Seniors’ collected memories make great reading

“I know my story won’t compare with highly educated people and authors, but I have had an interesting, loving, caring life.”With those words, 83-year-old Verna Palmer proceeds to talk about her life, beginning with her childhood in an Ontario farm family of 16 children.

Her story is one of 40 in a new book published by the City of Toronto. Then and Now, A Century of Memories is based on interviews with residents in the city’s 10 Homes for the Aged. Coincidentally, another seniors residence in Toronto, Belmont House, has also published a Book of Memories with 86 shorter reminiscences.

There’s a wide range of stories in both books—experiences and memories from living all across Canada and in all parts of the world.The prodding for both books was last year’s International Year of Older Persons and the arrival of the year 2000.

“What better way to celebrate the convergence of these two events than to look at the stories of people who’ve lived it a lot more than we have,” says Rosemary Bennett, the editor of Then and Now.

Great range of people
Bennett says they tried to get a good mix of both men and wome and also people from many different cultural backgrounds, as that’s the reality of the Toronto Homes for the Aged. There is also great geographic range, which Bennett says was accidental.

“We discovered that Toronto was a real catchment area for people from all over the world, not just the country.” There is, for example, the story of a woman born and raised in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan:

“Dora Yip still proudly tells people “I was the first Chinese Canadian baby born in Saskatchewan’… in 1907. (She) lived in China for nearly a third of her life as a Christian missionary.”-Then and Now, A Century of Memories .

Or the story of a Japanese Canadian, Joseph Ivaichi Kawashiri:

“Joe…was born in a small village in the prefecture of Tottoriken, Japan in 1897. He thought being the second son in the family did not hold much promise for him in Japan, and at the age or 18, decided to seek his fortune in Canada.”-Then and Now .

Kawashiri went through the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. There are many wartime reminiscences in both books, on the civilian and war fronts for both World Wars.

Halifax explosion in 1917
For example, there is a little girl’s memory of the Halifax explosion in the city’s harbour in 1917, when a munitions ship collided with another ship:

“…As I looked in the living room, all the windows there had been blown in and shattered against the piano where I had just been sitting. I was so lucky to have run into the other room.”-Jean Borden, Book of Memories.

Another senior remembers being sick in a diphtheria epidemic in the early part of the century:

“…On the day of the fumigation, all the family walked two blocks to my grandmother’s house, along the wide thick wooden plans that were the sidewalk. I was able to see the big yellow placard nailed to the front door—announcing ‘DIPTHERIA-NO ENTRANCE'”. -Frances Buckely, Book of Memories.

Governor General’s father
The Book of Memories includes a piece by William H. Poy, who was captured in Hong Kong while serving with the Canadian Signals Corps. He resides at Belmont House. He’s also the father of the Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson. She writes in the introduction to Book of Memories:

“Every generation of Canadians is held in the arms of the one that went before. From our elders, we take our determination to seize the day and our courage to persist through life’s inevitable setbacks.”

Rosemary Bennett says editing the memories was one of the biggest jobs she’s handled.

“What we were trying to achieve is to say, hey, every person sitting in a home for the aged has an incredible story to tell that shouldn’t be lost, that needs to be shared. There’s a lot of collective wisdom that people would miss out on otherwise.”

For the homes for the aged project, a freelancer went around to the 10 homes last summer, taping various seniors as they talked about their lives. Then Bennett took all the transcribed pages of stories, and whittled it down to a 160-page book.

“I always had a lot of respect for older people. But I learned that people have wisdom that doesn’t fade away as people get older…There’s something very appealing to me about some of these people. They still have a twinkle in their eye. You know they’ve been in on a good, long joke we can only experience half of. That’s the part that amazes me, the sense of humour. The outlook on life is amazing.”

-A Book of Memories is the millennium project of Belmont House in Toronto.
Then and Now, A Century of Memories is published by the Community&Neighbourhood Services, Toronto, Homes for the Aged Division.