Read the series Introduction here.
SUSAN JOHNSON CAMERON is a retired elementary school teacher. She grew up in a small northern Ontario town, graduated from McGill University and taught in Hudson, Quebec, and Peterborough, Ontario. Susan and her husband live on Buckhorn Lake, north of Peterborough. She recently graduated from the Humber School for Writers and is revising and editing her first novel. Susan has always been interested in genealogy and in filling in the many details that make her ancestors live again. Her fictional narrative mirrors the life of her paternal grandmother and puts flesh on the bones of the early pioneers of northern Ontario. Although New Ontario was developed by countless politicians, entrepreneurs, miners, prospectors, and lumberjacks one hundred years ago, it was the hard-working women settlers who gave it a soul.
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These are my seven treasures:
I have a beautiful original gouache painting of a pair of robins, a reminder that robins have always been significant to me. My father rescued a baby robin many years ago and brought him home from work in his lunch basket. I recall digging up worms in the garden to feed “Tweety” and how he’d perch on one of our shoulders or make a mess while having a bath in a dish of water. There was another saucy robin that I became acquainted with decades later. “Dirty Harry” entertained us with his humorous antics at the time when we were coping with my father’s long and difficult battle with lung cancer. Last June eighth, the day my second grandson was born, a robin repeatedly tapped on the kitchen window and an upstairs window. A coincidence perhaps, but robins have a special place in my memories.
Two songs mean a great deal to me. When my Uncle Charlie died at the age of 93, I thought that his funeral would be a celebration of his life. It was, but I hadn’t expected to feel so overwhelmed with sadness. After my cousin David concluded his memorial speech, he requested that everyone sing “You Are My Sunshine” for Uncle Charlie. I cried as I sang, remembering how my father, who had passed away several years before, often sang that song. I hadn’t known that it was a song many of my cousins valued too, until I saw that they were singing through tears. The other treasured song is a lullaby that Dad sang to us when we were very young, “Go to Sleep, My Baby.” I now sing it to my grandchildren, and my sister confided to me that she sings it to her grandchildren too. When I researched the lyrics, I was not surprised to read that it originated in northeastern England, where my paternal grandparents lived before settling in northern Ontario in 1912.
In the photo, my maternal grandparents are sitting with me and my siblings on a sofa in their farmhouse livingroom. I am on Granddad’s lap as he holds me. My family was not generally demonstrative but I do remember my grandmother would give each of us a kiss when we arrived for our annual two-week vacation “down south” — the farm was in Maple, Ontario, and it took me years to stop calling Toronto “down south.” This photo triggers happy memories of summer holidays in a grand (to my eyes) Victorian farmhouse.
Somehow I ended up with Mom’s old recipe books, which is funny because I don’t enjoy cooking. But just reading her notes beside her “tried and true” recipes brings to mind marathon Christmas cookie baking (I think Mom invented production-line cooking), picking blueberries for her blueberry muffins (and suffering blackfly bites), lemon or date-and-nut loaves that weren’t for our dessert but were her contribution for a church bazaar, and a recipe for oatmeal cookies that makes me drool just to think of them (the secret was the pound of real butter).
Decades ago, my dad gave me an old photo album, acknowledging my fascination with family history. I’ve always felt that I was the person in our clan chosen to find the ancestors. Inside that album, along with the expected old photos, Dad had tucked letters, ticket stubs, and even a receipt for a child’s coffin. Over the years, using those clues, I’ve found a great-uncle who was killed at Passchendaele, a great-grandfather who drowned off the coast of China, a great-grandmother who in her eighties travelled from Bergen, Norway, to northern Ontario, and an aunt — my father’s only sister — who died from measles when she was just two years old. In discovering my ancestors, I feel I’m finding myself.
I treasure a tiny, white hand-made clay box. It is decorated with a brown teddy bear on one side and a black cat on the other. Pressed into the lid are carefully printed letters made by a young child. They spell out Mrs. Cameron. It was a gift from Ingrid, a sweet girl in my grade one class many years ago. Whenever I look at that unique gift, I am reminded of all the children who have touched my life over my teaching career. I have many happy memories, and some heart-wrenching ones too. When I get together with fellow teachers, some retired like me, and some still in the classroom, I often hear, “We could write a book!”
My three sisters and I each own a small, silver dragonfly brooch. Eleven tiny crystals travel from the eyes to the dragonfly’s tail. Truthfully, these pins are not pieces of jewellery we would ever have chosen, but they are precious to us. They were gifts from our mother, who gave us each one because she was always meticulous about treating us equally. Though Mom has been gone for over a decade, we all dig out our treasured dragonfly brooches for special family occasions, especially weddings. When I wear mine, I’m flooded with memories of her.