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When I look back to when my kids were small, I see the time I spent reading to them at bedtime not as wasted – but perhaps there were more important stories to be told.
Thinking about my own childhood, I realize I grew up in something of an oral history tradition. Instead of reading to me, Dad told me about his life, and his recollections gave me a span of time and experience that provided a sense of my place and amazing good fortune. And I still became a good reader.
Today, my parents’ experiences might be considered extraordinary, but they also parallel many immigrant stories from what has been called the Greatest Generation – the one that survived the Depression and fought the Second World War. In that context, my own early experiences are no big deal. But they remain a world away from today’s affluence and expectations, and I am thankful they shaped my values and outlook.
My brother and I shared a bedroom as kids, and Dad would often come up before lights-out and tell stories. The earliest were of the Old Country, in his case the Austro-Hungarian Empire that soon became Czechoslovakia. They were harsh, disconsolate stories of peasant life, dawn-to-dusk toil and little hope.
Then there was his ocean crossing in the 1920s. His family’s immigration was a sequenced affair, with Dad coming over with an adult guardian to join his father, who homesteaded in the Northern Ontario wilderness. At 14, speaking no English, Dad was left at a gloomy railway siding to make the long trudge through sodden muskeg to the new family home, a rudely-constructed cabin.
For him, the next two years were the most exhilarating of what had been a severe life. Through his stories, we saw ledges of frost growing from poorly-chinked log walls, rabbit-hunting with a single-shot Eaton’s catalogue .22 rifle, and fishing with the proverbial stick, line and bent-safety-pin fishhook.
For a boy raised in a grim, futureless community, the promise of the New World could not be overshadowed by the toil of hand-cutting wood, the bite of 40 below, or even the horror of having to shoot his sick dog.
A year after Dad arrived, the family was reunited. My grandmother and the remaining children were dropped off at the same siding and made the same trek. What my grandmother saw was an appallingly primitive shack made worse by numbing isolation. She promptly declared that, when money allowed, they must move to better conditions and the chance for an education for the children. Her instincts were right, but the timing was bad: They arrived in Winnipeg in the teeth of the Great Depression.
There were few happy stories of their first years in the big city. I can still see my adolescent father sitting in a hostile elementary school room trying to master English; a labour strike in defence of already-meagre pay packages; and Dad making extra money for the family in the local prize-fighting ring.
Ironically, things seemed to get better for him when war broke out. Dad and his two brothers enlisted in the Air Force. One didn’t come back. I didn’t have to live through the war and the Depression to understand their emotional impact. Dad’s stories did that for me.
My children used to rail at odd examples of my frugality. I will sometimes straighten out and reuse a retrieved nail. I see these habits developing through the lives and stories of my parents, reinforced by building the family cottage with salvaged lumber and many once-bent nails.
I’d love to say I followed my father’s storytelling tradition, but it just never occurred to me. I read to my kids before bed, and now I see it was an opportunity lost. My working-class, baby-boom Canadian upbringing doesn’t come close to being fodder for riveting bedtime stories, but I might have laid out the family path and some of my parents’ more hair-raising adventures.
I should have filled their heads with stories from the winter I spent on a trap line in northern Manitoba (was I trying to recreate Dad’s life in the bush?) But I chose to narrate the writings of strangers instead.
The more I reminisce about my own life, the more I see it was rich with experience, with plenty of opportunities to get into tangles. Compared with the helicopter parenting of today, the kids on my street in Winnipeg’s West End were free spirits who played, roamed, improvised and, through it all, usually managed to colour within societal lines. But there were adventures! The time my brother ended a dust-up with a gang of departing bullies by landing the most exquisitely-thrown snowball on the back of the leader’s head may lack the high drama of the immigrant experience, but it says something about our pluck.
Grown-ups now, all of my kids read well. Mission accomplished, I suppose. Their years have been full of love, and their own formative experiences, but deficient in history: family history. When the grandkids come, I will put aside Beatrix Potter and Robert Munsch and tell them about the Old Country, the Depression, the war, growing up in the West End and raising their mothers and fathers during the boomer bulge. Bedtime will be story time.
Tim Sopuck lives in Winnipeg.