Living in the moment with Adolphous Greely


Twenty-five men, 350 pounds of supplies, and a chance to change the world.

by Glen Herbert

“This was not simply some new Arctic expedition,” says historian Michael Robinson, “this was really an attempt at a new science of the world.”

It was the international polar year, and fourteen expeditions set off to collect data about the world. Together, they would offer a clearer view of the earth’s climate than anyone had ever had before. Some of the data, including that gathered by the Greely expedition, is still valuable to us today, if not quite for the reason that those involved in the expedition intended. It’s a gauge of climate change, and we’d be the poorer without it.


Adolphous Greely was mesmerized by what involvement in this kind of study could mean, and he dove in, seizing the chance to be exceptional. Under his guidance, and taking 25 men and 350 tonnes of supplies, the expedition set off for Lady Franklin Bay, arriving on August 26, 1881. They had everything they needed and, after the Proteus weighed anchor for ports south, they were free of one thing that Greely thought that they didn’t need: a ship. Until a ship returned to pick them up in a year’s time, they would be cut off from the world in every possible way. Like Robinson Crusoe, the rest of the world would cease to be.

Unlike Crusoe, they were in one of the harshest, least fecund environments you could ever hope to find. “Pee freezes before it hits the ground,” says Jerry Kobalenko, “and even your breath condenses into little crystals that snow down and fall on your sleeve.”

Still, Greely watched the Proteus sail away and later wrote, “I am glad the ship has gone … it settles the party down to its legitimate work.”

He believed that, given the harsh conditions, any ships would be considered “cities of refuge,” places to escape to should the going get rough. When confronted with the difficulty of the task at hand, Greely feared that the crew would choose to sail rather than to stay. Removing that option, he believed that their resolve would be galvanized, and success—now the only option—would be assured.

17732febf02abb78116d544bc7e1fac6c896745aAnd he was right. That first year the crew created Fort Conger, an outpost of buildings, barracks, and offices. They also meticulously took 500 measurements a day—temperature, wind speed, barometer levels—with unerring precision.

In organizing the endeavour, Greely was prescient of a problem that we all live intimately with today: in a world of endless distractions, can we ever focus on the moment, the person, or the task in front of us? If you were stuck on a train for a few days with only one book, you’d probably read it. Stuck with a bunch of books and a smart phone, most people would likely read none. We talk a lot about living in the moment, though that’s because we have so many options that make being in the moment such a completely difficult task.

While Greely certainly didn’t think in these terms, the idea nevertheless is there: making the most of what you have means understanding that it’s all you’ve got. It’s the same concept that animates our interest in the Apollo 13 mission, encouraging a level of cultural fascination that we’ll never have for the Apollo 11 mission. Eleven gave us a quote, of course, “One small step for man.” But 13 gave us the better quotes, including one that my kids can recite accurately and gleefully: “Houston we have a problem.” Jim Lovell said that while crammed in a tin can, in space, with two others so close they were touching, realizing that they might never make it back earth. He also said, “We’re not going to go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes, ’cause we’re just going to end up back here with the same problems! Try to figure out how to stay alive!” Failure wasn’t an option, and whining wasn’t either. On a disabled spacecraft, there aren’t any cities of refuge, and perhaps that’s why Lovell and the rest of the crew are still alive today.

As much as we like those kinds of ideas—being in the moment, being proactive rather than reactive—we don’t often choose to live them. When my wife and I began marriage counseling, I mentioned this idea to our counsellor. I felt that, in a marriage, we too often think of the ship there in the harbor, knowing that if things got bad enough we could get on it and sail away. And, yes, there are points in a marriage when leaving seems like a good option. Add kids to any relationship, and things can become strained. Distances, disturbances, confusions. There are so many things that enter a marriage, so many people, so many new experiences and a crush of emotions that inevitably come along with all of them. Added to that, we are constantly surrounded by cities of refuge. The magazines at the grocery store check out are a window, however skewed, onto some of them: better sex, new love, divorce. Tinder, Ashley Madison, and all the other dating apps suggest that there are people out there, thinking the same things, if not just down the street, then certainly no more than a text message away. At weddings we gather our people together in order to watch the marital analogue of the Proteus sail away. Like Greely, we reflect afterward that we are glad that it’s gone. We look forward to stability, constancy, and a future that lacks some of the uncertainties that, prior to marriage, we had been living with. We passed the audition; we got the part. We’ve found the moment that we want to live in, and we’ve decided, together, to get down to the legitimate work. And then we become distracted. When a moment becomes uncomfortable, there are so many alternate realities that we can imagine and ruminate on. “Until death do us part” morphs into “what if?” Seeking a city of refuge becomes less daunting than facing the challenges we’re presented with.

When I mentioned Greely in counselling I was wondering what life would be like if we didn’t have any what ifs. If we could focus on the moment in front of us, free of the ships nagging us from the harbour, and face it alone knowing that it’s our lives that we’re saving. Without the “what if?” would we be able to address our problems more functionally? In the absence of escape clauses, would we settle down and focus on our legitimate work? For all his faults, I’m inclined to think that Greely was right, and that we could, and that we would.

The problem, sadly, is that Greely’s story doesn’t end there. In July of 1882, the ship that was supposed to bring supplies for the second year was unable to make it through the ice that blocked the way north. People in Washington became distracted with an election, and a war, and other things crowded in. Greely and his crew look to the sea expecting something, yet they see nothing.

In July of 1883, the Proteus heads north again with supplies, but is crushed in ice and sinks in Smith Sound. Greely and his crew head south in search of provisions, travelling in small boats that had only been intended for use gathering information near the camp, never for a voyage on the arctic sea. After 51 days, they arrive at Eskimo Point, having survived most of the journey atop an ice floe. They are excited when they get there, assuming that rescue parties are nearby. But they aren’t. The truth settles in when a few members of the crew travel north to Cape Sabine in search of supplies and find there written documents telling of the fate of the two previous supply ships. It’s now a year after the Proteus was crushed, and it’s the first news they have from the outside world since they first arrived in the far north. What they don’t realize is that no further rescue attempts have been made or planned. They would assume that someone is coming, that they haven’t been forgotten. But they have been forgotten. Or, if not forgotten, then abandoned. That winter, members of the crew begin to die of starvation. Out of hunger and desperation, they begin cannibalizing each other. The success of the first year of the expedition was, entirely understandably, upstaged by the punishing reality of the second and the third.

greely_timeline_8408In time, loved ones raised an alarum, as well as funds, and a competent rescue effort is launched. For most of the team, however, it’s too late. Only six people would survive the expedition. They are greeted with a hero’s welcome, though public perception changes abruptly once the more details of their three-year ordeal become common knowledge. Twelve days after the survivors arrived in St. John’s, the New York Times reported, if not the full details, then certainly enough of them:

“When their food gave out the unfortunate members of the colony, shivering and starving in their little tent on the bleak shore of Smith’s Sound, were led by the horrible necessity to become cannibals. The complete history of their experience in that terrible Winter must be told, and the facts hitherto concealed will make the record of the Greely colony — already full of horrors — the most dreadful and repulsive chapter in the long annals of arctic exploration.”

Nevertheless, in time Greely goes on to other work. President Grover Cleveland appointed him Chief Signal Officer, and in that role he planned and administered the creation of thousands of miles of telegraph wire. Later appointed a General, he administered aid in the aftermath of the Great San Francisco Earthquake. He represented the United States Army at the coronation of King George V. He was awarded the presidential medal of honour during the same ceremony as Charles Lindberg. Life isn’t just another arctic expedition, after all. It’s an attempt at a new science of the world.


Winning Entry, Massey Lectures contest

Margaret MacMillan’s 2015 CBC Massey Lectures were about people who have left a mark on their own time, and on ours. Inspired by the lectures, listeners were asked: Who you think will be most remembered fifty years from now? Who will have the greatest impact on our times, and on the future? 

We love firsts, and we have a habit of committing them to both our personal and cultural memories. No one remembers the second man to step on the moon, or to circumnavigate the globe, or whoever might have sailed the ocean blue in 1493 …

The next big first, it seems, could well be a human mission to Mars, and whomever sets foot there first is quite likely alive right now. If Barak Obama and Charles Bolden’s suggestion of 2030 as the year we place the first footprint on the red planet, then the person who puts it there is certainly alive now. I’d like to think that she’s a girl, busily looking at bugs, or painting a picture of a flower. I’d like her to be a person of colour, any colour at all, but whichever colour it is, when her portrait is placed on the wall the other firsts, I hope she broadens our sense of who we are, all of us, down here on earth. I hope that, unlike the people that we see these days clamouring to go to Mars, she won’t approach the mission cynically: she’ll want to go, and she’ll want to come home, too. She’ll know that it’s not just about where we go, it’s also about connecting with where we come from, rather than thumbing our nose at it. I hope that she’ll distinguish herself a bit from the other firsts, approaching hers with grace and humility rather than bravado and hubris, and that we’ll have cause to remember her not just for what she did but also for the way in which she did it.

She’s out there somewhere. I hope. If so, then she’s the one that we’ll remember, and we’ll all be the richer for it. ♦

—Glen Herbert

Doodling with Darwin’s children

by Glen Herbert

Charles Darwin is the father of natural selection, but he was also the father of ten children, eight of whom survived infancy. Three of his surviving sons were knighted, and the fourth was no slouch either. They all succeeded in science and flourished in life, and given what we know about the kind of father that Darwin was — devoted, attentive, patient, caring, giving — much of their success was a result of the kind of man that Darwin was.

Still, for all of the knighthoods, the accolades, the important work and kind deeds, there is no greater testament to the life of the father and his children than what you would see were you to go to the library at the Unversity of Cambridge and ask to see Darwin’s draft for “On the Origin of Species.” It was a monumental work in ways that other monumental works…

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Ralph Waldo Emerson on living with intent

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Living with intent may prove to be the coin of the year, bumping mindfulness out of the bestseller lists. Both, of course–and indeed all the other topics under “well-being” at the bookstore–are attempts at answering a question that has long been with us: How do we live better?

While popular authors suggest journaling, or leaving your phone at home, Ralph Waldo Emerson approached the question with a bit of a stronger bite. In his essay “Self-Reliance” he is at risk of coming across as a wicked schoolmarm: Accept your place, don’t hide in the corner, work hard, listen to the voices you hear in the chaos, the dark, and the solitude. He writes that “truth is handsomer than the affectation of love,” and it’s hard not to believe that he wrote that without ever having experienced Tinder. He tells us that, in life, what we must do is all that concerns us…

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Making moonshine with Roger Lee “Buck” Nance

 by Glen Herbert

“Listen,” says Nance. “It sounds like rain on a roof.” And it really does. Large vats line the room, each filled with a roiling mixture of grain and yeast. The gas being released as bubbles is responsible for the sound and the smell, which is somewhere between beer and bread and turpentine.

5500816b00316-1.image On the right is Buck Nance standing next to one of the tanks that he made by hand. A professional welder, he made everything within the distillery by hand–tanks, pipes, coils–with the exception of the furnace. 

It’s an attractive facility, miles away conceptually and physically from the clandestine stills that come to mind whenever we think of moonshine. The Copper Barrel Distillery, which opened its doors this past April, is a boutique on par with the micro-wineries of Napa Valley. The building, once home to a furniture manufacturer, has been restored to bring out its…

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(For an online ancillary to the Harbrace Handbook for Canadians, 6th edition. )

Jack Kerouac is said to have written the entire manuscript for his novel On the Road at a single sitting, all improvised around a few set themes not unlike a jazz musician building on a set melody or chord progression. The manuscript itself seems to support this idea: created in just three weeks, it is a single piece of paper—a r0ll of shelving paper—120 feet long, and written entirely without paragraph breaks. Few revisions were made to the manuscript prior to publication apart from the creation of paragraphs and the correction of typos. Once published, On the Road became a bestseller and, arguably, was a turning point in the development of the twentieth century American novel.

As nice an image as this is, there are indications that it is not entirely true. The scroll manuscript exists, but the process of creation is debatable. While Kerouac himself perpetuated the idea of extemporaneous creation, others who knew him at the time add a bit more to the story, as did Kerouac himself in later interviews. In actual fact, Kerouac was a prodigious note-keeper, working and reworking ideas in a notebook or on bits of paper, that he would then arrange and rearrange. Most of the planning and drafting, we can infer, happened long before he ever fed the shelf paper into the typewriter.

This draft, by Isaac Newton for his work Religion gives a better sense of what drafting is really all about. The manuscript shows countless revisions, many in different inks, made over an extended period of time. Above all, Newton wanted to be understood as clearly as possible, especially in light of the fact that his ideas were often at odds with the accepted truths of the day. His desire was to communicate complicated ideas as precisely as possible and, as a result, the manuscript has many signs of his labour. The result was a publication able to bear critical scrutiny.

Most writing assignments you will be given during your student career will require the same kind of attention and organization which, like Newton and others, is conducted in an awareness of your audience, your writing form, and what you are hoping to communicate.

Brainstorming and freewriting are two good strategies for jumping in. As in the example from Louis Dudek’s draft of Atlantis, the early planning is often the most creative and most fun part of the writing process. With the goal of simply getting some ideas down on paper, your drafting doesn’t need to follow any narrative patterns or, as in Dudek’s example, even be words and phrases—if a doodle helps you get the ideas flowing, so much the better. Here Dudek uses a drawing of his topic, and octopus, as a framework for clustering a draft of the poem. (See pages 5 and 6 in Checkmate for a more detailed look at clustering.)

George Bowering’s drafts from the notebook for His Life, A Poem, are more traditional. The collection was awarded the Governor General’s Award in 2000.

David Hodgins’ and Carol Shields’ manuscripts are organized and easy to follow, in part because the authors left space around the text and between the lines for handwritten notes and edits.

Carol Shields The Stone Diaries was written on a typewriter and then edited by hand. Shields notes that, when writing, she works to produce only 2-3000 words each day, and will stop writing when she reaches that, no matter how long it has taken, or how engaged with the writing she is. The Stone Diaries, won numerous awards, including the Booker Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.

Albert Einstein’s draft for his Special Theory of Relativity (1912) is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History.

Mark Twain drafted a dramatization of Tom Sawyer, though the play never received the same critical attention as his novel.

Even Beethoven had to make drafts and revisions. His draft of the Emperor Concerto script shows signs be being written quickly, and then adjusted just as quickly.

Some writing is so familiar, it seems strange that it was ever written, edited, or revised. However, from this draft of the US Declaration of Independence, we see that Thomas Jefferson originally wrote “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” but later changed it to “we hold these truths to be self evident.”

All of these examples show that writing is a process and, no matter your level of expertise, drafting can be difficult and, at times, somewhat ungainly. They also show that drafting is personal, authors working in a way that best suits their needs and the demands of the content. Ultimately, taking time to draft is not only unavoidable, it’s the task of writing itself.

Being Noah Richler

Noah Richler’s blog regarding Jian Ghomeshi’s arrogance is informed, comically, by his own over-arching arrogance. The article is about him, and how he never succumbed. How he’s so above all this kind of thing, so immune to all the things that others so easily fall prey to. Hmm.

My one interaction with Richler was a call he made to me about an intern position at, while it hadn’t yet been named, the National Post. He said “I’m calling from the new Conrad Black paper” or something like that, to which I said “Okay.” It could have been a polling company calling for all I knew. Well, that’s the only word I ever said to him. He went off like a rocket, saying that he’d expect more enthusiasm than that from someone who wanted to work at the paper, blah, blah, blah. And then he hung up. Needless to say, if I’d only told him to hold the line for a moment as I seemed to have peed my pants in excitement, I may well be working there today. Instead, he trashed someone that he perceived was beneath him, or who wasn’t appropriately impressed to be receiving a call from a Richler. I never got an interview — which is why I suspect he may have been calling — or an internship.

He says that his first reaction to the Ghomeshi story was “pity.” Balls it was. He’s just zigging when others are zagging in order to imply distance and wisdom. Further, who cares what he felt? What possible interest could it be to me or indeed any of the others who read this piece? Yes, it’s a blog, so it doesn’t require any journalistic integrity, or so the thinking goes. But The Star published it, so I would think that they’d feel the same standards should be kept in all aspects of the brand, both print and digital. Perhaps they do, sadly. Richler, as much as Ghomeshi or anyone who has found success in journalism in the past decade, is wise enough to know that the story, above all, has to be about him. Certainly his surname doesn’t hurt either.

Humility, sensitivity, massive egos—change the names and the article could be about Richler himself. Those half-hearted feints at modesty are achingly transparent. He talked to a woman to help him understand!? Gee, what a nice idea. I hope he didn’t talk down to her, though the fact that he calls her “a very bright young woman in her 20s” feels a bit backhanded. Would he refer to a man in the same way? I doubt it. He finds that being both a woman and bright is worthy of remark, and indeed, I guess that’s why he remarks on it.

I don’t know what Richler does in his bedroom, but I know what he does on the phone. As he says about Ghomeshi: What a charmer.

A room of their own

Published in Penguin Eggs, issue #63, Autumn 2014

73608782f50eb6af17bb69bdcd662692_LIf you’ve never lived in Toronto, it’s safe to say that you’ve never heard of the Tranzac Club. Then again, that’s safe to say even if you have lived in Toronto. It began life in 1931 as the Toronto Australia New Zealand Club (TRANZAC) to support Australian and New Zealand Culture in Toronto. It did that, and a lot else, too. In the 1970s it became home to Friends of Fiddlers Green, a folk music club, and soon became a venue for seemingly anyone who needed a place to play. Today it’s as much a fixture of the city as the pigeons roosting on the head of King Edward VII in Queen’s Park.

And, still, it makes no sense at all. It’s hard to describe the building, screened by trees just off Queen Street West. The entry is papered with photocopies shilling fringe theatre and Reg Hartt film festivals. The tables don’t match, and the bar is real wood only because, when it was made, they all were. The rooms are set about like a warren—the Tiki Room, the Main Hall, The Southern Cross Lounge—with the larger one in the back for bigger things, like fringe theatre, and the Zine Library, and the Chris Langan Branch of the Ceoltóiri Éireann Traditional Music Weekend.

It’s dark, the floor creaks, and there’s no cover and no food that I recall beyond the bags of chips hanging on a rack behind the bar. And yet, I’m not sure if you could find a place in Canada that has had as large an impact in the world of roots, folk, and acoustic music. We often make statements like that, but I honestly don’t feel I’m knitting anything here. Quietly, and for decades, the Tranzac has provided a focal point for a range of musicians that are as improbable as they are delightful.

I was living in Toronto in the early 00s and then, as now, they had music every night of the week. Lit only by a few incandescent bulbs, Wednesday night was Gypsy Jazz night, typically with four or five guys playing petit bouche guitars, expertly, and singing in French or Roma or whatever it was. It was mind-boggling. I had no idea where you could get a petit bouche, let alone find someone to play one with. But there they were.

Thursday, as now, was bluegrass night. Some nights, snow flying outside the window behind the band, I’d be the only one there aside from the bartender and the band. I didn’t know of any of the players, not then, but I do now. Chances are good that you do as well. Doug Paisley sang and played guitar, Andrew Collins played mandolin, and Marc Roy played guitar and fiddle and mandolin. At the time, none had made any recordings, though all of them have now. Roy has been named the Central Canadian Bluegrass Guitar Player of the year five times, mandolin player of the year once, and two years ago was inducted into their hall of fame. Collins was named mandolin player of the year five times, and went on to form the Creeking Tree String Quartet. Today Doug Paisley is known for his songwriting, as on his newest release, Strong Feelings which is out this year. He’s been reviewed by Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, where Sasha Frere-Jones called him “a quiet wonder.”

At the Tranzac, though, it was different. “It was just exciting,” says Andrew Collins. “It was fun and exciting without any forethought on how to make any of it work. It was just focused on the playing, and improving the level of music, and being surrounded by people that shared that drive. … It was all just friends who had a mutual interest.”

One night Paisley noted over the mic that Roy had turned 19 that week and was now legally allowed into bars. That he was so young was the least of it. Roy was astonishing in every way: beautiful rhythm, blistering runs, and an otherworldly confidence. I approached him on a few occasions, though it seemed that he didn’t really speak. He’d mumble something, look at the floor or to the left, as if expecting something.

As impressed as I was, I didn’t realize how good they really were. In Canada, bluegrass has all the gravity of a secret handshake; it’s just not a musical language that we understand, nor is it one that we typically have much access to.

“In retrospect,” says Collins, “the nice thing was that there was no void waiting for us to fill. You have to go out there and make people know that you exist and perform and get your music out there some how. Even though we were in a vacuum of this kind of music, that was in some ways an advantage because we were also educating people [who might] discover that they really like bluegrass music, but we were the access point so in some ways it elevates us in stature because, for those people, we were their starting point.”

I, frankly, was one of them. Over time I began to recognize some of the other people who came in to watch from time to time, and so many of them were musicians themselves. Chris Coole, Chris Quinn, John Showman, Dan Whitely, Max Heinemann—after sets at the raucous Silver Dollar, where bluegrass was accepted as a novelty more than as something to be honestly appreciated, they came to the Tranzac, perhaps sitting in, perhaps not. It was quieter, and if the audience was smaller, it nevertheless was less oiled and more knowledgeable. It was perhaps the one place in town where bluegrass, consistently, was not a joke.

At the heart of it, these were young people making music—they weren’t trying to advance a career, or sell tickets and recordings, and the stress that comes from music as a life, rather than an activity, hadn’t yet set in. “There is a lot of work required to make a living doing what you love,” admits Collins, something he would learn all too well in time. It was different. There weren’t the fireworks of Collins’ Creaking Tree Quartet, or the need to be unique within a crowded singer-songwriter market. It wasn’t Appalachia, or a job. It wasn’t a festival, or a contest, or a project. It was just music. And, tucked away in Toronto, they were free.

Through this life, part 1

“When I left I had no idea whatsoever, no inkling at all, that anyone else would ever follow me. So when I said goodbye, it was goodbye forever.” That was 1954. Herbert Gerber was 19 years old and had inherited his father’s determination as well as his destination: Canada. It was English speaking, didn’t have a draft. But he wasn’t running to something. Herbert was, in every sense, running away.

“The older I got, the more I could see that I had no future [in Germany]. It was before the East Germans built the wall, so the border was still a little bit porous. I applied for a visitors exit visa for four weeks to visit my relatives in west Germany. I went and I just didn’t come back.”

Maybe he’d like the story to be that simple: just leaving, not going back. “But it wasn’t as easy as that. I was staying with my uncle, and after I was there for a couple of weeks I got a letter from my mother saying I should come back immediately because if I don’t they’re going to hold it against my father and jail him. … After a couple days thinking about it, I decided I would not go back. But I sat down and wrote a letter to the city hall telling them that my intentions are to stay longer than my visa allowed me and that they shouldn’t hold it against me. I said that I wanted to continue my education, etc. etc. etc. And apparently that helped. They never approached my parents at all.”

Gerber Family Schneeberg - Growing Up



In his book, In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson notes that through his research he was left with questions about what Berlin—the setting for his book—was like prior to the Second World War, or even prior to the rise of Hitler. We know a lot about the city during the war and after the war, though very little about the daily life of the citizens within the city in the mid to late 20s, a period of relative calm. Berlin, of course, didn’t survive the war in any recognizable way, and it provides an analogue for the county as a whole: more than thirty percent of the buildings of were left in rubble and a great percentage more were damaged beyond repair by the Allied bombing raids; the population was left confused and disoriented and divided by both geography and ideology. The city, and the country, as it was between the wars simply no longer exists.

Searching online for documents, photos—anything that could fill in some of the blanks—Larson found a film called Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt directed by Walter Ruttmann. It’s silent, and seems fittingly so. It shows a day in the life of Berlin in the spring of 1927, the year the film was made and first shown. After an arty prologue, and a simulation of a sunrise, we see a commuter train rolling past country homes as it approaches Berlin. The rest of the film is a montage of images: children arriving at school, shopkeepers opening their shops, salesmen hawking wares on the street. A new day begins and ends. In all, it comprises the most complete portrait we have of the quotidian life of the city during peacetime between the wars.

Today Ruttmans’ Berlin is inevitably viewed through a different lens: less as a film and more as an historical document. Watching it, we know that it is a portrait of a city and a way of life that is about to be erased. (Even the subtitle, sometimes translated as “a Symphony of a Great City” is freighted with meanings it didn’t have at the time the film was made.) The people, the buildings, the things, the sense of purpose—none of it will survive the war intact. Many people in the film didn’t survive the war at all. The lovers, chatting in the street, perhaps were parted, or fled; or maybe they endured the war in Berlin, surviving only with the scars of memory.  The children will now have grown up in a world that their parents couldn’t possibly imagine. Many of the windows were smashed, the shops looted. But here, on a sunny day in 1927, the citizens are as calm as anyone would be on a spring day in any developed city anywhere in the world. A woman walks past with a tennis racket; the animals loll in the zoo. Students arrive at school; a man has a lunch of sausage and beer; a shopkeeper mops the walk in front of his store.

For the people living in the city, everything in 1927 was strikingly normal. Watching the movie now, it is ominously so. We know that, even then, the world was already changing. The government of Germany was losing power. The Nazi Party was nearing its tenth birthday, and it had been five years since the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s first frenzied grab at political power.  In two years a referendum would disrupt the government, and in six years, Hitler would become chancellor of a national coalition government.  While the people we see in the film couldn’t have known it, the country and its people were already on a crash course with the 20th century.


One of the people living in Berlin in 1927, the year Ruttman made his film, was Maria Rosa Magdelena Eimeke. While she’d only been living there a short time, she no doubt would have appreciated the relative calm that we see reflected in the film. She had lived through the first world war, and while she didn’t know it, within a few years she would be married and into the second. Her life was defined—as it is just for us—by her context, that of uncertainty, an understanding of poverty, and war.

Born in 1904, she was 23 and had arrived in Berlin on her own in order to gain independence as well as a bit of stability, something she had had very little of in her life. She had only ever lived in Germany, though in her short life she had already lived through three very distinct iterations of the country: the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and the first rumblings of the Third Reich. Her parents were both gardeners, though her father left when Maria was just a year old. Quite literally, he was there one day, and the next he wasn’t. “The whole town helped to search the woods and to drain the ponds,” Maria recalled. He left a note wishing them well and asking them to be good to one another, which sounded a lot like the suicide note. Hence the draining of the ponds. He wasn’t found, or at least not immediately, though he later remarried and lived into his 80s.

Maria never knew her father beyond recognizing his face. There is no indication that she ever heard the sound of his voice. She talks about him in her memoir, though nowhere offers us his first name. She believed that he left her mother “without any excuse” though it’s understandable that she was likely never given a clear accounting of the circumstances. Late in life she wrote a kind of letter to him—he was long dead at that point, so it was more an exercise than a letter, a chance for her to imagine what she might have said to him if she had had the chance. The facts drift free of an objective foundation, and the tone of the letter is disbelief and exasperation. “My father!” is placed as a sentence, and a paragraph, unto itself, two words and an exclamation point that sit on the page like a lead weight. The one memory that she tells about (and quite possibly her own memory of him) is of walking down the street one day when he turned out of a side street directly in front of her. “It was as if I had seen a lion on the loose. I rushed back home in a panic and was inconsolable … I wept bitterly because of the encounter.” It was the last time she ever saw him.

If we take her at her word, she sent many letters to him over the course of decades, even sending a gift when his wife died, though only one reply was ever received: a note expressing regret that he had not been a father to her. (Where would she possibly have found his mailing address?)

As an infant Maria was cared for by her maternal grandparents, the Goldmans, while her older brother, Helmut, lived with their mother. In time Rosa found a position as a housekeeper at nursery in Thüringen and Maria was taken to live with her. She was six and approached the reunion “in a very festive spirit. I loved both of my grandparents very much, and now I would be seeing my mother as well.” On arrival that day she happily found that her mother was living in a large, stately home on a street lined with mature chestnut trees. She was amazed by the parquet flooring and by “a solid swing on thick ropes which stood in the wide hallway.”

Her memories of that day remained vivid for the rest of her life, including how quickly the air of festivity dissipated. She was reunited with her brothers—both of whom she couldn’t have known well—and met Uncle Julius Thalacker, an “uncle” only by virtue of his romantic relationship with her mother. They weren’t married, didn’t live together, yet had a child together, Bernhard. “I found it difficult to greet this new uncle who was not my papa,” Maria writes. “I had many silent struggles in my childish heart.” One of them—again, she was just six years old at this point—was the fear of abandonment. After her grandparents departed she felt their absence deeply. Her brothers took her dolls and claimed them for their own. Whether it was the dolls, or the grandparents, or the parquet flooring, or whatever fantasies she had to relinquish, she began to wrestle with the pressing need to acclimate to a new family and a new life. For six years, in all practical terms, she had been an only child in a stable home. Now there were more relationships to parse and to negotiate—she was a sister, a daughter, and soon to be a stepdaughter to a man she, ultimately, would never learn to trust. All that, plus the lack of attention: “Mother was [the] breadwinner now and didn’t have much time for us children.” Her brothers provided much of the day-to-day care, from seeing that she got to school on time and home again. They also provided a sense of support and consistency while their lives—dependably, at least—continued along in a state of flux.

It’s hard to know how involved Thalacker as in all of this, though in Maria’s hands he seems fairly enigmatic. He had traveled, once living in Buffalo, NY, for a period of years, before returning to Germany. He spoke English fluently and attempted to teach the language to his children and grandchildren. He met Rosa at the nursery in Thuringen, where he leased land in support of his landscaping business. When the widow who owned the nursery remarried, the property was sold. At a stroke Thalacker lost the land and the means of his livelihood. Rosa and her children lost a home and a means of support.

Maria’s parents’ separation and divorce, Rosa’s employment, her undefined relationship with Thalaker, having a child out of wedlock—any one of those things would have been highly conspicuous for the time. Divorce was rare, and most women worked in the home. Seemingly undaunted, Rosa approached life as the challenge it was, and met adversity with decisiveness and fierce independence. When the nursery was sold, she decided to find work in a laundry in a nearby city. She found and apartment there and booked passage for her and the children on a train, and may have already found a job. Then Thalaker proposed, and it’s tantalizing to wonder what took him so long. Maria’s justification of his motive isn’t very flattering: “He had gotten so used to mother running his household and the nursery, that he suddenly realized ‘How am I supposed to get along somewhere else without this woman?’” Rosa accepted.

Maria describes it as beautiful a beautiful event, though her feelings toward Thalacker remained unchanged. “Mother often told us that he did love us a lot, but I had reservations about how strict he could be, and I worried about how he would deal with us in the future.” She knew from experience the kind of thing that she could expect. When her brother fell into a bucket of water, Thalaker removed him with one hand and beat him roundly with the other. “My heart wept at the sight. How can a poor boy be beaten after he had had such an accident?”

After the wedding, the family moved to a village with a population of 3000 to establish their own nursery—a move that Roas approached, says Maria, “in her usual courageous manner.” Courageous, yes, though unfortunately it wasn’t the wisest location for a business. Though Thalaker built a sign to place at the road, the property wasn’t anything resembling a major thoroughfare and they struggled to find customers. Maria sold forget-me-nots at market and helped make wreathes for the graves of the soldiers lost in the war. The business of mourning kept them in the black, a testament to the devastation that the war brought to the population of Europe and the world.

Kaiser Wilhem II and the King of England, two cousins at war


“A notice went out that the king was coming.” It was 1910 or so and the king was Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and leader of the German Empire since his coronation in 1888. He was a visible, handsome, impressively dressed figurehead. When he toured Thüringen, everyone went out to greet his motorcade, including young Maria and her grandmother. “People were standing several rows deep along the streets,” Maria writes. “Grandmother stood at the garden fence on top of a big barrel.” As the car slowly passed by, she threw a bouquet of flowers, hitting the king on the head. In acknowledgement, and no doubt a bit of ire—there is no mention of a smile in either of the two accounts that Maria wrote down—he turned and nodded. “That was a big event in my youth,” she writes. “Grandmother was very proud of it, too.”

Thüringen was part of the German Empire, a collection of 27 territories that were unified in 1871, creating the German Empire under the leadership of Prussia. It ways, truly, a mixed bag: 4 kingdoms, 6 grand duchies, 6 duchies, 7 principalities, 3 free hanseatic cities, and one imperial territory. Most were lead by royal families and all fell under the leadership of the king, and unification took place on January 18, 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors within the Palace of Versailles.

When his son, Wilhelm II, was crowned in 1888, the German Empire was a force in Europe like no other. A hotbed of innovation, it led Europe and the world in industry, science, and technological development. It had the second largest navy in the world, the world’s strongest army, and the fastest-growing industrial base. By the outset of World War I, the empire would be home to more Nobel Prize laureates than Britain, France, Russia and the United States combined. The successes in technology, industry, and science, it was thought, were little more than a taste of what was still to come.

The reason for all that prosperity, perhaps more than anything else, was the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Though the empire was a monarchy, during his reign Emperor Wilhelm I wisely placed the responsibilities of running the state in the hands of his Chancellor. Bismarck was a normalizing influence. He brought an end to the culture war, the product of a hornet’s nest of competing religious, national, royal, and democratic argument. He refocused the government around a policy of revolutionary conservatism, and he created the world’s first system of state sponsored welfare. He was praised as a hero for unifying the empire around a singular vision and for being a moderate leader in Europe—one of few at the time. Historian Eric Hobsbawm writes that Bismarck “remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [and] devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers.” His policies and his leadership created an environment in which the army, the bureaucracy, and the standard of living of the German population continued to grow. With it grew the respect of Europe and the world.

And then came Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was proclaimed emprorer after his father, Frederick III, died of throat cancer just 99 days after taking the throne. For the people of Germany, the Wilhelm II was a point of light, a restatement of the power of a historical, storied and once powerful monarchy—the Prussian House of Hohenzollern—that had been active for more than 900 years. Wilhelm was also undeniably well connected. His grandmother was Queen Victoria, and he was cousin to Tzar Nicholas, who was at that time in power in Russia. He was a Royal in every conceivable way, and in a range of uniforms—feathered helmets, flowing capes and presentation swords—he looked the part.

The one thing he lacked, unfortunately, was the slightest ability to organize a government and lead a country. Wilhelm had been educated, though the focus was on horsemanship—his mother felt a great leader needed to be, above all, a great rider. Due to Erb’s palsy, a chronic illness affecting his left arm, riding was a challenge that would take him years of effort to overcome. His memories of his early education consisted of falling off a horse repeatedly, only to be put back by his tutor and told to try again.

As king he lacked entirely the kind of diplomatic impulse that had been so successful in Germany under Bismarck’s leadership. Wilhelm was cantankerous, emotionally unstable, and he felt no need to consult with his ministers on any of the issues that came before him. Wilhelm idolized his grandfather to a fault, and a priority of his was to foster a military cult of personality around him, casting him as “Wilhelm the Great.” He was a bull that came with its own china shop. Two years into his reign he dismissed Bismarck and launched what he called a “New Course” in foreign policy. Regrettably, it truly was. His support of Austria-Hungary lit a fuse that led to the crisis of July 1914 that, in turn, initiated the First World War.

German air pioneer Felix Laitsch flying his Albatros airplane, Berlin, 1911


It seemed even then–as through so much of Maria’s life–that the major events of the world were never all that far away. The Kaiser drove past her house and, in 1911, an airplane flew in the sky above it, this just seven years after the Wright’s historic flight at Kitty Hawk. The plane that Maria saw was flown by one of the earliest pioneers of German aviation. At that point, that’s all there was.

As her life went on, she continued to bump into history. She lived through World War I, and the hardships and privations that made life difficult during the war only increased afterward. Severe food shortages and the hyperinflation of the German currency were part of the experience of living in a country that had lost the war and which was roundly condemned by neighboring countries. The end of the war brought a debilitating financial depression to Germany as well as a loss of purpose in the minds of its population. The great successes that the country felt under the leadership of von Bismarck, and the pride that came with them, were now a distant memory.

The uncertainties of her early life—her parents’ separation, the moves and the repeated disruption of family life—reflected the uncertainties of life throughout Germany at the time. By the early 1930s it may have seemed that things were beginning to settle out, both for the country and for Maria herself. In 1931 she was 27 years old and working in a flower shop in Berlin when her boss showed her an ad in the paper. “Read this,” the boss told her, “This is for you!” It began, “Truly sincere Christian lady to marry professional flower designer … .” It wasn’t an announcement, but a personal ad from a man seeking a wife. It asked that a photo be sent and, while Maria first chuckled and acted uninterested, she sent one, along with her particulars, to Herbert Gerber of Schneeberg, a rural town in Saxony. No sooner was the letter in the mail that she had second thoughts and scrambled to send another letter after the first asking Herbert to, well, forget about it and to please send back the photo. He did send back the photo, but he otherwise wasn’t willing to let things go so easily. He sent his own photo along with a formal letter of greeting. “What a man!” was Maria’s private response when seeing the photo, though outwardly she continued to be coy. Seven letters brought Herbert words of kind rebuff, though he likely saw them for what they were, namely an attempt to turn the dynamic of the thing, making him the pursuer instead of the pursuant. Satisfied with this epistolary pas de deux, Maria consented to have Herbert visit her in Berlin.

The visit was awkward (how couldn’t it be?) and while the details may be disputed, in every version is the sense that neither knew quite what to do with their hands. They walked and talked, they sat and talked, and the day went well. Herbert later said that he had decided not to make any decisions that day, though it seems that Maria thought the meeting implied a decision, and was surprised that he didn’t feel the same way. Years later, she regretted that she hadn’t been more forthright that day, perhaps to the point of kissing him goodbye at the train station.

In any event, the relationship moved forward in a twinkling. They next met in Schneeberg, and a photo survives from that day. In it Maria and Herbert stand self-consciously apart from each other. He’s in his best, she’s in a shapeless dress. Looking at the photo it’s easy to wonder what was going through their heads, what promise the meeting held, or what each felt the relationship could provide them. They seem happy enough, though in the way that strangers do, hoping to make a good impression without giving away too much of themselves. Whatever they were thinking—in truth, both of them were most likely pondering some fairly utilitarian thoughts about their goals and the means of achieving them, and Maria trying to remember the names of all the family she’d met—they were married within the year and took up residence on the family property in Schneeberg.[1]

Schneeberg was a day’s drive and otherwise a world away from Ruttman’s Great City. For more than 500 years the town has existed on the proceeds of the minerals that were mined there, which included silver, cobalt, and bismuth. The population was proud of their history, their relative wealth, and how those things were represented in the world around them. St. Wolfgang’s Church in Schneeberg—later known as the “Miners’ Cathedral” (Bergmannsdom)—is one of the largest late Gothic churches in Germany. It was built between 1516 and 1540. Inside is an altar painted by by Lucas Cranach the elder, considered one of the most important works of art in Saxony. As well, Robert Schumann, the composer, visited Clara Weick at an apartment in Schneeberg, continuing a secret relationship (her father didn’t wish her to “throw herself away on a penniless composer”) that lead to their marriage in 1840 and all that music Schumann wrote for her.

Still, that wasn’t the Schneeberg that Maria encountered on arrival, nor was it the Schneeberg that Herbert knew. Since the mid-19th century, industry had slowed and shifted to more established technological centres. (The population of Schneeberg today is only slightly greater than it was the day that Maria arrived for the first time.) It was an isolated working class town in a country that had shifted its focus from rural to urban life. At the time, Germany was the height of modernity, and lead the world in seemingly every way. The country was home to more Nobel laureates than France, Britain, the United States, and Russia combined.

None of them, though, were in Schneeberg. Thanks to the Kaiser’s hand in sparking World War I, the town was becoming a sleepy backwater, far from the culture that was nevertheless not more than a day’s drive away. To add further insult, it was also located in a country that, itself, had become isolated from the surrounding European community.

While he didn’t say it in the ad, Herbert must have felt keenly the lack of opportunity and energy within his hometown.He was a young man interested shaking the dirt of Schneeberg off his boots. He wanted in a better life, or at least a different life, and he was willing to go to some length to achieve it. A year earlier he had successfully sought the documents necessary to immigrate to Canada, and he was planning his getaway when fate threw a wrench in the works: the property where his father had been leasing space came up for sale. His father, wittingly or unwittingly, gave him an ultimatum: if you stay I’ll buy the property; if you don’t, I’ll let it go. Herbert stayed.

It was 1930, the beginning of the most tumultuous decade in German history. By the end of it Herbert would be in Siberia fighting within an army he didn’t support wondering if he’d ever see Schneeberg again. Robert, no doubt, was left to regret not letting his son go when he had the chance.

With the one possible exception of her grandfather Goldman, Maria grew up without a wealth of positive male role models. Her biological father was predatory, and Julius proved to be so as well. When Julius made a sexual advance, Maria set out on her own, ultimately working at that flower shop in Berlin.

That response was in keeping with the women who were closest to her. Rosa was a self-starter, comporting herself with confidence and determination, able to efficiently make difficult decisions. Clearly, though times were a lot different than they are now, she wasn’t a shrinking violet, and remained that way throughout her entire life. In her 80s, and staying with family in Canada, she decided to set out to visit the neigbours on the next farm over. Rather than walk the road, she went overland as the crow flies. When she didn’t arrive at the neighbours, and also was gone long enough to incite worry, a search party was sent out. They found her trying to get over a stone wall, though had gotten stuck there.

With perhaps a few lapses in wisdom along the way, Rosa was a leader, not a follower just as her grandmother, Johanne Theone, had been. Born in 1822 and Theone was (what else?) a gardener. After her husband died when she was 43, she raised her children alone, running her own business in order to support them. Though Maria never knew her, the description she gives is revealing, in any case, of the kinds of values that Maria prized. “I don’t have any other information about her,” Maria writes, “neither diary or letters, but I feel something very definite when I look at her. I feel that she and I are connected at a very personal level. In solitary moments, I give her credit for many of the traits that I recognize as flowing through my veins.” Independence, stamina, knowing the value of hard work, a commitment to bringing joy to others—those are the values that would continue to define her life.


Melita Maschmann was a teenager in Germany in the 1930s and supported the government even during the war. One of the reasons was a story that she told about the beginning of the war, where the news reported that 60 000 Germans had been killed by angry Polish people within the boundaries of Poland. The killings were believed to be vicious, and to people like Maschmann it was clear that they amounted to a declaration of war. (If I told you that 60 000 Canadians were murdered somewhere in the world, that would disgust you, too. The attack on the World Trade Centres in 2001 took 6000 lives, and it prompted war. We can understand why, perhaps, though time has a trick of making those kinds of feelings more complicated. Often we want to fight, though it can become unclear, after a while, just what we are fighting for and how it can help.)

The rest of the world understood those same events in a very different light. There were Germans killed in Poland, though the correct number was 6000. They had attacked Poland at the command of their leader, not the other way around, and more Poles were killed in the battle than Germans.

But Maschmann didn’t know that. She only knew what she was able to know, namely whatever the news in the papers told her. She, and indeed many others, had difficulty believing that the government would want to fool them, or lie to them, and we have those kinds of feelings too. If we get a traffic ticket, we pay it; if there is an election called, we vote. We carry on in the belief that our government is, for the most part, operating in our interest, and we follow the. When the light is red, we stop, even if there is no one around for miles. We just trust that there are rules, and we feel it is best of follow them in the belief that the rules are created for the good.

Germans were no different, by and large, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. They felt about their world much the same that we feel about ours. They weren’t overly political, and probably thought more about dinner than they did philosophy or politics. They were also proud, which was complicated by their experience of World War I and its aftermath. There was poverty after the war, and the outside world, so many Germans felt, was overly harsh with them, unwilling to see the good things about Germany, only the bad.

It’s also true that Hitler, as late as 1937, was still considered by US policymakers as a moderate, and believed that he was perhaps the lesser of a number of evils in German parliament at the time. In hindsight, they were clearly, tragically wrong. The Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King met with Hitler that year, and wrote in his diary that Hitler “is really one who truly loves his fellow man.”

The historian John Lukacs writes, “Hilter became chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933. The significance, let alone the importance, of this event went largely unrecognized. Evidence for this exists in the reporting and the commentaries of virtually every leading newspaper of the world. His personal abilities were underestimated, indeed on occasion ridiculed. The German conservative political elite, who helped to arrange his nomination to the chancellorship, thought that they would be able to manage him. The opposite happened. He made them his servitors. More important: soon he became the most popular leader in the history of the Germans, perhaps the most schooled people in the world. The bitterness and humiliation that had affected most Germans after their loss of the First World War ebbed away; what succeeded it was a rising wave of national self-confidence. To an astonishing degree Hitler won the trust of the great majority of the German people.”

Certainly Mashmann, in feeling Hitler was a just leader, was in good company. Against her family’s wishes she became a member of the Hitler Youth. Before and during the Second World War, Maschmann worked in the high echelons of press and propaganda of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ section of the Nazi youth organization, and, later, she supervised the eviction of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms.

Afterward, when learning of the truth of the war and the crimes that had been committed by German forces, she was horrified. In 1964 she wrote a memoir of that time in her life, titled in the English translation as Account Rendered. “Even the element of fate in a person’s life does not dispose of individual guilt,” she wrote.

“I found in the memoir someone who had been overtaken by history,” says Arthur Samuelson who published an English translation of Account Rendered. “Someone who was struggling to make sense of what no longer made sense, and to understand why it had once done so. And someone whose best self had been attracted to Nazism.”[2]

Indeed, this is a crux that any discussion about Germany prior to and during the war: what did the people know? Why did they act as they did? If we know people who lived through the war in Germany, we’d like to think that they didn’t know much, and that people in smaller towns, such as Schneeberg, were insulated from a direct experience of the horrors of war as well as its dilemmas and contradictions. We’ll never know what the population knew, or how much they chose to overlook. Some no doubt chose to overlook a lot, but we’ll never really be able to answer those kinds of questions in any meaningful way.[3]

But we know that the entire population experienced the war absolutely first hand, and that many of the effects of war were there, just beyond the doorstep. The impact of that experience is undeniable, especially for children. Wallace Stegner writes that “there is a time between the ages of five and twelve which corresponds [to a moment] isolated in the development of birds, when an impression lasting only a few seconds may be imprinted on the young bird for life … [likewise] expose a child to a particular environment at this susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies.”

Werner’s particular environment, starkly unlike that of his parents—just as it would be of his youngest siblings—was Nazi Germany. “On Sundays we walked down to the church and there were always marching bands coming the opposite direction. Young Hitler youth, in uniform and with their flags, and they played their trumpets or fanfares, and that was very interesting for a young boy. I mean I was just a little kid, I thought, ‘Boy, I can’t wait to join this gang.’” (Maria, however, wouldn’t allow it. Werner recalls that after the war, when the communist youth paraded on Sunday, she didn’t allow him to join them either.) “You know, you’re so impressed as a little kid. It may sound silly if I tell that to somebody, but for a child that was reality.”

There are other memories, too. “I can still in my ears, I can hear when the bombers came, they bombed Dresden, you know the biggest air raid on Germany. They came very low. Dresden was only 80 km away from us. So they flew over us, we heard them approaching and then you seen them in the sky and you hoped they wouldn’t drop their bombs down on us. And then a little while later you see all the sky lit up like a fireball.” It was February of 1945; Werner was nine years old.

A few months later Schneeberg itself was attacked. “They put dirt banks on the roads and trees to prevent tanks from coming close. But that didn’t prevent them I guess. There was just on the road toward Zwickau, there was an elevation and they had artillery and they bombed Schneeberg with artillery, and there were quite a few houses demolished. They shot the artillery into the big church that is right on the top of the mountain there. It caught fire there, and we saw the church steeple fall down. In my recollection, in my head, I can see this still. You don’t forget these things.”

At home and around the table each night were prisoners of war that were working on the farm under the order of the military. Even despite the horrors of the war, the workers cried when news reached them that the war ended. They apparently knew the kind of life that awaited them back in Russia. Werner recalls that an SS soldier came to them on a horse and offered to give them the horse in exchange for civilian clothes. “So he got a suit, and we got his horse.”

There are some that would read that and see it as abetting a potential war criminal. “If you tell somebody, it’s hard for somebody to visualize what war is all about. Toward the end of the war we had so many air raids we had to go down [to the basement]. … There were certain houses that were designated as bunkers, so to speak, and our basement wasn’t a basement like you have in a house, it was natural stone wall and the ceiling was an arched brick support. We slept about two weeks down there toward the end of the war. It was damp down there. We had just a few bales of straw that we slept on. Quite a few neighbours came and, ah, well, it wasn’t pleasant down there. But anyway.”


Germans were sometimes heard to say that they preferred “an end with horror, to a horror without end.” In the last years of the war, those were the only options they could realistically conceive. Men and boys were feverishly recruited into the army; by VE day, two thirds of them had been killed, creating a hole in the population where an entire generation of men used to be. And when the truce was signed, Germans faced a continuing and exhausting experience. Poverty was rampant, as was hunger and crime. There wasn’t any work, and there wasn’t a government that could begin to organize the relief efforts or the creation of the infrastructure. David Stafford, in his book Endgame, 1945, provides a summation of what lay ahead, which included “the urgent quashing of looting, rioting and random violence; the robust and often severe restoration of law and order; the reestablishment of basic services such as electricity, gas, water and sewage; the restoration of smashed roads, railways and telephone systems.”

The population of Germany didn’t get much sympathy then, of course, and to a large extent, if we’re allowed to be frank, that hasn’t changed. We don’t think of them as the victims, and there are reasons for that, reasons that remain simply undeniable. But they were victims, and they had a hand in their victimhood. But when did that start, and when did it stop? They trusted a leader who would leave their country in ruins. They trusted a government that was unjust, and if they had any inkling of the extent that things would run to, it’s right to assume that they wouldn’t have supported the government as enthusiastically. They supported actions of the government that should have been unthinkable—such as the laws barring Jews from owning property or holding jobs—though whatever they knew about those things came to them through the filter of the propaganda ministry. And they were afraid; the Gestapo was brutal, and the evidence of that was all around them.

They also couldn’t have known where things were headed. Yes, Hitler’s book was available, but who could assume that it was a plan for the future, and one that would be pursued entirely unchecked by the more moderate members of the government. Certainly there were efforts made to rein Hitler in, though they failed. The opponents in government were killed because of their opposition on the night of the long knives—a horrifying event that, nevertheless, was seen as necessary in order to avoid a government coup. It was bloody, though a coup, most likely thought, would have been bloodier. Whatever was reported in the press was most often greeted with skepticism. Those who believed the reports accepted the suggestion that Hitler had saved Germany from descending into chaos.

Meanwhile the government was making huge changes that—again if we’re allowed to be entirely frank—were understandably welcome. Yes, the leaders yelled and waved their hands a lot, but the roads were built, and jobs were created, and that’s what the majority of the population focused their attention on. The economy was righted, and an impoverished country was finding its way back to prosperity. People could afford a car for the first time in their lives. They could afford a home. The country was also being granted a new place on the world stage, as evidenced by the Berlin Olympics. The world, for the first time in a generation, was coming to Germany. There were angry signs, and troubling new laws, but extermination camps wouldn’t have been considered as a potential reality in the least. Most Germans, I’d suspect, just tried to stay out of things, something that the government was more than happy to encourage. Newspapers ran stories of success, and the population, understandably, wanted to have them be the truth.

Does it matter? I think it does. If we write Hitler off as a madman, and we suppose that the population of Germany saw and supported all the worst things that he would do, then we’re safe. We can say, ‘The Germans were different than us.” And that means that we’re different than them, and that we wouldn’t have done the same things, and that we’d never do the same things today. We’re off the hook.

It’s much harder to approach the history of Germany as something entirely within range of human experience, and to choose to learn from it through the assumption that the people living then weren’t different than us beyond the context the were living within and the options that were—and weren’t—available to them.

Like most Canadians, they chose to stay out of politics, and to read the celebrity gossip more readily than the news from Parliament. They wanted to live a life of their choosing, one that includes homes and families. They wanted to have a pride in their culture, and to feel that they occupied a respected place in the world. When there was violence, they chose to avoid it as much as possible. They wanted to live. That’s what regular people want, and they did too. But then, something went wrong. And then a lot of things went wrong.

Thinking about them as people just like ourselves, we have an opportunity to learn something, and perhaps something quite important. No one wants to elect a monster into a position of leadership. Assuming they weren’t themselves monsters, how did it happen? Why wasn’t it stopped?


East and West

In the years after the war, the various sectors of Berlin and of East and West Germany were formalized. At the end of the war four sectors of Germany were created and granted to the four allied countries: France, US, Britain, and Russia. Because Berlin was entirely in the Russian sector, it too was then divided into four sectors. Relatively quickly—though by no means instantly—the borders were defined between East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The West was comprised of the French, British and American sectors, including the occupied zones of Berlin, which otherwise was surrounded by East Germany. The East was comprised of the states that were occupied by Soviet forces.

Even in 1961, the border was still porous. Wolfgang Herrmann was one of thousands of citizens of West Germany who lived in East Germany, commuting to work each day across the border. “We called it the Siemens’ express,” says Hermann of the S-Bahn, “because it was packed with thousands of Siemens’ employees.” It was a situation that, for him and the other commuters, was highly agreeable if admittedly a bit bizarre. Two governments, two systems—democracy and socialism—and two currencies within a single city that felt, from the citizens’ perspective, like just like that: a single city.

Herrmann and others hoped to take advantage of it for as long as they could, and otherwise gave it little thought. The wages in the west were vastly greater than those in the east, while the costs of living were dramatically lower in the east. Rather than thinking of leaving, Herrmann was able to keep his home, remain near his family, while having a good job and a wage that went a long way. It was the best of both worlds.

Then at a press conference on June 15, 1961, a western reporter asked the Chairman of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht, about the rumours that East Germany was planning on sealing the border. “Mr. Chairman, do you believe that creating a free city will require the construction of a state border at the Brandenburg Gate and are you determined to see this through will all the consequences it entails?” Ulbricht’s response would become the most infamous lie of the Cold War period: “I understand your question in this way: that there are people in West Germany that want us to mobilize the construction workers of the GDR capital to build a wall. Am I right? I’m not aware of any such plans. … Nobody has any intention of building a wall.”

Through the summer of 1961 citizens of Berlin continued to cross the border in order to shop, to go to work, and to visit family, no one suspecting that anything impending action. Then, just after midnight on the morning of August 13, 1961, GDR border police and combat crew began placing barbed wire along the border, constructed barricades, and drove concrete posts into the ground. As the day broke, the city became aware of this new reality that left them stunned. Citizens on both sides gathered to watch in disbelief. Wolfgang Herrmann was in the west as this was going on, and quickly hurried back to his home in the east. “I didn’t have to think twice about coming over,” he said. “I knew that if I didn’t I’d never see my wife again.” In an instant he became both unemployed and a citizen of the GDR.


Prior to August of 1961, nearly three million people had left East Germany for the west, a majority of them travelling across the relatively small border between East and West Berlin. Herbert Gerber was one of them. “When I left I had no idea whatsoever, no inkling at all, that anyone else would ever follow me,” says Herbert of leaving his family. “So when I said goodbye, it was goodbye forever.”

He knew that there was no life for him in Germany. “The older I got, the more I could see that I had no future there. And I just said to my parents one day one day, that’s what I’m going to do, and they did not stop me. The thing was at that time it was before the East Germans built the wall, so the border was still a little bit porous. I applied for a visitors exit visit for four weeks to visit my relatives in west Germany. I went and I just didn’t come back. But it wasn’t as easy as that. I was staying with my uncle, and after I was there for a couple of weeks I got a letter from my mother saying I should come back immediately because if I don’t they’re going to hold it against my father and jail him.” He was 19 years old. “After a couple days thinking about it, I decided I would not go back. But I sat down and wrote a letter to the city hall telling them that my intentions are to stay longer than my visa allowed me and that they shouldn’t hold it against me. I said that I wanted to continue my education, etc. etc. etc. And apparently that helped. They never approached my parents at all.”

A year later, Opa noticed in the newspaper that the local government was willing to issue passports allowing people to leave East Germany, something that had been very difficult prior. He saw it as a potential window opportunity for his eldest son, Werner. “He said, ‘why don’t you go and see if you can get a passport?’ So I went to the police the next day.” It turned out to be a bit more difficult than Werner might have thought, even if his father had had an inkling that this, like so many other things in East Germany, was likely too good to be true. Rather than a passport, Werner was met with suspicion. Asking for a passport, the official asked briskly, “What for?”

“He didn’t know what we were talking about,” recalls Werner. “The next morning there were three policemen at my house at 7 o’clock and they interrogated me for about three hours. You know, why I want to leave. I told them, I want to see the world. If I like it, I stay. If I don’t like it, I come right back. That’s it.”

Still, they stayed, asking the same questions again and again, for three hours. “I didn’t know what they were doing. But I just straightened my back, shook their hands and I said, ‘Good day, you know everything about me now. Tomorrow I’m going to pick up my passport.’ I left them standing there and walked away.”

True to his word, the next morning he went to city hall, saying he was there to pick up his passport. The official there asked for his name and then took out a small piece of paper and put it into a typewriter. He asked for Werner’s name again, which he gave, and what city he would like to travel to. He typed for a moment then took the paper out of the typewriter, signed it, stamped it, and threw it across the table. “Here,” he said. “Good luck to you!” The paper read, in its entirety, “Werner Gerber has permission to leave to go to West Berlin.”

At home, his father’s response appeared largely ambivalent, saying “Try your luck, see what happens.” It wasn’t a passport, but it had a stamp and a signature, both of which had a certain amount of gravity, give or take. So, Werner packed a small suitcase and the next morning kissed his parents and went off to catch the train. And that was it. “I didn’t know if I’d see anybody again. You know? [When] we came to the border the train stopped and in came the Russian soldiers and the German police with machine guns and bayonets. They went to each passenger and they asked for passports and documents and all I had was that little piece of paper.” He watched as they made their way along the passenger car, checking passports and, seemingly at random, motioning for the majority of the passengers to get off the train and stand behind a makeshift plywood fence next to the tracks.

“When they came to my seat and looked at my little piece of paper, they didn’t ask questions. I could stay put in the train. Ha! I couldn’t believe it. I was waiting in the train for two hours before people came back. And you know how many people came back? Maybe only half. The others they were probably sent to labour camps. And when the train left and I see I’m in West Germany, boy, it was an incredible experience. Like, imagine if you work all day and you are dirty and full of dust and sweaty, and you take a shower and you feel good again? That’s how I felt when I realized ‘I’m in West Germany now.’”

He was alone, young, poor, without a job or any conceivable support structure, a refugee from a country to which he suspected he would never return. And he felt cleansed and exhilarated. He had tried his luck with a little piece of paper, and it had worked.


“My mother lived 11 years under Russian occupation—from ’45 to ’56,” says Ann. “And she said ‘If the Russians haven’t gone by now, they’ll never leave.’” Certainly the Russians were making life especially hard on anyone they suspected of being less than enthusiastic about socialism or who otherwise were unwilling to join the communist party. The Gerbers were all of that, ultimately, also had two sons that had defected. As well, opposite the house was a manor home that had been converted in to barracks for Russian soldiers and officials and was the home of the commandanteur. The Gerbers were literally neighbours of the occupying forces, making it impossible to keep anything of a low profile. The hens, the beehives, the produce—all of it was conspicuous given a lack of food that continued to weigh heavily on the population no matter which side you were on.

For farmers, there was a quota system in place which increasingly required farms to deliver products in excess of what they were able to produce. If they had hens, they would be expected to deliver a set number of eggs each week, even if the hens weren’t laying. Not being able to meet the quotas was seen as a sign of incompetence and the property would be confiscated in the belief that it was being mismanaged.

Because the nursery produced bedding plants and cut flowers, the Gerbers were imposed upon to produce arrangements for births, weddings, and funerals of the Russian overseers and soldiers free of charge. With the threat of losing the home, there was a very clear impetus to meet whatever demands were made. The stress of meeting them fell to Maria. “It was awful,” says Ann. “She was pestered. We had maybe twenty hens and twenty people at the table to feed, but we couldn’t keep the eggs. And my father had a few beehives, maybe six or eight or ten, and all we’d hear was ‘Why didn’t you deliver us your honey?”

Whether it was intended or not, the noise of the barracks was a constant reminder, day and night, that they were living in a totalitarian state, and a Russian one at that. Speakers were hung outside the barracks playing Russian music. “The same tune day and night,” says Ann. “And it went something like [mock singing] ‘liverwurst! Liverwurst!’” She admits that it’s funny now, though at the time it was unnerving.

And then there was the Stasi, which is the more common name for the East German Ministry for State Security. “The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people,” according to Simon Wiesenthal, a writer and holocaust survivor. “The Gestapo had 40,000 officials watching a country of 80 million, while the Stasi employed 102,000 to control only 17 million.” And while the Nazi terror lasted only twelve years, the Stasi era lasted four decades.

The goal of the Stasi was to ensure that the population would remain submissive. There was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans, though there were informers, too, people who used the Stasi to gain power, or food, or a better standard of living. There were lots of them, and unlike police, you could never really be sure who they were. They were secret, though it is estimated that there was one informer for 6.5 citizens. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests. They were literally everywhere, and both the Stasi officers and the informants and there was little they wouldn’t do in order to get information. Holes drilled through walls, coercion, secret microphones—all citizens would have lived in the belief that they were being watched all the time, and often they were right.

“In nearly every speech,” says historian Hubertus Knabe, “the Stasi minister gave the order to find out who is who, which meant who thinks what. He didn’t want to wait until somebody tried to act against the regime. He wanted to know in advance what people were thinking and planning. The East Germans knew, of course, that they were surrounded by informers, in a totalitarian regime that created mistrust and a state of widespread fear, the most important tools to oppress people in any dictatorship.”

The fears of arrest or imprisonment were very real. And defecting, of course, was a crime. When Bernie Gerber recalls the day that they left for the West, it is that context—that they may have been spied on, or informed on, and if caught the punishment would be extreme—that provides a background.

 When we were on the train from East Germany to West Germany, the train stopped at the checkpoint and, ah, they knew we were coming. And we were only allowed 100 east marks, which is peanuts, each for a week. We had a week’s permit, my parents and us. And anyway the train stopped and the Russian officers came in, and the east German police came in, and they checked our papers and they were relatively friendly, but they knew we were coming and that we had been through the right channels and we were going for only one week. And they checked our papers and everything was in order.

But the train was stopped probably a good hour or maybe more. Probably more, maybe two hours. That was forever, an eternity, and for my parents especially, you can imagine. Anyway, we didn’t have to leave the train, but they had a walk maybe from here to those pine trees over here. They had all kinds of buildings and they ordered people in there and strip searched them and everything else, including old women. Can you imagine? And they had this young officers, you know, and they’re making fun of old women, and, you know, they had their uniforms on and they had the power, right? There were people coming out of there just crying and their dignity was taken and [it was] just like they had been raped. It was the most awful thing.

They were on route to Hannover, and crossed at Mareinborn, the busiest checkpoint between the east and the west.

[1] Herbert’s parents, too, had married in order to grasp more at opportunity than love. Robert Gerber was born in Silesia, in an area that is now part of Poland. It was another time, in another world. Poverty was a fact of life, as were the quasi-royal families, or nobles, that controlled the land and resources. Robert, even when still very young, worked as an apprentice gardener on various estates.

When he was 20 he became a gardener to a local baron, though it came with a catch. “He said to me, You can only keep this position if you get married right away.’ He literally meant from today to tomorrow. But I wasn’t engaged and this put me in a desperate position. After all, who’s going to say yes that quickly?” The words are those of Maria writing in the voice of Robert, her father-in-law. As she tells it, at least, he was aware of a couple nearby who had 13 children, one of whom was a daughter who was “devout, attractive, industrious, and lovely enough” to suit his needs. (The list of attributes says as much, if not more, about Maria than it may Robert.) The fact that the family was so large—a father tasked with feeding 15 being less likely to protest a daughter’s marriage—he assumed would help him meet his deadline. In Maria’s version, Robert was more impressed with the girl’s mother than with her, and spent a moment “working up the courage to ask this remarkable woman if she’d be willing to give me her daughter in hopes that she would be a true replica of the mother.”

Maria’s characterization of Emma, the daughter, continues the theme. In her version Robert asks Emma to be his wife saying and that he will return the next day for an answer. When he returns, Emma said, “Mother is of the opinion that as long as that’s all that’s being asked, she’s okay with it. So I’m okay with it.”

Whatever was actually said, the marriage occurred and Robert kept his job. On the morning after the wedding Emma awoke in their new home, her blanket covered with violets—it was an impressive (if late) bit of romance on Robert’s part. He nevertheless spent the next two weeks gathering the nerve to kiss her.


[3] There are, however, lots of enticing clues. The very last edition of the official newspaper of the Nazi government was published two days before Hitler committed suicide. The headline that day was “Fortress Bavaria!” The obfuscation was clearly of an order that is truly mind-boggling.

A history of Camp Wanakita

cabin groupThe shortest story you can tell of the camp’s history is this: in 1953 a camp on the shores of Koshlong Lake was founded under the name Wanakita, and it’s been there ever since. But, as with so many things, scratch the surface any further and things either get more blurry or, in another light, more interesting.

This history of the camp has been an ongoing document since the 1993 when Ted Thaler began interviewing alumni with the intention of creating a document that would reflect the struggles and successes of the camp. The reality is that the strength of the camp today–and perhaps even the fact that it still exists–is the result of the people who made it what it is. Thanks to strong leadership, the camp developed new ways of organizing programming, revised the relationship between staff and campers, and provided the best example of family camping in North America.

I think all of this is important. The camp that you see today didn’t happen overnight, or over a decade. It took 60 years, and it is still responsive to change, to new ideas. That said, for the first time in its history it is run by a staff that doesn’t have a direct link to the beginnings of the camp, and for whom the narrative arc of its development is largely unknown. That, of course, is inevitable in any organization–time marches on. But memory is important. If there isn’t an understanding of the what has come before, there is a risk of being complacent, and thinking that, well, it’s just camp. It isn’t. It’s far more than that.

See the Wanakita History page for the first part of the Wanakita story.

In Our Own Backyard

“The whole world is full of things, and somebody has to look for them.” 

–Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking


All the photographs in this book were taken on our property in the spring of 2014.  The idea was to take pictures of flowers, so there are lots of plants that we have in the garden that aren’t in here, either because they don’t have flowers or because they don’t have flowers that we recognized as flowers.

Some of the plants in here are ones that we planted on purpose, such as the kale and the dogwood. Others are weeds, which are plants that we didn’t plant, don’t want, and yet are having trouble getting rid of, such as garlic mustard and dandelion. Some of the plants have great names, such as the deadly nightshade and the witch hazel. Others have names that make no sense at all—the bugleweed isn’t a weed, and the Christmas rose isn’t a rose. Some plants are medicinal, while others, in the right quantities, can kill a small animal.

But this is something that they share: all of them are more interesting than we might ever have imagined. Peonies are symbiotic, for example, and can’t survive without the help of ants. The dandelion can clone itself, and kale is a biennial, meaning that it has a two-year life cycle. And how about this: The strawberry that we grow is descended from five little plants that were brought back to France from Chile in 1714. Every jam tart, strawberry sundae, P B and J, is a result of the voyage of the St. Joseph exactly three hundred years ago.

As well, the majority of the plants in our yard, from the weeds to the trees, have been brought here from somewhere else, including as far away as Asia and Africa. When you look at our garden, you don’t see what Canada looked like before Columbus, you rather see a portrait of all the things, the people, and the events that have happened here since. It’s not just plants out there, it’s our history.


In Our Own Backyard (medium)
In Our Own Backyard (small)



When I arrived at my mother’s house she was still getting ready. I asked if I could take the things out to the car. There were three boxes of clothes—some of which were intended for my grandfather, some of which were going to charity—and a blue velvet bag. The clothes had belonged to my father, while the velvet bag was my father, at least in a sense. It held his ashes. When my mother had picked them up from the funeral home, the director kept referring to the bag as “him” or “Richard” as in “would you like us to put Richard in the front seat with you?” and “Would you like us to buckle him in?” My mother quietly asked him if he could please, really, just put it in the trunk.

Inside the bag the ashes were contained in a nicely carpentered, overpriced wooden box. The funeral director called it an urn, and had asked “Have you given any though to an urn for Richard?” Of course we hadn’t—this was raised at our first visit, the morning he died—and my mother and I both independently tried to picture the kind of people who would have.

Still, I think my father would have liked the box. He had been a hobby carpenter, and wood was one of the few languages he chose to express himself in. The fact that it cost $600 would have impressed him as well. He wanted to have a sense of permanence, and he wanted an urn and a plot and a stone. If nothing else, he wanted his name someplace where it could be found. He wanted, I think, something real and lasting, a wish that was sparked by his own understanding of how little his ancestors had left behind. There wasn’t much more than headstones and a few undated, unlabeled photographs.

Perhaps because of all the blanks in the family tree, when I was young my father went through a genealogy phase. We toured cemetery after cemetery taking pictures of stones and scrutinizing dates and names. Dowdy. Wills. Howick. Keenan. Dilts. One of the cemeteries we visited a number of times that summer was Hillside, the one where my grandparents’ stone was. Their headstone was in place and their names were engraved on it despite the fact that at the time both were still alive. It sat next to the stone of my grandfathers’ father’s parents, which was next to my grandfather’s father’s father’s parents. Like birds on a wire, the generations set neatly in a row beneath a stand of mature maples.

My father said even then that he wanted to be part of the line, though he was aware there may not be room for my mother. And at any rate, he said, she didn’t really want to be in a cemetery, so it should be OK. At the time, those thoughts seemed entirely theoretical, so entirely out of touch with the immediate realities around me. If there was ever going to be a discussion about it, I thought at the time, it would come in a future so distant as to be unimaginable. Now, three decades later, on a crisp, bright autumn morning I gathered the boxes piled just inside my mother’s front door and took them and a blue velvet bag out to the car. We were taking the ashes to be interred.

The conversation on the drive to the cemetery was just what it would have been had my father actually been alive and sitting in the back seat. My mother talked about the book she was reading, the election coming up, the latest gossip at the knitting club—things my father wouldn’t have had anything to say about, anyway.

At the cemetery, a narrow gravel road continued in past an old gate and rows of headstones leaning with age, covered in lichen, some of which have been standing since the time of the US civil war. My father’s plot was marked with an orange road pylon. Mark—I don’t think he refers to himself as an undertaker; he called himself a city parks employee a couple times while we were there—leaned on his shovel, wearing Day-Glo coveralls and a baseball cap, talking to my aunt through the window of her car.

Across from them was a small dais made of three stacked boxes, each covered and tacked with Astroturf and set next to a lump. The lump was the backfill that Mark had removed from the hole, now covered with a sheet of Astroturf held down by four square granite shop samples. Each sample was named on the edge in black sharpie marker, and the edge I could see as we approached was marked “Paradiso,” a black granite that would serve equally nicely as a kitchen island or a grave monument.

As I took the box—the urn—out of the bag and moved to place it on the dais I noticed an envelope Scotch taped to the bottom. I pulled it off and saw that it was marked “Cremation Certificate.” Proof I guess that the ashes were really him, should we feel that these were two dots—my father, the ashes—that we needed to connect.

Mark turned to my mother and me and said, “I’ll give you a bit of time.” It sounded abrupt given that he had been talking to my aunt about mutual high school friends, including one who had just died of a massive heart attack.

“Well,” he continued, picking up his story, “it’s either the ticker or cancer, isn’t it?” He and my aunt are in the generation that has outlived high school car accidents, and yet is still young enough to not yet be in the cohort of strokes and dementia.

“Yeah,” she said, “I guess it is.”

Then he walked over to the equipment shed just up the hill and at the back boundary of the cemetery, just where the stones give way to a stand of forest and the farmers fields beyond that. Next to the backhoe, in those orange coveralls, he stood with his hands grasped behind his back as if to suggest, despite all the hard edges of the situation, a last-ditch bit of reverence.

Were it a movie, we had arrived at the moment when someone would have said a few words. Something like “He could be a bastard, but God I’m really going to miss him.” Or the son would turn to the mother and say, “He would have wanted it this way.”

Instead we were struck by the need to determine just what was expected of us.

“Is he going to come back?” my aunt said. “How much time does he expect us to take.”

My father had been ill for years and while the reality of the end was distant at first, it had always been plainly in view. It inched forward like Omar Sharif riding across the Sahara in Lawrence of Arabia. Beginning as a spec, by the time it finally arrived, we’d pretty much made peace with it, if not a little bit amazed at how long it took for whole thing to ultimately play out.

“Do you want me to go and get him?” I asked.

“No, I can do it,” my aunt said. “Do you think we can just wave, or do we need to walk over there.” Then after a beat in which you could hear the rustle of the leaves overhead, she demurred. “Actually, I guess I’ll just go and get him.”

I was still holding the empty velvet bag. “Do you want this?” I asked my mom. She said, “I don’t know what I’d want it for, but I guess I have to take it. I can’t imagine that I’d ever use it for anything.”

I thought of a kid who lived up the street when I was growing up who always had a wealth of Crown Royal bags. He had lots of bags for his marbles, but everyone knew that it was only because his dad was an alcoholic. As a result, it was hard to envy him. Likewise, using a cremation remains bag for anything other than cremation remains runs the risk of sending an unwanted message.

When my aunt came back with Mark he was carrying the shovel perfectly, and all but inevitably, on his shoulder, his free hand casually in the pocket of his coveralls. As they approached, my mother and I entered their conversation mid sentence.

“… and that’s when he took over the Ford dealership on Effingham Road,” my aunt was saying . “Just near Eff and Main. His wife was a bitch.”

“Yeah, they all went really quickly there for a while,” said Mark. “I felt terrible for him. You know, to have so many go at once. His daughter especially. That was the worst one.”

He turned to me, adding details that presumably my aunt was already aware of. “She committed suicide. Hung herself. Four o’clock in the morning, you know, he comes down and finds her dangling in the garage. It’s terrible when a kid blames herself for the break up of her parent’s marriage. You never get over something like that.”

Then, turning back to the hole, “Anyway, would you like me to fill it in while you are here?”

My mother said yes, perhaps because the only other option—getting into our cars and leaving the box there on the Astroturf—didn’t seem to be a realistic one. Though, in truth, watching someone indistinguishable from a construction worker bury the remains of a loved one felt equally surreal.

“Yeah, he had a rough go,” Mark said as he began filling in the space around the box. “And then the high school kids. Three of them. The cops never said if there was booze involved, though it’s hard to think that there wasn’t booze involved. So they come to the corner of Canboro road, you know there by the Avondale, and stopped in the middle of the intersection. And John Dilts, did you know him?” he said turning toward my aunt. She nodded that she did. “Used to live next to where Hanson’s Furniture used to be, across from the fair grounds? Well he comes along and ran right into them, going like 80 clicks. T-boned em. Had to use the jaws of life just to get the bodies out. Anyway, Matt, a friend of mine used to work for the town, he comes along first. All of them gone. Absolutely quiet, you know? Just like that.”

“They’re all over there,” he said, pointing to a newer section in the opposite corner of the cemetery, “even John.”

As he talked, he lifted shovels full of dirt from the pile and placed each one gingerly in the hole. “We make these holes pretty big. Some people come in with vaults, metal things. I dunno. And if they don’t tell you ahead of time, well, it’s pretty embarrassing if it doesn’t fit. I’ve had to dig holes bigger, all with the family standing here!”

He said this as if it were something we ourselves could imagine, that we could implicate ourselves into the experience of standing with a bereaved family as we dug a hole to accept a burial vault.

As he filled closer to the top, he tamped each shovel full down with his foot, leaving deep impressions of his tread. “So, has Nancy told you how many more you can fit in here?” he asked, gesturing to the row of family plots.

My aunt said that she had been in touch with Nancy, but wasn’t quite sure.

“Well, the rules have changed you know. The city says you can have one full burial and three cremations in each plot. Used to be just two cremations. Now it’s three. Not sure how they come up with this stuff. But you should ask Nancy to let you know how many you can fit in here.”

My aunt said that she wasn’t sure, because one infant burial, Susan, could be considered a full burial.

“And that’s what? ’53?” He craned his neck to check the date on the back of the headstone. “Probably nothing left there now. Bones are really small and soft at that age, you know. You might find a bit of plastic, but maybe not even that. I really doubt that you’d find anything.”

He shrugged his shoulders as if to say “who knows?” and then turned to lift the plywood board that he had used to pile the dirt on, tilting it to send the loose bits of earth onto the top of the hole now filled flush with the surrounding grass. He leaned the board up against a neighbouring headstone and then replaced the sod.

“You know,” he said, motioning to the right side of my grandparents’ headstone, “That’s your dad, eh?”
My aunt answered that he was. “He’s at Portal Village now, in Welland. He’ll be turning 98 in December.”

“Well, again, you should check with Nancy on this, but when he goes, you could put him … Uh, is he going to be a full-burial or a cremation?”

My aunt answered full burial.

“That’s what I thought. Well when he goes, you could choose to put him down an extra three feet. That way you could get another full burial on top.”

Of course, the only person left in our dwindling family that this could benefit was my aunt, the very person he was talking to.

“I’ll have to look into it,” she said. “Do you think she’s in tomorrow?”

“Here, I’ll give you her number. She’s in and out, but if you leave a message, she’s usually good at calling you back.”

I thought that while the setting could easily have been in a movie—it was the prime of fall in the country, bright yellow leaves set against a brilliant blue sky, tires groaning along a gravel road—the experience would never be. In movies, it’s only gesture: a person is mourned, and honoured, not buried. An urn sits on a mantle, or a dais, but no one needs to buy it, or fill it, or put it there. Mourners mourn a death, they don’t shepherd the mechanics of the memorial or hand over credit cards. But in life a monument needs to be bought, the hole needs to be filled, and a person needs to do those things. We need to do those things. And, in time, we do. Still, for some reason it’s all just as surprising as it is, well, obvious.

We left Mark there—he was going to get the power tamper to even out the bulge in the sod—and we drove off, my aunt following in her car, to a local diner for lunch. Over BLTs and house salads we talked about my brother’s recent move to China, about the mysterious impulse people have to deep fry turkeys, about a coming meteor shower. We had lunch, said our goodbyes, and no one mentioned the ashes.

What we talk about when we talk about life

Herbert, Richard Louis Passed away peacefully at McNally House in Grimsby, on Wednesday, September 26, after a long illness. He was in his 72nd year. A longtime resident of Fort Erie, Richard was a dear husband and best friend to Judie (nee McNally) and loving father to Peter (Nady), and Glen (Laura). He was a cherished “Beepa” to Grace, James and Charlie. Richard is survived by his father, Harry, brother Barry (Shirley), and sister Cathy (Jack). He is also survived by nieces Lesly, Lisa (Randy) and nephew Rick (Judy). Richard was predeceased by his mother, Vera, and infant sister Susan. Words cannot express the gratitude we feel for the loving support of Dr. Heather Roelfsema and the McNally House Hopice. Visitation will be held at 10 a.m. at Trinity United Church at 100 Main Street in Grimsby; a memorial service will follow at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations would be appreciated in Richard’s name to McNally House Hospice, 148 Central Avenue, Grimsby, Ontario.

Continue reading What we talk about when we talk about life