I didn’t always know this – or even understand how far back it went. But my dad and I were having our weekly morning chat, which we do almost every Sunday through the wonders of Skype, and he was reminiscing about family. He was remembering a trip he took with my mum right around the time they got married, back in the 40s. My Dad met my Mom when he was travelling around Northern Ontario with a buddy of his, who happened to be my mom’s cousin. They landed in Timmins looking for work – which he found. He also found my Mom. After they married they decided to take a trip to Quebec to visit my Mom’s parent’s family. This is how I heard of my grandparent’s family, and how they too travelled.
I try to imagine what it must have been like for my Grandfather. He was a young man who had grown up in a small village in Quebec outside of Hull. This would have been in the late 1800s. He grew up in the same little village where my grandmother lived. He had married my grandmother there, and he went to a place that would become Timmins to help found a mine. He was in what was then called South Porcupine in 1911 when the fire came that destroyed the town. It was a fire that came out of nowhere and left the village people to scatter where they could to escape it. Some went down into the mines and suffocated when the fire sucked all the oxygen out. Others, like my grandfather, buried their tools and then stood in the lake with a blanket over their heads until the fire burned itself out. There was nowhere else to go.
That fire was a story told to me as a child, sitting on my grandfather’s lap. I didn’t understand then, when he told me that story, that at the time he was a young man with a new wife, and in a territory that had no roads, no railroads no way in or out except on foot. He was a man who was ready to build a life where there was nothing, and his wife was waiting patiently back in that small village to come out and meet him there. They were the ones who left the others behind.
So that is the family my mother came from. My Dad had been wandering Northern Ontario since he was 16. That was the year he went to work as “cookie” at Dalton Mills for the winter and came out of the bush with $100 in his pocket. It was 1934 and that was a lot of money. He decided to spend the summer looking up family, so he went to Massey to visit his Dad’s sister Claire and from there travelled the area finding aunts and uncles scattered across Northern Ontario. He even hopped the trains after that and worked the wheat fields of Alberta for a summer. It was in the fall after that stint in Alberta that he wandered up to Northern Ontario and Timmins with his buddy, my mom’s cousin, Eugene.
But even when they settled into Timmins, where my Mom had lived all her life, still there must have been that wanderlust inside them. For when they heard from friends that the American Southwest in the 50s was a great place, full of opportunities, they decided to sell the house they had bought, and all the furniture with it, and move with two small children. They spent a year or two travelling the southwest, living in a trailer before deciding to return to Canada. I contrast that move to all the moves before or since.
We are a family made up of many such journeys.
My journey this past year just before I turned 60; going to Vancouver from Long Beach with a U-Haul full of belongings. Memories of an earlier journey, sitting in a motel room in the early 60s on Halloween night when I was maybe ten, and our family was heading to California. My Dad remembering when he was 15 and the family moved from Salton to Dalton Mills by loading up a boxcar on a train, half the boxcar with their furniture and half the boxcar with the wood my dad had spent the year chopping. His Dad moving from town to town wherever the mills were open, first Nicholson 22 miles west of Chapleau, then Salton 36 miles east of Chapleau and then finally Dalton 44 miles west of Chapleau. Never moving far- just far enough.
We are a family of itchy feet, it seems. My older sister had lived in several countries over her lifetime, my younger sister travels around the world with her husband, always bringing back stories of distant lands and far away people. I have lived and travelled across the continent, crisscrossing it several times on my own. Only my brother seems content to live in the same town he grew up in – but he does his travelling in books.
We are a family with wanderlust – and I think the better for it.