“All that mankind has done, thought or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.”
- Thomas Carlyle
Last week I visited a Halifax nursing home, where I met a lovely group of women who listened with interest while I told them about Harbour View. We were all a little shy with each other at first, and I was glad of the notes I’d typed for myself, just a little bit of paper to hang on to while I warmed up. I also had with me my grandmother’s gardening journal, a plain black notebook with Gammy’s neat handwriting throughout, and stuck to the back of it from years spent in a damp attic a few carefully clipped obituary notices from my grandfather’s death.
Gammy died several years before I was born, and I know her best from stories told to me by family members. She was a lively, intelligent, and complicated woman, spoken of with admiration tinged by a bit of fear by my relatives who knew her. I’ve also come to know her through her gardening journal, which reveals more than just the number of tulip bulbs she planted in the fall of 1932.
I abandoned my notes as I spoke of her journal, and of how important the legacy of her stories have been to me. During the writing of Harbour View I was inspired by one of her entries, in which Gammy describes her painful memories brought about by a vase of narcissi, memories of an abrupt move as a child from her Caribbean Paradise to the cold, damp of London in March. From this entry came Chapter 5, which I then read to the women at the nursing home.
They listened quietly, some with faint smiles on their faces, some of them looking thoughtful. When I finished, there was a small silence. I then told them how important their stories are to their families, no matter how many times they’ve told them, no matter how many times their descendents have rolled their eyes at hearing them again. Family stories shape us; they make us who we are. They’re important: We need to hear them and we need to tell them.
All traces of shyness had left the room, and the questions and comments flowed freely. A few of the women bought copies of Harbour View, but that wasn’t the point.
We all paid homage to the importance of family legend. That was the point.