a rebirth of the classical world – a great flourishing of artists, architects, scholars, writers and poets. In short, The Renaissance.
A distinguished visitor in 1490 declared from the pulpit of Florence’s cathedral that the Florentines were a people ‘whose name is known all over the world and is more blessed than any other.’ Two years later, the Florentine scholar Ficino wrote that the “profusion of golden intellects had restored to life the arts of grammar, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture and music… and all of this, in Florence.”
A number of years ago, I happily strolled back and forth across Ponte Vecchio during a week-long course of ‘Women in Renaissance Art’ at the British Institute of Florence. The ‘old bridge’ has long spanned over the river Arno. It unites the two halves of the city, between the old Roman centre with Brunelleschi’s towering Duomo, stalwart palazzos and charming piazzas, then beyond, over to the Oltrarno to the more working-class quarter of Florence. The ‘other side’ where the grandeur of Palazzo Pitti meets medieval chapels and neighbourhoods that still echo with the hum of this once-artisanal community – leather ateliers and stationers, wool dyers and sculpture studios. Ponte Vecchio’s origins during Roman times as a stone and wooden crossing, only seems to underscore the palimpsest layering of history and architecture. It enraptures and endears us to this storied city; I’ve written previously of how and when I fell in love with Florence.
During my sojourn to study at the Institute, as I ambled back across the Arno to my pensione, I was transfixed by thoughts of the women of the Renaissance and the roles they played. Their contributions, sacrifices, perceptions and opinions are often overshadowed. Thankfully their stories are slowly and enticingly being peeled back. And not surprisingly, just as women throughout centuries have thrived, persevered, and often quietly made their way, Florence holds colourful, fascinating and heartbreaking tales… as rich as the Ghirlandaio, Lippi or Masaccio canvasses that imbue this richly decorated city.
As I write this however, I’m not nestled in the drawing room of the Hermitage gazing out over the Arno at sunset, ziaboldone in hand, eager to record the tales of the day. No, in this time of the pandemic, I’m in the snowy mountains of British Columbia studying virtually with the British Institute. Tulips evoking spring decorate my desk, Renaissance books lay open and bookmarked, and a painting of Eleonora di Toledo invites me to examine each finely crafted detail. It isn’t my favourite Renaissance painting – that goes to Primavera and Birth of Venus by Botticelli (I can’t settle on just one) – yet the story behind the painting and the life of the subject is captivating. Women’s lives often are.
It is 1544, Eleonora and her second son Giovanni will soon be posing for the talented Bronzino, the portrait painter of the Medici court. Despite the Duchy and its tremendous wealth, Duke Cosimo agonizes as to how the portrait will be received. Are the clothes and jewels appropriate and lavish enough? Will the background be too understated? Should both of his young sons appear in the portrait? Yet surely such obvious fecundity, producing two sons in a short period, secures the Medici line and thus the future of Florence?
Cosimo (1519 – 1574) is from a different branch of the Medici family than those who had ruled for the past one-hundred and sixty years or so. He is the son of Maria Salviati, a granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the famous soldier Giovanni delle Bande Nere. In 1537, at the age of only 17 and almost unknown, his mother helps propel him to the head of the family when the Duke of Florence is assassinated by a cousin. Many influential men in the city favour Cosimo, hoping to rule through him as they anticipate he’ll be malleable and inept. Instead, he proves strong-willed, astute, ambitious, ruthless at times, and after his marriage to Eleonora in 1539, only more formidable.
There’s a romantic notion that the Duke first caught glimpse of the young Spanish noblewoman on a business trip to the state of Naples. Her father is allegedly considering an older sister for matrimony, yet legend has it Cosimo was taken with the beauty and grace of the younger sibling. Seemingly, despite the great wealth and their vast patronage of the Renaissance, the Toledo’s family are wary. The Medici’s are no match for their illustrious royal family. It’s time for Cosimo’s mother, Maria Salviati to hone her marriage-brokerage skills!
Maria is a Medici by birth, a noblewoman, widowed at the age of 27, and had already used her family connections to secure her son’s installation as the new Duke as Florence. And she certainly knows the advantages of a family marriage to royalty, rather than to yet another noble family.
Allore, Maria sends her agents off to Venice, to peruse pearls. She wants only the best, two hundred or so, which are duly purchased. Fifty of the lustrous margaritas, and a pendant, are sent to win over the potential daughter-in-law-to-be… with the promise of the remaining pearls upon marriage. It’s also likely that Maria spends a small fortune on other gifts, as does Cosimo, as does Eleonara’s family when they finally agree upon the marriage and the substantial dowry. A dowry during the Renaissance was held in safe keeping for the wife’s benefit, though husbands could earn interest on the amount.
After a jubilant welcome to Florence, the spectacular wedding lasts for days and it’s agreed that despite the arrangement, the union is a fond one. To her new home, Eleonora brings an entourage, an art collection and the necessities to set up her casa. Her cassoni, carved wedding chests, would certainly have been overflowing. These chests, often exhibited during the precession that accompanied young brides to their new home, are costly and heavily decorated with representations of legendary heroes and allegories. The most expressive was saved for the heavy inner lid – imagery of those vital conjugal duties. Cosimo, however, needs no inspiration in this regard. He has already fathered a much-loved illegitimate daughter, Bia, who is raised by her grandmother Maria. By this time in 1540, the family had moved from the imposing family palazzo to the stately Pallazo della Signoria.
The couple’s first child, a daughter named after Maria, is born nine months later. A son Francesco, ten months later, Isabella just over a year later, then Giovanni the next year, Lucrezia just over a year after that. In all, Eleonora gives birth to eleven children in fourteen years. Last is Don Pietro in 1554 and sadly, of him, there are dark stories to be told… first, back to the Bronzino painting.
This is an important ‘royal’ portrait, yet perhaps that doesn’t quite compensate for the tedium of portrait posing, or even finding the time for that matter. Eleonora is not only busy as a mother and in her role as Duchess, she is also a traveller at heart.; happiest to escape the confines of Florence and whisked away by Cosimo on business or to one of the many villas in the dukedom. They play tennis, fish and hunt, entertain, and enjoy those vast Tuscan feasts.
Was it perhaps on one of these trips that the couple agrees upon the fabric for the portrait dress, acquiring twenty-seven metres of the finest fabric; worth a small king’s ransom. The three year sartorial undertaking to construct the masterpiece of velvet, brocade, gold and pearls requires ten meters. Eleonora sends the remaining fabric to her sisters in Spain, then gives a little to charity.
At last, the dress is declared a triumph and the sittings with Bronzino can be arranged. Besides her beautiful self, Eleonora adorns the dress – a golden chain belt with a glimmering pearly tassel and of course, those precious marriage pearls. Bronzino renders the painting exquisitely in the Mannerist style with a sculptural treatment and flat lighting. And he delicately paints a pomegranate on the constricted bodice of the dress, which justifiably symbolizes fertility and abundance. Eleonora looks regal yet distant perhaps, or is it simply what her more-strict Spanish royal upbringing dictates? This portrait is painted to impress, to exalt the Medici dynasty, really a vehicle for propaganda.
Often painted as gifts to noblemen, ruling families and royalty, once approved by their patron (the person who paid for its commission) portraits such as this would be wrapped in fine Florentine paper and transported afar using the Medici’s intricate communication and ‘logistics’ network. In this instance, quite likely intended as a gift to the Emperor himself. The family couldn’t have known just how poignant and treasured this painting will become. Despite her piety and prayers for the safekeeping of her family, tragedy would soon befall it.
In 1549, Eleonora purchases the Palazzo Pitti, on that other side of the Arno, commissioning an extension and a grand garden. It becomes one of the family’s residences with room to house some of Eleonora’s and Cosimo’s amassed paintings, sculptures and objects d’art. Yet the Duchess won’t see her project completed. Three years later, the sweet boy in the painting is 19 and already a bishop. His brother Garzia is 16. In 1562, on a trip to Pisa, they and their mother succumb to malaria within weeks of each other. The boys die first. Then, at only forty, Eleonora passes away in the arms of her disconsolate husband.
Prayers are held throughout Florence, especially in the convent that Eleonora had founded, and the mournful funerals and the burials in the family crypts in the Basilica of San Lorenzo are far too premature. The exquisite dress, so carefully created, is now a burial gown.
As I delve deeper into Eleonora’s life, I’m interested in her legacy; a great patron of convents, of the arts, of Palazzo Pitti. Although the public perception of the Duchess was often one of ‘excessively Spanish, too pious and noble’, my perception, along with her legacy, is also one of a loving mother and wife. And I reflect with relief that she didn’t live to see the trials and tragedies that befall her family.
Cosimo carries on, fathers at least one more illegitimate child, then is conferred upon him the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. He hands over the reins of the Duchy to his eldest son Francesco, marries Camilla Martelli, has two more children, then spends most of his remaining years outside of Florence at Villa di Castello. I come across a passage that after ruling Tuscany for thirty-seven years, in his final years, he dedicates himself to the cultivation of jasmine.
Eleonora and Cosimo had ensured all of their children were raised and educated in the classics, languages and the arts. Cosimo’s favourite daughter, Isabella, seems to be a delightful blend of her parents. A beauty like her mother, she has a love of music, is high-spirited and has an aptitude for politics. Yet her fate too is of a political marriage and her father settles the strategic union with the wealthy Roman Orsini clan.
Isabella is betrothed at age eleven, to twelve-year old Paolo Giordano Orsini. The marriage ceremony takes place at the favourite family Villa di Castello when the bride is sixteen and it’s known that the groom departs the next day with the military. Yet Cosimo does something unusual and safe keeps not only the dowry, but makes the paternal decision that his daughter should mostly remain in the Medici family home, rather than at the Corsinis. When her mother dies, Isabella steps in as ‘First Lady.’
Isabella also has an unusual amount of freedom and control over her own affairs than is customary for a young Florentine bride. She hosts a creative group of women who gather to appreciate and promote the arts. Isabella has an affair, rather unfortunately, with her husband’s cousin. This leads to a fateful night in 1576 when on a hunting holiday with her husband, Isabella is strangled at midday in the presence of servants at a family villa. Her husband is perhaps the murderer, or gives his tacit permission, as does Isabella’s brother, the now Grand Duke Francesco. An ambassador who knew Eleonora’s daughter wrote, “Her liveliness never leaves her, it is born within her.”
Yet that trait does not extend to Eleonora’s and Cosimo’s last child, Don Pietro, who appears to have had few redeeming qualities. A spendthrift and serial philanderer, he will truly shame the family name while at yet another country villa with his young wife. She is in fact a cousin of Pietro’s. Eleonora niece who she had taken in as a child, raising her alongside her own children. Leonor Alvarez di Toledo was named after Eleonora. She is witty, talented, and close with Isabella who is like a sister.
Like Isabella’s, Leonor’s marriage is not a success and she also conducts herself as her husband does, with a tendency to take lovers. In Cosimo’s time, affairs were tolerated if kept quiet; behind the villa doors so to say. Not so with Grand Duke Francesco and he also appears to cover up and approve another murder.
Leonor is strangled by Pietro de’ Medici on July 10, 1576, six days before Isabella. The Spanish royal house of the Toledos is outraged, yet Pietro is never brought to justice. He ends his days in debt, banished of all places to Spain and when he dies, his five illegitimate children are brought back to Florence to be cared for.
But this story is about Eleonora, Isabella and Leonor, three women of the Renaissance. And indeed, all Renaissance women – with talents, hopes, and dreams. Yet despite the many strides made by Eleonora and the two vibrant women she had loved and nurtured, their lives were ended tragically and senselessly, seemingly without remorse or punishment.
I’m haunted by something that is pointed out during the lectures that have become a part of my daily routine, part of my own Renaissance dream that has kept me grounded through these last winter days. We have to consider that during the Renaissance, close to half of all females were either sent to convents because of lack of dowry funds, or indeed chose to enter one – places of intellect, of learning, of peace and perhaps refuge.
In this fabled period that witnesses a rebirth of ‘enlightenment’, awakening of patronage and refinement of arts and architecture, a blossoming of knowledge and fresh philosophies, women were often denied access to that freedom of choice and expression. As much as Eleonora, her daughter and her ward epitomised the admirable traits of confidence, talent and opinions, their own flowering took place in the constraints of hypocrisy and their lesser status as women… a strength in adversity that fascinates and endears them even more to me.
Urged on by intimations of winter’s early arrival (but hey, it’s alway early here) we set off on one last meander. We’ve put away our glamping tent for the year, made reservations at a hotel and a lodge, and with the canoe strapped on the car, we journey from our mountain town through Kootenay National Park and, some three hours later, arrive in Alberta’s famed Banff National Park. I wrote of Banff a few years ago and never take it for granted that this international destination is in our own backyard.
Banff National Park holds the distinction of not only being Canada’s oldest National Park, but the fourth oldest in the world after The Bogd Khan Uul in Mongolia – 1783, Yellowstone National Park USA – 1872, and the Royal National Park in Australia – 1879.
In 1885 Prime Minister John A. MacDonald set aside a small tract of land (while, sadly, removing the people of Stoney Nakoda First Nation between the years of 1890 to 1920’s) to establish the park. It soon attracted residents, tourists and sportsmen alike, in time becoming a playground for wealthy Europeans and American tourists. Today, the vibe along Banff Avenue, in the hotels, on the hiking, biking, skiing trails is a blend of nature and small town life… the highest town in Canada at just over 1300 metres.
We check into the Rimrock Hotel and it strikes us how strange it is to be in a hotel again, wonderful, but mildly disorienting during the ongoing pandemic. We welcome that masks are mandatory, inside and outside, and even as people socially distance, Banff bustles as always.
We hike a little, not far from the townsite, where Lake Minnewanka and its environs proclaim the wonder of autumn… russets, oranges and golds in a resplendent canvas. For more than one-hundred centuries, the First Nations hunted and camped along these shores of Mine-waki or Lake of the Spirits, both fearing and respecting its resident spirits. There are few remains of the summer village later established here in 1911, but then as now, boat cruises afforded the most spectacular views.
We choose to hike instead of taking to the water, conscious of and hoping not to encounter grizzly bears. This is the time of year when mamas and their cubs forage buffalo berries before hibernation…. the beauty surrounding us takes my mind (mostly) off their undoubted presence. The scenery is breathtaking and I’m reminded of our great fortune to have these National Parks; they are a gift to the people, to the earth.
Leaving Banff, we drive north through the hamlet of Lake Louise stopping at the glacial lake itself. Tourists pose briefly for photos but I take a while, gazing out towards Mount Leroy, Mount Victoria, Mount Whyte. They are already snowy-wrapped as they anchor the striking emerald lake and the renowned Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Onward to our next destination, to another emerald-hued lake, aptly named Emerald Lake, which lies in Canada’s second oldest park. Yoho National Park in British Columbia was established in 1886 and in the local Cree language, yoho is an exclamation of awe, of wonder. It applies perfectly to the park’s expansive glaciers, impressive waterfalls, soaring peaks and ancient forests.
A few kilometres before the Emerald Lake turnoff, we pull into the small town of Field. Nestled at the foot of Mount Stephen, it is a gem, a gathering of history where mining preceded the settlement necessary for the advancement of the railway over the Kicking Horse Pass in 1883. A smattering of tents and timber shacks housed construction workers for the Canadian Pacific Railway; then eventually a name change to Field in the hope of wooing a would-be, but ultimately unrequited, American investor.
It’s a cold, misty afternoon as we enter the town. The deep rumbling of a CPR train echoes through the valley as it slowly grinds to a halt, stopping precisely in front of the old Telegraph building. The train seems like ‘a mile long’ but unlike the past, groups of tourists do not hasten off the train to dash-off a quick telegraph during their 20 minute stop.
Imagine it’s the late 1880’s. As in Banff and Lake Louise, the CPR has built yet another hotel to attract tourists and capitalise on the stunning scenery. Yet this smaller hotel in Field is initially designed as a simple meal stop between Banff and Golden – the steep grade of the ‘Big Hill’ at Kicking Horse Pass rendered dining cars too heavy to haul. By 1902 and with a major expansion, Mount Stephen House is as lavish as the outdoors is wild. Wealthy visitors ride the rails, soon stopping for the health, recreation and sheer pleasure of the mountains.
As I read about the Mount Stephen Hotel, I come across this fond endorsement:
“No intimation was given to me, that I should find Field a charming place and it has been a pleasant surprise to discover in the heart of the Rockies, as delightful a nook as any person may desire.” Edward Whymper 1901, First mountaineer to climb the Matterhorn.
His quote leads me deeper into the fascinating history of Swiss guides in the Canadian Rockies. It starts partly in Banff, in Golden, in Field, where to stimulate tourism, and to radiate confidence, experienced Swiss guides were brought in to escort amateur mountaineers. After a climbing accident of an American climber in 1896, the CPR realised the value of these seasoned experts and indeed when Englishman Edward Whymper, renowned for ascending the Matterhorn, promoted the Canadian Rockies as “50 Switzerlands in One“, the Rocky Mountains entered the world stage… waiting to be scaled and explored.
Swiss mountaineers were employed during the summers, returning home to Switzerland over the winter, though a number over-wintered working as caretakers for the seasonal CPR hotels. Of the fifty-six first ascents of mountains over 3000 metres prior to 1911, not less than 50 first ascents were made under the steady hand and sure foot of these experienced men. By 1925, CPR’s 35 Swiss Guides had led more than 250 first ascents in the mountains of western Canada. With no fatalities in their care, and perhaps basking in their reputation as gentlemen and colourful characters, many would bring their families to make Canada their home – especially in Golden at the purpose-built Edelweiss Village. A few striking houses still remain, high above the town on the eastern flank of the Rockies.
Today, Swiss guides are credited with laying the foundation for the birth of skiing and perhaps even shaping winter sports as a pastime in Canada. Their legacy also remains in the names of our mountains, our ‘Swiss chalets’ at ski hills, not to mention our propensity for Swiss fondues after a day on the slopes!
We meander onward from Field to our final destination, Emerald Lake, the darling of Yoho National Park. Although it’s our first time here, the lake’s image is iconic Canadian… and is as stunning in person as it is in photos. The lake derives its vivid colour from powdered limestone and nestles under Mount Burgess of the famed ‘Burgess Shale’ – the fortunate preservation of middle Cambrian (508 million years old) fossil beds, yielding species never before seen. The basin traps epic storms, and moisture, nurturing forests of western cedar and yew, hemlock and white pine.
We walk the five kilometre route around the lake, marvelling at the old growth, savouring the birdsong, glimpsing the shimmering lake through the thick forest. We stay in the Emerald Lake Lodge, remembering the first tourists and the Swiss guides. We chat with the staff, gathered from other parts of the world who are having their own unique experience in the Canadian Rockies.
And finally, we heave that red canoe off the car. It’s a cool but sunny, clear afternoon and we spend hours on the serene lake. It is simply spectacular in a way that can defy description – and so, abandoning my search for new descriptive adjectives, let’s simply call it ‘Canadian-National-Park-iconic’. In the middle of these emerald waters I spread my arms wide and yell –”Yoho!”
Throughout the long paddle, we gaze into the turquoise water, up to the looming mountains, and over to each other and agree… this is the perfect ending to the season.
The album is compact yet weighty, a visual archive of a Canadian history. Many of the small black and white photographs hit me like a blast of cold air, none more so than the photo of the Tashme Internment Camp. Hastily built in the interior of British Columbia, row upon row of tiny shacks stand in a bleak winter landscape. The image records a place where the freezing mountain air rendered the winters unbearable for those incarcerated there – fellow Canadians of Japanese origin. I’ve come across this same photo online and of other camps. Now, I sit across from a survivor who endured the misery of Tashme, and so much more.
The petite, elegant lady has entrusted the album – and her story – to me; I consider it an honour. White calligraphy on black, the inside inscription on the album reads, “May 13th, 1947, To Yoshiko Jane Ikeda, On Her Sixth Birthday.”
The second photo I gaze upon on is one of Jane herself. About two years old, she’s wearing a darling white coat and dress, stitched by her mother. Standing for the camera with her older brother, it is a sweet photograph of siblings. Yet they – Canadian citizens imprisoned during World War Two and its aftermath for nothing more than being of Japanese descent – are far from their home in Vancouver.
It’s early Saturday morning as I pour green tea for Jane and myself. The first signs of autumn are visible from my office window– maples donning a plumage of crimson red, soft rain pattering on fading summer blooms. Jane had asked if we could meet early today. “As it’s a painful period to talk about, I’ll need to walk afterwards.” At 79, Jane, a retired teacher and lecturer, is an avid walker and skier.
During our two-hour conversation, we have moments of melancholy, of sadness, of utter disdain for this shameful period in Canadian history. Jane tells me from the outset, “There are a lot of strands, like the elm tree you wrote of in Kaslo, but there are two significant people who helped ‘graft’ me. Helped me strip away the past that stunted this fragile tree.”
Yet to fully appreciate Jane’s story and the common history of the some 23,000 people of Japanese heritage like her, we have to understand the stage in which these crimes against citizens, mostly Canadian born, was set. And it doesn’t begin on the eve of war, or later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Tragically, it finds its origins long before that.
Despite Canada’s present day reputation as a nation that is welcoming to immigrants, overt racism against Asians can be traced to 1871 after British Columbia joined confederation, the point at which it became a province of Canada. Of a population of 50,000, white Canadian and European origin represented about 10,000, the remaining were mostly of Indigenous, Chinese, Indian and other Asian descent. Outnumbered and concerned about disenfranchisement, The Provincial Voters Act Amendment of 1895 stated, “No Chinaman, Japans, or Indian shall have his name placed on the Register of Voters for any Electoral District or be entitled to vote in any election.”
This also served the purpose of preventing these citizens from becoming professionals; doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., as in order to work in these fields, one had to be on the voter list. Year by year, further Acts were passed disallowing Chinese or Japanese persons from working on railways, in mining, or at selected companies.
We know from the Indian (i.e. people of the First Nations) Act and its many manifestations of discrimination against Indigenous people, how the impacts of injustice still resonate. The Japanese, who began migrating to BC about 1877, initially worked successfully in fishing, farming, mining, and logging. In 1905 an Asian Exclusion League was formed, the building white resentment brimming over in events such as the Anti-Asian riots on Vancouver’s Powell Street.
Despite this, by the early 1930’s many Japanese Canadians – or Nikkei – excelled in fishing and the forestry industry. They were respectful, law abiding, upstanding citizens, over 60% of whom were born in this land. Many didn’t speak Japanese and had only a connection to their ancestral roots. Yet still, the Canadian government adopted progressively more stringent tactics of disenfranchisement, more than 100 orders from 1931 onwards – such as fishing licenses revoked for no apparent reason being one of many ploys.
Jane’s own family story is initially one of success that mirrors many other families. Success built on hard work, intelligence, humility, love of family and of their country, Canada.
All these years later, with some research and the help of her two brothers, Jane has mostly pieced together the family history – their parents, like many others infused with a culture of forbearance, simply never spoke of their early experiences.
“The only time I remember my father referring to it was when a friend asked why he wasn’t bitter. That was the price I paid. Look at my three children, he replied proudly.”
George Yoshinori Ikeda was born in 1899, raised in Vancouver and followed in his father’s profession as a fisherman. When Jane and I notice a photo of him sitting at a desk while still a young man, Jane seems pleased that perhaps at one time he might have studied.
“He married well,” Jane reveals as we gaze at her family in a 1941 photo. Her brother is two, she, just a baby in her mother’s arm. None could know the tragedies that would unfold later that year.
“After several suitors were presented to the Okimura family, my father was accepted to marry my mother, Itsuko. Years later, I was happy to learn that her family was from the Samurai class,” she says, referring to the hereditary nobility and warrior class of medieval and early modern Japan.
From the mid 1700s, the Okimura ancestry includes a samurai warrior. He would have commanded 10 to 15 foot soldiers and been able to read and write, even take on a surname. Historically, as with some cultures, common folk were known by their occupations. Okimura means, towards the sea, perhaps signifying that the Samurai had chosen to live close by the shore.
All those years later, at the turn of the century, Mataichi Okimura emigrated to Canada where his daughter would marry George, a man who also felt at home on the sea.
“My mother had been born here, but was sent back to Japan to care for her grandmother. Her English was always poor,” Jane confides, “even though she returned to Canada at 16 and helped start a family business as a seamstress. She married my father and, as was common at the time, she was taught to self-sacrifice, to obey her husband and her sons. Everything she did was for us. And reflection was not in her lexicon.”
“My parents were a good team,” Jane continues with emotion. “At the time of my birth they owned several fishing boats, three houses and seventeen lots in Steveston outside of Vancouver. We were well-to-do. Yet later when we had absolutely nothing, we always had love.”
The Ikeda’s descent into poverty through their loss of freedom, the stripping of their liberties, and eventual incarceration, began as it did for the majority of Canadians of Japanese ancestry and for the newly arrived Japanese on the Pacific Coast. As the war entered its second year, racial discrimination, partly driven by the commercial success of the Nikkei, entered the next phase.
“It was the kind of resentment that slumbers, then awakens,” one assistant to then Prime Minister Mackenzie King admitted. King began to ‘soft-peddle’ racial policies, culminating in the use of the War Measures Act by Decree. The government of British Columbia also began a campaign to rid their province of Nikkei. When Pearl Harbour was bombed by Japanese forces on Dec. 7th1941, it appears that some commentators of the time reflected that ‘it seemed heaven-sent’. As Canadians, we would perhaps prefer to believe that the government made rash decisions as they reacted in haste, that perhaps they didn’t realize the injustice and suffering their policies would cause. Tragically, the response was planned and carried out with precision… all perfectly legal in the eyes of the law at the time.
Canada and her allies were now at war with Japan, and even as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police counselled the government that the Nikkei were peaceful and posed no threat, the expulsion campaign began. Even though 63% of the Nikkei were Canadian born, fanned by sensationalist press and widespread racism, almost 1200 fishing boats were impounded. Japanese newspapers and businesses were shuttered.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King issued his Orders-in-Council under the War Measures Act on Feb. 24, 1942, ‘to remove all persons of Japanese origin from the Pacific Coast.’ A slogan of the time, perpetrated by MP Ian Mackenzie in British Columbia, demanded ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the sea,’. All Japanese Canadians were required to register. And then, the men were the first to go.
Jane was a small baby when her father was removed from his home and business. Like many other men, George was designated to spend his captivity in hard labour. He was sent to work on a road crew, while others were packed off to farms or railways. In deplorable living conditions, George helped construct – with only hand tools – the Hope to Princeton highway, now part of Highway 3. Any man who begged to stay with his family or resisted these enforced labour conditions, was sent to a POW camp on the other side of the country – a large orange target on the back of his work clothes. “Where would we have escaped to?” quipped one survivor.
Jane’s eyes, and mine, fill with tears when she tells me that everything they owned was then appropriated by the government… the houses, boats, the plots of land. I can only imagine the anguish and uncertainty of signing the document that stated all would be returned after the war, or so they were promised; law abiding citizens still trusted their government. And yet, that was only the beginning.
Meanwhile, the BC Security Commission had prepared large exhibition buildings at Hastings Park for a temporary clearing site. With many given only 24 hours to pack, Itsuko was also given the order to take only what she could carry, a pair of suitcases, her two children, and join the thousands being herded into Hastings. Indeed, it had been a cattle and horse barn; the stench and filth still fresh in survivors memories all these years later. Lack of water or proper washroom facilities, poor food, the spread of disease, families separated… for any mother, the thought of young children in that environment is unimaginable. Without knowing their fate, confinement lasted for months. And on top of this they carried the burden of not knowing the conditions their husbands were facing, or even knowing whether they were alive. This was known as the First Uprooting.
By September of 1942, the peak of those simultaneously interned at Hastings is almost 4000, though 8000 were processed in total. Meanwhile, the federal and provincial governments had deemed all Nikkei a national security threat and conjured an idea for all of those abandoned mining ghost towns in the Kootenay region of BC. Soon trains trundled the detainees to mountain towns like Kaslo, Slocan, Lemon Creek, New Denver, Greenwood, Sandon. Others were offered the option of back-breaking working on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba where they were permitted to keep their family intact.
Itsuko and her two children were forcibly removed to a prison camp outside of Hope BC. Many women and children initially lived in tents while the shacks were hastily built – each 14 by 28 ft which two families shared. With her husband already exiled to a road camp, the young mother would find a way to survive the so-called Tashme camp. “The conditions were brutal,” Jane’s brother Edward is quoted as saying. He is the older brother in the photo and recalls his mother receiving a jar at regular intervals, filled with the paltry wages his father earned for building BC’s Highway 3.
It is at this point in our conversation that I find myself truly at a loss for words and struggling to comprehend. I learn that with their bank accounts frozen by the government, the captive Nikkei were forced to pay for their own food, blankets, clothing and even for building supplies to make some semblance of comfort out of the shacks they had been forced to live in.
“Even hardened criminals don’t have to pay for their own imprisonment,” I read time and time again from camp survivors.
Like Itsuko, Nikkei women had no choice but to become the mainstay of their families. If they were fortunate, their meagre diet was supplemented by food items gleaned from other sources. “My mother never complained,” Edward is quoted as saying. “She was a capable woman. She sewed my pants, shirts, and knitted.” Itsuko, Jane and Edward were eventually moved from Tashme to the New Denver camp.
I visited the New Denver camp where the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre pays homage to the internees. Nestled in the soaring, soulful Selkirk mountains, the concentration camp comprised some 300 wood shacks built and occupied by the internees from 1942 to 1949. Having stood almost reverently in one of the family-shared shacks, I could envision only too well the harsh conditions and the years of suffering. There had been a school, a temple, sport teams, a Japanese garden, and an ofuro – a communal bathhouse. Yet the artefacts are haunting and telling. On display are items from home and of their life of freedom, mixed amongst the more practical and prosaic. As with other places of hardship I’ve visited, I am reminded of the deep resources a woman draws upon for the survival of her family.
I ask Jane if she has visited the Nikkei Centre, or the Japanese Canadian Museum at the former Langham Hotel in Kaslo, another poignant site dedicated to ensuring that this episode of Canadian history is not forgotten. Approximately 1100 Canadians were imprisoned in the village of Kaslo of whom the museum points out that they ‘turned frustration and sorrow into new and honourable lives.’
“I won’t go,” she says emphatically. “I’m not introspective. I never look backwards.”
This is in fact the strength of the Nikkei, to move forward with dignity and resolve. Even as the government breached its promise by permanently appropriating property and subsequently selling it at rock-bottom prices, they persevered and found a way forward.
In 1945, Jane’s family was reunited, then displaced to Picture Butte, Alberta. Although the war had ended, unlike the US government, neither property, nor rights (including the right to return to the Pacific coast) were restored to Japanese Canadians.
The Canadian government now gave the internees two options. Move east, at least 100 miles inland from the coastline of BC, or ‘repatriate’ to Japan. Many of course had never been to Japan, didn’t speak the language, nor had any desire to go to a land they didn’t consider to be their own. And so, compounding the tragedy of the past four years, with many now destitute, having lost their businesses and homes, the Nikkei now scattered themselves across Canada to start again. Some 4000 took the government’s offer and boarded a ship to a faraway, war-torn land called Japan. Of those who took that option, many found themselves in the limbo of being shunned first in one place and then in another.
Jane shows me a photo of the shack the Ikeda the family lived in once they moved to the prairies of Alberta. “More like a kind of chicken-coop,” she says. Then about five, Jane has some recollections of this time. “It’s not pleasant, but I remember how everything froze-up in the outhouse, everything…”
There are some seemingly carefree images from this time. Jane and friends in summer dresses squinting into the sunshine, and bundled up in snowsuits in the winter. Other family members also move to the small farming community where Jane’s father and an uncle become builders. It is here that another brother is born.
In April of 1949, all restrictions on Japanese Canadians are finally revoked. In 1951, the Ikeda family returns to Vancouver, to no properties or jobs, to start again. The family takes temporary lodging at a hotel, then a boarding house until the family buys a house on Killarney Street. Photos of it boast profuse cherry and apple trees, smiling faces as life moves on.
Yet I’m saddened to hear Jane tell me, “It was a little shack of a house. A lean-to was built on the side for me, damp and covered with black mold.” I ask how her mother coped, whether they spoke of the hardships. “Never, not once,” she tells me. It’s here that Jane reminds me, ‘we were poor, but wealthy with love.”
George Yoshinori Ikeda, initially provided for his family as a handyman and gardener, then as a janitor at the less than salubrious Niagara Hotel. He retired at the age of 83.
Itsuko returned to dress making, working in a shop on Alma Street, often stitching into the evenings at her own kitchen table.
“She stitched beautiful wedding gowns, but I don’t think she was paid well enough. Even now, I can see the elegant white fabrics against the humble background. We never ate at the kitchen table, it was always draped in white.”
Itsuko Okimura Ikeda, resourceful, brave and proud as any Samurai warrior, died at the age of 96.
As I pour the last of the tea, Jane tells me that, besides the love of her parents, she has had two ‘graftings’ that have helped her become who she is today. “I stripped away things that hurt me, I created a cocoon that stunted my fragile tree… forever stunted, but over-reaching.”
“The first graft was encouraged by Ms. Elliott, my high school councillor. She told me I had the intellect to go to university and helped arrange scholarships. Even as I slept in a moldy lean-to and was poor, I knew I could solve it with my mind.”
It was while completing a degree at UBC that Jane came upon the deeds to the Ikeda family properties.
“And still I trusted the government and wrote a letter with the deeds enclosed, there were no photo copies. I sent them off feeling my family was owed some compensation.”
No reply, or compensation ever came. In fact it wouldn’t be until 1988 that the Canadian Government formally apologized and a redress payment was made. Some 1800 internees had died from diseases, many had passed away, the 13,000 remaining survivors were each paid $21,000. Additional funds were paid to a community fund.
Jane earned her degree in 1964, then taught in Trail BC.
“I moved to Alberta to learn how to ski. I met Mike while both teaching at Western Central High School in Calgary. We married in 1972. Mike became a Commanding Officer, eventually we moved here to Kimberley where we’ve bought and sold many homes. We live a good, active life.”
“And this is where my second graft comes in,” Jane continues. “A friend of mine could see beyond the cocoon to my fragile self. She saw there was massive pain at the heart of my dwarfing… that I’ve been so busy obliterating my past.”
As we browse again through the photo album and finish the conversation, Jane admits that she’s never paid much attention to it.
“My Uncle Arthur gave it to me. It’s his artistic handwriting; he never married and took time to pay attention to his nieces and nephews.”
I tell Jane what a tangible poignant gift it is and ask about the photograph of the lush tree in bloom.
“It was a Queen Anne cherry. I never liked it much since I preferred Bing cherries, sweeter and more prized as you had to buy them. I guess even then when you’re dirt poor, you put monetary value on things…”
“Are you more at peace?” I ask Jane.
“Oh sure,” she admits, yet something she mentioned earlier lingers.
“I’ve heard it said that certain races such as the Japanese and the Jewish carry around pain. When you carry pain, you live through your ego. To live in the now, you must accept and acknowledge your past, appreciate the present as it is.”
As Jane leaves the comfort of my office for her walk in the moody September morning, it’s my fervent wish that her family’s story and the painful history of those other fellow Canadians be told and shared widely so that we never forget.
One last photo speaks to me as I begin to write that morning. It is of a school room in Southern Alberta in 1949, the year in which their rights as Canadian citizens were reinstated. Jane is sitting behind three other girls in the first row, smiling with her classmates. The other children of Japanese heritage were likely also from families sent to work in the sugar beet fields. What strikes me is how normal this scene is, as well it ought to be, and perhaps how oblivious the other children were to what their classmates had endured. A reminder that we must know and teach each generation the past.
I close the photo album of Yoshiko Jane Ikeda – a strong, contemplative woman with a complex identity, now able to claim her past. As she bravely confided, “I’m ready to put a face to my story…”
Glamping Site Three and Four, Kaslo, British Columbia
N49 Degrees, W116 Degrees, Altitude 591 Metres
Every small town has its story, its treasures, perhaps its aching past. With its serene beauty nestled along Kootenay Lake, we chose Kaslo for our next glamping spot for all of those reasons.
I couldn’t have anticipated that we’d be sheltered under the grandeur of one of the town’s treasures – a magnificent more-than-century-old elm tree – at Kaslo’s Municipal Campground.
Situated at the end of Front Street, Kaslo’s main street, only a narrow road separates the campground from the indigo waters of Kootenay Lake. The narrow fjord-like lake divides the Selkirk and Purcell mountain ranges. As one of the largest in BC, the lake is a traditional waterway to the Sinixt and Ktunaxa peoples. Once part of their seasonal migration and trading route, Kootenay Lake is now more likely to be arrayed with kayaks, canoes, paddle boards and sailboats than traditional birch bark canoes.
We were fortunate to be offered the elm site, its outspread branches like an expansive umbrella protecting her, and us, from the intense but glorious summer heat. As with previous campsites our canvas tent, named Lupin, only just squeezed under the tree’s majestic leafy canopy.
Lupin and the elm quickly became the darling of the campsite. “What’s it like inside? How long does it take to set up? Looks like a movie set, especially with that tree.”
And a comment that really intrigued me. “Have you heard the history behind the elm?”
We noticed what looked like a graft on the tree, as if two trees had merged into one. I was even more curious when our campground hostess revealed that Lupin was pitched under a Camperdown Elm, a name has nothing at all to do with camping. In fact, the ulmus glabra camperdownii’s history is firmly rooted in Scotland.
Around 1840, in the grounds of Camperdown House near Dundee, a young forester made a discovery. David Taylor worked for the Earl of Camperdown and on a jaunt in the woods discovered a young contorted elm tree. Taylor speculatively grafted it onto a larger Wych Elm in the Earl’s estate garden. As the years passed, the twisted yet elegant branches formed into a vast, lush canopy. The tree and those that derived from it became a status symbol, satisfying a mid-Victorian passion for curiosities in ‘Gardenesque’ style gardens. Eventually they graced the gardens of stately American universities and it seems Kaslo’s camperdown elm made its way to Canada from across the border.
Arriving in town in 1893 with Mr. C.W. McAnn, Kaslo’s first solicitor, the tree was just a two-foot high treasure and planted at his residence on 5th and Avenue B. In 1910, Charles F. Caldwell moved the elm to his home in Upper Kaslo, only for it to be dug up thirty years later by A.F. McPhee. McPhee envisioned it as a shelter at the fish hatchery and it there it remained, even as the hatchery evolved to become part of Vimy Park that eventually surrounded the campground.
In Kaslo, the presence of the elm is said to reflect the perseverance and strength of the community. And, as we strolled the charming streets, I was reminded that this was a place where resilience came very much into play – the serene mountains and majestic views belying darker episodes in its history. Yet Kaslo is also a town of welcoming verandahs and profuse gardens, of tinkling wind chimes and wide rambling streets; fondly proclaimed as the Lucerne of the Kootenays.
The town’s roots harken back to 1889, first a sawmill site, then rapid expansion due to a silver boom. When, in the early 1890’s, a 120 ton galena boulder was discovered nearby, the massive lode of silver and lead beckoned prospectors and speculators. Many arrived flat broke – some left as newly minted millionaires in only a matter of years.
Dozens of silver mines traverse this area and by 1893 Kaslo was a boomtown with a population of 3000, the fifth largest settlement in British Columbia. As with many mining towns, along with the more dignified settlers and ladies in finery, a more salacious wild atmosphere prevailed that catered to miners – gambling, saloons and brothels. Much of that new money flowed south to Spokane, Washington where mansions of the silver barons stand still today.
The unbelievable wealth came to a crashing halt as the price of silver plummeted. Businesses shuttered, banks foundered, and depression ensued. The final blow came in 1894 when a ravaging flood, then a devastating fire brought the town to its knees. Yet despite a large decrease in the population, the town didn’t fade away. The great number of ghost towns in British Columbia attest to the many that did.
Kaslo holds onto this past in the form of elegant buildings, spired churches, frontier-like storefronts, perhaps best embodied in the oldest intact passenger steam vessel of its type in the world. The S.S. Moyie carried passengers on Kootenay Lake for fifty-seven years. Now dry-docked, refurbished and an impressive tourist site, fondly referred to as the ‘sweetheart of the lake’, she pays homage to the vital role that sternwheelers played in mountain regions.
‘She pulled in and blew her whistle like a trusted old friend – there weren’t yet roads to these mountain communities,’ is one quote I read. The S.S. Moyie carried everything from fruit to sheep, from locomotives piece by piece, to automobiles and passengers; some of very little means and those few who could indulge in the refinement of a state room.
I’ve also heard Kaslo referred to as ‘one of the prettiest towns in British Columbia’… quiet charm in soulful surroundings. For me its sublime and soulful setting on the shore of Kootenay Lake is heightened by knowledge of the towns profound history as one of numerous sites where Japanese Canadians were interned during World War Two. The story of how these Canadian citizens were grievously wronged deserves to be told, it is a story of pain and loss and yet also of resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Of this I will devote a full blog soon.
We canoe and paddle board, and even have the good fortune, by happenstance, to sail the waters with friends. In such moments I gaze out towards the layered mountain ranges and hope that this serene view offered solace for those who had been interned and cut off from previous lives, for those whose tribal lands had been sequestered in the expansion of Canada, for those who arrived in Canada from afar – and perhaps even a fleeting thought for those who hadn’t realized their fortune in the ephemeral silver boom.
Early each morning we enjoy our coffee, lakeside. The rising sun glints on the carpets of green pines, the peaks with already-snowy-wraps, the gentle rippling of the waters. I hear the great cawing and flapping of the resident crows and the odd splashing of trout. I feel glacial-deposited pebbles on bare feet. I savour the moment.
I muse on how edifying and giving these glamping experiences have been. How they’ve helped define our summer, enabled us to explore in our own backyard and spend more meaningful time together.
Ambling along the shoreline, pebbles in autumnal arrays seem to hint at the approaching change of seasons. And in all of us, perhaps an overwhelming feeling of gratitude, especially during this pandemic… a reminder to savour the simple moments.
As I return to the campsite, the morning shadows are dancing beautifully on Lupin…
Last summer, on the island of Hvar Croatia, I swooned for lavender. As the sun lowered in the late afternoon sky, rich orange hues danced on field upon field of profuse purple stems. As far as the eye could gaze, we were entranced by the island’s signature crop in bloom – the view, the scent, was simply intoxicating, a moment etched on my traveller’s heart.
On a fine summer day this past week, once again I wonderfully found myself surrounded by heavenly lavandula, but this time it would be a hands-on experience. We had been invited to help harvest, so ‘the girls’ and I drove west from Kimberley, through the old mining town of Moyie, past the quaint stop at Yakh where you might just glimpse those roof-top goats grazing improbably above the Yakh Soap and Candle Co. Then onwards toward the Creston Valley, a veritable cornucopia of farmland, orchards and vineyards.
We started with an ‘obligatory’ wine tasting at the Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery, named for the Anglo-Austrian aristocrat who made his way to the valley in 1882. While on a hunting expedition with the future United States president, Teddy Roosevelt, the explorer saw the possibilities of the region. Granted a ten-year lease of almost 50,000 acres from the government, William Adolf Baillie-Grohman settled in the valley, creating a dyke system to reclaim fertile land from the Kootenay River, operating a steamboat to facilitate the passage of goods and settlers to the area, and he also found time to serve as Justice of the Peace for the Kootenay district.
More European settlers arrived to the area from the mid 1880’s and a general store, sawmill, clearing and planting of orchards soon followed. Today, the hillsides around the picturesque town of Creston are credited as the first to capitalise on the area’s potential for fruit bearing trees and, as we sample wine at the Baillie-Grohman Vineyard, there’s no doubt it’s the ideal first stop in the valley. Capturing the essence of the Creston valley, the row on row of grape vines cradled on the slopes of gentle mountains evoke serenity amidst the quiet productivity of the valley.
But we’re here for another delightful crop, lavender, and so we wend our way a little further north of Creston to Wynndel. Once dubbed the ‘strawberry capital of the world’, Wynndel now flourishes with livestock, dairy and hay farming. When we reach our destination for the afternoon, Sanctuary Lavender Farm, immediately we see that we are in a place of sanctuary, a haven of serenity, as if drawn into a canvas by Monet. I’m instantly transported back to Croatia, even to France, then at once I’m full of gratitude that this is in our own ‘backyard.’
We’re welcomed by Jade, the resident long-haired Siberian Forest cat, and her owners Kevin and Alanna. I had already read an article about the two lavender farmers. I was curious to learn why they had sold a successful business in a popular mountain town near Vancouver to take over a lavender farm. I was interested in the harvesting process and the products that they create. And, naturally, we were eager to start harvesting, and strangely excited to wield a scythe.
Alanna had sent a message after we had settled on the day and warned us that there might be mosquitos as we worked in the fields. And she added, “So before you say yes, I want you to know about that… but this is offset of course by the aroma and the peace, and the buzzing of our friendly bees.”
Her description of the lavender farm she and Kevin bought almost three years ago summed it up succinctly. Yet until you’re standing amongst the rows and rows of lavender in bloom, the peace and serenity is difficult to convey. The plump bumble bees only compliment the living palette as they continuously buzz and busy on the lavender – part of nature’s cycle that we soon feel in tune with. With scythes handed to each of us, Kevin demonstrates how to take a small handful of lavender stems, cut carefully, repeat until a bunch is formed, secure with a band. As the bunches slowly grow and rest on the harvested lavender beds, bees buzz languorously, Jade slinks and suns herself, billowy clouds drift above, we savour deep breaths of lavender-lush air.
There are close to seven hundred lavender plants on the Sanctuary Farm; today we’re harvesting French lavender. An ancient flowering plant of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, the name lavender comes from the Latin word lavare meaning to wash given that it was commonly used by the Romans and in medieval Europe to scent water for washing clothes and for bathing. In Tuscany, it was used to ward of the evil eye. In ancient Egypt, lavender essential oil was one of many herbal oils used to preserve bodies for mummification; inexpensive, readily available, valued for its antibacterial properties.
Many of us well know the stress-relieving, calming properties of lavender, something I imagine Kevin and Alanna benefit from daily as they breathe in the atmosphere and soak in their tranquil setting.
“I still can’t believe I live here,” Alanna muses as we take a moment to gaze over the rows of lavender, and beyond. Rays of sunshine are dappling the late afternoon vista – tidy, diminutive knolls of purple against imposing emerald peaks.
As we’ve chatted, alongside one another, or scythed in silent harmony, an entire row has been harvested. It’s been over an hour and feels like a quarter of that. Countless bunches now await their placement into Kevin’s wagon where they’ll be trundled to the small drying shed. The French lavender will remain hanging, ‘bloom-side down’, for two weeks of drying. They’ll then be lovingly fashioned into Sanctuary’s retail products; candles and soaps, lavender wands and neck pillows, wreaths and sachets, or in their delightful elemental bunches. The products now grace local markets and stores in the Kootenay region and have become a go-to choice for gifts for many of us.
Laying down our tools, we gather on the shady terrace for a coffee and some lavender infused biscotti. The conversation meanders to Kevin and Alanna’s journey, of their transition to a slower-paced family life – their son Shem is with extended family this weekend.
“If you want to fly, you have to give up the ground you’re standing on,” Kevin says with the wisdom of a sage.
Even as their flower/event business in Squamish flourished, the couple reflect on their desire for more privacy and family time; they dreamt of making a change.
“We put our intention out to the universe, we wanted to be grounded with the senses,” the two explain.
“I had been perusing the real estate listings one evening.” Alanna continues, “we might have had Nelson in mind. Just as I was about to close my laptop, an ad for this property popped up. My heart started racing. I got tingles. The house and position on the slope of a hill was what we had aspired to. Oh, and then there was the lavender…”
There was still a business and a house to sell, their family split between two locations for a time as they transitioned. In time, it transpired into a home, a community and a lavender business they adore, Sanctuary Lavender Farm.
Kevin, originally from Sydney, Australia, chuckles that he’s gone from a flower shop to a lavender farm. As I take a photo of the two of them, Alanna wonders if her hair is alright. “You’re beautiful, just beautiful,” he says to his partner in life and business.
When Alana talks about their journey, she mentions that they both grew up with single moms.
“We drove a battered car and worked three jobs to open our flower shop.”
The couple radiate an intrinsic joy and calm spirt that seems to invite those around them to celebrate life. I hear one of them mention that the farm is like a botanical garden and can easily imagine the panoply of colours that play out as the seasons change.
As we finish our second session amongst the lavender, it’s difficult to pull ourselves away. Alanna shows me the lower beds. Ayla, Trixie and Jade pose for photos. Kevin has taken our precious bundles to be hung.
Alanna I discuss a future collaboration, maybe a writing workshop amongst the blooms? She motions to the girls who are engaging Jade to pose for a photograph.
“How lucky are you to have those two lovely young ladies in your life… and they you,” she says. Of course I agree wholeheartedly.
It’s been a fabulous day spent together. How did Kevin put it earlier?
The decision to glamp began as a discussion on how to spend a milestone anniversary, something that blossomed into a way broader conversation. “How can we replace traveling for the time being?” “What if we take the basics of camping and spice it up a bit?” And from me, ever the amateur designer, “Oh exciting, I could have so much fun with this!”
Already, the rewards are ample.
We camped often when I was a child – rather a rite of passage in Canada – and we camped with our own children wherever we were living. We’ve slept in Arabian tents in Qatar and Oman – images of camels shuffling slowly past as the sun slips over the bronzed desert dunes. We’ve camped in the high country of West Texas – chancing upon ghost towns, sun-dried horns, fist-sized tarantulas and otherwordly cacti. We pitched a tent in the deeply etched valleys of Mangistau in Kazakstan – pinnacles rising like citadels, a landscape unique and ethereal.
And it was through camping that we introduced Canada to our boys, happily armed with kayaks and canoes as our ‘toys’ – encountering the odd foraging bear, the loon’ s lyrical calls at sunset, the evocative drift of campfire smoke as stars twinkled above.
Glamping Site One* ‘The Farm’ in Southern Alberta
N 49.78, W 112.15 degrees, Altitude 815 metres
With the decision to glamp agreed upon and the tent acquired, the first ‘glampsite’ to host Lupin – the name given to our Sibley 500 tent on account of the way she gathers droplets of water like the leaves of a Lupin – was at my parent’s acreage, their once farm where we had been married all those years ago. Nestled beside a statuesque May Day tree and framed by mature pines, we immediately fell in love with the spacious, graceful lines of the tent, with the connection to nature while cocooned under the protection of canvas. A heart-warming anniversary celebration, time with family, and even a reshoot of one of our wedding photos – knee-deep in a canola field – we had come full circle to where it had all started.
For this first glamp, a world theme mostly developed in our new abode. Bed linens from India stamped with my beloved traveller’s palms paid homage to the last overseas country we had called home. The world vibe continued with lanterns illuminating Persian carpets, with delicate wicker weaves from Asia, with excellent UMAMU wine from a friend’s vineyard in Australia to mark the occasion.
And poignantly perfuming it all were lush, frilly peonies from my mother’s garden… a final and symbolic touch, almost as if my wedding bouquet was mirrored in these showy intoxicating blooms. Like my parent’s garden and homestead, they represented the grounding of home, hearth, and family.
In the early mornings, shadows played on Lupin’s walls as birdsong serenaded us awake. In the evenings, candlelight danced in evocative shadows as the hooting of owls called to us from nearby trees. One magical evening, we were treated to a brilliant symphony of light and sound as a thunderstorm rolled across the vast prairie sky. The boom and barrage of thunder, great flashes and streaks of lightening, and the rain – from the gentle pitter-patter of whispering raindrops to deep washes rollicking down Lupin’s sides.
Then the wind. The rattling of the door’s hefty zipper, the agitated sway of hanging lights, the plaintive rush of air through pines. Even under the protection of the canvas it felt like an open window to the outdoors, all senses awakened, nature’s forces rich and elemental.
With wine poured, books illuminated and wooly wraps to warm, I glanced towards my trusty fedora and knew that glamping was a gift. I doubt it is something we would have considered had we the liberty of still being able to travel at this time. Dare I say that it’s been another silver lining of Covid, almost an entreaty to embrace home and reach back to elemental simplicity, to feeling more rooted.
So it seems it all awaits. The lakes and woods, the bike trails and highways, the experiences and encounters, yet on this special occasion we were where we were meant to have been all along.
Glamping Site Two* Larchwood Lake, British Columbia,
N 49.57, W 115.48 degrees, Altitude 882 metres
A few weeks later, our first mountain glamp was indeed at one of those lakes we had scouted out on those joyous day trips. Larchwood Lake is just under an hour from home, and yet the feeling of being ‘away’ is complete. With a long stone’s throw to the lake, we find a spot nestled by lodgepole pines and a baby and mama pine tree that seem to guide our eye to the small, milky-blue lake beyond. At once, we’re conscious of Lupin’s substantial size. She barely squeezes into the camping spot, but with set-up complete (an hour and a half later) the picnic table and fire-pit become the perfect extension of our small enclave.
This trip, it’s mostly about Canadiana and pieces that will be the basis of Lupin’s ‘retinue’, so to say. Over the past month or so, I’ve delighted in curating ‘glampanalia’ that are preferably a little vintage, reused, repurposed and definitely not plastic. So, plates and bowls of pressed bamboo, milk and water bottles of glass, enamelled basins of a certain age, cloth napkins and naturally the reliable old family axe. Wood and canvas chairs that can easily be moved inside or out were purchased new, but, for the most part, everything else has a story.
I started with a small foldable wicker table, reclaimed from my mother’s home it was the perfect option for a fireside table. A label fixed to the underside reminds us that we had used it camping back when we lived in Oman. Oh how that brings me joy!
And I was fortunate to glean a number of collectibles from my parents. You’ll often find that people are only too happy to know that something, unused for years, will once again be cherished. A cast-iron frying pan, once my grandmother’s, was happily reconditioned by our youngest son and had its inaugural use this trip – the food couldn’t have tasted more delicious.
Procured from my father are his vintage binoculars purchased in Hong Kong while on a late ’60’s cruise to the Far East, and the warmest of Mexican blankets from a trip in 1965. I consider it a privilege that they’ll once again be used, treasured for years, and eventually passed on once again. And the lambskin? Years ago, a dear family friend gifted it to me, pleased that I would use it in my new mountain home. Sadly, Carol passed away recently, but I’d like to think she’d be thrilled that her lambskin is part of our glamping essentials.
I’ve also come across some items that are true Canadiana. When I spotted the wicker hamper in our local collectable boutique – Old Crow Emporium – I knew it was ideal for a storage chest. And oh how I wish it could tell me its storied past! With thick rope handles and stitching of animal sinew, its worn-smooth wicker speaks to a settler’s journey.
It’s also at Old Crow that I discovered the weathered wooden paddle and the well-used fishing basket, a creel. The creel now serves as a repository for old maps of the local area.
And I’m particularly pleased with the Beacon lanterns gifted to me by those astute kids of ours. Beacons were primarily used for signalling on the railways, produced from 1927 onwards by General Steel Wares. The Canadian company graced their lanterns with names such as Cold Blast, Dashboard, Searchlight and the Planet Hot Blast, each proudly marked ‘Guaranteed Wind Proof.’ I picture them swinging from a station master’s hand or perched in a caboose, signalling and lighting the way in the dark of the night. Now, far less flammable with strings of battery-powered lights, even still they emit a warmth and historic bonhomie.
We’re welcomed at Larchwood Lake by campground hosts Jim and Lynne who clearly love their summer retirement job.
“This is our third year with Recreation Sites and Trails. How fortunate are we that we get to live onsite for four months!” the couple tell us as they welcome.
Donning green vests, broom at the ready, after dinner each evening the couple make their rounds, checking on the campers and welcoming newcomers. Jim and Lynne are friendly faces with an easy manner bringing a gentle order to each camper’s experience. As they collect our fee, I admit I’m rather pleased to receive my first ‘glamping receipt’ for a Recreation Site Permit – $28 for two evenings. We hear how much the campground has improved over the last few years, chat about the local flora and fauna and aren’t too surprised when we’re told that there hasn’t been a tent set-up like this before!
“Be sure to use the blue canoe over by the dock. Anytime at all,” they entreat us. But the next day we’re happily out on the lake with our paddle boards. We’ve long been kayakers, but there’s a special pleasure in communing with water and wildlife on a paddle board.
We glide slowly along the water, surveying and revelling in the local habitat. Western Painted Turtles sun themselves on driftwood, then, startled, they dart under profuse pondweed. Wild flowers sprout along the sandy shore, rainbow trout are spotted, along with the odd garter snake. As we glide through reeds, straight and slender, dragonflies as blue as a Bombay Saphire Gin bottle dance around us. As their brilliance contrasts against the emerald reeds, I’m enthralled with what an idyllic platform for observation paddle boards are. That day, we go out twice!
We finish the second paddle session with, naturally, Bombay gin and tonics. With drinks poured, the cheese-board laid and wild flowers plucked, I jot down a few GlampingMoments. As trifling as they may seem, my glamping is all about enjoying the simple, yet slightly elegant pleasures, the natural beauty and the serene moments. Here’s Just a few…
finding the last ice in the deep recesses of the cooler for those G & T’s
butterflies flitting through camp
just gazing out to the lake
a chipped porcelain cup brimming with soft shades of whites, creams and yellow wildflowers – this site’s bespoke flower bouquet
the exuberance of kids playing on the lake
the delight of dogs launching themselves gleefully into the water
the rustle of the wind, shadows playing on Lupin
the great crackling of fire that just happens to help ward off the mosquitoes
campfire food, campfire Scrabble, campfire with my sweetheart
With a special occasion at the end of June, we decided to invest in a tent and go glamping to celebrate… searching for the perfect camping spot was underway. Our plan had been to be in Europe for this milestone anniversary, yet the silver lining of Covid 19 has been the opportunity to discover and appreciate our own backyard. For many people, travel restrictions within their own region, province or state has created virtues from that unprecedented necessity. For us, it means a summer where home is our playground.
After months of isolation, we cruised the open roads in search of the perfect glamping spot. We are spoiled for choice. From our home in Kimberley, the East Kootenay region in the southeastern corner of British Columbia is graced with countless lakes. We steeped ourselves anew in the beauty of this region where jagged mountain peaks of the Rockies rise in parallel with those of the Purcells, Selkirks and Monashee ranges, valleys giving way to crystal clear rivers and lakes. Places where wooden docks host fishing, suntanning, boating and starting points for kayaking and standup paddle boarding. Where adirondack chairs sit poised for the long, hot days of summer.
While searching for the lake of our choice, we meandered down well-travelled roads and bounced along dusty back-country tracks. Narrow roads where cattle graze under serrated, snow-capped mountain peaks, where an unexpected turn might lead to cascading waterfalls, abandoned gold rush towns or meadows overbrimming with wildflowers.
As we cruised the mountain roads that day in search of ‘our spot’, we took the time to stop and appreciate those sites we always promise to, but rarely take the time to do so. Perhaps a chance to marvel at the iconic bridge over the Kootenay River or that outdated, yet charmingly retro campground sign at Skookumchuck that has always caught my eye. Skookumchuck is an Indigenous word that means ‘strong waters’. In local parlance, if something is skookum, it’s strong, impressive, or cool.
And finally, after years of driving past a wooden statue of a local Indigenous Chief, we stopped to ponder the past. Following the retreat of ice age glaciers ten thousand years ago, the Kootenay area of British Columbia was inhabited by the Kutenai or the Ktunaxa [Tun-ah-ha] people. I was fortunate to meet with Ktunaxa elders a number of years ago. I heard their legends and stories, their hopes for the future, of how they had endured the insult and outrage of the colonial residential school system. The arrival of the colonials forever changed the course of the Ktunaxa people and that past is particularly on display in this area. St. Euguene’s Mission, a residential school opened in 1890, still occupies their ancestral land. But today, St. Eugene’s is not only a hotel, casino and golf course, it stands proudly as a meeting place of reconciliation and healing.
In the early 1800’s, David Thompson, an explorer for the Hudson’s Bay Company, journeyed through this basin on his exploration of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers. Thompson soon established trade with the Ktunaxa who were hunters, fishermen, gatherers… stewards of these beautiful lands. In the late 1860’s, the Galbraith family secured land in the basin, not from the Ktunaxa but from the nascent Provincial government, ranching and setting up the settlement of Galbraith’s Ferry to capitalize on the burgeoning gold rush trade. Fur traders, missionaries and settlers followed in their footsteps.
The Ktunaxa soon witnessed the appropriation of their homeland. Eventually, the stalwart protector Chief Isadore would protest “that all grazing land should remain free for all people to use, that no man had the right to erect fences.” As vast tracts of the Ktunaxa’s land disappeared to the railway, to the government and the colonists, it was clear there would be no return. Chief Isadore petitioned that the land allocated to his people was “unfair and unequitable“. In 1888 Colonel Sam Steele, stationed at Galbraith’s Landing (later renamed Fort Steele), played a role in mediating, convincing, and undoubtedly placating Isadore to accept the de-facto property rights of the Ktunaxa Nation’s very own ancestral homeland.
Of Chief Isadore, in his memoir ‘Forty Years in Canada’, Steele writes, “Isadore was the most influential chief I have known. Crowfoot, the Blackfoot chief, or Red Crow, dare not, in the height of their power, have exercised the discipline that Isadore did.” But, despite his disciplined and principled stance, Chief Isadore could not turn back the tide of change.
While writing this piece, we happen to cycle the Chief Isadore Trail. It follows portions of the once Crowsnest Railway Line, through the lost small station at Mayook, and onto Cranbrook which partly serviced Kimberley’s North Star and Sullivan lead and zinc mines. The trail roams through grasslands, ponderosa pine forests and saltgrass prairies. The lofty Rockies stand majestically over us.
We pass by ample serviceberries or saskatoon berries, once so essential to the Ktunaxa. They were eaten fresh, as flavour for fish and meat, or dried for trading in the winter months. The bark of the shrub was used as an eyewash to treat snow blindness. The hard straight stems to make arrows, tipi pegs, pipes and spears. I can almost feel the presence of the impressive and dignified Chief (standing centre in bottom photo) as he surveyed the land, lamenting its loss, attempting to reconcile his people to the future.
Chief Isadore would eventually withdraw to a piece of land on the Kootenay River, allocated to him by the Provincial authorities. Devoting his last years to improving his farm, influenza attacked his people during the winter of 1893-94. Many of the elderly succumbed. Chief Isadore was among them.
As the Ktunaxa land was eagerly purchased by Canadian and European newcomers the settlement of the valley gained momentum. Notable was Colonel James Baker who named the town Cranbrook, after his family estate in England. Baker was closely allied with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), who in 1898, successfully convinced them to establish the Crowsnest Railway line through Cranbrook rather than Fort Steele. Baker would go on to play a prominent role in the politics of the region. Cranbrook was incorporated as a city in 1905. Baker had returned home to England in 1900, leaving his townsite business to his son.
My brief relating of this history should be a gentle reminder of what the Ktunaxa have lost and of their suffering. Their vision today is one of a strong, healthy community that proclaims and celebrates their heritage. As a self-governing, thriving Nation working to revitalise their language and culture, they take a leading role in the stewardship of their land. And, as I look across the broad valley of the Rocky Mountain trench, my understanding of what has gone before helps me treasure all the more, the privilege of sharing this land.
Framed by the Rockies and vast blue skies, the city of Cranbrook’s colonial roots are very much on display. Edwardian architecture of brick and sandstone speak to the city’s development throughout the early 1900’s. Original surviving buildings of the CPR, now the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel, pay homage to ‘how the west was built.’ Striking heritage homes in the Baker Hill area, nestle close to where Baker himself settled on the hilled area to the south and east of downtown.
What we noticed most on that late spring day in June, were the lilacs – so many beautiful lilacs! Profuse in colour and in their intoxicating scent, lilacs often flank the entrance or front gardens of earlier buildings in Canada. Whether in towns or on homesteads, lilacs seem to represent home, stability, and have coloured the landscape for generations.
Originally known as philadelphus, supposedly after an Egyptian King, they’ve been interpreted in many ways throughout history. The Celts saw lilacs as magical because of their sweet scent. During the Victorian age, lilacs were a symbol of an old love—widows often wore lilacs during this time. In Russia, holding a sprig of lilac over a newborn baby was thought to bring wisdom. I like to think that that they are markers of the complexity of Canadian heritage and history – embodying the hopes and dreams of the settlers and homeowners who planted them.
But I am meandering in much the same way that we had roamed on our mission of finding the ideal lake for camping. In going out into the land we had taken the proverbial time to ‘stop and smell the lilacs’, time to become better acquainted with and to embrace the local history that surrounds us.
Indeed, the silver lining of Covid these past months was the licence to be near, to better know our own neighbourhood without venturing far, and in the end we would choose none of the lakes we came upon. We decided that our first glamping experience should be where it was meant to be all along… at my parents acreage where our own history is firmly rooted. There, it wasn’t lilacs in bloom, but gorgeous peonys to perfume and help christen our inaugural glamping experience. To be continued…
On reflection we’ve always been a family who celebrates well, one that puts effort and thought into a day to be marked. We’ve had two such events this past week, and I ponder if self-isolation due to Covid19 has rendered things just that little more special? Is it a period when even more thought and creativity has surfaced? Maybe a time for vivid gratitude for what we have, for those we love, a time for a little more effort… a time for, shall we say, the possibility of magical celebrations?
We are now nearing almost two months of isolation and social distancing. I realise how fortunate I am to be ensconced in a mountain town with clean air and open vistas. And wonderfully, with all of my family in one place. For the first time in ten years we not only all live in one country, but for a spell, we’re all now in one town. It’s a gift I couldn’t have imagined, yet it’s not to say it’s always been easy. Like many of us, there’s the worry of the virus itself, the separation from other loved ones, the concern for our health workers and for the families and those who have suffered, for those who have passed away alone. I think of them often and when I first wrote of Covid19, I mentioned the struggle of finding equilibrium as we cope with our own mental health while being mindful of others’ well being.
Now as we speak of the ‘new normal’, I get the sense of a certain shift of back to the basics that feels like it might well remain. For us it’s meant homemade bread and baking, favourite family recipes prepared, hand-crafted cards and homespun gardening. For the first time in this home, we’re planning a vegetable garden and seedlings are now nestled with hope in tiny pots. We inspect them daily, watching for the miracle of sprouts; tomato, kale, zucchini, parsley, coriander and peppers – arugula was the first to make its welcome appearance!
Admittedly for me, this is very much a pleasant distraction as I lament the loss of travelling. This time last year, I was sojourning for a month in Malaysia. I had just met up with my ‘global tribe’ in Bangkok. Time in Slovenia and Croatia with family was still to come. I miss exploring and traveling with every fibre of my being, yet we’ve all had to find ways to compensate for those elements of our life that have been put on hold. Some days are easier than others and I’ve learned that we have to allow ourself the time to lament for what we’re missing, what we’ve lost during these unprecedented times.
I give gratitude for all my blessings and our recent celebrations certainly ring true to this. It was my husband’s birthday this past week and it’s likely been ten years since we were all together to enjoy the occasion. On the eve of his birthday we mandated a family stroll to one of our favourite viewpoints. We meandered through deep golden wildflowers, gazed out to the still-snow-draped Rocky mountains and popped champagne as a soulful moon made its appearance. The evening was simple, evocative, meaningful.
The next day choosing the theme of Mexico, just as we had chosen India the previous month, the drinks and food were specific to that place. With restaurants not yet open for dining in our town, we celebrated in style nonetheless. The evening began with margaritas, my ‘famous’ homemade salsa and guacamole. A separate surprise ‘bar’ on the lower level of our home was the next stop with Mexican beer, music, then the birthday boy’s, birthday quiz – the one who knows him best conjures up twenty questions about his life. Answer individually or form teams. A fiesta of Mexican dining followed, a cake made with love, the giving of hand-written cards. Of course it had all taken some effort and planning, but therein lies the beauty in it and the birthday guy couldn’t have been more pleased. And it afforded us the chance to get dressed up and break the daily routine!
Yet as poignant as celebrations have become during Covid19, I’m mindful of loved ones who can’t be with us. Mother’s Day was another reminder that just as I could not be with my mother, the two young women now in our family had to celebrate the day many hundreds of miles distant from their own mothers. I feel keenly, and have heard this echoed by others, that beyond the loneliness of this long separation from loved ones, we all ponder when we will finally unite normally in a way that we once took for granted.
Despite, or perhaps conscious of these separations, my family planned a Mother’s Day celebration that will forever be etched in my maternal heart. Early photos of me and my three sons decorated a table set with flowers and candles as we sat down to a lovely brunch. Unknowingly foreshadowing of what the day would bring, I had decided to read journal entries to each of my sons. I had discovered messages written in my diary to my children when they were just babies and now, all these years later, I offered them as readings, small gifts to my grown boys.
At precisely 3 pm, I was led downstairs to our lower level. To my complete surprise, a poster announcing a writer’s workshop greeted me at the door. I entered to the most perfect ambiance, set with attention to detail… a vase of flowers next to the same iconic typewriter that I lug to my workshops, candles flickering, essential oils perfuming the air, handmade raffia-bound journals awaiting our missives.
Six family members were already seated, all having agreed to participate in the gift of words, reminisces, even poetry. Yes we’re a family of writers and editors, yet still this bounty of coming together to give me such a unique and colourful Mother’s Day gift was incredibly moving.
And so we conjured words, we listened, we discovered voices of humour we hadn’t known. We strolled in silence for ten inspiring minutes to our neighbourhood viewpoint… with a mandate to create the perfect haiku. Over two treasured hours our readings elicited tears, laughter, admiration and, above all togetherness.
As I write today these treasured handmade journals with writings are mine to cherish. They are more than words. They’ll forever be memories of how we became a little more giving and creative during this extraordinary time… beautiful reminders of magical celebrations.
A Smattering of Writings…
Mothers Day means giving thanks to those who are there at the beginning.
The root of all life that brings us to light,
Whose love and nature push us even further.
And those who have come before. ABW
To grow a garden,
The seed is planted without much ado in some cases.
In others it comes with some fanfare and great expectations.
Will it be a plump red tomato, a wonky zucchini, or a string bean?
Time will tell.
You sit and watch the seedlings… germinate. LHW
Gratitude is like a gentle wave,
Feeling too treasured, too special, yet resplendent in the bask of motherhood love.
Hands clutch pens,
Tea in ancient Japanese cups,
Candles flicker, in unison.
A soft green typewriter perched, flowers decorate, proclaiming the ‘The Joy of Motherhood Workshop.’
Think back, always our family recalibrates… think forward, to the patter of tiny, precious feet. TAW
“She died giving birth'”
The words, a contrast
in the most selfless way,
the greatest loss.
A mother’s love
knows no bounds.
A mother’s love is unwavering.
A mother’s love empties its cup until it is dry.
A mother’s love will break that cup
and give it to you piece by piece. AS
You’re always there to put a smile on my face.
Thanks for being the constant brightness in my world. MCW
Mother’s Day marks the passing of winter to spring. The celebration unfolds as
mountains shed their wintery coats; as snow and ice find a path to the sea; as saplings
sprout towards the sun sheltered by maternal trees.
Why does Mother’s Day take place in spring?
Perhaps because there’s no better time to revel in natures rhythms; just as plants must be
nurtured to grow.
Mothers are water, soil and sunlight.
Mothers are course-setting winds.
Mothers are roots and rocks. And it is mothers who make the world spin. TP
Today is a universal celebration of motherhood – let’s look at it for wherever we gaze.
In our human society or in the browsing deer that amble through our neighbourhood, mother and fawns.
Or in the bears that forage in nearby woods introducing newborn cubs to the simple joys and tastes of spring.
We can find motherhood even in the trees. Newborn saplings rising under the arms of overarching mothers’ boughs. BW
HAIKUS… attempts at Haikus
Lonely leaning pines
Branches reaching to embrace
Arms too short to touch
Shedding wintery blanket
Little leaves unfurl
Glaciers rush to sea
A weight off mountain shoulders
Perennial sigh (of relief) TP
Scarred, charred and oozing sap
Whack, crash, chop – piled high in stacks
And still green buds grow
The green tendrils sprout
From elephant-skinned bark
Grow where you’re planted LHW
Breeze cools exposed skin
My fingers attempt to write
The sun will soon shine AS
Ethereal white peaks preside
Wind rustles, hues of spring’s green
I’ll awaken, flourish, bathe in warmth, live again
Winter and your lingering ski hill snow
You can go, vanish, exit, retreat
Now depart, say sayonara, farewell, ciao… now get lost TAW