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.
#MeyronneHistory #HannaFamilyHistory #VillageLife #Nostalgia #Memories #RememberingThePast #Contemplations #MargaretGHanna #Non-fiction
5 thoughts on “How I learned you can’t go home again”
Thank you for the nostalgic journey, Margaret. I find it comforting to know the security blanket of our youth is stored in a safe place (for the most part) and can be brought out to share in the form of stories. So much of what we yearn for is gone, and your words have definitely set my brain in motion on a trip down my own memory lane.
Thank you for your kind comment. Writing the story was both saddening and cathartic.
Well told. The trajectory of Meyronne resembles that of my wife’s hometown (they even had a skating rink), and her story is similar to yours.
Alas, there are too many villages that have dried up and blown away. Sad but inevitable, I guess.
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Your story reminds me of Truax â just a hop, skip and a fairly substantial jump to the east of Meyronne â about 100 mile hop, I guess. Truax never made it past the 125 residents mark, and today that number is down to about a dozen. There is a highway sign on the 334, between Corinne and Avonlea, that reads: âTRUAX 13â.
We like to say that this sign does double duty: It tells the passerby that Truax is 13 Km to the south, and that the population is 13. The number of buildings in Truax has also sharply decreased since its heyday in the 1920s, as with any similar dwindling town on the prairies.
And then I also recalled the town where I grew up just south of Montreal. It was called Greenfield Park, and, in the 1950s and 60s, was quite an English enclave in an otherwise dominantly French population. Today the francophone populace has substantially taken over this bedroom community. Unlike the dwindling prairie towns, the suburbs of Montreal and all growing North American cities continue to change. But here, old familiar landmarks have been replaced, not with vacant lots, but with new houses or apartments, commercial structures or a variety of public institutions. Or worse, the buildings have been replaced by wider transportation corridors â a far cry from the still unpaved roads with which I grew up.
I would like to return to Greenfield Park some winterâs evening, with a thick wet snow falling gently down, and walk again the three miles that I used to walk to get from our house to the church we attended in St. Lambert, two towns closer to the St. Lawrence River. (We also took the bus or car at times, but I especially enjoyed those late night winter walks.) That walk might bring back some pleasant memories; however, my recent walk (via Google Street view) showed very few buildings that I recall from the mid 1960s, and the empty fields across the road from our house are now covered with apartments.
We lived here from 1956-1959; & visited in this 1980 photo. The same site in June 2019
While I could go back and still see our house â with its red insul-brick siding – virtually unaltered in 1980; not so today, as urban sprawl has taken over a once quiet neighbourhood. The field across the street, where we would go in the early summer to pick wild strawberries is now covered with apartments or condos.
So, like you, I canât go back anymore either. Fortunately, for now at least, I have most of my memories intact, and a plethora of photographs to help reinforce those memories.
Thanks for sharing your memories, Margaret, and for reminding me of some of mine.
Have a good week, and maybe some more real fall weather before winter sets in for the long haul.
Frank Korvemaker, M.S.M.; SAA (Hon)
Retâd Archivist / Construction Historian
59 Compton Road
Regina, Saskatchewan S4S 2Y2
Tel: (306) 586-1405 E-Mail: email@example.com
Hon. Corporate Archivist for the Saskatchewan Association of Architects
For Information on the Association: http://saskarchitects.com/