Memoir Prologue. January, 2013

This prologue keeps changing. This is the latest revision. At the moment, a colleague is reading it to critique it. Your comments are also welcome.

Memoir: Restless

This memoir started to emerge after I discovered Uncle Billy’s manuscript in Banff, Alberta in 1992. While I’d been told his story before, I remembered William McCardell only as our maternal grandmother’s Uncle Billy, one of three railroad workers who had discovered the hot springs at Banff.  I had been through the area once before with my then husband and two children and we had seen a wax effigy of William McCardell in a museum on the main street. I wanted to see this effigy again while at a writing studio at the Banff Centre of the Arts some years later, but I couldn’t find it. Each day I questioned the man in a local artifact shop in the centre of town and finally he suggested there could be more information in the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Thus was I led to a huge typewritten manuscript that contained accounts of the adventures of this maternal ancestor. When I went back for dinner in the cafeteria at the Banff Centre that day, I was almost jubilant. It was something I wanted to tell everyone, even to shout it from a mountain top.
My residence at Banff that spring was a significant point on a long journey. I went there with a novel to work on which took almost twenty more years to write and publish. In 1992 it had already been emerging for almost that long already. I found useful critique and guidance, new colleagues and Uncle Billy’s manuscript while at the writing studio. There was magic in those six weeks in the mountains ­-- a solitary room for work, a cabin with a piano, long walks by the Bow River and ongoing conversations in the halls, in the cafeteria and over a pool table.
            “Do you think you’ll do anything with it?” was the most common question about my discovery. Since we were all writers, it was not surprising that these new colleagues thought I might write something.
            What? I had no idea.
As time went on, I felt compelled to jot down thoughts about this manuscript and the connections it had led me to ponder. Those early thoughts became the starting point for this memoir, something I wrote because it felt as if I had to. I did so knowing that if there were any value to it beyond my need to create some perspective on my own life, it would only be apparent much later. What unfolded is largely a reflection of another era, a way of life that has, in many ways, disappeared. How did I become a feminist?  How did I become a published author? How did I, in other words, get from there to here? At each juncture there were likely pivotal events as important as the discovery at Banff. The beginnings in a northern mining camp where another language surrounded us. A particular family and its roots and history. Something as minute as arguments between siblings.
How I came to grow up in a northern mining community was a result of a job my father found. A mechanical engineer, he was hired by Sigma Mine to design the hoist and to oversee the technical aspects of its operation. He went to the golden valley because of gold, but I doubt he thought it would lead to his first million.  Or any million, for that matter.
My parents, Beryl Goettler and Geoff Cosser, were married in 1935 and their first home was one of the company houses mine management had just built in northwestern Quebec for their first employees. After I was born, my mother and father moved into a larger mine house where they lived until all their children had left home. Had my father not developed a near fatal condition that required an ambulance to transport him over 500 miles to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto in 1962, they probably would have been there much longer. 
           The impact of this mining town, and others like it across the north in those days, was to create a tribe of northerners, something that remains in one’s blood for a lifetime. There is always an instant rapport as well as some common understandings when one meets someone else from that northern landscape. Yet other factors and themes are the basis of whatever myths sustained our family. Myths that are likely at the very root of what created the life trajectories of each of the three Cosser children, my two younger siblings and me. Likely everyone constructs such myths, creating
narratives to make sense of our lives. We may know ourselves better if we can remember where we’re from and how we became the people we are now. In my family, each of us might have answered differently the question of how and why we’ve followed particular paths, yet there would be some commonalities drawn from the themes of the isolation of a mining camp in those days — the sound of the whistle at the mine as well as the blasting underground, the French language surrounding us, the family silver, the focus on reading, the English dictionary, the fireplace. Or could it have been mainly the experience of our father going off to war in 1942, shortly after his third child was born, that formed us? Was it his focus on overseas as well as on ancestors and family trees? Perhaps it was his alcoholism that seemed to be a consequence of that time overseas. Offset somewhat by our mother’s joy in good company, good food and dancing.
          I knew early and only too well the impact of the alcoholism, the fear aroused when Dad’s footsteps were uneven as he staggered into the house, when his voice became loud and angry. But I was not aware of the importance of most of these other themes except as underlying refrains. And even underlying that was the gold. We knew so much more about it than we were even aware of knowing. For we children of the company houses all knew the price of it was $37 an ounce. We knew the miners went underground with their hard hats with lights on to find it, to that dark place where only men were allowed to go to hack and dig into the rock. Where they planted the dynamite that created the loud sounds we heard at intervals on surface. We knew that the rocks came up in the cage (elevator) in open rather small rail carts that ran on narrow tracks to the crusher. That the conveyor belt we could see from the highway that ran beside the fence around the mine took this crushed rock to the mill where it was put in large vats. The extract from the mill was then melted in a hot furnace, the liquid poured out in a yellow liquid stream into rectangular pans to create bars of solid gold. These were hidden away somewhere unbeknownst to us to conceal them from thieves. We knew these things, but we played our games blissfully unaware of the ongoing saga of gold and how it held all of us in its grip. We played, went to school and made friends who came and went when their fathers moved from one mine to another. We left it to the adults to concern themselves with the mine and the gold. Although my siblings and I knew that we weren’t allowed to use the only telephone, set down on a small table next to Dad’s easy chair, for more than a couple of minutes at a time because it was used to contact our father if an emergency occurred underground.  Or when the mine manager wanted to reach him.
          Some of the men did make their first million in the frontier era of the gold mines. Probably not by mining. More likely on the stock market or by prospecting, some by high-grading (stealing gold from underground). The high graders were men who brought bits of gold up at the end of a shift, hidden in their mouths, in their clothing, in their lunch buckets. It was called high grade because it was the most valuable. We heard whispers that there were ways of selling such loot through mob contacts in places as far away as Montreal, Buffalo and New York City. Like so many things children knew, this was something we overheard the adults talk about. We knew who was suspected of high-grading and who had put money into the stock of some penny mine that had gone into production and already created wealth for owners off in some city.
           I was aware as I grew older that my father invested in some of the larger gold producers, but in reality he left the finances to my mother. His job was to draft and design and to go underground to check on the equipment. He knew how everything worked - the mill, the hoist, the underground cage.  Oddly enough, this wealth of story surrounding our lives elicited only mild curiosity on my part at the time. Although as children we breathed in this atmosphere and were affected by it.
Dad’s stories about his family’s history with gold, his own father having traveled first to South Africa from England because of it, possibly permeated slightly deeper. As did his attempts to convey his fascination with genealogy. Even when we were quite young, he showed us family trees and how to read the hallmarks on silver. As I watched his fingers trace the squiggly lines connecting names I was apparently descended from , I was amazed at his interest in these large pieces of old yellowed and folded paper. Only long after he died, did I begin to understand why such interest in one’s ancestry might be of value to me.  I wished he was still around to hear about my discovery at Banff.
          As children, we were told about Uncle Billy’s discovery of the Banff Springs, something that seemed remote yet rather intriguing. Like gold, another mystery hidden away in the earth. And as I had sat reading from his manuscript, what had gradually struck me were the ways in which my family had a role in the creation of a country. From the discoveries of Uncle Billy in western Canada of the hot springs and, apparently, also of oil (along with someone called LaFayette)  to the grandfather who worked in gold mines in South Africa before emigrating to the gold mines of northern Ontario. And to my father from there to the ones in northern Quebec. From the ancestor, also on my mother’s side, whom I learned about only after her death, who had come from France to settle on the banks of the St. Lawrence, who was the first settler in Canada. And as well of her Irish forebears who tilled the soil around Stratford somewhat later.
It was at Banff I suddenly saw these individual stories within a wider context and wished I could have another session with my father. Never before had it occurred to me how the strands of my family history were connected to this larger narrative, something I didn’t recall that he’d tried to tell me. Nor had he understood my lack of interest might have evaporated had I had any idea of this broader picture.  Or maybe it wouldn’t have at that young age. How would I know? But I do know as I thumbed through Uncle Billy’s manuscript in the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies that I was suddenly and unexpectedly reassured that my restlessness- the need to question, to explore and travel, to be somewhat of a maverick -  was not just personal, but a trait I shared with my ancestors.
Posted on January 16, 2013 .