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1975/76 submitted by Lindsay Peterson
POSTCARD FROM EMILY
In a box of old papers in a second-hand store I found a postcard. No address, no date. It was short but poignant.
It read: “My Dearest Daddy I am having a lovely time at Grandmas. Gee but I wish you were with us and I miss you so. To-day I helped grandma in her shop and sold such a lot of sweets. To-day is mothers birthday so I bought a pretty compact for her. Well good bye. Emily.”
The postcard was a sepia city street scene, with ornate stone buildings, dated automobiles and buses, and a round-about centred by a raised concrete plinth complete with street lights and the de-rigour statues of recent British royalty. In the margin the card was titled ‘Colmore Row, Birmingham’.
The writer was away from home and missing her father. She was visiting her grandmother but somehow the tone of the letter did not suggest a holiday. The untold story of the card kept resonating in my head. So I decided to ask my Uncle Fred about it. Just on the off chance that he could throw any light on it, see things I had missed, know something about something…basically solve the mystery of Emily.
My uncle is a retired RCMP Inspector, but that does not nearly describe him. For years now he has been consulting on seemingly impossible cases, a kind of Sherlock Holmesian specialist, working from the scantest of clues he nets amazing results. Sometimes. As he reminded me, when I asked him about the letter on the back of the photograph.
After a welcoming hug, Uncle Fred ushers me into his study. A real study, with leather-covered furniture, warm amber lamps, and walls of books. Glasses half way down his rather patrician nose, he studies the postcard, first the photo side, then the written note.
“The vehicles date the photo from the late 1920s to the mid 1930s,” I say, proud of my research. “So is that when the letter was written?”
He looks at me, over his glasses. “Probably not.” Then he goes to a closed cupboard in the library shelves, opens it to reveal a fully stocked drinks cabinet, and asks “A bit of Scotch? It always helps me think.” I nod. He pours. “Anyway, it tastes good. Maybe the bit about thinking is only an excuse.”
Whiskey glasses in hand, we settle in.
“This would have been a quasi-historical photo when the card was sent. Just think about it. No one sends a postcard of the current traffic conditions in a city. No, you always pick an old scene, for its quaintness.” He peers closely at the photo. “And perhaps, sometimes, for its content.”
I nod my agreement. “So, can you date it?”
“Reasonably closely. But why the interest?” he asks, looking at me intently.
“Just something about the letter. I want to know about the writer, and her dad. I want to know the rest of the story.” I grin and shake my head. “Just plain nosiness, I guess. But if I can I want to trace them, find out what happened.”
“Okay,” says my uncle. “Here is what we have got. Emily was about ten, perhaps eleven when she wrote this. And until she went to ‘Grandma’s’, probably lived in British Columbia.”
Besides wanting to know about Emily, I also want to know how my uncle works.
“How do you know that?”
“The word ‘gee’. Only a North American would ever use that word. Her cursive forms are typical of the MacLean Method of Writing taught in every school in British Columbia from the 20’s to the early 70’s. The big wide ‘a’s and the curlicues on the capital ‘G’s are giveaways.”
He looks at the writing again. “But she was not a particularly talented calligrapher. Her other capitals are cramped, the bottom flourishes not well formed.” He pauses for a sip of Scotch. “She didn’t read much, so writing this would have been a chore. The two usually go together.”
“She didn’t place an apostrophe in ‘Grandmas’ or ‘mothers’ to indicate the possessive. And she placed a hyphen in today. Twice. Not a reader. But she was a loving child. You can see she added the words ‘and I miss you so’ after she had finished the letter. She crowded that in, because she very much wanted to say that. When she wrote this she had been in England for some time. She uses the word ‘sweets’ instead of candy.”
He pauses, and smiles at me. “That was all factual. Now, do you want the supposition?”
“Emily’s father was a Canadian soldier in World War II. Her mother was a war bride, a British girl. In the late 40’s they came to live in BC, and had Emily. But the mother missed England, and when Emily was ten or so she took the child and returned to Birmingham, or a nearby village. Emily wrote the letter on her mother’s birthday. She had probably dreamed, wished, prayed perhaps, that her father would magically appear that day. When he didn’t she wrote the letter. Emily was hoping her father would come to take them home, but by then her mother was looking for a new man.”
I look skeptical. Uncle Fred shrugs. “The reference to a pretty compact.”
I knock back my Scotch. “Anything else?”
“Sure. ‘Daddy’ worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway.”
“How could you possibly know he worked for the CPR? What have I missed?”
“The photo is kind of ugly. Right? Most little girls would pick postcards of birds or flowers. This card, a street scene, from the past, is…well, weird. But in the background, on the first floor of the large commercial building, you can just make out the names of the businesses. On the storefront next to the ‘Blue Star Line’, clear as a bell is ‘Canadian Pacific’. No, her Daddy worked for Canadian Pacific. And, in this small way she was letting him know how important he was to her, how she loved him, everything about him.”
I am stunned by what my uncle has seen, and what I have missed.
He goes on. “But now you can trace Emily. The CPR kept records of their employees, their spouses and their children’s birthdays, always sent cards. Kind of a feel good thing that got dropped when patriarchy began to be frowned on and unions took its place. Emily was born between 1948 and say…1955. Shouldn’t be too many Emilys in that time frame.”
Then Uncle Fred says sadly. “She really missed him. God only knows how long it took her to find this particular post card.”
Please note Jessica is a Fiction writer
We are slowly getting into summer, a few hiccups but the weather is mainly hot and sunny, time to climb out of bed early to start my day while it is cool. Linger under the sheet too long and the day is getting warm and soon it is too hot to do outdoor work.
Even though this time of year makes us want to move more slowly to avoid working up a sweat, the garden still seems eager to produce all sorts of greenery, including weeds. The border round my patio decided to go on a growing frenzy which resulted in roses sprouting three feet of thorny branches and grasses growing a minimum of eighteen inches in about ten days. What is with the stuff? I didn’t put any miracle hormones on them they just went crazy with out any help.
Three weeks ago I had a huge bank of snow white blossom that hung over my patio wall and inspired Dave to take photographs, the same plant is now just a huge cloud of dead heads that look untidy. The result of this meant two long bouts of pulling grass and dead heads, also some selective pruning of the stray rose branches. Two separate three hour sessions saw the border looking really neat and tidy again, with all my summer flowers able to be seen, however each of the sessions turned me into a sweaty, exhausted mess. I know that ladies are supposed to “glow”, not sweat, but I was glowing so much that it was running down my legs and puddling in my shoes. It was all I could do to drag myself into the shower.
Afterwards I rested in my recliner and dreamed about summers of the past. Remember the days when kids would go out after breakfast, take a bottle of water and some jam sandwiches in a bag and disappear until dinner time? One of us would gather up all the neighbourhood kids and we would disappear into the countryside, which was only a short walk from our homes. My grandma lived on the edge of the village so it was only minutes until we were in open fields where there were streams, wild flowers and all sorts of adventures.
Mornings were spent in fields of hay, cut and left to dry, what a great game we had of burying ourselves in huge mounds of the sweet smelling stuff. Once the hay had been gathered in we would go into the hay barns and spend an hilarious couple of hours jumping from high ledges into the soft hay. When we tired of that we would head across the field to the stream which ran into a waterfall. This was quite small but still a big adventure for us to wade in the deep water that accumulated before it dropped over the edge, into the cascade of white water. It was only about four foot deep above the falls but great for rafting and paddling about. We girls used to stuff our dresses into our underwear but still get soaked. Nobody had shorts in those days and young boys wore short pants, made of the same suiting material as long trousers, so I’m sure that a day of getting soaked did nothing for the fabric.
Later on we would go to the grotto at the bottom of the falls and enjoy our lunch on the grassy bank of the stream. It was always interesting to see what other kids had brought for lunch. It was always sandwiches but what a variety. I always had home made jam but one of the boys loved malt vinegar soaked onto his bread. It would make your mouth pucker to eat it but it tasted delicious when you were hungry. One girl brought sugar sprinkled on her bread and butter and others had bacon fat. No peanut butter in England at that time, well certainly not in our area, but it was great to share the bounty that our joint picnic brought. England was still experiencing food rationing until 1952 so none of us expected anything more exotic than our humble fare. Afternoons would be spent making daisy chains to adorn our heads and necks while the boys would find sticks and race them in the shallow water.
Such innocent sun filled days of unsupervised fun. Nobody drowned, nobody caused any problems and the most mischief we got into was chasing the cows in the nearby field, I think the eldest of us was only about nine years old but none of the parents seemed to worry about harm coming to us. Indeed a much simpler time.
As the sun started to head west, we would all amble home together, nobody wanting to go in their homes yet but we knew we had to be within earshot for when the dinner call came out of each kitchen door. After dinner, it was time for dishes, no point arguing about that, and then it was time to get washed and undressed. Quite often there would be a radio show on that grandma and I sat and listened to, Dan Dare or Journey into Space, or a comedy show.
No tv in those days and certainly no electronic games. Most families owned a Ludo game, and some dominoes or a pack of cards, but these were family games usually kept for Sundays when playing outdoors, at least in our home, was forbidden. I was usually allowed a half hour to read in bed before lights out, by which time I was ready to sleep anyway. I wonder what kids today would think of our “poor childhood”, they would probably be horrified at how impoverished we were, we didn’t even have a telephone to talk to our friends. There were no such things as sleep overs and usually bed time was strictly observed, even in summer.
Looking back it sounds like we were hard done to, by today’s standards, but how many of your grandchildren know the joy of hiding in piles of sweet hay, paddling without supervision and enjoying grubby sandwiches and tepid water that five or six of us shared from the same bottle. What were we really missing? I think very little!
Seriously? That is to question the validity, solemnity, gravitas, genuineness, believability and severity of something. Is this seriously true? Do you seriously mean that you want me to do what you just asked of me? Serious is not just kidding, nothing comic about it, true and not to be made little of. Serious matters deserve my complete attention, now. Serious is life or death. Serious is unavoidable with dire consequences. Yikes!
A person can be serious about some activity, say, playing bridge. A serious bridge player does not, for instance, chatter away while the group is playing. Serious bridge is pretty quiet. Except when it comes to the post mortem of a hand. Every detail of play and strategy and what might have been is discussed, because a serious bridge player wants to improve their play, maybe even earn Masters points from the ACBL
Did you ever meet someone having an attack of seriousness? You know, high drama, the world is definitely ending, sky falling, ahhhhhh! These attacks are almost always self imposed. A person decides that something that is normal or at least close to normal, for others, is just too too much for them. We are not talking about real danger here. It is made up and boys oh boys everyone is going to hear of it
To be serious is to apply full attention. I would be very serious if I were defusing a bomb. Decisions can be serious. The decision to have a baby is, I think, serious stuff. In this case the level of responsibility is serious because the responsibility that comes with that decision affects many people, and for decades btw. Serious things are surrounded by serious ramifications if not given serious attention
No there is no such thing as a serious cloud. Get serious. We need to go back to the top of the article. Serious has gravitas. Serious has consequences. Serious demands attention, focus, thought, care and shepherding. We don’t have serious for a second or two, not if it is truly serious. So, I need to pay attention to what is truly serious. A lot of news these days that asks, ‘are you really serious?’
He wasn’t begging, that much she had observed, after seeing him several times in various locations around town. He was using a dirty piece of green rag to pull an old metal grocery cart. The cart was loaded down with what appeared to be his earthly possessions. A deflated balloon hung forlornly from a corner. Various lengths of wood pieces were crisscrossed in the cart with pieces of cloth. A dirty blanket, plastic containers and an old bible rode on top, the cover indicating it had seen a lot of water damage. The outstanding difference about him, compared to the other homeless people pushing their carts, were the flowers. She had noticed this immediately, as they were so incongruous standing in a jar, which was kept in the cup holder of the cart. Today it was purple irises and a small, pink rose.
She had returned to the town on a whim, just a look around, she told herself. Would anything seem familiar? She had been a young child when her mother moved the two of them to a large city. She said they would be better off on their own. That was thirty years ago and neither had returned until now. It was still a modest and friendly small town. She could walk around it with ease, and was enjoying the pleasant weather and the freedom from city traffic and sirens.
He had stopped his cart just ahead of her. There was a short stone wall on which he sat, enjoying some respite from his cart pulling efforts. She was curious about the flowers and decided to speak to him. He seemed okay and did not appear drunk or crazy. His hair and long beard were grey. He was clean and she guessed his age as fifty plus.
Approaching him with some caution, she said, “Hello, isn’t this a lovely day?”
Nodding in agreement, he told her that he had come to town to see a doctor, and had gone to the
free walk-in clinic. He was staying a week pending some test results.
“Nothing to worry about,” he said, adding that it was easy to camp out in such nice weather.
Camping? Was that what the dirty blanket was for?
He was very talkative, and told her he had friends with a truck, who would be driving him home.
“Where is that?” she asked.
He told her that he had a small trailer in the hills outside of town. It was on Native land but they didn’t bother him.
She admired the flowers. Their colourful beauty stood in such contrast to his shabby goods. It was a homeless person’s cart of trash! Yet she believed he did have a trailer on the reserve land, as primitive as it likely was. There was something about him that was drawing her to exchange more dialogue.
She said, “I’m going on a trip in a few days.”
“Oh, I bet a nice lady like you is going to Hawaii?” he questioned.
“No, I’m going back to my home. It’s in another province, but I used to live here.”
“I’d like you to have one of my flowers. The iris may be too big, but here’s a nice little rose,” he said.
He pulled it out of the waterless jar. It was faded and long past its prime, with a very short stem. She did not want it, but accepted it graciously. She felt overwhelmed by this gesture. Was she going to tear up? He obviously had no material goods of value. The only beauty on his cart were the flowers and yet he was willing to share them, all because a stranger stopped to speak kindly with him and showed some personal interest. Meeting his direct gaze, she suddenly remembered reading somewhere that love, no matter where you find it, is like a flower.
Continuing on her way, she suddenly thought that she should have given him a few dollars, or enough, at least, for a cup of coffee. She had plenty of cash with her, and the hotel and flight were paid.
Would he have found it offensive? Insulting? Walking back to the hotel she decided that if she sighted him again she would offer a five dollar bill. Chiding herself, she wondered if one could even go to Timmy’s for that? Stopping in a mini park rest area she withdrew ten dollars from her wallet and sat down on one of the park benches to wait.
There he was just across the street, pulling his cart uphill going somewhere. Nowhere? Nearly sprinting across the intersection, she met him on the sidewalk.
“Hello, again,” she said. Then immediately she blurted out, “I hope you won’t take offence but I would like to give you some cash. Maybe get something for yourself somewhere?”
“No offence,” he said, taking the proffered bill and adding a “God bless you.” He then turned and went the other way, back to the mall for a much needed sandwich.
His thoughts were a jumble. There was something oddly familiar about that young woman.
What was it? Her eyes so blue and such kindness shining through them. He started to vaguely recall another woman and a comfortable bed from long ago. Was it a dream? Had there been a girl? Where was the girl? Where was the woman? And what about Sandy? Where was he now? The two of them had traveled around together for a few years. One day a uniformed woman had accosted him on the street and persuaded him to release Sandy to her society’s care, saying it was best for the dog. He would have good food and water all the time and also a warm bed, in a nice new home. She had people waiting for his Sandy. He had loved that dog but relinquished him to a better life.
She watched him walk away, pulling the cart behind him. There was a feeling nagging her that she couldn’t shake. She wished she had given him twenty dollars, not a paltry ten dollar bill. Returning to the hotel, she phoned her mother and questioned her. How old would “he” be now? Were his eyes blue?
What else could her mother tell her about a man from the past?
The responses caused her to delay her trip. Next day, she again roamed the town but did not see him anywhere. She went to the walk-in clinic. Not there. The receptionist would not advise her if he was known to them, stating confidentiality. Blah.Blah.Blah. She rented a car and searched the highway leading away from town for many hours. Up and down, round and round. Finally in desperation, she drove onto the Reserve land and went to the Band office.
“Do you know of an older man living in a trailer nearby, or anywhere on your acres of land?” she asked. “It is important.”
The two women in the office were not helpful. They said squatters were not allowed on their land and they had never heard of him. Further, what was she doing on their land? Didn’t she read the no trespassing sign at the gate? She apologized and left reluctantly.
She returned the rental car at the airport.
Safely home, she unpacked her suitcase. Yes! There it was! She pressed the small, faded pink rose into her scrapbook of childhood memories.
Building or Wrecking?
I stood on the street of a busy town watching men tear a building down.
With a ‘ho, heave, ho’ and a lusty yell they swung a beam and a sidewall fell.
I asked the foreman of the crew, “Are those men as skilled
as those you’d hire if you wanted to build?”
“Ah, no”, he said, “no indeed. Just common labor is all I need.
I can tear down as much in a day or two as would take skilled men a year to do.”
And then I thought, as I went on my way,
just which of those roles am I trying to play?
Have I walked life’s road with care, measuring each deed with rule and square?
Or am I one of those who roam the town, content with the labor of tearing down?