Part 1: The Village
“The past is a foreign country,” wrote L.P. Hartley. “They do things differently there.”
No. We do things differently here. The past is over and done, fixed, immutable. We cannot change what happened then.
Not so with our memories.
Psychologists, neurologists and other “ists” tell us that our memories are anything but immutable. We remember some aspects of things past, forget others, confuse events, think we were somewhere when we weren’t. Even the act of recalling a memory changes that memory, or so they tell us.
Memory is a muddle.
So, what was I remembering when I went back to my home village of Meyronne this summer? I walked up and down the streets for almost an hour, looking at vacant lots where once there had been homes, businesses and gathering places. The village was eerily quiet, quite unlike my memory.
But how true was my memory? Was I suffering from nostalgia? Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition” (emphasis added).
Nostalgia was first ‘diagnosed’ in the 17th century as a psychopathological disorder. The sufferer was manic with longing for a place, time or person. ‘Cures’ varied from burying people alive – that would cure it! – to subjecting the sufferer to public ridicule and bullying, leeches and emetics.
Yes, they did things differently back then. Thank heavens we don’t do that any more.
But back to Meyronne.
I don’t think it was nostalgia so much as sadness that I felt walking the empty streets of Meyronne – sadness for a village that had almost dried up and blown away. Sadness because this remnant of a village was all that was left of the hopes and dreams of those, including my grandparents, who had established it 100 years ago. The village of some 300 people had flourished until the depression and Dirty Thirties struck. Farms and businesses failed; people left; abandoned houses and vacant lots multiplied.
It continued dying while I was growing up. Three garages became two, then one. Two grocery stores became one, then none. The CPR station closed, then vanished. The hotel burned down. Knox United Church’s congregation dwindled; the church was deconsecrated, sold and moved away; the congregation – what was left – attended church in neighbouring Woodrow. The Public School, a two-storey brick edifice, declined from 12 grades in three rooms to eight grades in three rooms to eight grades in two rooms to all students in one room; it closed in 1970 and students are now bussed to neighbouring Kincaid. Later, the grain elevators were abandoned, then knocked down and burned. The rink was torn down. The village council decided to bulldoze all abandoned buildings before they were subjected to vandalism and vermin. The plaque honouring those who served in both World Wars was removed from the original stone cairn behind the rink to a huge boulder beside the post office on Main Street.
When I left in 1965, barely 100 people lived there. Now, 35 people call Meyronne home.
I walked through town, contemplating the empty lots. Memories crowded around me like ghosts. Sounds and voices in my mind were more real than the silence of the streets.
That empty space? That was the rink.
I heard curling rocks growl up and down the ice and kids shrieking as they played Crack The Whip. I felt the volcanic heat of the pot-bellied stove in the change room. I felt my ankles wobble as I walked on skates over the rutted and blade-scarred wooden floor to the ice. I felt the frigid air bite my nose and cheeks as I walked home.
Grandma Hanna’s house stood in that empty lot.
Chicken dinners on Sundays. Her snoring when I slept over with her. A cardboard farm with metal farm animals to play with. The jar of buttons I sorted again and again by material (metal, plastic, glass, shell) or number of holes (two, four, shank) or colour (white, red, multi-colour) – is that where I first learned how to be an archaeologist? I heard her voice reading stories and poems, or telling stories about the “Old Days.” Always, a glass of milk and cookies at the ready whenever my brother and I went there.
This sidewalk, mostly hidden by grass? That’s all that’s left of Main Street.
I see trucks and cars parked there, people going in and out of Marcotte’s or Thuot’s general stores or the post office or across the street to the hotel or the telephone office, stopping, talking about the weather, the crops, the grain quota just opened, politics, an up-coming marriage, a funeral just passed, a fire at a neighbouring town, the price of milk, the price of wheat, how So-and-so is doing after surgery, when So-and-so’s baby is due.
In spite of those good memories, I could not feel nostalgia for the “good-old-days” of a Meyronne that I had never much liked. Meyronne, in my memory, was not a convivial place. Others may have different memories, but I remember a village of factions, especially among my grandparent’s generation: Protestant vs. Roman Catholic, English-speaking vs not-English (a polyglot of French, Dutch, German and eastern European). I remember a village that was inward-turning, that for whatever reason passed up opportunities to maintain itself. Perhaps people were bitter about the village’s decline. I don’t know. I just remember being glad to leave.
And yet . . .
Meyronne was not always a house divided against itself. Language and religion were forgotten in times of need and celebration. At these times, the people of Meyronne were at their best. Everyone came to the fall suppers; everyone came to the school Christmas concert; everyone came to the dances in the town hall (though not everyone slipped outside for a surreptitious nip from a clandestine bottle); everyone came to the bake sales to buy exactly what they could have made at home except they chose to support whatever cause the bake sale was for. If a farmer were injured or ill, neighbours pitched in to do the seeding, the summerfallowing or harvesting, according to the season. Neighbours willingly looked after your livestock when you were away for a weekend escape from the farm. These stubbornly independent and individualistic people knew that the only way they could survive was to help each other.
Perhaps that is the one thing I am nostalgic for – that sense of community. “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote in the 17th century. I often say: the good thing about a small town is that everyone knows your business, and the bad thing about a small town is that everyone knows your business. The only way we can attain our full humanity is in concert with others. Caring for others is as essential to our own well-being as it is to the well-being of others. It’s a challenge to find that sense of community in cities, where sometimes people don’t even know their neighbours.
I learned one lesson as I walked the silent streets that summer day: I couldn’t go home again because the village of my youth doesn’t exist any more. It exists only in my memories, warped and muddled and idiosyncratic as they may be. My “home” is now elsewhere; I have moved on, physically and metaphysically, existentially and emotionally.
Next time: Part 2 — The Farm
P.S. If you have read “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” Tales from the Homestead, please post a review on Amazon. Thanks.
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