After my mum died in 2010, I brought home boxes of papers from her apartment in Victoria. Everything was unsorted, chaotic. And most of it was unfamiliar to me. Like this photograph. I never knew my mother played hockey—she’s third from the right in the back row, the one with dark curly hair.
We lived in Spryfield, a suburb of Halifax, from 1963-65, and it was the first time my brothers and I skated. There was a pond near us—I think it was called Kidston Pond—and it froze quite early our first winter there. My mum pulled out an old pair of black skates for me to wear. I hated them. They were too big, for one thing, but black? The other girls wore white figure skates and swirled on the ice like dancers. A couple of them even had short velvet skirts and woolen tights that made them look like stars. My mum’s old skates were clunky, with dull blades, and I remember how sore my ankles were as I struggled to keep my balance.
She told us a story in those years in Spryfield: when she was a girl, her mother would put baked potatoes into her skates (those skates?) when she went off with them slung over her shoulder. When she got to wherever it was she was going—was it a pond or outdoor rink?—she put the warm skates on and tucked the potatoes into her pockets to keep her hands warm as she skated. Then, on her way home at the end of a cold day, she ate the potatoes. The story gave me another version of my mother, young and intrepid. But I never knew she played hockey.
I wish I still had the skates. In later years, I was given a pair of second-hand tube skates. Not figure skates—I was told tube skates were safer, though I have no idea why. Other girls whirled and swirled and I clumped along, my ankles touching the ice. I never loved skating though in later years I went a couple of times with boyfriends and once, memorably, on my 40th birthday here on the Sechelt Peninsula when Smail’s Pond froze during a particularly cold winter. Somehow we rounded up enough pairs of skates for our whole family, most of them for a dollar or two from the Bargain Barn Thrift Store in Madeira Park, and we spent an afternoon finding our feet on the uneven ice.
I’d love to know more about my mother’s hockey team. Who were these young women, one with a child (or younger sibling), and who were the men who coached them? Was this where she was heading with warm potatoes in her pocket and why would she talk about the potatoes and not the hockey? She looks to be about 18 or 20 so this is probably 1944 or 1945, before she met my father, before the skates got tucked away until a 9 year old girl needed a pair to glide across Kidston Pond on her ankles. I wish I’d known about my mum’s hockey career then. Maybe I’d have appreciated the skates for their own plain legacy instead of wishing them away, wishing for a grace that seemed possible then, if I only had white figure skates and a short velvet skirt.
I’m reading The Lost Landscape, the new memoir by Joyce Carol Oates. I’m not particularly drawn to her fiction and in truth this book is uneven — a whole chapter told from the perspective of Happy Chicken??? But the chapter I’m reading now is one in which she parses the hidden stories of her mother and father. A murder, an attempted murder, a child (her mother) given away to people who might have been relatives. Or maybe not. And I recognize something deeply familiar. She writes of the “childhood mysteries”, and how she wonders if they are at the root of her fiction: “I find myself imagining that what I am inventing is in some way “real”; if I can solve the mystery of the fiction, I will have solved a mystery of my life. That the mystery is never solved would seem to be the reason for the writer’s continuous effort to solve it — each story, each poem, each novel is a restatement of the quest to penetrate the mystery, tirelessly restated. The writer is the decipherer of clues — if by “clues” is meant a broken and discontinuous subterranean narrative.”
As I grow older, I increasingly want to know the mystery of my mother’s birth. I’ve written of that in these (virtual) pages and it’s the subject of a section of the memoir I’m currently working on. Who was she? Some things are known. Shirley MacDonald, born in Sydney, Cape Breton Island, in 1926 to an unwed mother whose surname was McDougall. My mother was put into foster care at a few days of age and she lived with her foster mother and sister and brother until she was old enough to move out on her own. That foster mother was Emma Morton Watson, widow of Dr. David T.C. Watson, a physician and medical missionary who died in 1917. I’ve been to Sydney. I’ve asked questions. I’ve written letters. I’ve applied for my mother’s birth certificate because she was told that the names of her birth parents were recorded on her birth certificate but the Vital Statistics office in Halifax tells me I have no right to that information until 100 years after my mother’s birth. Let’s hope I’m still alive in 2026.
My mother had little bits of information about her possible birth father. She was told — I don’t know if it was her foster mother or her foster sister (Helen Maude Watson) who told her this — that he was the brother of a prominent Halifax physician. She told me this. I’m sure of it, or at least as sure as anything that she told me. But apparently she didn’t tell my brothers this. So I am aware there’s the possibility that I’ve misremembered. But I don’t think so. I ‘ve known this — or believe I’ve known it — my entire adult life.
I’ve looked at lists of doctors in Halifax from the period of her childhood and there’s something that stands out. Her foster mother’s brother, Dr. Angus MacDonald Morton, was a physician in Bedford, a suburban community of Halifax. He had five sons, one of whom died in infancy. One of them, Allan Reid Morton, followed his father into medicine. Here are some notes about him from the CPHA website:
He graduated in medicine from Dalhousie University, Halifax, in 1925 and went into general practice in Wolfville until his appointment in 1927 as Assistant Medical Superintendent of the Nova Scotia Hospital. From 1934 to 1939 he again practiced medicine in Halifax and in 1938, became part-time Medical Officer of Health of the City of Halifax. From 1937 to 1939 he was also Superintendent of the Halifax Tuberculosis Hospital and received a Rockefeller scholarship and graduated in 1940 from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore with a Master of Public Health degree. He returned to Halifax and became the first full-time Medical Officer of Health for that City and in 1941 he assumed the dual responsibility of Commissioner of Health and Welfare for the City of Halifax. At this time, he also accepted an appointment as Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine at Dalhousie University.
The other brothers were also quite successful, or at least two of them were. One became a chemistry professor at Carlton University and one became a journalist, eventually buying the Dartmouth Free Press and teaching journalism. There was also a sister. There’s a photograph of her in my mother’s foster sister’s photo album in which that sister looks a lot like my mum. In fact, in a photo of the whole family, I see my mum in many of them. Is this just because I want to? I’m willing to believe that. But I’m also willing to believe this might be part of the secret my mum grew up within, perhaps a part of, but shamed from being included in.
If a child is born out of wedlock and there’s a widowed sister who needs money and she is a nurse, thus reliable as a carer of children, then it makes sense to hide the illegitimate child in plain view. Doesn’t it? I wonder if I’ll ever know. I have all these photographs, these suggestions of a trail, but no certificate to prove my mother’s provenance. Her name, hidden in theirs. Her dark hair. The fact that she was told (though I’ve never found any evidence of it) by her foster mother that there were possiblities of adoption during her childhood but her foster mother didn’t want to give her up. Love wasn’t mentioned. But perhaps there were family expectations that the foster arrangement would continue.
Increasingly, that “subterranean narrative” has taken its place in my writing, asking to be brought to light, the way buried streams are daylighted. In fact a small section of the piece I am currently working on is titled “Daylighting”:
“Daylighting—the practice of restoring a stream that had been routed through a culvert back to its natural state—is becoming a more common stormwater trend.”
Let me bring you back to life, to light. Let me trace the route of all those undercurrents, the dark waters idling their way to the sea, find the bed and the riffles of oxygen, the small tributaries that lead away from a source but which might, with effort, allow me to find the spring of your origin.
My parents were married on August 4, 1950. My mum was 24 and my father was 23, soon to be 24. They hadn’t known each other long. My mum lived in Halifax and my father was in the navy, either stationed in Halifax at the time or there for some kind of naval function. My mother was a last-minute replacement blind date for a sailor whose friend was dating my mum’s friend. The original choice for the blind date became ill with the flu so my mum filled in. She once told me she knew that very night that he was the man she’d marry. Her foster mother didn’t approve of him and didn’t attend the wedding.
My father has been dead for nearly five years and my mother, for four. I have some of their wedding gifts. Some damask napkins, which I found on their linen shelves, still in the original wrapping. Silver-plated flat wear; a pair of silver-plated salad servers. I think of them every time I polish the silver and set it on the table. They never used it. They were saving it for some special occasion. Not family Christmas or Thanksgiving. Not birthdays. They didn’t “do” dinner parties but people did come for meals and no one thought to bring out the silver. There were never candles or linen napkins. But my mum liked to cook and the food was good and plentiful.
I see something of my son Brendan in my father’s smile. And two of my brothers have that look, too. I have my mother’s colouring. (I wish I had her shapely legs. Mine came from my father’s potato farming ancestors.) There’s so much about them that I don’t know — I thought they would live forever and there would always be time to sit down and ask questions about their childhoods, their dreams and fears. But I love looking at this photograph and seeing the way my mum looks at my dad and knowing that everything was about to happen, everything that is continuing 64 years later as I sit at my desk and remember them.
This time last week I was basking in the company of my new grandbaby. In Edmonton, there was rain and John and I visited the Royal Alberta Museum where I really liked the Western Threads exhibit — quilts, hooked rugs, a few exquisite dresses of hand-dyed silk. We explored the Bug Room and imagined ourselves into the future, showing Kelly the cases of huge stick insects, the tarantulas, and the various beetles.
This morning, life is both rich, and (I confess) a little lonely as I think of how quickly babies change and grow. We Skyped yesterday and it was good to see that tangle of arms and legs and small downy head cradled by her dad but it’s not the same. And now I know how my parents felt when my children were small, how their parents felt — my grandparents (ironically) in Edmonton while my family lived in Victoria, or Matsqui, or Halifax. My mother’s foster mother was in Halifax so we did see her weekly while we lived there in the early 1960s but our relationship was always formal, not intimate. As I suspect was her relationship with my mother. For all the years we lived on the west coast, my mother wrote to her mother weekly. I have some of the photographs she sent to Halifax from Victoria — a young woman with her first son, then later her four children; those children posed with Santa Claus or standing in rivers and lakes in their bathing suits. Those children posed in front of reconstructed dinosaurs near Drumheller on summer visits to Alberta.
Before that, the vast distance between Central and Eastern Europe and Drumheller, which is where my grandmother came to with her first husband and five children, then seven. Did my grandmother’s parents and relations in Horni Lomna know of her own second marriage, my father’s birth, the subsequent generations? And will I ever know them? Online databases make certain discoveries possible but others are hidden in history. Or in the uncertainties presented by my own inability to read other languages. I’ve been tracking one thread — my grandfather’s connections to Sniatyn, in Galicia — but it keeps fraying, running thin. Certainly nothing to hook into a rug or piece together as a quilt block. Not yet.
In the meantime, I’m thinking of a quilt for Kelly. I made some baby blankets and a crib quilt but that was before I knew who she was, before I’d held her long fingers in mine. Or had my fingers gripped by hers. I have some ideas and will keep them in my mind until I can see how to stitch something that will be hers alone.