Tiny cogs in the giant wheel of herstory.

How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else. – R. Buckminster Fuller

Like yours, there are so many stories in my family. Stories I know, stories I will never know, stories I tell myself to make sense of my past. Stories of serendipity, migration, and happenstance. Tiny cogs in the giant wheel of my herstory/ history without which I wouldn’t exist at all. Random, unexpected connections to things I find commonplace or take for granted, things like my morning commute for example. Although I travel by public transit almost every weekday, it didn’t occur to me until recently, that if it wasn’t for the subway, I wouldn’t be here.

subway anansi/ travels across time/ dimensions defined/ by sidewalk chalk

I don’t remember a time in Toronto before the subway, but I grew up in a pre-Metro Pass, pre-Presto era when bus drivers carried cash so they could make change, and an extra fare was required north of Eglinton. I remember my mother grumbling when it was time to pay, yet again. We lived in the newly developed suburb of Don Mills, almost at Lawrence Avenue, not far from the fare boundary but too far to walk comfortably.

In the Joni Mitchel, Gordon Lightfoot, Guess Who, Dan Hill, The Band and Ann Murray world of my youth; before Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrissette, Justin Beiber, Drake and The Weekend; before the Blue Jays, “We the North” and Canada’s Wonderland, transit was high on my list of what made Toronto noteworthy. Who else but New York had subways? Where else in North America could you ride a streetcar other than San Fransisco?

“Citified” I took for granted the easy access to downtown, the Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Ontario, the abundance of record and book stores, the proximity of major department stores like Eaton’s, Sears, and The Bay. The nearby mall and reliable transit, meant we didn’t have to have to order anything from a catalogue. In the early 70s, the skyline wasn’t distinguished by the unique shape of the CN tower, or a plethora of condos, stores closed on Sundays and corporal punishment was a legal and still practiced in schools. The scent of buttered popcorn and cigarettes mingled in movie theatres that only had one screen. Kids bobbed around unseatbelted in the back of station wagons, rode their bikes without helmets and tore down icy winter hills on wooden toboggans or scraps of cardboard. That was my normal but it was miles away from the Hog Town experience of previous generations. When my grandfather was growing up, the Royal York hotel was the tallest downtown building, men needed garters to hold up their socks, smoking jackets, pipes and silver cigarette cases spoke to the cachet and popularity of tobacco smoking, and photographs were always black and white, unless someone paid to have them hand-tinted.

I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in the subway, where you can’t do anything anyway. – Toni Morrison

The reason my father’s parents moved to The Six from Renfrew is lost in history, I know more about the migration of my mother’s family. My maternal grandfather, was the son of a homemaker and photographer. He was a construction worker, nature-lover, and eventually a Civil Engineer, who returned to his hometown of Toronto in the late 1940s, with his Fort William bride and four children in tow. The family was temporarily gifted with a succession of empty houses expropriated by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to make way for the first subway heading north from Union Station. My grandmother faced the thankless task of cleaning and making a sequence of hastily abandoned houses feel and function like home. Her husband worked hard on the project and even enjoyed a moment in the limelight, appearing on the cover of the Globe and Mail’s Saturday Night magazine. He’s there on the front of the November 1, 1949 edition, pictured beside the Resident Engineer. Standing on the right, my grandfather wears a summer suit, his fedora cocked jauntily to the left. The two men hold a set of plans, a large crane looms in the background, while they both stare off into Toronto’s transit future.

what prayers await you/ beneath/ cement catacombs?

My grandfather died before I was born, so I have no idea what future he was imagining, transit or otherwise. Although squeezed between other frazzled rush hour commuters, I’m pretty sure it’s not the overcrowding and inevitable signal delays, ubiquitous weekend line closures or the shuttle buses needed after disturbing and tragic injuries “at track level.” Still I can’t help thinking how strange it is that a gigantic 205,000 kilogram machine and the underground tunnels it barrels down is one of many cogs in the complex wheel of my family’s history, without which I probably wouldn’t exist at all.

cryogenic swords/ rocket past/ force fields/ and borders/ belong only to those/ who name them

Note: A special thank you to my mom for patiently answering my questions about our family history, again.

Subway train at Davisville Station, Toronto

From rhubarb to tomatillos

“But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and prophyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.” – Edna Ferber

raspberry with a heart-shaped centre

There are so many stories in my garden. Stories of the people who worked the land before me, clues to its history, scraps of tile, old nuts and bolts, snail shells, marbles, grubs masquerading as marbles; even a giant ring left by a troll. Towering over it, a huge cross, part sentinel, part scarecrow, one hundred percent repurposed metal streetlight post, now used as a laundry line. No wonder my maternal grandmother visits me there. Disguised as a butterfly, her white wings flicker past as I kneel on the earth.

This is my first year gardening, my first year since I was a young girl, helping my grandmother with hers. My help mostly consisted of watching, harvesting and eating. My favourite thing to do was pick raspberries for the table and it was understood that I would eat as many as I picked. My second favourite thing was eating rhubarb, delightfully sour, dipped in sugar.

I grew the tomatillos on whim, watching them fill out their papery husks.

Fast forward: My partner and I moved into our new space in the fall, so we didn’t have the opportunity to do much in the way of planning or even preparing the soil. Nothing to do but dream, and the garden I dreamed of included raspberries and rhubarb. The garden we inherited was 5 feet high with weeds, and in mid-September the landlord unceremoniously chopped it back to a 5 o’clock shadow of stubble. Sadly the raspberry canes did not survive the purge.

For the months of October, November, December, January, and February, the soil was frozen, and I existed in a tense state of anticipation. March brought seed shopping and research, trips to the dollar store for supplies, advice seeking and more research.

In late April I was finally able to start planting seeds indoors. The lighting was less than ideal, some survived, some didn’t. The greenness of my thumb seemed to be more of an indication of my inexperience rather than my success. In early May, corner grocery stores beckoned with small plants that looked hardier and more likely to survive than the scraggly seedlings I had been sprouting. In late May, the planting finally began. Still in a corner of my mind was the regret that I hadn’t been able to source a rhubarb plant, and I had discovered that the raspberry canes would take two years to start bearing again.

The garden we inherited was 5 feet high with weeds, and in mid-September the landlord unceremoniously chopped it back to a 5 o’clock shadow of stubble.

After weeks of weeding, hours spent mixing in manure and organic fertilizer, watering, waiting and hoping, it finally started to fill out. In the end there was bok choy, sweet and hot peppers, celery, celeriac, strawberries, arugula, leaf lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, tomatillos and so many herbs, cilantro, rosemary, culinary sage, thyme, lemon and African basil, lemon balm and a prickly borage plant that attempted to take over. Later I was brave enough to try planting okra and then the calalloo sprung up on its own, a happy surprise which required next to no tending. At some point I started to muse about how much my eating had changed and how much food had changed in Hog Town over the years. I grew up in an avocado-less household, where spinach was always cooked into an unseasoned fir-green mush. No one I knew had eaten okra, heard of tomatillos, tasted fresh cilantro or added anything other than ice berg lettuce to their salads, never mind arugula.

tomatillos, tomato, blackberries, pepper, green beans, calalloo  (in background)

It was a childhood culinary experience full of baked potatoes smothered in butter (the skin really is the best part) hot roast beef sandwiches, a uniquely named family casserole dubbed “suppog”, root beer floats, vanilla ice cream in cantaloupe boats, freshly picked raspberries, carrots still warm from the earth, and on holidays pies and cranberry sauce made from scratch. On the flip side there were canned peas, Kraft dinner, and to fill in any nutritional gaps, the requisite dose of cod-liver oil. The variety wasn’t horrible but it was limited, fortunately the gastronomic landscape has shifted tectonically over the years. Now Toronto is renowned for having some of the best and most culturally varied cuisine in the world.

I grew the tomatillos on whim, watching them fill out their papery husks, even though I had never tasted one. Now the fridge is home to sweetly simmered tomatillo jam with lime and a hint of lavender tucked up against the jars of savoury tomatillo freezer jam, speckled with hot peppers. It might seem like that’s a long way from my grandmother’s garden but I know she would like them both because the tomatillos (a relative of the gooseberry) carry the slightly less tart but still very definable flavour of rhubarb. Seems like in a roundabout way, I got my wish after all. No wonder all the butterflies in the garden are dancing.

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” – Rumi

Why names matter

Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable. ~W.H. Auden

In one of the storytelling circles I attend, the host often asks new listeners what their name is, and the story of their name. I’m always fascinated when people don’t actually know what their name means, or what language it’s from and the translation of the word. I concede that it is a bit strange how few names in English have an obvious correlation to the language, such as Rose, Opal, Ruby, Pearl, April, May and June. In fact, right now I can’t think of any male names that fit the pattern. Perhaps it’s the storyteller in me that can’t wrap my head around not needing to know. As far as I”m concerned, names matter. Maybe it’s because I was named after my paternal grandmother, who died when my father was only four-years-old. She was a woman unique to her time, as she owned and ran three hair salons during the depression. Someone my father’s boyhood memories could not expand on. My grandmother Leah’s dark eyes called me, mutely, from sepia-toned photos. I felt the only connection I had to her was our name.

How could I have known how deeply one’s name is connected to their identity, to their humanity? I didn’t know it, but I sure felt it.

Xmas project 059-001
My grandmother, Leah Dupuis

Names matter. During the transatlantic slave trade, captives were routinely striped of their names, and forbidden to speak their mother-tongue, or any language not understood by their captors. link The same tactics where used against First Nations and Inuit children attending Residential Schools in Canada. link In both cases there were times when the renaming or un-naming also became numbering. Some of your may know of the numbered tattoos that inmates of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp were given during WW II. What is less well known is that in the 1940s Inuit in Canada’s north were given identifying numbers, on identity tags, numbers that were often used instead of names. All such dehumanizing practices have the potential to leave scars, the kind that can’t be removed by lasers. link

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The little green warrior

When I was in JK, my mother was summoned to the school because the French teacher had a problem with my attitude. I remember refusing to answer to her in class because she insisted on calling me “Lay-ah” as opposed to “Lee-ah” as I was accustomed to hearing. To put it in perspective, I was a very compliant child, most of the time. So getting in trouble at school was something that rarely happened. I found the teacher’s refusal to pronounce my name correctly (when it was clear to me she could) intensely insulting. My name was not French and I didn’t see the point of making it so. Then the little green warrior inside me stood up and roared, and I explained to her once, that “Lay-ah” was not my name. After that I remained silent, stone-faced, and refused to respond when she called on me. As an adult I wish I could go back and stand behind my four-year-old self, with silver pom-poms, cheering, “Give me an L, give me an E, give me an A, give me an H!” How wise and brave that little girl was! I don’t remember the outcome (and my Mom has forgotten this story) but I look fondly on the memory of that rare show of defiance. (Ironically my great grandparents and my grandmother spoke French, so they probably would have pronounced her name the way my teacher did, but I didn’t know that at the time). Of course I was too young to understand that not everyone has the luxury, of silence, of defiance. How could I have known how deeply one’s name is connected to their identity, to their humanity? I didn’t know it, but I sure felt it.

I wish I could go back and stand behind my four-year-old self, with silver pom-poms, cheering.

Names matter. Names have power. Names carry history and meaning, tell stories, speak of our lineage and reflect something of who we are. Learning to remember and pronounce someone’s name is a matter of respect. Listening to their story opens the path for deeper communication.

green danu flow cropped black and white
Danu, pastel on paper, by Leah