My earliest memory of my obsession with objects from the past, was a trunk I found in my mother’s basement. The travelling trunk had come with my grandparents when they travelled across the Atlantic from Ireland to Canada many years before. The trunk had a big lock on the front and wooden slats that ran horizontally around the trunk. What looked like straps of black leather, ran vertically from the top of the trunk to the bottom. When you lifted the top of the trunk and looked inside there were compartments that held pockets that you could lift out creating layers for all of your personal belongings allowing our ancestors to pack virtually their entire lives in that trunk. I imagined my grandmother had a good dress, a working dress, a few hats, gloves, linens, silverware, maybe some dishes and not much else. I was fascinated with the trunk as a young girl and obsessively opened it and pulled it apart only to put it back together again imagining I was fleeing some hopeless situation.
Moving my hands across the top and the sides of the trunk, I would close my eyes and see if I could get a sense of my grandparents as a young man and woman fleeing poor conditions in Ireland and coming to Canada on a boat with the hope of finding a job and settling in a new country. I can’t even imagine but as I ran my hand over the trunk feeling the bumps, grooves and the ruggedness of the time, I was able to feel fear and uncertainty, yet hope and promise at the same time.
My grandparents settled with many other Irish descendants in Montreal, Quebec and there my grandfather settled into labour jobs and worked hard to support his eventual family of three boys and five girls. Two of the children were twins and unfortunately, one of the boys died at the young age of 18 months of scarlet fever. My Irish grandfather was a staunch, bold and stubborn man and from what I understand from my mother he was difficult to live with, thought nothing of throwing the girls’ boyfriends down the stairs if he thought they were disrespectful. Yet while raising his young family, there were times there wasn’t enough food in the house to feed all, he would go to his labour job without food to make sure there was enough food to feed his children.
They were poor, my mother remembers part of her weekly routine was standing in bread lines. My mother recounted how a Christian group at the local Catholic church dropped by with poor boxes for Christmas, my grandfather took exception to the fact that a gift of a sled for one of his children, included with this box, was full of dog shit and in poor condition. He took that sled and walked up to the local church and gave the Pastor hell for allowing his church to give children such poor gifts and my grandfather wanted to know if most of the children in that Pastor’s church received toys in such poor condition covered with dog shit. My grandfather insisted that what was good enough for the children of his parish he expected for his children and threw the sled at him and walked home. He was a proud man, there was no doubt about that and from my earliest memories of my grandfather, I remember his proudness.
Interesting, he was a story teller. Something I don’t remember very well, but my older siblings remember and when he came over for family dinners, he would gather all the children around him and tell stories of how the dead came to life at wakes and many other harrowing stories that scared all the children, yet my siblings assure me that they loved his stories and loved being around him. The trunk was my first encounter with my grandparents’ earlier life, a life before any of us, a time when all they had was each other and the contents of that trunk. Digging through the trunk and inhaling the scent of the time, I realized that I was born from that trunk, the trunk of hopes and dreams of a better life was a symbol of the empire my grandparents built of families with their own hopes and dreams of a better life.