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My crotchety grandmother, deciphered Add to ...

I was feeling in some kind of middle-aged funk. I needed a change, something more than a different head of hair.

So I headed to the library to borrow some lad lit. See, big change. I have never read lad lit. My heart was pounding.

The only author in the genre I had ever heard of was Nick Hornby, so I made for the H section of the stacks hoping to find that book about music (ew) High Fidelity or the one about sports (ick) Fever Pitch, but the only one I could find was How to be Good.

I soon discovered this was not a book about a boy at all, but a book about a girl, a grown-up girl married 20 years with two kids, a girl mired in some kind of middle-aged funk. A girl exactly like me.

I called out to my husband. "Blair, I think you had better remove that webcam from the computer. Nick Hornby's been eavesdropping on our life."

"How's that possible? I turned the thing toward the wall. Who's Nick Hornby, anyway? Is that Mark's friend with the ponytail?"

Now, wouldn't that be something if one of my son's 20-year-old buddies found my life interesting enough to want to spy on it. So either a famed English author has eyes and ears in every split-level in the English-speaking world, or something else much more sinister, much more depressing, is going on.

Maybe, just maybe, I have become a living, breathing cliché. Even sadder, perhaps this is unavoidable.

We start our lives being assured by our parents that we are precious, unique and destined for great things. By the time we are 20, we are so convinced we will escape the net of convention that we become a bit obnoxious to anyone but fellow 20-year-olds.

Then life's obstacles mount, the economy fluctuates, reality hits and most of us end up taking the path of least resistance: in my case, marriage, kids, mortgage, credit-card debt.

I have become such a cliché I have taken up a predictable new hobby - genealogy. I used to think genealogy was for old people with too much time on their hands, but now I understand it is a spiritual quest.

I'm not researching my family tree, per se. (Too complex. Too mathematical.) I'm delving into the life of one ancestor, my paternal grandmother.

Dorothy (I was named after her) was a British expat who lived most of her life in Malaya. I met her once, in 1967, when she visited us in Montreal in time for Expo.

It was hate at first sight between us. The old crone was cold, cranky and cruelly judgmental (talk about a cliché). When she finally left after six months it was good riddance - out of sight, out of mind for almost four decades.

Then, upon Googling my name in 2003, I found a written reference to my grandmother describing her as "the endlessly helpful secretary of the Kuala Lumpur Book Club."

Intrigued, I e-mailed the author. The man, a former British expat, knew my grandmother from Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s. Seems everyone in that community knew my grandmother, for she was "a unique personality" and a "real colonial character." Not a cliché at all.

I dug even deeper. This from the 1963 Malaysia Who's Who entry on Dorothy Nixon: Born in the United Kingdom; land girl in forestry during the First World War; the only woman ever allowed to enter the men's bar at Kuala Lumpur's celebrated Royal Selangor Club to keep score for cricket matches; a civilian internee at Changi Prison from 1942 to 1945, where she was elected head of the women's corps; and pioneering librarian of the Kuala Lumpur Book Club from 1937 to 1966.

Somewhere in between was her life as a colonial wife, made tolerable by the occasional polo matches with princes and curry tiffins with the high commissioner.

I contacted my aunt for more information. She didn't know all that much for she had been sent away, like my father, to school in England at a young age. But she sent me my grandmother's unpublished war memoirs.

To make sense of the pages, I had to spend the next year reading about life at Changi Civilian Internment Camp, and particularly about the Double Tenth Incident in which civilians were tortured by the Japanese Kempeitai.

My grandmother, I discovered, was one of only four women involved in the incident. But her role seems for the most part to have been written out of the history books.

The three other women earned lasting recognition and a place in the scholarly literature, but my grandmother remains at best a shadowy figure.

This has given me a purpose - to get to the bottom of the story. To set the historical record straight.

So I am no longer Dorothy Nixon, cliché. I am Dorothy Nixon, amateur historian. I've found something meaningful and a small way to make a contribution. And maybe that's the most a person of my age, of any age, can hope for.

Dorothy Nixon lives in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Que.

 

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