Month: January 2015


“Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical.”
~ Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

marriage certificate
An ordinary document: my grandparents’ marriage certificate.

My grandmother’s life was ordinary: she immigrated to Canada as an infant with her parents and older brother, she went to a country school. She worked as a housekeeper and cook; she married, farmed with my grandfather, had two children.

Her life is also mythical: her story is – in many ways – the story of Alberta, the story of this country.

Her stories filled my childhood and became part of the mythology I carry with me everywhere. I may have missed many of the Greek and Roman classical stories growing up, but I know about the first time my grandmother, Olga, baked bread on her own: it was the day her youngest brother was born. He was born on her last day of grade eight, her last day of school ever. Olga’s basketball team was playing a game but she couldn’t go to school because her mother was having a baby, and Olga had to stay home to bake the bread. (She never let my great-uncle Art – the baby born that day – forget it, either, and teased him about it the last time she saw him, when she was in the hospital. I know because I was there.)

I know all about the adventures she and her siblings had growing up along the train tracks, and all the trouble they got into on the family’s farm. I know how the men on the threshing crew at the farm where she worked when she was a young adult loved her baking, especially her pies, and told her she should open a bakery.

Of course, there is a darker side to this mythology too, one she didn’t talk about. Now, as an adult, I am slowly uncovering more pieces to the puzzle and filling in the gaps of some of those stories.

Last month I wrote about finding inspiration in history – and what better place to find it than in my own history?

While that is a rhetorical question, I’ve been thinking about the connections between the ordinary and the mythical lately, as my current project – although fiction – touches on my family’s history. I find myself asking other, real questions. Questions I don’t have answers for yet: what do I do with all of these stories? What is my obligation, my responsibility? And: if I am telling these stories, how do I do so in a respectful way – but a way that is also honest and doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of my personal mythology?


Research Tidbits Volume 1

The Nursing Edition, or, What Kittens Have to do with Delivering a Baby

I am working on a new writing project, set in Alberta during the 1920’s and 1930’s. I spent much of the fall immersed in research. Delving into Alberta’s history has been really fun (yes, I am a librarian), and I find myself with more interesting information than I will ever be able to use. Instead of saving it all for cocktail parties, I’ve decided share some of it here from time to time.

medical instruments

Today’s tidbits come from the Heritage of Service: The History of Nursing in Alberta, by Tony Cashman (Alberta Association of Registered Nurses), which I was reading because one of my characters is a nurse.

Heritage of Service made for a fascinating read because of all of the anecdotes it included. Take this story, for instance, about Dr. Archer and his wife Jessie Archer, who was also his assisting nurse during this surgery in Lamont in the early 1900’s:

She gave the anaesthetic for the man who had the abscess at the base of his skull, and she had a large audience because the man and his many relatives agreed to the operation only on condition that all the relatives could come and watch. Patient and family were not in favor of the surgery because they thought the doctor was going to operate on the man’s brains. There was intense silence as Dr. Archer opened the abscess and began to remove the infected matter. Then the Archers nearly lost their professional composure as a large lady relative sighed: “Poor fellow. He never had much brains to begin with” (74).


Imagine working in – or receiving medical attention in – a facility that, in rural Alberta in 1928, “could be considered ‘modern’ without running water” (146). A few more details about conditions in Alberta’s early hospitals:

There was a tiny kitchen. If an operation came up, we would have to move the patients out of the front room, then clean it up to the best of our ability before operating. We had an antique sterilizer which we used, sort of a double-boiler affair the size of a large pail. This we set on the stove to sterilize our dressings. It was some job and we had no assurance they were sterile. We had to finish them off by drying them in the oven. This was a great worry to me; a far cry from our electric sterilizer in Medicine Hat. The X-ray room was my broom closet. I took most of the X-rays. ….The babies were kept in baskets in the kitchen by the stove and were bathed on the kitchen table (Mary Cody, describing the Cereal Hospital, page 132).

The Great Depression didn’t make it any easier:

One of these self-trained nursing aides was once out assisting in a maternity case in a cabin where the mother had used all the available flour sacks to prepare one layette. That would have been all right if there’d been only one baby, but a second arrived unexpectedly and this baby really came naked into the world because his twin brother had all the clothes. So the helpful lady asked Dr. Chisholm to turn around for a minute, a minute in which she took off her slip and made the newcomer presentable (223).

quarantine sign

However, this final story is my favourite:

Miss Willis wrote: “No course can equip us with ready made rules for all contingencies. What to do, for example, when at the moment of delivery you turn to your table for an instrument and find a kitten of whose existence you were previously unaware, intimately inspecting your sterilizing gear” (242).

What to do, indeed.


The photos in this post were take at the Cottage Hospital in Heritage Park, Calgary, Alberta.

I read Heritage of Service in the Heritage Room at the Stanley A. Milner Branch of Edmonton Public Library.