Thursday, February 18, 2021

My Mother was a White Women

Shirley Marie Menzies, née Naud.  Born Sept. 13, 1932. Died April 18, 2013.

My mother was a teacher, that was her vocation, as much as it was for moments in her life also her occupation. She brought teaching into all aspects of her life and ours. She delighted in teaching my siblings and I how to read and do math before we entered school. Her teaching expanded to many realms - most importantly our history. She would regale us for hours with stories of our family's history.

There was the story of the little girl who slipped into the water cistern and drowned trying to pull a watermelon out. Then there was the story of three waters, a dog that licked dishes clean. Or the story of how great grampa Brown was adopted by missionaries after his parents perished on a trans-Atlantic crossing. Or how our Quebecois ancestors had come to New France to be farmers but the land they took up had no soil so they became stone masons instead of farmers. On and on these stories went, each attached to names and peoples, strung into a one large interwoven historical narrative about becoming Canadian.

My mother firmly believed that to go forward in life we needed to know where we came from. She was proud of her family history, rooted in lines that traced back to the late 1600s in Quebec, the 1700s in Nova Scotia and pre-revolutionary continental USA. For her, not knowing this meant one really had no foundation to stand. My mother knew she was white but thought of herself as Canadian first and foremost.

We didn't just learn her family history from her.  She also learned, and then taught us, our father's family history as well. As a child one didn't appreciate how this was happening, we just heard the stories. She would tell us about our grandmother (who passed away before we were born), about our great grandfather and our great grand mother and their lives growing up on the north coast. 

My father would tell stories about his mother and grandfather to us as well.  About spending time in Grassy Bay each summer. About fishing in McNichol Creek in the fall. About his grandfather's visits to his house when he was a child. To my mother fell the responsibility to tell us the stories my aunt and great aunt taught her about the deep history of my family on my father's side.

I think it was my mother's deep interest in history and storytelling that brought me to anthropology. I certainly never had the desire to chase the exotic, that so many anthropologists of my generation seem to have. When I read Walter Benjamin's "The Storyteller" for the first time I could see my mother as much as I could see a Marlow like figure telling tales on the deck of a boat. 

Marrying across racialized lines is fraught with all kinds of overt and tacit expressions of disapproval. As a child I sensed my maternal grandmother's disapproval of my father.  It was confusing then. Today, it remains unsettling, even if the adult me can understand her fears and prejudices fit within a wider racialized social order. Understanding it doesn't excuse it, but it does help. 

My mother understood the prejudices of families and societies. She spoke often about what she thought of as the 'errors of their way' when explaining her family's prejudices. It wasn't the kind of intersectional critical race feminism of today, but it was remarkably progressive for its time and place. She considered it within all people to be able to make the choices that respected difference. At the same time she had her own strong values on civility, proper manners, and respectful behaviour. She could be strict! 

This was the women who taught us our family history. She offered us context to this history. She inspired a delight in detail and nuance. She made it possible for us to challenge norms. But most importantly she brought us into the history and life of our complete family in a way that was encouraging, non-discriminatory, and life affirming. 

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