October 28, 2011

Family, Revisited

At one time in our lives, four of my five siblings and I lived within a three hour drive of each other, and the fifth lived just a day's drive away from the rest of us. We were all used to frequent visits and family gatherings. Then in 1996 it was like God dropped a stick of dynamite into the center of our happy proximity and blasted us all apart. One sister, Clare moved to Manitoba, where her husband had grown up and had now landed a good job. Our eldest sister Monica moved with her family to Prince Rupert on the north coast of British Columbia, which doesn't sound far but required two solid days of driving to cover the distance, for her husband Matthew's new job with the Forest Service. My own husband was transferred from Kimberley to central Vancouver Island, accessible only by plane or ferry. Our sister Pauline and brother Francis both stayed with their families in the same town as our parents, and Pauline still lives there, while one brother lives in Calgary with his family and my other brother now lives in Vancouver.

My husband and I managed to visit Prince Rupert once with our children when my eldest daughter was a baby, travelling overnight by boat on the Inside Passage - most of us were sea-sick. I plan to make it to Manitoba in the next year or two as I have not yet been to visit Clare in her home; she has come to us once, but we mostly just meet the odd summer at our parents' house. We've been to Calgary, too and had the occasional visit from family when we lived on the Island. While it was not ideal for all of us to be flung about Canada, we have all gained from the experience as our families have grown and each formed their own identity, in part due to the various natural environments in which we have lived. For example, it rains a lot in stormy Prince Rupert, so Monica and her family became resiliant in all weather, came to love the ocean and the wildness of that part of the world. Clare and Stephen and their families live through typically long, cold and snowy winters and enjoy skating, snowshoeing, skiing and sledding and all that good snow fun which they are required to embrace if they don't want to spent the long winters entirely indoors. My husband and I and our family have lived most of our years on the coast, near water, and where the damp invades our bones in winter. What have we gained from the experience? We know that it is imperative for us to dress in layers and that we love Beautiful British Columbia enough to keep us from moving somewhere else more affordable, like Saskatchewan.

Last year, almost to prove that we are never safe from surprises, the Forestry office in Prince Rupert after a steady downsizing, was shut down entirely by the government. My brother-in-law, Matthew got a new job with the Ministry of Envronment in Williams Lake, which is in the Cariboo region of B.C. just a five hour drive north of where I sit typing this blog post, and a nine hour drive to our hometown and my parents and sister, Pauline. The newspaper Monica was reporting for in Rupert was also bought out by a large newspaper chain, but she decided to stay there for one more year with her children, work as a freelance reporter and as an archives assistant at the local museum, while Matthew got used to his new job in the Cariboo and took his time looking for a house for them. The year went by fairly quickly for them with several visits back and forth, and at the end of August, Monica and their two youngest boys, now aged 12 and 15, made the move down to Williams Lake where Matthew had found a rambling, character-full home for them within walking distance of the downtown area and with a view of the water. "When are you coming to visit?" they asked us.

Monica is the eldest in my family of siblings and nine years older than I.  Monica was always a busy, social, energetic sort of person, and I don't remember spending too much time with her when I was little, but the time I did spend was always fun. She used to pay me exhorbitant amounts of money to clean out her sock drawer or give her a neck rub. Monica was a Bee Gees fan in the Seventies and I had seen enough album covers lying around to be familiar with the look of the band. Around the same time, she had a bearded boyfriend who played the bagpipes, and years later I told her I had always thought of him as Barry Gibb in a kilt. She laughed - hard. She organized family games of poker with penny candy for betting chips, but I was too small to play. I was not too young to enjoy the baked treats she brought home every Saturday night after her shift at the bakery of some family friends, and Sunday mornings breakfasts were often composed of oven-warmed danishes and other delectible pastries. My memories of her are somewhat vague from those years, but I know she was kind, honest and generous to all of us.When I was nine she moved out of the house and by the time I was ten or eleven, she had moved with a friend half way across the country. One year, Monica brought Matthew home from Winnipeg for Christmas, and the next summer they were married in our Cathedral with myself as one of the five bridesmaids. I was thirteen and it was all terribly exciting. When I was seventeen and freshly graduated from high school, my mother suggested I travel by train with my bicycle to Winnipeg and spend the summer with Monica and Matthew and their little girl, Anna. It was that summer when our real friendship as sisters began. Our sister Clare was living in Winnipeg, too, newly married and we had a great time touring (and eating our way around) the city, attending the Winnipeg folk festival, and taking weekend trips. Monica and Matthew moved back to B.C. after that summer so Matthew could attend the Forestry program at the college near my hometown and Monica and I began to spend a lot of time together. We had plenty in common and grew very close although I was so much her junior in every way. Already an experienced mother herself, Monica was there for me when I had my first child, and my second, teaching me about feeding routines and the importance of naps, all with her trademark generosity and good humour.

Last weekend we accepted Monica and Matthew's invitation and took the kids for a three-day trip up to the Cariboo. We drove through the misty Fraser Canyon along the old Trans-Canada highway, up along the Fraser River before veering west along the Thompson River.

One of the many tunnels in the Fraser Canyon

A scene repeated throughout our journey through the Lytton area

We drove out of the coastal rain forest into the drier region of the Thompson Platea where the rolling hills and yellow grasses are marked by the old roadhouse numbers from the days of the Cariboo Gold Rush: 70 Mile House, 100 Mile House, 108 Mile House, 150 Mile House. Old log buildings, some refurbished and some left to the elements, dotted the landscape, and it was not hard to imagine the gold seekers seeking their uncertain fortunes and enduring all kinds of challenges along the way. By the time we reached Lac la Hache the sky was blue and the air markedly chilly compared to what we are used to.

One of the original roadhouses, now a heritage site

Just entering the Williams Lake region

We arrived at the house just after Monica and her older son had returned from his soccer match. Eager for a walk to work out the kinks from five solid hours in the car, my husband and I and a couple of the kids accepted Monica's invitation to walk and meet Matthew on his way home from work. The cousins got re-aquainted quickly. It had been just over two years since we had all been together at our family reunion.

We spent the weekend cooking together, going for long walks in the sunshine, exploring some great shops Monica had discovered, watching my nephew play ice hockey with some team-mates twice his size, my sister and I talking steadily and Matthew and my husband doing the same. We gathered around the table in the mornings, enjoying the view of the lake through the autumn foliage in their front yard, drinking coffee with cream and just, well, celebrating being together with the prospect of being able to do so much more often than we had in a very long time.

I love the elasticity of life. I had long ago accepted the fact that our families would stay connected mainly through writing and Facebook and the telephone, with the physical distances between us all being somewhat forbidding. Now, however, with my own family on the mainland, Monica's just north of us, and the others with children growing to the point of independence, visits are happening with greater regularity. Our family life is a bit like 'old times', but even richer somehow, after living far apart for so long and bringing a diversity of experience to share at the table. I'm looking forward to our next visit already.

Have a wonderful weekend!


  1. 'The elasticity of life' - wonderful!

    Seems like your giving the next generation the grounding and memory of family and togetherness that they will give down to the generation yet to come.

    What a great post Rebecca.

    You have a wonderful weekend too.

  2. Alistair: I wasn't sure if 'elasticity' was exactly the word I was looking for, but somehow it worked. It's nice to hear you think so too!
    Very glad you enjoyed the post. I enjoyed writing it. I will catch up on your blog this weekend...it's been so busy 'round here! Cheers!

  3. For what it's worth. You kids generation will be less required to move as the economy in Canada has shifted from primary to advanced productivity. But if they do move they are more likely to do as your grandparents and move between continents. For instance, those that built the road to the goldfields were probably Irish, Welsh or Scot. But came via Ballarat, Central Otago Gold Rush and the one in California.

  4. Vince: That's interesting to consider. I wonder if that will come true here. And you are right about who build that road, along with a lot of other immigrants.

  5. smiles...i like that...the elasticity of life...we were the ones at the greatest distance at one point whe n we lived in FL...now we are the closest to mom and dad...my brother is only 3 hours away...my sister is 10 in Indiana...we did go to each once this year...mom and dad more but...enjoy this time...

  6. Sounds like a nice trip and your photos are great. It's so good to stay connected. It gives a continuity to life.

  7. It appears that we all like your usage of "elasticity" to describe the comings and goings of your family. :) If you ever write a book or rename your blog...there you go! The Elasticity of Life.

    How nice it is to maintain your relationships with your siblings regardless of the distance between you. It's interesting how things can be one way at one time in life, and totally different at another. Glad you and your older sister are so much closer.

    Thanks for sharing your family with us.

    Life in Canada...I guess you have to be born there. Brrrr....
    Just kidding. It's beautiful.

  8. I wrote three paragraphs of comment and then hit the wrong button and it all disappeared. I am so frustrated by this, that I will not be able to work up the warm feelings I had the first time. So, let me just say, I love to hear about your family. You all seem happy and grounded. I wish my family walked more. The End.


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!