Agriculture, childhood, Culture, Thanks

History Lessons


A swing bridge over Big Creek, long ago.

My hometown of Delhi has a Facebook group site exclusively purposed to recall the days of our youth. Growing up in Canada’s most unique farming community, the premier source of flue-cured virginia tobacco for nearly a hundred years, the Facebook members post daily about their early experiences. They also remind us of what our parents and grandparents did to get us here in the first place. A couple world wars and a hostile political environment in Europe pushed our ancestors to Canada’s open doors, and Delhi was where they landed.

It struck me this past June, as I read the many stories emerging from the 75th anniversary of D-Day that we, as its beneficiaries, have an awakened reverence for what our parents did for us.

RCAF’s finest, off to Europe.

Is it just a function of getting older that we spend more time remembering, or is there a sense of responsibility to our predecessors of not letting them be forgotten?

Lest We Forget

But to my point: we now look back with respect. There is a lady in Delhi who is daily researching and compiling a history and narrative to describe the little town and its inhabitants from decades ago.

Kilnwork: our main stock in trade.

Another gentleman posts documents, clippings, ads, pictures, bills of sale and civic events, clearly from materials he has sought after and kept for posterity.

When my parents passed, we inherited a library of photography and letters, some dating back to the 1890’s. The pictures are eloquent, in their black and white motif, depicting the youth of a different time. Vacations, school, romance, marriage, kids.

1914: Canadian Expeditionary Force

They also include military poses: those ‘before’ shots, getting ready to ship off to some unknown and dangerous place, dressed in perfect uniforms, spotless, neat fitting and inspiring.

The hand-written letters dig below the pictures though, and reveal what’s really going on. I photo-scanned them all for sharing with our family.  Unlike Facebook, where our lives are generally perfect, the letters from 50, 75, 90 years ago talk of privations and scarcities. Life in its rawest forms was much more daunting back then, than we would know it today: lining up for rations…looking for materials to sew a dress… finding a place to live… battling an illness…waiting for news of a loved one.

A 16th birthday.

Yet there was a confidence, a resilience and persistence like moss stuck to a wave-washed rock in the shoreline that these ancestors of ours would grin and bear it, and get through it.

We have a neighbor who is writing a book about her father’s service during the war. Her source is the collection of papers and manuscripts which he had written 50 years ago. Within these letters are the details which are news to us today. Who knew? It may be half a century ago, but the revelations are still mind boggling.

My conclusion is that for the Baby Boomers, who are now enjoying retirement, or looking forward to it shortly, we have an obligation to use our spare time to dig up the past.

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An expressive lesson in lighting a coal fire.

Our kids need to know the table that was set for us and for them.  In today’s digital environment, where every piece of history is accessible, it’s really only there for background, a general context of the times, and only if you have a user-name and a password to see it. What we find in our attics and closet shelves is much more telling.  We owe that to our parents, now long gone.

The Diary

My young grandson reinforced in me once of the value of writing it down: “Don’t put it in an email.  That’s technology, and it will just disappear.  You’ll never find it again.”  Out of the mouths of babes…

As an experiment, I started a small diary. This is a 2-1/2 x 4″ moleskin which I keep in my pocket, with pen. Originally I used the book to write down things I didn’t want to forget: passwords, shopping lists, names of bartenders, song titles, movies, plumbing fixtures–you name it. But starting in July, I wrote about my day. Not long windy stuff, but a factual account of my travels. At first it seemed a self-praising pastime. But about six weeks later, I paused to read what was in the diary. The surprise was that I had forgotten most of what I had done, and there it was, in print. Multiply that awakening by 12 months, and you start to realize how much we experience in a year, and then forget forever.  It’s like a beige mush of time spent, and little retained.

As a business manager, I regularly advised my staff to write down their accomplishments for the month. “You are going to need this one day. I won’t always be here.  Someone will come to you, and ask what you are contributing, and your mind will go blank. Your job security is in the balance. So make a list!”

Thankfully, they did this, and their accomplishments rolled into mine, and we always had a resource to explain our worth to the company.

So I am keeping the diary going, not to explain my worth, but at least as a hard copy reminder for me, or for whomever follows, that this is how life was today.

Thanks for reading and sharing, and thanks too, to Dave Rusnak Sr. and Doug Foster for the images! 


10 thoughts on “History Lessons

  1. Dave Rusnak Sr. says:

    Phil .Thank you for your words of wisdom.We all need to be reminded about where we came from and where we are headed.You are very talented in your use of words. Signed your very much appreciated Face Book Friend. Dave Rusnak Sr. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful article, Phil. The past is important, and somehow we’ve lost sight of that in our blind rush into the future. (We’ve totally misconstrued the platitude “You can’t live in the past.”) And we need permanent records, including those of our forebears. I still have my post-university “On the Road” diary, and while I cringe at my immaturity, there are gems there to be rediscovered.


  3. Susan Fiedor says:

    Really nice article … important and timely. Thank you, Phil, for sharing. I remember telling you, after my Mom passed away, that I had found years of letters my parents wrote to each other during WWII. You said, “Now you have found the gold” … and you were right. It was a beautiful record of love between two, young newlyweds separated by distance and a war.


  4. Doug Fitzgerald says:

    Dr. Brown —

    As always, you speak the truth in an entertaining way.
    Small notebooks can make a big difference. My maternal great grandfather kept such a record and my mother used it as the core document that enabled her to write a 50 page history about his life.
    One of the entries in his notebook was about what he’d purchased for his mother for Christmas in 1893. It was two leather bound books about the World’s Parliament of Religions, which had convened in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition — Chicago’s most impressive World’s Fair, home to the famous White City. At RR Donnelley, where you and I worked, the company kept a small library of books, magazines, catalogs, and ephemera that the company had produced over the years. I was exploring it when I discovered, tucked alongside several books that were produced in conjunction with the remarkable Exposition, two leather bound volumes. Same title that had been recorded in the little notebook and identical to the gift my great-great-grandmother had received more than a century before. Suddenly, history came to life.
    You have given me a good kick in the pants, which I need to start writing some family history of my own … so that my grandkids will know something of their heritage.


    • Zing!! What an incredible story! I think we have an obligation to record what we know while we have the time and indeed while we have time. As for you, no one tells a better story. Thanks for sharing!


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