Posts Tagged ‘memories’

The Things We Keep, a guest post by Lesley Butler



What things do we keep?

When you move, what do you choose to take with you? What do you want close at hand?

And what have you left behind in the various places you’ve called home? Are these physical things, or are they memories, feelings, ideas?

These were the questions at the heart of our event The Things We Keep, hosted by The Blue Castle: Conversations on Women, Culture, and the Spaces of the Imagination and the Saltwater Stories research group. Inspired by themes of migration, memory, and identity, and with a particular interest in the multifaceted manifestations of our journeys, we invited anyone interested to bring the things they keep, and the stories that made them meaningful. A show-and-tell for adults, if you will.

While the premise of our event was quite simple (we wanted to hear your stories!), the conversation generated was anything but. It was insightful, moving, engaging, often humorous, and wonderfully complex.

On March 8, 2018, we eagerly gathered at the MMaP Gallery, Arts and Culture in St. John’s, Newfoundland, stories ready to share. After taking our seats in a cozy, circular seating arrangement — all the better for seeing and hearing each other — we introduced ourselves and embarked on our storytelling journey. Our guests ranged from individuals who had spent the majority of their lives in St. John’s, to people who had made a “home” in many places around the world. The generational diversity of our group, too, led to some lively repartee about our respective stories.

While there was a wide array of things, including journals, seashells, cooking materials, books, poems, christening outfits, and even a 1946 car manual, notable threads connected each and every one.


Stories of place

The connection between things and place was central to many of our guests’ stories. One guest, for example, shared a poignant story of her time in New Orleans. With brightly coloured Mardi Gras beads jangling and sparkling around her neck, she recalled the undeniable sense of place cultivated through food, conversation, and comradery with her neighbours. While the beads were things she had kept, it was the stories of generosity and the memories of place that she would always carry.


Stories of the past

The significance of the past was an underlying theme to each story. The things we keep necessarily have a history — of our own personal journeys, or our family histories, or collective histories of culture, religion, and literature. For example, one guest brought a small Catholic cross given to her by her mother — an heirloom to keep her late grandfather’s spirit close during times of conflict and uncertainty. Despite being somewhat skeptical of religion, she developed a curious attachment to this cross. By keeping it close through her journeys around the world, she came to realize that its significance was not so much in the thing itself as in the histories, feelings, and memories that it embodied.

Unwrapping objects in a box from green tissue paper, another guest revealed two small artifacts — a fractured piece of a pipe, and a clear, slightly cracked inkpot. On the paper was a hand-drawn map, showing where she had dug these mysterious, delicate objects from the ground many moons ago (which interestingly, was only about a 10-minute walk from where our event was held). She speculated where they might have come from, who might have owned them, why they had ended up buried in the earth. In fact, it is through speculation that these things came to have a story, and an imagined history. She also pondered what we would find if we kept digging, what other things could we unearth, what other (hi)stories could we conjure? Surely, she suggested, you could write a book about it all.


Stories of our selves

Another major theme was the stories of our selves, past and present. One guest brought a journal from her teenage years that brought back humorous memories of romantic optimism, but also made her (and via discussion, the whole room) wonder about the nature of our selves over time. Do we recognize the self that exists within a journal’s bounds? When we move/change/grow, do we ever remain the same? What of our public and private selves? For whom do we write and represent the self? Is it for ourselves or others? For whom do we change? What happens when our journeys create multiple, fragmented selves? And what would it take to piece them back together?

Another guest recalled her days as a youth in a military family, where multiple moves across borders meant things in the physical sense were not easily transported. Aside from her mother’s all-important dishes, there were few belongings they kept on their journeys. And yet, years later, looking at the designs on these dishes, she realized that one of the things she “kept” was colour. Some of her favourite colours — bright lime greens, purples, oranges — reminded her of the mod styles with which she grew up, and which painted the borders of her mother’s prized dishes. Some things we keep might not be tangible in the traditional sense but can nevertheless seep into our sensorial experiences; they create a residual, bodily affect upon our moving, changing, multifaceted selves.


Each of the stories shared that evening illuminated the role of things within our journeys through place, through time, and through selves. These keepsakes act as reminders of the past, of family, of home, of feelings, of who we have been and who we could be. As we move across borders, between houses, beneath land, over waters, perhaps what we keep represents a glimmer of continuity in the sometimes-unpredictable journeys of our ever-changing, ever-complex lives.

If you kept digging, what could you find? What would you discover?

If you kept digging, you could write a book with the countless stories of the things you keep.

♦     ♦     ♦

Lesley Butler

LESLEY BUTLER is a Master of Gender Studies candidate at Memorial University. She has research interests in life writing, memory, postcolonial theory, feminist geography, and women in film. Her current research examines the films of Julie Dash through an auto/biographical lens, focusing particularly on how the self is (re)written alongside representations of race, identity, place, and history.

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

Wordless Wednesday: October 12, 2016


©2016 Allyson Latta

©2016 Allyson Latta


We recently challenged ourselves to take a photo of a treasured older item — possibly one that might seem odd, to other people, for us to have kept. Here’s mine. And yes, there’s a story behind it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

Wordless Wednesday: May 11, 2016


©2015 Allyson Latta

©2015 Allyson Latta

Each week on Wordless Wednesday, bloggers around the world post a photo they’ve taken that tells a story. I hope this one will bring to mind a memory or stimulate your imagination. Perhaps it will even inspire you to write — memoir, fiction, or a poem. If it does, please let me know in the comments or by email via the Contact tab on my home page!

Scroll through more of my photos here.


And check out this week’s Wordless Wednesday contributions from some of my Canadian writer-photographer friends, coast to coast:

Allison Howard

Barbara Rose Lambert

Carin Makuz (Matilda Magtree)

Cheryl Andrews

Elizabeth Yeoman (Wunderkamera)


To subscribe to my blog and receive occasional posts, click HERE.


Recent posts on writing

NEW!: “Once the stories were collected, it was obvious I was grieving”: Interview with Plum Johnson on her memoir They Left Us Everything

Culture Dock: New app encourages travellers and the culturally curious to share impressions through images, guest post by Kendall Hunter

Ethan Canin on Story Endings

Survival: Daughter and Father Collaborate on Story of His Time as WWII
Air Gunner and Prisoner of War, guest post by Barbara Trendos

Disquiet and Experimentation: Interview with writer Chloe Catan, first-prize winner in the 2015 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest (Submissions for this year will be accepted as of April 2, 2016)

Seven: On learning to embrace revision, guest post by memoirist Alexandra Risen (Unearthed, forthcoming)

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

“Once the stories were collected, it was obvious I was grieving”: Interview with Plum Johnson on her memoir They Left Us Everything


Plum Johnson


“I love to write stories (I call them “scenes”) and often write them without regard for a narrative thread. For me, it’s like putting different colours on a palette before I start painting; I don’t know which colours I might need later, but I want all the options.”


PLUM JOHNSON is an award-winning author, artist, and entrepreneur living in Toronto. She was the founder of KidsCanada Publishing Corp., publisher of KidsToronto, and co-founder of Help’s Here! resource magazine for seniors and caregivers. Her best-selling memoir, They Left Us Everything, won the 2015 RBC Charles Taylor Prize for Nonfiction. The book was also a finalist for the 2016 OLA Evergreen Award, shortlisted for the 2015 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Nonfiction, and longlisted for the Leacock Medal for Humour. Published in Canada in 2014, it will be released in the U.S. this July.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

Traces of What Was: a memoir by Steve Rotschild

Inspired by a line from novelist Lydia Millet — “We live in what we leave behind” — Steve Rotschild began writing his memoir, Traces of What Was, at the age of 70.

It was 2003, and he had realized he was the only one who knew the full story of what had happened to their family, “who were among the 70,000 Jews of Vilna during the dark days” of the Second World War.

“I had carried the story with me for a long time,” he tells me in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted to get it off my chest and to tell my children and grandchildren, so the stories wouldn’t get lost.”

“Young people,” he adds, “can’t imagine these things.”

Rotschild, who now lives in Toronto, was born in 1933 in Vilna, Lithuania. He immigrated to Israel with his mother and stepfather in 1949, and from there to Canada. In 1956, in Montreal, he married Lillian Blumenfeld; they later moved to Toronto, where they raised their two daughters.

But this brief biography doesn’t reveal what his memoir does.

In Traces of What Was, “Ten-year-old Steve Rotschild learns to hide, to be silent, to be still — and to wait. He knows the sound of the Nazis’ army boots and knows to hold his breath until their footsteps recede. Rotschild takes us on a captivating journey through his wartime childhood in Vilna, eloquently juxtaposing his past, furtive walks outside the ghetto with his long, liberating walks through Toronto fifty years after the war. Vividly evoking his experiences, this story of survival and a mother’s tenacious love leaves the reader indelibly marked by Traces of What Was,” writes his publisher.

Launched in a ceremony at the Markham Flato Theatre, Traces of What Was is published by the Azrieli Foundation, a Canadian philanthropic organization that supports a range of initiatives, including Holocaust commemoration and education. The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program “is guided by the conviction that each survivor of the Holocaust has a remarkable story to tell, and that such stories play an important role in education about tolerance and diversity.”

The program’s fascinating website offers a multimedia look at the memoirs in the series and their authors, featuring excerpts, maps, photos, video interviews, and historical context. There are also educational resources for teachers.

Before he began writing, Rotschild read many stories of the war that were tragic, but he was determined his memoir would be different. His favourite writers include Canadians Gregory Clarke and Rohinton Mistry, whose works he read for inspiration. He eventually decided on a structure for his book that juxtaposes thoughtful and evocatively described strolls in various seasons through his Toronto neighbourhood, representing for him moments of freedom and relative happiness, with reflections on wartime. His teenage granddaughter Michal helped with the wordprocessing and editing to pull the manuscript together.

“I needed to tell the story,” says Rotschild, who has since suffered a stroke resulting in some paralysis.

One of the most difficult scenes to set down on paper, he says, happened when he was young, during the war and on the morning after an explosion. He saw feet wearing little white shoes sticking out of the rubble of a building and thought they were those of a doll — until the body of a girl was pulled from the wreckage.

Following that passage, in a rare aside to the reader, he writes: “I hesitated a long time before writing this down. It is something I haven’t described to anyone for sixty years, the most upsetting image from among the other horrible images I carry with me from the war years.”

“I’m not very sentimental — I’ve seen a lot of death,” he says. “But some of the scenes [I remember] were terrible, especially scenes of children.”

Yet Rotschild’s writing is also filled with humour, keen observation, rich description, and an appreciation of life’s beautiful moments. “The war was raging somewhere,” he writes of his last visit to his grandparents’ home, thirty-two kilometres from Vilna,

“but in the small village of Popishok, life went on as before. The girl and her two brothers came again, and we played hide-and-seek. They counted to one hundred, and I ran through the orchard, along a grey wooden fence and into the large barn belonging to the children’s family. It was a huge, dim place with several stalls but no animals, some farm implements and wooden barrels. Against the far wall a ladder leaned up to a loft where a few bales of hay lay. The rungs were too far apart for my short legs, but I managed to scramble up and hide behind a bale, sitting against the wall clutching my knees. Soon I heard them come in. They searched the stalls and inside the barrels and then left. It was very quiet; I heard the buzzing of bees outside, then another sound, of someone climbing the ladder. I didn’t move. Then she was beside me on her knees, her hands on the floor boards, a wide grin on her face, laughter in her dark eyes. She leaned closer and kissed me on the cheek, her black hair brushing my face, and then she was gone – the sound of her bare feet on the wooden floor of the barn and out the door, the pleasant sensation of her soft lips on my cheek and the strange cucumber smell of her hair all a precious gift….

“The next day it was back to the city and the war. I never saw my grandparents and aunt Faigeh again, nor the children I played with for those few memorable days.”

Steve Rotschild (right) with his grandson Cory Austin at the launch of Traces of What Was (Photo: Eric Benchimol)

Ultimately, the miles and memories — some heartbreaking, others uplifting — that Rotschild travels in his contemplative walks bring writer and reader to a place of peace and hope.

He urges other survivors to write their own stories. “If we leave behind written accounts of ourselves,” he says, “[the dead] can still talk to the living on down through  the years.”

Traces of What Was can be purchased at Second Story Press.

Memoirs in the Holocaust Survivor Memoir Program series are published in English and French and distributed free of charge to educational institutions across Canada. They are available in bookstores or online. E-book versions will be available in the near future.

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Wordless Wednesday: January 20, 2016


2013 Allyson Latta

2013 Allyson Latta


Each week on Wordless Wednesday, bloggers around the world post a photo they’ve taken that tells a story. I hope this one will bring to mind a memory or stimulate your imagination. Perhaps it will even inspire you to try your hand at some flash (super short) or long memoir or fiction, or a poem. If it does, please let me know in the comments or by email via the Contact tab on my home page!


Scroll through more of my photos here.

And check out this week’s Wordless Wednesday contributions from some of my Canadian writer-photographer friends, coast to coast: Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016