Advance warning; the word ‘journey’ will not be used in this blogpost. Having been hijacked and over exploited by the self help industry, it has been retired indefinitely from my vocabulary; suitable alternatives to describe life’s adventures and meanderings have been chosen.
There is an old idea – if things are closing in on you, you can always move, find a new place to start over and leave your problems behind – some might call it running away, I prefer to call it the ‘geographic cure’.
I just finished what may be my final trip to my hometown, Taber. Taber is a small town south of Calgary about equidistance between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. It is a farming community, we used to claim to be the Corn Capital of Canada. We have, for some incomprehensible reason, stepped back from that bold assertion probably because some whiner in a southern Ontario farm community threatened to sue us.
Geez, can’t we exaggerate a bit for the sake of a little tourism? Just what do we do with this bit of iconic road art.
When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s; Taber had a surprisingly international demographic. Many Japanese Canadians, some forcibly relocated here in one of the cruel decisions made by the King Government during World War II, chose to stay after the war, took up farming, excelled at it and are amongst the most prosperous of our citizens. We benefitted as well from Chinese immigrants, descendants of the builders of the CP rail line that runs through town. Most of the crops were labor intensive (we are also the Sugar Beet Capital of Canada – and damn proud of it!), hundreds of immigrant families moved to southern Alberta, cheap labour for local farmers, a quick job requiring minimal language skills to Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and other eastern Europeans fleeing oppression for a new life.
My grandfather emigrated from Wales, made his way to a coal mine here, now long forgotten, then became a hard scrabble dry land farmer – surviving mostly because he had a good team of horses and six sons, cheap labour pulled out of school the moment it was allowed by law. Our Taber mosaic was further enhanced by a Mormon contingent drifting across the border from Utah looking for decent farmland and tolerance for their religion.
I grew up with many, now fond, snippets of memories; I left town in 1967, never looked back and made my way in the big outside world. I returned occasionally to visit my parents; reuniting with siblings, introducing my children to their grandparents and the many tediously oft-repeated stories of my childhood and this odd relic of my hometown. Over the years, the visits got shorter and less frequent.
My father died in 1991, on my 42nd birthday. We returned a bit more often as my mother aged and we moved her into a succession of local retirement and nursing homes. Last fall, she too passed away and, with my siblings and our children, we spent a long, emotional week making all the arrangements for her funeral and burial in the local cemetery.
This week’s visit feels like the end, a last trip to see the new headstone that replaces the solitary one erected for my father decades ago.
I am an orphan and, while not quite homeless, I’ve become detached from the place of my upbringing; there’s 50 years of life separating me from this spot on the map.
Serendipitously, I am here with my long time mentor and best friend, another Taber boy and an actual relative. Blair and I are on almost parallel paths; he’s here to memorialize the lives of his parents with plaques he has anchored to a boulder in a coulee west of town, a spot rich with memories of his parents’ youth.
We are honoring our parents, celebrating their lives, commemorating this town as the cradle of our early development and coming to terms with the passage of time and the changes that are inevitable. We visited his family farm, passed through the farmyard of my grandfather, wandered around town sharing memories.
The row of elevators which proudly announced Taber from miles away are all now gone, as is the old train station, the movie theater where we went to Saturday matinees for 15 cents and the tiny grocery store near the highway where we bought necessities on credit. The ubiquitous canning factory of summer jobs, water fights and the early dawn sunlight at the end of the night shift is dead; no one eats canned peas anymore. I could go on…
We try to measure the impact of those first fifteen years; it is the people, our parents, our siblings, the friends, the scout leader, church, hockey coaches, first loves and best buddies
….and, the teachers, the real values shapers – I still remember their names. I drive past the library, where I was encouraged to take six books at a time by a librarian who seemed surprised at my interest in reading. It is long gone; the good news is that it has been replaced by a huge, shiny, open, welcoming building.
We reminisce with Blair’s friends, older than me by a decade, I can sit on the sidelines as they describe their tom-foolery, their escapades and their shared stories. It is a warm bath of nostalgia, worth the trip alone. There’s nothing like a dish of warmed over, fuzzy memories served with the Chinese dinner for six at the Paradise Gardens; even the messages in the fortune cookies seem apt.
This is well plowed ground, at least for those of us lucky enough to have grown up in stable families, with parents who loved us and nurtured us and kept us fed and warm and dry. Parents who provided stability, predictability and safety; who taught us, and then enforced, their values and beliefs.
We had teachers who cared, coaches who showed up, adult role models worthy of emulation and a bedrock of institutions that served us well. We had friends who accepted us, played with us and shared our growth and discovery. We had first loves, dances and broken hearts. For that I am always grateful.
I have long ago come to understand how rare and valuable that environment was for me. And, for that I am grateful.
I have also found that the geographic cure is only partially successful, the corollary is that wherever you go, you take yourself with you – wherever I go I will always have a whole lot of Taber with me.
Please note, as promised, the word ‘Journey’ was not used in the telling of this story.