A Kelowna childhood in the 70’s: Summer

Lying in bed at 9pm and sunlight still peeks through my bedroom curtains. Is that the sound of children laughing, perhaps muffled by a lawn mower buzzing, a busy bee making the most of extended daylight? Eventually it quietens, and all that remains is the sound of  a garden sprinkler in a nearby yard: chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik, cshhhhhh; chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik, cshhhhhh…

The morning dawns bright blue and cool, the heat at bay for at least for a few hours. In the distance an electrical substation hums quietly to its new subdivision. A dog barks. The children are up already, playing and laughing again.

Everything is bright and new and feels like California. Indeed, my friends and I will surely grow up to be scientists or engineers and work at JPL in Pasadena. Or Caltech or Stanford…maybe even Laurence Livermore. It must be so, we read our futures in Omni Magazine. Even the street names around us reflect sunny, bright California: Hollywood, Monterey, Cactus. The present and the future look bright.

And it’s hot. Through late June and into August, the average daily temperature is over 90 degrees. It does not rain, until a sudden thunderstorm the long weekend in August that marks the halfway point of summer vacation. A warning shot across the carefree bow, but then it is sunny again, the tall twisted pine trees scenting the arid Okanagan air, the grasslands and sage of the surrounding hills turning a golden brown in stark contrast to the bright blue sky. Those hills cascade in terraces down to Okanagan Lake, a long silver-blue ribbon cut through the middle of British Columbia.

Postcard: Okanagan Lake Bridge, Kelowna, BC, c.1960

The Kelowna Floating Bridge circa 1960 (Postcard)

The tourists come. Many from the coast, many more from Alberta and the prairies. Yellow and black license plates swarm like metallic bumblebees, visiting to smell the flowers and buzz the beaches.

Our extended family visits too, and my mom spends Sunday morning busily preparing potato salad for an afternoon picnic at the beach. Being locals, we go to quieter beaches like Sun-Oka in Summerland, across the lake, a half-hour drive along the winding two-lane highway towards nearby Penticton. The water is only cold at first, in stark contrast to the blast-furnace air, and I play with my cousins until my mom begs me to come out before I shrivel up into a prune. Once I am in the water, I don’t want to come out. When I do, the sand is so hot from the all-day sunshine, I burn the soles of my pudgy 10-year-old feet.

The cousins leave from the beach asking about nearby fruit stands, for no one leaves the Okanagan in the summertime without stopping at a road side shack to buy the latest orchard crops: cherries, peaches, apricots…The bounty seems endless.

The long summer days with the extended evening light, seem endless, as a child, lying in bed listening to the citronella-lit, murmured conversations of adults on the patio,  the later-summer breeze stirring the leaves of tall cottonwood into whispers, and the sprinkler in the background: chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik, cshhhhhh; chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik, cshhhhhh…

 

 

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Book review: The poetry of Kin Types

Kin TypesKin Types by Luanne Castle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t normally read poetry, but as a follower of Luanne Castle’s blogs where I have enjoyed her writing and her thoughts on genealogy immensely, I decided to take the plunge. Well! I was not disappointed.

The big thing that struck me about Luanne’s chapbook was the ingenious idea of writing about one’s ancestors in poetic form. As a non-family member, it can be difficult to read straight-up family memoir, but Luanne has found a way to make these unknown characters come alive for us, give us a glimpse into their lives and thus remind us of our common humanity. As the avid genealogist she is, it would have been easy to write a prosaic family history of who-did-what-when, but this is so tantalizingly different. Luanne has gotten inside the old photographs and behind the family stories and gives voices to the women and men in her family’s past. She digs up their hopes, their fears, their feelings, exposing them vividly via some event in the family’s past…and the effect is extraordinarily haunting. It is like catching a glimpse of an actual ghost.

Check out this sample describing both the early, chaperoned dates of one couple, to the very end of their lifetime:

Their beginning
Pieter scrubbed before he visited Neeltje on the porch, but the oil smell of herring clung to his skin and hair, to his coat and boots. He left at ten every night. Later, she would press her hands, the ones he held as they sat turned toward each other in the small chairs, to her face and inhale. It had the effect of smelling salts or a burnt feather, reviving her from the dullness she felt when he was not around.

Their ending
When he felt invisible cold vines cold vines wrap around his ankles and calves, he saw her more clearly than he had in twenty years. His son Karel whispered that he would be seeing Mother soon. Pieter thought he meant the mother he had never known, but then realized it was Neeltje and smiled at the image of her standing before the light.

This is inspiring to me, as I have been struggling to find a more creative way to write family memories on my own blog for some months now. Luanne seems to have found a way to bring one’s family ancestors to life for others. I want to go back and look at Luanne’s genealogical blog again because I have a greater sense of emotional connection and indeed curiosity to these Dutch-American ancestors on whom the poems are based!

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Inheriting trauma

A teenage boy who has never had trouble sleeping wakes up shivering early one morning and can’t fall back to sleep. Instead he feels strangely, intensely cold and fears that falling to sleep will be his death. For years afterwards, he suffers from debilitating insomnia that affects his schooling, career, and personal life. After years of medical help that fails to fully resolve the issue, he is led to explore a family story about an uncle who died years before he was born. The uncle had died of hypothermia while working up north, being caught out in a snowstorm. Exploring the link to his current fear of falling asleep and his uncle’s death, the young man works through the feelings that he finds in common with this ancestor, learns to separate his own reality from the past, and never suffers from insomnia again.

A young woman has intense, fluctuating emotions that lead to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Medical interventions not only fail, but make the woman ever more despondent and fearful for her future well-being. At her lowest depths, she admits to a new psychologist her darkest, yet liberating dream. A dream where she jumps into a steel forging furnace where she is instantly vaporized and incinerated, ending her horribly painful existence. After exploring her family history with her psychologist, she recalls that her grandmother’s family were Jewish and had died in the holocaust, being gassed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and “incinerated” in the crematoria. In exercises putting herself in her grandmother’s shoes, imagining what her feelings of grief and loss must have been like with the guilt and despondency of surviving, the woman realizes her depression has its roots with her grandmother’s experiences. She soon overcomes her own fears, her depression and desire to die.

Do these examples seem farfetched? At first glance they seemed a bit out-there to me too, but I have indeed wondered about my own feelings of depression and anxiety in light of my own family history that I have uncovered. I have often felt that many of my negative emotions are irrational and have no connection with my actual life experiences, but that perhaps they are inherited…That somehow our ancestors lives become stained with some trauma, something that they cannot clear up themselves, and that stain is subtly passed down to the future generations, who are—somehow—faced with resolving it themselves. It turns out that science is starting to look at family trauma in just this way. The cases above are taken from Mark Wolynn’s book, It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Wolynn has done much pioneering work in the psychology of family trauma, and his book outlines a new and apparently successful approach to handling long-standing, puzzling issues that other medical strategies and interventions cannot seem to handle.

Wolynn devotes a large part of his book to the rapidly evolving (no pun intended) field of epigenetics. This is an area of genetics that studies the barely understood role of “junk DNA”, the part of our genetic coding that scientists had previously assumed was not directly responsible for anything too exciting. It is not really involved with the basic, more tangible stuff such as eye-color and predisposition to inherited diseases like Multiple Sclerosis. However, it may have a role in the expression and coordination of the other genetic material. Science is now finding that this part of our DNA can indeed be influenced by stressful, traumatic events in our lives, and the mutations expressed there actually passed down through generations to crop up as confusing and seeming acausal symptoms in descendants who never experienced the original traumas. Intense periods of stress can induce chemical changes in our body, changes that can affect bodily organs and even our cells, right down to ova and sperm, the carriers of our DNA to the next generations.

It is important to note, as some critics of Wolynn fail to do, that Wolynn is not saying that all inherited family trauma is passed through epigenetic mechanisms. For example, the young man whose uncle froze to death cannot possibly have received any affected DNA from his uncle, but perhaps the trauma was transported otherwise. We need to fully recognize that family trauma can also be inherited subtly, through behaviors and language that creep their way into the everyday lives of our grandparents and parents, influencing our core beliefs and value systems that obviously affect our emotions and how we ourselves deal with our day to day issues.

In hindsight, I now realize how loaded many of my parents’—especially my mom’s—words and actions were. When she talked about the past, she often seemed carried back to it, reliving the anxieties and traumas of long ago. Although she so much wanted to protect her children from those scary feelings and especially terrible experiences of the war, the faintest smudges or stains  came through to me and my sister regardless. And, although it seems odd to think of oneself as a single-celled ovum, affected within your mother’s young ovaries during the stresses and terrors of Nazi occupation, these epigenetic theories certainly would explain a lot about my irrational fears and anxieties…

time-bridge

My sister, me, and my mother at the Nijmegen Waalbrug in 1972, superimposed with an image from 1940 when it was blown in an attempt to stop the German invasion.                     My mother often looked back into her past…perhaps too clearly.

In any case, it seems that the scientific community is now seriously investigating these patterns of family trauma that repeat to manifest themselves over and over through generations. Developing better techniques and strategies to help people cope with mental afflictions, wherever and whenever they may have originated, can never be a bad thing. We may just need to look back at our ancestors’ experiences and the unexpected consequences of these carrying forward through time to find us.

 

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