Monday, July 06, 2009

Wish I'd seized the moment to know my grandmother better

My mother didn’t give me much choice about attending family reunions when I was younger, and there were times in years past when I wasn’t too happy about that. I love my family, but long summer treks to Saskatchewan weren’t necessarily my idea of a good time.
But somewhere along the line, I got hooked. I can’t remember the exact reunion when it all clicked in, but I recall looking around at my many cousins as we made merry and thinking how incredible it was that we barely knew each other, had grown up thousands of miles away, and yet all had stories in common of our quirky grandmother.
That connection is very much on my mind this week, because the aunts and the uncles and the cousins are all in town at this very moment for a family reunion in Victoria. Chances are I’m swapping Grandma Chow stories with some of them even as you’re reading this.
Mary Feica was a Romanian teenager who married Chinese immigrant Charles Chow in 1910 in Moose Jaw, Sask. They’d met when my grandmother got a job working at the restaurant my grandfather managed.
The circumstances of that marriage alone, at a time when few things could have been more scandalous, have made for many happy hours of chatty speculation for me and my cousins. But there’s much more than that to the life of Mary and Charles Chow and their nine very interesting children, so we’re never short of things to talk about.
I have no memory of my grandfather, as he died the year I was born. But Grandma Chow lived until 1979 and was a regular visitor to our house during my childhood. She was a traveller without a home base in the years when I have the clearest memories of her, moving from one relative’s house to another for extended periods.
Oh, the things I wish I’d asked her during the times when she stayed with us. She was a woman who lived against the tenets of her time on a number of fronts, and if she was here before me now I’d have a million questions for her about what that was like. (Every now and then, the cousins get to talking about how we’ll write a book about our grandparents.)
But wouldn’t you know, I wasn’t interested in Grandma Chow’s stories in the years when she was visiting. I was a kid, and then a self-absorbed teenager, and then off on my own adventures. My memories of her are only of an elderly woman with a heavy accent and thick eyeglasses, humming tuneless melodies as she moved around our kitchen making something strange to eat.
Such a lost opportunity. I’m thankful that one of my cousins is trying to fill in some of the gaps in our family knowledge by interviewing the three surviving Chow children - my mother Helen, her sister Joan, and baby brother Eddie. But I wish I’d had the foresight to be more curious with Grandma Chow herself when I had the chance, as I’m sadly certain that she would have been happy to have been asked.
It’s not so much the geography of her life that interests me - lived here or there, worked at this job or that. I’d like to know those details too, of course, but what I really want to know is what it was like to be her.
Nine children, a language barrier with her own husband, the death of a young son, years of poverty during the Depression - Mary, how did you endure it? She made choices throughout her life that would have brought tremendous judgment down on her at the time(sorry - you’ll have to wait for the book for more details), and yet she just kept putting one foot ahead of the other and carrying on.
I see her legacy in all of us Chow cousins. There’s no shortage of skeletons in the closet when it comes to our family, but we’re a tough-minded, passionate, independent bunch who know how to carry on. I’m proud to be the descendent of a strong, resilient woman who lived a life in full.
The good thing about regular family reunions is that the people who attend eventually develop their own shared history just from being at all those reunions. Grandma Chow remains a favourite subject, but now we’ve got our own tangled lives and crazy stories from previous reunions to add to the mix.
A big thanks to my Auntie Joan and cousins Tracy and Toni for making this weekend’s reunion happen. Chow family, party on.

Epilogue on July 7: Family reunion was a blast! Next reunion: Summer of 2012 in Three Hills, Alta.

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