I was a bit of a tumbleweed. For the first eighteen years of my life I moved every 3 to 5 years. I was part of the chorus of those in the foreign service who referred to themselves as gypsies, never really putting down roots anywhere and ready to pack up their goods and chattels and move on to the next port of call. For some children this was an extreme hardship, particularly those who returned to their home country between postings and yearned for the constancy of friends and community. Others were happy to refer to themselves as citizens of the world, well suited to the nomadic life. I fell into that category. I would however say that much of my successful adaptation was not only owed to parental love but to traditions, traditions that sustain and nourish me to this day.
One of the finest traditions was storytelling. My father was a brilliant raconteur and both a teller and reader of tales. Born in Russia before the revolution, he would fill my head with tales involving woodcutters and wolves, of sailing on the Dvina River, of troikas and fur-traders. It was my father who would put me to bed at night and always tell me or read me a story. I have fond memories of Black Beauty and Tom Sawyer and Rumpelstiltskin. It was my father who was there whenever I had a bad dream, who would come in and lie next to me and tell me to think of beautiful things, and then he would make up a story and I would happily drift off to sleep.
When I was older and my father retired to Peterborough, Ontario where my brother and I were attending Trent University, my parents would occasionally invite university friends over for a meal and a long-held family tradition, drinks! While you had to be on your toes as Dad would ask about studies or politics, I would say all of my friends remember the warm embrace of our home as my Dad poured generous drinks and told wonderful stories. For those fortunate to share in Easter or Christmas dinner, my father would start with grace, which was no quick blessing, but a deeply moving near sermon on all that he was grateful for, usually ending with a tribute to my mother. Not a dry eye in the house. When my father died in 1995 there were tributes from friends all over the world and most of them spoke to his incredible gift of storytelling.
My mother was an only child, born in Kampen, The Netherlands. Strong, beautiful, and independent, she spent many hours on her own reading books and was particularly glad of their company during the war years when she was a teenager in Amsterdam under Nazi occupation. She learned to speak five languages which helped her secure a job with the Canadian Embassy in the Hague after the war ended. It was there she met and several years later, married my father who was 11 years her senior. Theirs was a rare love match, they adored each other. Now, my mother who had always enjoyed the full attention of doting parents and a doting husband, did not rush into children, and had to be convinced that it would be nice to have two. My brother and I were both born in South Africa and lucky for my mother, she had a full-time nanny, as while she deeply loved us, she was never besotted by infants. In fact, for my mother I think we became most interesting when we could talk, and we could read.
Which brings me to the next tradition, the acquisition of books. And it was my mother that shared most in that fine tradition. My mother was never without a book. Wherever we travelled, wherever we lived, my mother was never alone with her books. I remember walking to the village library in Bronxville, New York and my mother leaving my brother and I with the children’s books while she would be scanning the shelves for mystery, romance, travel, and adventure. I remember when we moved to Bonn, Germany and spent three months in the Park Hotel in Bad Godesberg, the joy of going to the bookstore in the shop next to the hotel to buy English books. My brother met Teddy Edwards by the Sea Shore and I met the Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew.
My mother took us to bookstores and bazaars in New Delhi, Simla and Kashmir where we would stock up on Mills & Boon romances, Agatha Christie, Tolkien and Mitchener. In Delhi, we went weekly to Khan Market, returning books we had read so they could be sold again, and buying new ones. Finding the bookstore was part of our orientation in any place where we landed. Libraries, bookstores, and book bazaars helped our imaginations soar and were not only an intimate part of our lives, but a constant. One could honestly say my life was rooted in stories.
Stories came not just from my father’s imagination or the books we read, stories also came every week in a letter from my grandmother to my mother, and by extension, to all of us.
My mother left the Netherlands in 1952, not knowing when she would see her parents next. Air travel, phone calls, not a ready possibility. This was a difficult separation for my mother and her parents, but out of that separation grew another marvelous tradition. My grandmother and mother began a letter exchange. Every week across the miles a letter would travel from Amsterdam to wherever my mother resided and my mother in turn would send a letter back. My grandmother and mother would share the story of their respective week. I have fond memories of my mother sitting in the dining room hammering away at an old Olivetti typewriter to describe for her mother all that she had seen and done. My mother would sometimes send newspaper clippings and photos and my grandmother would in turn send the occasional clipping of news of the royal family. And every week no matter where we were when a letter came from my grandmother, we would gather for 5 o’clock drinks and my mother would read my grandmother’s letter out loud. I came to know and love my grandmother from her writing and though I did not see her often, I knew her well.
The year I went off to school in Neuchatel was the year my grandmother died and the year the letter-writing tradition was passed on to me. For the four years before my father’s retirement while my parents were still overseas, my mother and I would send a letter back and forth. I kept everyone of my mother’s letters as they are a treasure of family stories and history, triumphs and tragedies. I read them from time to time and laugh and cry. I hear her voice and see her smile. For a while I am transported back to that time and place and I like wandering down that lane. I hope one day to transcribe the letters for my children and grandchildren, my own legacy project.
And as it is the season, I would be remiss not to speak to the tradition of the Christmas letter. My mother wrote the annual Christmas letter and began with a particularly pertinent quote relative to the year in review. For years I have done the same.
The Christmas letter might elicit groans from some as they think of letters received exalting someone’s children or exaggerating their own extraordinary achievements and adventures, making one’s own life pale by comparison. But the genuine, humbler Christmas letter tells a story and is a special and thoughtful gift, keeping the ties that bind. Receiving a Christmas letter recounting a friend’s adventures and misadventures, hopes and dreams, whether in prose or in verse, is something I always looked forward to receiving. Sadly, in this age of instant communication and social media, these letters are becoming fewer and fewer and I fear it is a tradition that may soon be lost.
A few Christmases ago, tradition, storytelling, books all came together in a magnificent way.
Thirty-three years ago, I had written a tale telling the Christmas story through the eyes of three seemingly incompatible animals who mysteriously find themselves in Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus. The story written for my children, representing each of them as the animal of their Zodiac sign, was in and of itself somewhat of a Christmas miracle. In a little over a month my husband and our elderly neighbour and dear friend Frank Rogers made a book. Mr. Rogers took my typed words and wrote them all out in calligraphy and on almost every page embellished the story with the most beautiful water colour illustrations. Almost 50 illustrations adorn the pages. My husband put every page in a protective sleeve and bound the book in red leather with gold print and created a map depicting the journey of the story’s travellers on the inside covers. A book made with love in the finest tradition.
A few short days before Christmas 2017, I received a parcel containing a book called, A Way Home, written by Yolande Henry. In the finest tradition of giving, my son Shaun had taken this big, old, handcrafted volume and had it formatted into a beautiful, compact self-published edition.
Three children, eight grandchildren, one book. Thanks to Shaun, all of them can continue to enjoy the story and the illustrations. These are the ties that bind.