Rampant with Memory

Cycling along the Lachine Canal


I was 35 before I paused for historical markers. Like the ones I carefully and excitedly read yesterday while cycling along the Lachine Canal in Montréal with my 23-year-old son who paid only slight attention to these markers.

I don’t hold it against him–how could I? But I startled at what happens to us as we age. It is certainly never only physical. The death of the dearth of industry that once lined these picturesque bicycle and pedestrian paths along the water–where we also managed to stop, midway along our journey, at a craft brewery crammed with bikes–was a thrilling series of lessons for me.

I kept insisting we stop: let’s look! Let’s read! Once, I abruptly turned off the path and he rammed into the back of my bike. Fortunately another mark of age is that I now ride at a snail’s pace so he had already slowed down to accommodate me.

I learned that the Lachine Canal’s 150 year history made it it “the gateway to a network of canals linking the Atlantic Ocean to the heart of the continent” and that it paved the way for the urbanization of the island of Montréal’s southwest.

In the first half of the 19th century, according to my historical research into this archival footpath, Canadian industry was embryonic. Canada had merely supplied Great Britain with raw materials, which returned in the form of manufactured goods.

Back then shipbuilding, blacksmithing and foundries, sawmills, elevators and flour mills, tanneries, distilleries and breweries were the only independent producers along the canal, strengthening Montreal’s urban economy and the construction of nearby neighbourhoods, such as Sainte Henri, where my son lives.

“The growth of shipping and the first railway boom would encourage the development of heavy industry and a multitude of businesses associated with the building of ships and railways,” according to a website that delves further than the posted plaques along the trail.

Ghosts along the canal.

We live, yes, rhythmically stretching our legs toward these written signs posted eye level. We live, yes,  and turn toward the Terrace St-Ambroise for a pint in the late afternoon late August sun.


Such as the two boys peering down from the iron bridge at three girls as in the illustration above. Their gowns must have become very muddy as they strolled along, probably stopping short at the uncommon sight of a photographer.

I loved welcoming myself into their history, into this world, while remaining in our own as the wheels turned and our thirst grew. Stopping at a brewery-of-now. Differently shaped indeed from a brewery then, along the Lachine Canal.



Molly Lamb Bobak, Canada’s first female war artist

Private Roy by Molly Lamb Bobak
Private Roy by Molly Lamb Bobak


A few weeks ago I posted about the death of handwriting. And today I came across news of this artist and her recently digitized diary entries preserved by Library and Archives Canada.

Above: a sample of Lamb Bobak’s painting. Private Roy was presumably her war comrade. She was also no doubt delegated to the canteen where women were often dumped. I’m not sure she looks very happy about her posting.

Below: the first page of Lamb Bobak’s war diary circa 1942 which starts with these words about the beginning of her four year tour of duty: “Girl takes drastic step!”  She wrote this right after passing her medical and being handed a khaki skirt and gas mask.

Diary of army life
Diary of army life


Another one of her early diary entries includes a drawing of herself striding down a street with a case of Canadian beer hidden inside her army overcoat.

According to LAC these were handwritten news bulletins providing “amusing anecdotes” and vibrant illustrations that revealed enlisted women’s experiences during the Second World War.

“To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Molly Lamb Bobak’s appointment as the country’s first female official war artist, Library and Archives has digitized her entire Second World War diary in colour, making this national treasure available online.”

Although Lamb Bobak’s first war duties included scrubbing pots and dishing out slop to her brothers-in-arms, she soon established herself as an artist.

Born in 1920, Molly studied at the Vancouver School of Art with Jack Shadbolt between 1938-1941. Her father was a wealthy art critic and collector travelling in the Group of Seven circles as well as befriending Emily Carr.

She died in Fredericton last March. At 94, she outlived the other 32 Canadian war artists, including her husband Bruno Bobak, by a good chunk of time.

For her work, Ms. Bobak was named to the Order of Canada in 1995. And now, from her pen, you can learn first hand experience of a Canadian woman warrior.




Mary, the dead spinster


Her tombstone marker read:


She lived a life, unmarried, and died at age 55–my age. I visited her grave last weekend at the Mount St. Louis cemetery, while burying my father’s ashes, and noted that she was buried in the family plot several years ago but not given a last name.

Not only was she bereft of her full name, but her first name is one of the most prosaic possible in anglo-Canadian terms. But there she lies. Mary. My grandmother’s little sister.

At some point, perhaps a handful of generations away, a 22nd century genealogist might stand before this tombstone and ponder. This descendent of Mary’s will be stymied.

Genealogical research frequently stumbles over the names of women. I mean how our names are stripped from us once we’re married, lost perhaps to the researchers.

But in Mary’s case, she is a blank and thus remains. Reduced to the ashes of four tiny letters. No husband; no progeny. No letters, diaries, no photographs.

While considering the problems of future genealogists I came across these tips to reading tombstones, published in Ontario Genealogy for Beginners by Ruth Burkholder. I enjoyed the precision and attention to detail. It might help. But it won’t bring Mary to life or give her a legacy.

“Try taking a reflecting object to change the angle of the light…white paper, aluminum foil, will work…a mirror is best.”

“Try wetting the area of the inscription; rubbing a little dirt around the area.”

“Talcum powder or corn starch will also  help provide contrast.”

“Never, NEVER, use a wire brush…it will scratch the surface of the stone and cause irreparable damage.”

The death of handwriting


A recent report out of Finland said typewriting skills will soon replace cursive handwriting in the classroom. Concern was expressed about how this decision might damage a child’s brain development.

I remember learning to write. A specific memory comes to mind of a habited nun in my grade one classroom standing at the blackboard with a lonely piece of chalk in her hand.

She had just written a single word: content.

I remember thinking, that day, about learning to read and learning to write and wondering whether I’d ever really catch on. What bewildered me, and yes frightened me, was the mere idea that with so many words floating around out there, how was I possibly able to catch hold of them all and make any kind of sense?

Content, though, why do I remember learning that specific word on that specific day? And what about the double entente? Was I? Content? Or was there “content” that I needed to fill–and how? And where?

Flash forward fifty years to today.

Every morning, before leaving the house, I fill my red Lamy fountain pen with ink, grab my notebook, and slip out the door of my east Toronto house with Heather.

I walk with her to the bridge over the Don River then we kiss goodbye. She continues toward the city and I head back toward our home to begin my workday but first–

First, I head into a coffeeshop and write. With my hand. Holding my pen. Inside the pages of the notebook. I am invariably the only one in the place doing so. And I write quickly.

I tell stories in these books and have done so pretty well since I was six years old and that kindly nun taught me to clutch a fat pencil and stretch wobbly letters between dotted lines.

The linking up of thoughts, emotions, words, gestures–the staining of my fingers in ink–identify me just as much as does my name. I am Noreen. I write. Have always and will always create content.

Ah but here’s the rub: on the bookshelf beside my desk are stacked banker’s boxes filled with dozens of notebook, many thousand words mostly illegible (the nun, it seems, failed me!) and I’ve labelled each box with this note:

“Please pitch into the garbage when I die.”

(However, I won’t be around to thank you.)

The death of handwriting.



Shanahan Ladies

This is my stock.

The woman on the left is Mercedes Shanahan. She leans a little outside the frame of her mother and sisters, in the shadow by a thread, and she is the only one who–as my mother commented earlier when I showed her the photo–is not smiling. That woman is my grandmother.

“My mother is not smiling,” said her 85-year old daughter Marion, her only comment other than to correct my identification of the two other sisters.

My stock, I say, but I really mean these four women–Marion, too, of course–are scattered among my genes and inchoately trifle with my moods. I am a part of their legacy, the flavour of their days. Mercedes leans, scowls, maybe demands the photographer take the darned picture, who knows? Or is the sun too bright in her eyes?

These women are all dead.

But Marion and I still live.

Mercedes born in 1897. Marion born in 1929. And me, Noreen Marion Mercedes Shanahan, born in 1959.

Before showing my mother this photograph I asked for a story as payment. She spoke about her grandfather, husband to the elder woman in the photograph, and how one day in the woods near their home he felt the branch of a sycamore slice into his skull, leaving her a widow with four young children to raise.

“She kept the farm, kept the horse, Barney, and started delivering mail,” said my mother. Between Moonstone and Mount Saint Louis she would hoist the sacks onto the horse’s back and complete her rounds with postcards from the great war.

Scribblings from trenches to farm kitchens of rural Ontario. Mothers would remove their aprons and stand all the steadier to receive the words and continue their prayers for life, and later to weep.

Such great sorrow; how could it possibly not affect my moods?

They are part of my breath, these women.






The Scream


One thing I recently learned about death, through the loss of a sister and a father in less than a year, is that death-sorrow twists you up like the ropy bulk of a large intestine fire-bound to explode and smatter all those around you.

(Whew. Purple prose but dang that felt good.)

Another thing I learned about death, and wish to relay to you, is this: having friends attend the visitation helps. And so, if you love someone fresh with death I urge you to shove aside other nagging to-do’s and head out the door.

Climb into your car, onto a bus, into a pair of boots; grab your bike off the porch or slide onto a skateboard but please, please, if you love someone smacked hard by loss: make every effort to attend the visitation.

Very few of my friends showed up when my father died in November. I didn’t realize how much their absence hurt, the corollary being how the presence of the few who came comforted me, until this morning. Strange, isn’t it? These unpredictable permeations of grief shattering the calm.

Ten minutes ago I was peeling carrots in my kitchen when I dropped the peeler to burst apart again: a split seam of streaming tears and, oddly, sadness at what today feels like a friendless state just because too few friends attended the visitation.

Before I was hit by my own deaths, I too used to avoid visitations. I sent condolence cards, posted Facebook messages, maybe made a phone call, couriered fresh flowers, but I didn’t fold the mourner in my arms as they made their anguished way through that circle of hell. Toward the box containing who once was loved and spoken of in the present tense.

Still blurry, I just now climbed the stairs from the kitchen to my office and immediately spilled the contents of this Munch jigsaw puzzle onto my desk, clearing away papers and folders, pens and pencils stacked and waiting, to make room for these one thousand tiny screams.

Yellow and orange like the peelings left in my sink waiting for me to tidy away.


Joel Weeks Park


I am writing part two of the posting on Joel Weeks in the Joel Weeks Park, located in Riverside, Toronto, ten minutes from my home. Today is April 10th, exactly 33 years since eight-year-old Joel drowned in a sewer bordering the Don River, five minutes from his home.

My last post briefly detailed his life and death, the effects it had on his friends, family, and community. Now I’ll tell the story of this park and how nearly, once again, the little boy was cruelly obliterated if not for the valiant efforts of those who remembered him.

The park holds promise after a brutal winter and slow-to-awaken spring. I’ll hold onto hope that the green shoots will sprout although today they seem almost to shiver. It’s a lovely spot really. As Edward Keenan wrote in his Spacing article (see my previous post): “It [was] a nice place to think about Joel.”

“I’m happy that Rivertowne preserved Joel’s name, maintaining the link to the ghosts of people, buildings, and schools that still form Toronto for us…”

After Joel’s death a much tinier slip of land called a parkette was given his name. Those were the days before gentrification and shiny new condos. His mother, Shelley, still lived in the social housing complex nearby. At that time, Carol Sutton, a woman in the community who had known the child, filled the tiny garden each year with irises, vines, and trees.

Her goal, said Keenan, was to ward off forgetfulness and bring beauty to the neighbourhood that had lost some of it when the little boy drowned.

Ghosts of buildings also steady the framework of this community. Blocks of slum housing were demolished by the city of Toronto in the sixties to make way for what was then referred to as “Ontario Housing,” specifically the Don Mount Court. “An act of erasure,” said Keenan, leveling a neighbourhood in order to “warehouse the poor” in spirit-less structures of concrete and steel, in their mania for urban renewal.

In 2004, another erasure, this time these apartments came down, the tenants relocated, and the neighbourhood gentrified.

The Joel Weeks Parkette was razed to make way for a hectare-long park with tall grasses, hilly logs dotted with climbing logs, a playground and a waterpark. Gone, too, was the name. And so those who remembered the child fought hard to keep it.

“The city lives in the intersection of the stories of the past, needs of the present, and hopes for the future,” wrote Keenan.

They won their fight.

And now, these children circa an early spring afternoon in 2015 have a place to play that doesn’t result in sliding off a slippery ledge into a sewer.

Joel’s mother attended the naming ceremony of the Joel Weeks Park in 2012 and said how honoured she was that her son’s death could possibly result in a beautiful spot for new memories to be formed.


















Stenciled in pathways and gardens


I’m leaning heavily in this post on the words of another writer–Edward Keenan, local author and contributor to Spacing Magazine. In particular I’m commenting on his essay “The Ghost of Joel Weeks.”

His words, the best words; and they are inspired by his memories, not my own, of his friend who fell into an east end Toronto sewer in 1982 and drowned. The site of his death is near to my own home in a gentrified neighbourhood called Riverdale, east of the Don River.

That’s Joel. Up top.

“We live in a city of ghosts,” writes Keenan. “A vision of the past, of what once was, exists in our heads even as we walk along the streets that are. It’s a different collage for each of us.”

Keenan’s story is about how traumatic memories stamp an individual’s psyche as well as the psyche of a neighbourhood. He writes beautifully. Here’s his description of St. Anne’s Catholic school, built in 1888 and torn down in 1999 to make way for condos, splash parks, and the bantering of barristas along Queen Street.

He went to this school back in the seventies; his desk in grade three was across the aisle from Joel.

“That place saw me through several awkward stages and witnessed the conquering of fears and insecurities; the accident-in-your-pants years, the tears-about-being-teased years, the passing-notes-written-in a Finder-Binder years, the attempt-at-spiked-hair years.”

“And it was at St. Anne’s,” he added, “that I first encountered profound loss.”

Eight-year-old Joel Weeks lived in a housing project north of Queen Street and east of the river. He and his pals set off to explore one warm spring night after Easter Sunday dinner. Excited to show off a new hiding place, he slipped into the sewer.

Four hours later his body was found pressed against a filtration screen at a pumping station a few kilometres away–something red and white and tumbling against the screen, said the filtration plant supervisor during the inquest.

Meanwhile, Edward Keenan and his classmates tricked themselves into comprehending the horrors of what had had happened to their friend.

“Because for us, at age eight, the central part of the story–the part we had down for sure–was hard to wrap our heads around. Joel had drowned in the sewer. He was dead. He was not coming back.”

And now, I’ve reached my word quota for this post.

But I promise to return to the story of Edward Keenan and Joel Weeks. Memory, maturity, and a neighbourhood we share–a neighbourhood Edward and I watch as it grows into its newest skin decades after such a loss.

Stay tuned: part two promises to be a story about gardens.




Lesley Gore a feminist icon


What better way to start the day than with Lesley Gore?

Here she is quoted about her song “You Don’t Own Me,” recorded before she was 18 years old.

“I don’t care what age you are–whether you’re 16 or 116–there’s nothing more wonderful than standing on the stage and shaking your finger and singing ‘Don’t tell me what to do.'”

I grabbed these words from an obituary in this morning’s Globe & Mail. To paraphrase the writer, Jon Parles, I’ll add that Gore inspired teenage girls to catapult from tearful self-pity to fierce self-assertion, after having their hearts stomped on by mercurial teenage boys.

Her hit song came out in 1963. I was four years old and it seeped into my consciousness fast and shaped me more positively than any little kid’s book I was fed back then–remember that Dick & Jane series?

(Ah, Jane, did you ever step out of your servitude fostered by Father, Mother’s valium-induced kitchen tutoring and your brother’s bossiness? A few of your books were titled “Jump and Run,” “Go Away,” and “Go, Go, Go”. What did they mean?)

(Ah, Jane, poor deprived Jane, it wasn’t even until 1965 that you met your first Black person. Was there any strong female influence living up the street or slipping into your classroom back then? Behind the principal’s desk?)

I don’t remember where I was when Lesley Gore pierced the mythology of my suburban, Catholic little girlhood but I’m grateful she did. I have been pointing my finger ever since and although it has sometimes been swatted away at least these same hands now press down on these keys in tribute.

Gore shouted her anthem before there was an Angela Davis. Before there was a Gloria Steinem. She welcomed them with a soundtrack to their collective meetings, potluck dinners, women’s dances and demonstrations.

Even during my own 1980’s version of feminist activism she inspired. I recall wearing a button, designed by my friend Melva, that read: “It’s my period. I’ll cry if I want to.”

Another surprising morsel I excavated from the obituary was news that in 1967 Gore acted on the Batman television series as the “Pink Pussycat”, one of Catwoman’s proteges. Not a bad start for a burgeoning lesbian. Wish Catwoman had been my mentor.





Bloomsbury’s Wolves


I just finished reading Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Leonard Woolf and was struck by several things in several ways. For instance, Leonard Woolf had a mantra: “Nothing matters.”

I hated that mantra, thought Glendinning referred to excessively and that it made no sense. Until the last handful of pages, that is, when she finally allowed him to explain it.

Under the eye of eternity, he once wrote, nothing human is of the slightest importance. But in one’s personal life, “certain things are of immense importance: human relations, happiness, truth, beauty or art, justice and mercy.”

I sneakily adopted his mantra to suit my own ambitious little life. But I’ve changed it from “nothing matters” to justice and mercy matter. Now I just have to remember to follow it.

Leonard Woolf survived Virginia’s suicide by a handful of decades; he also added flesh to his life in ways that would simply not have been possible had Virginia Woolf not drowned in the river Ouse in 1941.

“He had his own increasingly successful life to be lived. The older he got, the less he wanted to die.”

I feel disloyal concluding that VW dragged him down with her endlessly needy genius and the demands on him to extol consistent and cautious care.

He stayed living at Monk’s House, in Sussex, but had turned Virginia’s writing lodge into an painter’s studio for his subsequent partner, Trekkie Parsons, with whom he lived for the next quarter of a century.

LW was described as “always an outsider of sorts within the exceptionally intimate, fractious, and sometimes vicious society of brilliant but troubled friends and lovers.”

These friends and lovers hoisted up the Bloomsbury flag; for a long while, Leonard was the lone survivor of that movement, having eulogized one death after another, beginning with Lytton Strachey in 1932.

He described the impact these deaths had on him.

“[It felt like] the primeval sense of time stopping, the universe hesitating, waiting, in fear, regret, pity, for the annihilation or snuffing out of a life, of a living being.”

Leonard Woolf died in 1969 and had his ashes scattered with Virginia’s in their beloved gardens at Monk’s House.



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