home, briefly

Once I’d had my fill of Fenelon Falls, I felt the draw of current family. I’m not sure I would ever have gotten around to driving this far if I didn’t have a daughter and her family (which includes two scrumptious granddaughters) living here. I did make one more slight detour though on my way here, a backtrack into Orillia, and a visit to Stephen Leacock’s house. I remember ‘studying’ Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town when I was back in university ( that’s a very long time ago). I can’t swear that I ever actually read the book, though; in the arrogance or whatever of youth, I just wasn’t interested. But here I was, just coming away from getting a sense of what a little town in Ontario might have been like eighty to ninety years ago, and suddenly it seemed to have some relevance, to see what Leacock’s take was on small-town Ontario back when that was my grandfather’s life.

I can imagine writing quite cheerfully in this room.

I can imagine writing quite cheerfully in this room.

Stephen Leacock is Canada’s model for writing with humour, or so I’ve read somewhere. I can’t tell you whether he makes me laugh, yet, but I did pick up a copy at the gift shop and I do intend to read it, finally, while thinking of this one branch of my ancestry. I know that you can travel by reading, but I find there’s some added bonus to imagining a setting when you’ve seen one like it. There’s a different feel to the air in Ontario from my home in British Columbia, and I’m not convinced that words alone can convey that. And here’s a confession. I’ve always lived in a big city, and my understanding of what might be good about life in a small place? Blinkered.

Rideau Falls, where the Rideau River runs into the Ottawa River. Gatineau in the background.

Rideau Falls, where the Rideau River runs into the Ottawa River. Gatineau in the background.

Anyway, I’m in Ottawa now (yes, yes, a city) temporarily at home in a furnished bachelor suite in an old house in Sandy Hill (if you know Ottawa). The neighbourhood is home to lots of rentals, as it’s close to the University of Ottawa. So a mix of kind of shabby houses, seen better days, and ones that are marvelously kept up, lovely houses from an earlier era. Lots of embassies scattered around too, this being a government town. I’m used to wood-frame houses, and Ontario is full of brick. So it definitely looks different here from what I’m used to. Lots of trees, but few evergreens, so that’s different too. And I’ll confess that I miss the backdrop of the mountains. But there are lots of waterways, and there is plenty to like here. (I’m two blocks from the Rideau River in one direction, not that far from the Canal or from the Ottawa River and views over to Gatineau as well. One of my recent walks, I went past 24 Sussex, and the Governor General’s place as well, not an overly long way from here.)

A little pomp on Parliament Hill: changing the guard.

I’ve spent a little time being touristy, and stumbled on a bit of pomp the other day on Parliament Hill: the changing of the guard. I was drawn in by the bagpipes.

I lucked out in finding this place online. It’s a short walk to my daughter’s home, and a short walk to the market; slightly longer downtown. I’ve taken up my habit of tramping longish distances, but also have the luxury of hopping in my trusty car when I need it. Rent includes parking, which is quite rare this close to downtown.  Rent includes everything, actually, and at a reasonable price. And the landlady has managed to furnish the place in a homey way, and has thought of details that quite often get left out in places that are supposed to have everything you might need. (Really. There’s even a salad spinner in the kitchen.)

It’s called a bachelor because there’s no separate bedroom, but there is a separate big kitchen, and a back balcony, feels like a back porch (and I suppose technically is, as there are stairs down) where I like to sit out with my coffee on mornings when the sun isn’t baking down. I feel totally at home here. Lots of windows, something I didn’t have in my apartment in Vancouver. A window and a door in the kitchen. Two windows in the really big bathroom, and two in the living/bedroom, so lots of light. It proves my point (to myself) that the biggest thing wrong with the place I sold back in Vancouver, was that I had to turn on lights all the time, as it was so dark inside otherwise.


Grand old house for my temporary home. My place faces the back, but you can see my living room window on the second floor, on the side.

But home. That’s a topic I scratch my head about. This isn’t home, though it’s homey, and I dragged enough belongings with me that I’m not missing much, for now. I occasionally think of my things all stuffed into a storage locker at home, and I see that a lot of it probably doesn’t matter. (I would like to have a book case in here — one lack the place has.) But I still refer to going home, eventually. I’m going to pack up and leave here at the end of the month, and for a while my car will be home, I suppose. I’m going to make a loop through the States, visiting some more family, but given the distances, mostly traveling down long roads and breathing in the air, getting a feel for it, of places I’ve read about, or seen in movies too, I suppose. Becaue there’s no scratch and sniff in video. Not yet anyway. The soundtrack tends to be different too.

One friend who is here, introduces me as someone who is homeless, and I think, well, that’s not quite accurate. I have a permanent address back in Vancouver and a place to stay when I get back there. It’s just that I don’t own a home right now. And that’s the first time in slightly over forty years, that my name hasn’t been on a land title. Makes me aware of how fortunate I’ve been, something to be grateful for. Anyway, I’ve responded that I’m not homeless. I’m just home-free right now. It’s a temporary condition. Maybe. I can’t quite see that far ahead to where I might finally settle, and then unpack all those boxes, currently crammed into what’s essentially an indoor garage, in Vancouver. But it will be Vancouver, or close to it.


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more roots: Winnipeg to Fenelon Falls

Dad, August 1938

Dad, Red River, August 1938

Winnipeg is where my father grew up, so I thought I’d spend an extra day there. I’d been there twice before. Once on a camping trip with my family, back when I was about 16, and then last year, I had a brief tour when the train I was on had a few-hour stopover. Last year I took a bus tour, not the greatest of choices, given that I’d been sitting around on the train for several days, but I wanted to get a glimpse of what Winnipeg looked like. My memories from that camping trip were hazy, and not great. That trip my father was disappointed. He wanted to show us the Winnipeg he remembered, and of course that place didn’t exist anymore. Even the weather didn’t cooperate, keeping up a steady drizzle (much like what we were used to in Vancouver) to belie the stories he’d always told about what glorious summers Winnipeg had. For some reason, mosquitoes didn’t seem to bother him, so that hadn’t factored in either, but the bugs sure got us.

Anyway, my bus tour last year took me to the legislature for a bit of a tour, and to a smidgen of Assiniboine  Park, and then back to the train. We waved at the zoo as the bus went by. The new Canadian Museum of Human Rights was still under construction at that time, but it’s open now, so I meant to take the time to visit, and also go see what The Forks was. People always say, go see The Forks. Kind of like they all say, go to Granville Island.

Roman bath, Lego style. There were lots of actual statues on display too.

Roman bath, Lego style. There were lots of actual statues on display too.

My plans though, are loose. I was distracted by the WAG (Winnipeg Art Gallery) and the exhibition Olympus, The Greco-Roman Collections of Berlin. I mean when will I be in Berlin? Or Greece? Or Rome? (Hmm, have to think about that.) But when something’s right there, well, go. By the time I’d wandered through the rest of the gallery, and then followed a tour guide through Olympus, it was getting late in the day. I then walked over to the Human Rights Museum, and decided against going inside. It was only an hour from closing, and I just couldn’t bring myself to rush through a museum full of examples of how people can be horrid to each other. I’m not sure I even wanted to do it in a leisurely fashion, honestly. I think I’d have to gear up for it. So I went to find the Forks and get something to eat instead. Choices. But no point in me keeling over, either. (I would like to take the train across Canada another time, and maybe that time I’ll be sure to get to the museum. We’ll see. Odd place for a national museum, must say, as I sit here in Ottawa.)

looks harmless enough

looks harmless enough

I hadn’t quite figured out what the Forks was, but have an inkling now. Found a large market, and broused up and own the aisles, and then outside. The Forks is so named, I believe, because it sits where the Red River and the Assiniboine meet. I’m not much of a shopper for souvenirs and stuff, so I went for a walk along the Assiniboine instead, toward the Legislature. It looked like it would be a pretty walk. For some reason I thought it would be full of people, sort of a natural for catering to tourists, linking, as it does, the Forks and the Provincial Legislature. The only tourists I saw were ones on a supposed river ‘cruise,’ which roared past me at a fairly swift speed. Nothing leisurely about it. The pathway is deserted, and grubby, and they don’t pick up the garbage much either. And they have chains blocking all the staircases leaving the walkway, so either you scramble through bushes, or  go the whole distance. Or go back. Or get beaten up, I guess. It did finally cross my mind that it was somewhere along here that Rinelle Harper was left for dead. You’d think the city would want to put in some improvements.

Anyway, it was daylight, and I didn’t think the Legislature was that far, so I carried on. It’s the only time this trip I’ve felt the least bit uneasy, 5 pm on a Sunday afternoon hours before dark. I saw a few cyclists and very few walkers. You’d think the city would put some effort into cleaning things up, make the place safer, instead of blocking access (and escape) and leaving the garbage bins to overflow. I passed about ten bins before I came to one that would fit in my own bit of debris. I thought of all the lovely seawall walks in Vancouver, and equally lovely river and canal walks in Ottawa, and I just am, well, gobsmacked by what I saw. So it left me with a very curious impression of Winnipeg. I did leave (escape) the river walk at the Legislature grounds, another natural spot to cater to tourists, and hey, locals too. There’s quite a nice, oh, sculpture? at the foot of the stairs across the grass from the Legislature, overlooked by a statue of Louis Riel. It was full of mud.Very few people walking around the Legislature either. I admit, it was Sunday, so the place wasn’t open, but still. It was summer time. The sun was out. All right, a bit smokey, those Saskatchewan wildfires again, but it wasn’t too bad, and it wasn’t too hot. Peculiar place, that’s all I can say, and not one I’m in a hurry to go back to. Sorry Dad.

Lake of the Woods, July 1939

Dad, Lake of the Woods, July 1939

So, Monday morning, into the car, and off to Ontario. My plan, which I stuck to, was to sleep in Thunder Bay that night, and that’s what I did. (Kenora was really pretty, Lake of the Woods and all, but so far from anywhere.) I’d looked at the map, and decided I would do long days driving, as my next personal point of interest was Fenelon Falls, Ontario. To get there, well, Winnipeg to Thunder Bay, then Thunder Bay to Sault Ste Marie, then Sault Ste Marie to a little place outside Orillia, where I again stayed for two nights.


Terry Fox almost made it to Thunder Bay. It's within sight of this memorial, just east of town.

Terry Fox almost made it to Thunder Bay, within sight of this memorial, which is just east of town.

The in-between day I wanted to spend in Fenelon Falls, which is the little Ontario town where my mother’s father was born, and where his body had been shipped back for burial. Seeing places, even though you know they’ve changed enormously in the 85 years since this all took place, well, it just answers questions somehow. Anyway, I drove into Fenelon Falls, a more substantial town than Outlook, I must say. I just can’t quite imagine (or maybe I can) how it might have felt to be used to a small, lush town like FF or a fairly lush prairie city like Saskatoon, and settle down in Outlook. It makes my shoulders slump a bit. And imagine it 90 years ago, life ever so much harder. Man.

Fenelon Falls, downtown

Fenelon Falls, downtown

I had it in my head to go to the museum in FF, and to the library, because I’d found mention online that there were microfilm records of the town’s newspaper (now that the idea of looking up records in newspapers had proven fruitful) and I wanted to find my grandfather’s obituary. I figured it would have more detail than what was in the Outlook paper. But first I drove through town, just to see what the main drag looked like, and saw a sign for the cemetery. Well, it hadn’t worked in Outlook, but I went to see the Fenelon Falls Cemetery because it was way more likely that’s where he was. Drove in, found an office inside a trailer, spoke to a nice old guy (my age probably) and he flipped through a book, found the location (record no. 1085: row 13 from the entrance on the west, on the north side, if you want to see it for yourself) and walked me over to where four Palmers are buried: my grandfather, his sister (Aunt Millie, who used to send us Christmas presents every year), and their parents (my great-grandparents!). This is quite a big deal, really. There are no family plots, no graves to visit for anyone else in my recent family tree, not in Canada anyway. I know pretty much where the ashes are scattered, but no plaques, no graves. There are pros and cons to both ways of doing things, but the gravesite, well, it does give you that shiver of history.

PalmerThe Palmer grouping has one big stone with the name on it, and then the four graves had in-the-ground markers, which were getting quite grown over, except for my grandfather’s, which I think was being held up by a tree root (tree wouldn’t have been much, if even there, 85 years ago). But I went back into town to get a little garden shovel, and a brush, and came back and dug around the markers, and brushed them off. Not a big deal, but now you can see them, and maybe they’ll still be visible another 80 years from now. Felt right.

And indeed, there is a waterfall in Fenelon Falls. Locks too.

And indeed, there is a waterfall in Fenelon Falls. Locks, too, but then it is Ontario.

Then, well, I did go to the museum, which is worth the wander through for a feel of how things were. Way bigger and more organized than I expected, too. And I went to the library too. Their microfilm reader was broken, but the librarian called over to the library in Lindsay, and they had a copy of the Fenelon Falls Gazette as well, and working machines. Not as satisfying as finding it right there, but I whipped down the road to the Lindsay library, and found the obituary, printed out a copy, a treasure, as it adds details to his story, little that I had before (and noticed they got his birthdate wrong). I did go back to FF to the cemetery. Wasn’t quite finished yet. I was hoping that the sun might have landed on the markers, and yes, it was slightly better, so I took my picture, and then went back to my lodgings, done with roots for now and off to visit the future (which is what grandchildren signify) in Ottawa.

been there all along

Known as Jim, according to the obituary in the Fenelon Falls Gazette. Not at all odd, just never knew.


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roots trip: Saskatoon and Outlook

I’ve been in Ottawa for over a week now, which astonishes me, the way time flits by. But I wanted to tell the tale of my driving trip to get here: I left off in smokey Saskatoon, which drew me and my brother as well, both of us curious about the city where our mother was born. It’s where my grandparents met, and married, and started the family, before they moved to Outlook, where my grandfather took over a legal practice.

Not a very big town, even for someone who grew up in small-town Ontario.

Outlook: not a very big town. Hard to imagine it 85 years ago as an improvement over their life in Saskatoon.

Family history/mythology on my mother’s side centres around Outlook because my grandfather killed himself in 1930, leaving my grandmother to sort things out with three small children, the oldest being my mother, just two months short of her sixth birthday. Not surprisingly I suppose, his death has had repercussions down the generations, affecting those three kids as it did. I don’t think anyone knows exactly why he killed himself. My mother speculated it had something to do with the Depression. Her mother, my grandmother, told her “we won’t talk about it” and they never did, which wasn’t a particularly helpful tactic. It could be he was having his own depression, brought on by PTSD, which would have been called shell-shock back then. A veteran, he’d spent time in the trenches in France in WWI, and he’d lost an arm there. Hard to see inside the mind of someone you’ve never known.

Our grandparents, in happier days in Saskatchewan.

Our grandparents, in happier days in Saskatchewan.

Anyway, my brother and I stayed two nights in Saskatoon, and on the day in between, we drove down to Outlook, to see what the world might have looked like to our mother’s six-year-old eyes. We were also curious if there was any personal history to be found there. So we went to the Museum, which did not have records of that sort, but they did direct us to the Outlook Cemetery. So we went there, and had a walk-through, though we had no idea whether he’d really be there. But there was a sign with a phone number, so my brother sensibly called it, and found that there were no civic records about where our grandfather might be buried. But, brilliant idea, the voice on the phone sent us to the offices of the local paper, The Outlook.

adThey don’t have computer records, but they have the hard copies, and handed us the 1930 folder of old brittle newspapers to look through. I couldn’t remember the exact date of death, but remembered it was shortly before our mother’s birthday. Turned out there was an ad on each front page for our grandfather’s practice, so the only thing to do was flip through till we found where the ad disappeared. Which it did, in September. And that issue had a front page story about his death, without, of course, stating how he had died. I think it has to do with some kind of misguided shame around suicide. I mean, the shame is that anyone feels that that’s the choice, but keeping it unnamed, well, means everyone who has a suicide in their family gets to think it’s just them. Anyway, sorry, digression. The newspaper story told us that his body had been shipped back home to Fenelon Falls, Ontario, which also figures in (mother’s) family stories, which I’ll get to when I get to Fenelon Falls.

there is an outlook to Outlook, over the South Saskatchewan River. Lovely trestle bridge to walk on, except it was closed.

There is an outlook to Outlook, over the South Saskatchewan River. Lovely trestle bridge to walk on, except it was closed.

We went for lunch, and then we went for a drive-about, to see what Outlook looks like, and then we went back to Sasktoon, to take ourselves to an outdoor venue of the Jazz Festival, where we were treated to the sounds of Saskatoon’s Legendary Rhythm and Blues Revue. No complaints, lots of fun, we danced away the evening. Next morning we loaded up the car, went for breakfast, and I dropped my brother off at the airport for a flight home, and pointed my car toward Winnipeg.

again, to be continued


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through the mountains to prairie

Hit the road for real, on Tuesday (June 30). I say for real, because the trip from Vancouver to Kelowna is very familiar, as I’ve made many trips into the Okanagan Valley, so it hadn’t felt like I was started yet. But now I was on the road heading east, and happily, I had company. My brother Gordon’s ears had perked up when I said I was going to drive across the country to Ottawa, and so he was joining me, for awhile. Would have come the whole way, but had to be back in Vancouver, alas. The two of us share a love of road trips, though usually we’re off on different tangents, being adults and all. As children, we used to travel together on camping trips with our father (and our other brother and sister, and sometimes with our step-mother). (I’d put in a photo here, of all us little campers, but those photos are all back in Vancouver.) I credit Dad with giving me both the desire to hit the road, and the ability ( he moonlighted as a driving school instructor, a summer job that paid for our rambles, and made him able to teach family members without undue grief).

Gord and I both agreed on trying to go down roads we hadn’t been on before. We’d been on a trip to Winnipeg once, in our teens, with our Dad, but that route, I think, pretty much followed the Trans Canada, which these days, at least through BC, feels like quite a conveyor belt of traffic, making you forget how far from city you are. It wasn’t possible to avoid roads we’d been on, but we did manage at least to go down some roads that were newish to one or the other of us. My memory of where we went as kids is a bit foggier than Gord’s, and he’s been all over the province a lot as an adult, but still, we managed pretty well, no conflicts about routes, and lots of talk about, well, stuff.

Creston, BC. Pretty country, sleepy town.

Creston, BC. Pretty country, sleepy town.

We had Drumheller Alberta in our sights, visions of dinosaurs dancing around, and somewhere neither of us had yet been. To get there we took the long way through the mountains (as opposed to a more direct route through the mountains). So, a circuitous route, leaving Kelowna by what I think of as the back way, Hwy 33, through Beaverdell, a road I’ve wanted to detour down before. Why? To see what was there. That road joins up with Hwy 3, the Crowsnest Highway, and then we went on, with detours on the way, through Rossland, Trail and Salmo, to spend the night in Creston, set in a beautiful wide valley in the Kootenays.

Sight-seeing in Creston.

Sight-seeing in Creston, BC.

I think we were retracing one or another route we’d made 50ish years ago with our father, as well as ones each of us has made individually, on other occasions (I know I’ve been to Trail before) but as I said, my memory is not precise. There are some things we inherit, I think, but I didn’t pick up my father’s ability to store detail in his brain. He didn’t need spreadsheets to keep track of when and where, but I do. (Even a couple weeks later, I’m checking the map as I re-cap this trip.) Gord’s better at this kind of remembering. But then I think it’s possible spreadsheets flummox him, so there you go. I must have inherited spreadsheets from our mother, not that they existed much before she died. But she would have been a natch.

Canada Day in Kimberley. Music always good outside.

Canada Day in Kimberley.
Music always good outside.

On Canada Day we carried on, making another slight detour off Hwy 3, to see what Kimberley looks like (hints of Bavaria). We took a break there to walk up and down a pedestrian only ‘downtown’, and to listen for awhile to a band playing in the square. Then on up north now through Kootenay National Park, to join up with the Trans Canada briefly, heading past Lake Louise (where we didn’t stop, been there, you know?) through a bit of Banff National Park. (The jaunt through the national parks is supposed to come with a fee, but seems it’s waived on July 1st. Bonus.)

Bow Lake, near the beginning of the Icefields Parkway. Not much ice. Worrisome.

Bow Lake, AB,  near the beginning of the Icefields Parkway. Not much ice. Worrisome. But not flat.

We turned east at Saskatchewan River Crossing, and then followed, yes, the North Saskatchewan River through Rocky Mountain House (speeding ticket, not mine; you want to be careful on Sundays and holidays approaching towns, I understand) and then left the river which was on its way to Edmonton. We were going to Red Deer, because neither of us had driven that way before, but Red Deer was, for this trip, just a place to sleep. Lots of pickup trucks. And flat. You do notice the flat, after all those mountains.


Our favourite dinosaur, the Chasmosaurus. Our father Charlie (aka Chas) used to claim to be a dinosaur…

Next day we went to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, well worth the detour (or the destination, if you don’t happen to be focused on driving to Ottawa). Terrain is all bumpy again, Red River Badlands and all. We spent a few hours there, in the museum, and going for a short walk outside, carefully contained on a pathway that gives a sense of the Badlands but doesn’t let you get lost in them.

Didn't expect to find Ghandi in Saskatoon. That sort of place, I guess.

Didn’t expect to find Ghandi in Saskatoon.

Our final destination that day was Saskatoon, where our mother was born (a hint about purpose) and so soon we were racing down the road again (with my brother singing Guess Who’s song, “Running Back to Saskatoon”).

We rolled in latish, stayed in a hotel full of refugees from the wildfires, kids enjoying the pool, leaving lots of wet footprints in the elevator. Went for a walk around downtown, had a beer on a rooftop, and then settled in for the night, to rest up for next day’s exploration.

An almost full moon in Saskatoon, shining through the smoke from Saskatchewan wildfires.

An almost full moon in Saskatoon, shining through the smoke from Saskatchewan wildfires.

to be continued…


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