Sunday, November 11, 2018

Museums and Remembrance Day - 2018 Edition

It's funny how things tend to converge; how you will get the same message from a variety of unconnected sources. One of the messages I've been hearing lately has been, "old story, new angle". I think that taking the time to ponder such messages and apply them to our museum work is important.

One of the sources of this message is a book I'm reading about relevance. It has me thinking about my own life and how what is relevant to me has shifted a lot in the past 14 months. When I became a mother, my perspective on things really changed. I noticed a baby consignment shop in my neighbourhood for the first time, even though it has been open for years and I have walked by it countless times. I learned that the sidewalks and streets of Halifax are incredibly frustrating to navigate with a stroller and by extension have started to think a lot about mobility and accessibility issues. My brain is now always occupied with planning and coordination in order to juggle the requirements of work and home. Time and again my husband and I have commented on just how much hard and tiring work is involved in parenting, and how glad we are to be part of a team rather than single parents.

I know that single parenthood isn't the first thing that comes to mind when someone says Remembrance Day. If you are like me, you think of people in uniform fighting overseas. We think of the ones who didn't come back, like my Uncle Grenville. We talk about the home front, of women going to work for the first time, of Victory Bonds and rations. But as I started to think about my annual tradition of a Remembrance Day blog post, I got thinking about my Grandma, raising little Susan-Jane alone while Grandpa was serving in Europe and Asia. Sure she had family and friends around to help her, but caring for a small child on your own is incredibly difficult and extremely lonely. The weeks that Allie and I spent visiting my family in New Brunswick taught me that. Being surrounded by my family and being able to text with my husband was wonderful, but being the sole caregiver was still lonely and exhausting.

I am embarrassed to say that I have never seriously thought about Grandma's single parenthood during the Second World War. The photos and letters and our family stories are testimonies to Grandpa's dedication as a father. The recording that he made for Grandma and Aunt Susan in London includes a serenade for his baby girl and a loving reprimand for his wife to look after herself and her health so she can be at her best for their little family. He was as present and engaged as he could possibly be given the circumstances, so in looking at the archival evidence, it doesn't really feel like Grandma was on her own. But if you remove Grandpa's letters and photo album and record, the single parenthood is painfully obvious. A mother and her daughter on their own, time and again.

The photographs of Grandma and Aunt Susan also include beach trips and frolicking in the snow and having play dates with cousins and neighbours. It is clear that this little girl was receiving love and attention from everyone around her; that the village really was raising the child. And I think it is safe to assume that a lot of other mothers had similar experiences. Neighbourhoods and communities banded together to meet the needs of all the mothers raising their children alone while their husbands were away. And once these networks were established, support could continue as families adjusted to new realities when husbands and fathers returned home. The first night Grandpa was back home, Grandma woke up in the middle of the night and in her sleepy state was scared to find a man in bed with her, so rushed to Susan-Jane and hid with her in a closet. It may be a funny story now, but it is also a stark reminder of just how big an adjustment it was to have Grandpa rejoin the family after four years away.

We talk a lot about museums serving and meeting the needs of their communities, whatever these needs may be. Sometimes you may have a widespread issue like the temporarily single mothers of the Second World War. Other needs won't be as obvious, but are just as important to those experiencing them. So as we ponder our Remembrance Day exhibits, our biographies and profiles of the servicemen and women from our communities, and our programs and events that honour them, their experiences and their stories, I hope that we can take some time to really ponder the incredible information we are holding in public trust. Let's keep our eyes open and our ears to the ground as our lives change and priorities shift, and embrace what we learn from ourselves and others about what is relevant and why. As I embrace the newly relevant things in my life and community, I hope that I can pass on these old stories with new angles to Allie and her friends. I hope that I can take a lesson from these old communities and help to meet a need when I see it. And I hope that our museums can do the same.

No comments: