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.
My elementary school is long gone, my high school is now a parking lot, only my junior high is there – but almost unrecognizable except for the juice squeezer that used to be the music room.
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.
Bob Very good and a poignant reminder of my geographic cure. It is how I feel about my home town in New Zealand. I have to go visit it this August for a family affair. It too will likely be my last visit. Thanks for the telling. Graeme
PS: I did not use the J word in this response! It is hopefully wiped from my dictionary, too used, too often and everybody has one.
Author of Finding Dermot and Tide Cracks and Sastrugi http://www.graemeconnell.com Follow me on GoodReads!
Les and I just read your blog. It was excellent and we enjoyed reading it. So glad we could see on your last visit to Taber.
“A warm bath of nostalgia … ” indeed and a delightful read Bob. I was raised up the road a ways from Taber in a two street,one room schoolhouse town on the edge of an open pit coal mine – Bow City. Now a ghost town it was on the river crossing on the gravel road that ran between Taber and Brooks. One summer about 20 years ago I ‘went back’- there wasn’t much left but some windowless old out buildings, rusted machine parts, prairie grass, heat and tumble weeds. There was a lot of nostalgia though and your story brought it back. Thank you.
Alan; thanks for your kind words. I didn’t know we were such prairie home-boys. Ah… the big sky country.
Bob: a great article. Confirmation for me that life is ever changing and people and places are left behind. Sometimes, it is good for the soul to realize closure if only in your mind. Thanks for saying what many of us want to but never do
Really enjoyed sharing supper with the six of you. Although I did not grow up in Taber, my grandparents on my mother’s side are buried there. Maybe that was what attracted me to a Taber boy. Who knows! I grew up in Duchess and am fortunate that my oldest brother stayed there and had three daughters who live close by so still frequent the old haunt. Also have a sister in a nursing home in Brooks who does not remember if I’ve been to visit or not but I know I’ve been and try to go about once a month. She also has a daughter that lives near Duchess and all my nieces make me feel most welcome. From Calgary it is only a two hour drive and I do as I please now!
Must say you certainly are a good writer and I thank Sharon for forwarding your story.
I have not yet taken the journey back to Taber………….although this discussion has me thinking in that direction. My parents grounded us in a great, safe upbringing linked to counting bolts in the hardware store every New Year’s morning and sitting on the fence at the rodeo. We took this joyous upbringing for granted. I have taken on the challenge of getting the two little urban girls next door out into the wilderness. Each year we head off in some direction………..now they start asking in Jan. about possible routes. This year we are heading to Southern Alberta to hike in the Cypress Hills, visit my mother’s family farm in Bow Island, boat into Writing on Stone Park and hike in Waterton. A perfect time to stop in at Taber and tell that story. I wonder if Taber Hardware building still stands? It is always fun to visit the Valgardson farm unless Bradley is out touring with the Smalls…….thanks for the reminders Robert. Oh………my Dad’s family farm still exists near Bow City. The actual homestead is now under water but the stone circle is still evident…………now I wonder if I could find that……………….