Seven Treasures, part 20: guest post by Hyacinthe Miller

A lifelong writer, HYACINTHE MILLER is editing drafts of her non-fiction book (Police Officer: Journeys from Recruit to Chief), two novels, and an anthology of erotic short stories. She is president of the Writers’ Community of York Region and a member of Sisters in Crime and Toronto Romance Writers. She maintains a blog, Write in Plain Sight, and is developing another site called The Police Professional.

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1.

GrandmotherI’ve always been enamoured of snapshots, those frozen fleeting seconds of our lives that outlast memory.

The date printed on the pinked margin reads February 1938. Grandmother’s thick wavy hair is pinned back under a fancy hat. The camera registers her dark oval face, her unblinking gaze under a solemn brow, the fox-head stole draped around her shoulders. Her fingers grip a wooden plinth, as if to press it into the floor.

“My mother was a dainty woman,” Mom would whisper, prying the lid from a dusty storage box and easing grandmother’s shoes from a bed of crinkly tissue. Tiny (size 4), low-heeled and shiny black and soft as frosting, with a comforting, worn scent, those boots were a talisman. Wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron, she’d turn away to look at something I couldn’t see. I’d trace the sweep of leather buttons, the cobbler’s stitched signature on the instep. There was no question of me putting them on — at age ten I was almost as tall as my mother, with feet far too big. Eleven months after the portrait was taken, grandmother sat in a dentist’s chair to have a tooth extracted and didn’t awaken from the ether. At age 19 the orphaned guardian of three younger siblings, my stoic, graceful mother would wear the weight of that death all of her life.

2.

MomgardenThe photo of my mother at 22 hangs on the wall of my sewing room, in an antique frame we unearthed in her garage after she died suddenly in 1998. In it she is shy, slender, hopeful — I was that way too, once. She’s affianced of my father, a dreamy lad deployed as a sapper with the British Corps of Engineers in the pestilential trenches of Second World War Egypt. We’re not sure how they met, or when. My brothers and I speculate, injecting romance or intrigue into an invented history. In that unruly garden behind the family walk-up in Montreal, Mom looks more incandescent than sunlight. In fading convent-school cursive, she wrote on the reverse, Greeting to My Beloved, Christmas 1942. He returned two years later, not the man she’d thought she knew, but a wary, tight-lipped husk, besotted by an Englishwoman who’d reclaim him twelve years later, leaving my mother bereft again, this time with three small children of her own. Mom mourned/adored him till she died. I learned the persistence of love.

3.

My daddy, whom I would love even when he no longer knew me, stands at parade rest in a postcard photograph, cap rakishly askew over his right ear, dark khaki uniform sharply pressed, boots spit-shined, cloth service belt wrapped tight around his narrow waist. Birthed in a village somewhere in Cuba and lacking proper documentation, he’d lied about his age to enlist in the army. The sweet-faced poet-photographer-machinist-farmer looks to be on the threshold of tears. He inscribed the photo, From Ronnie to dear Eunice, with his love. Underneath what looks like a hastily sketched bird is a blotch of red, whether wax or a scrap from an album I don’t know. But it resembles a misshapen heart. When I first found the picture among my mother’s things, those words, his love, struck me as odd phrasing, but recalling the lives they’d lived — briefly together and decades apart — I knew that he’d lost whatever self he had, after he sailed on that troop ship and puked his way to war. He’d shaken hands with the Shadow.

4.

BabyshoesIn a yellowing cellophane bag tucked on the top shelf of my closet, I’ve kept the pair of impossibly tiny pink booties that were mine. They seem more fitting for a doll than a full-term infant. I was born fourteen days short of my parents’ first anniversary. Babies were smaller in those lean days after the Armistice. I recall stories of how poor they were. How important the family connections. The sweater Mom knitted fits my outstretched hand. Decorated with scalloped edges, eyelet rows, and yellow ducks, the fine wool sweater’s much washed, the stitches barely felted, no longer pristine white but aged to ivory.

5.

Jess and I have been best friends since February 1961, when she blew into Sister John Francis’s class at Denis Morris High School, nudging the trajectory of my future. Drum corps and cheerleading, smoking Export ‘A’s pilfered from her dad, and . . . boys. At age 16, we are so innocent in our matching white jackets. Not for nothing in 1992 are we wearing dark sweaters, reflecting, perhaps, the lessons shaping our lives. In the photo I’ve grown into the same cautious eyes that were my dad’s. Unlike him, though, I’ve saved my self.

6.

SupernanaThe Superman sweater, knit when my son was in grade seven and before heroes fell from favour, later kept my mother comfy too. Graduated to a new outfit, he dropped by for a scheduled break from patrolling the 400 series highways, proud to show Nana his police cruiser. Years later, he would wear his dress uniform to her funeral. Captured forever in this photo, their innocent connection still warms.

 

 

 

7.

And when I thought that my options for bliss had frayed to a thread and that my fate, like that of all the women in my family, was to grow old alone, I met him at IKEA, my Swedish Viking. His first gift was a signet ring with stylized initials reading LH in one direction, HM in the other. Our lives have intertwined, like the letters. What serendipity.

Comments

  1. Christine Barbetta says:

    What a wonderfully woven photographic journey! Each treasure is like an opening to a memoir (leaving me wanting more!) with a common thread of familial love and endurance. I’m also so intrigued by the breadth and fascinating range of Hyacinthe’s writing! And in her ‘spare’ time she brings great energy and talent to her role as the first president of WCYR. A great post – thank you!

  2. Susan Siddeley says:

    What a great Seven Treasures piece! I’ve heard Hyacinth’s name — what a lovely way with words she has. Really good!

  3. Hyacinthe says:

    Thank you, Allyson, for the opportunity to contribute to your beautiful, thought-provoking site. And I am grateful for the kind comments from Christine and Susan.

    Embarking on this project took me back to my boxes of memories to find the Treasures that resonated most. What I found, though, was that it was the photographs more than any ‘thing’ else that captured me, because each one takes me back to a place in my past.

    Even though some of them seem to evoke sadness in telling the story, that’s not what stays with me. Somehow, I can separate knowing what happened from the power of what happened, and the enduriong energy of the people who shared those experiences, if you know what I mean. My brothers and I realize that our legacy to our children and grandchildren will be captioning those photos with our snippets of memory (we have differing perspectives, too). So that’s our next joint project – some type of memory + photo album for future generations. And I owe that inspiration to Allyson!

    • What a great idea for posterity, Hyacinthe! I have a similar project which I hope to get to one of these days but I love your joint effort with your brothers.
      Your post was just beautiful and I felt I knew the people you mentioned. I especially loved the photograph of your petite grandmother although I was shocked at her early death and its circumstances. I believe we owe our children and our children’s children a more complete story of the past as we know it, and we writers are just the ones to get the pen rolling. Thanks so much for sending me this link. Elaine 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing all these special moments of time with us. Truly a wonderful walk through time.

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