Winnifred Banks. Does the name ring a bell? She’s the mother of the children who are cared for by Mary Poppins. In the film version of the story, Winnifred also happens to be a suffragette. And it is in this capacity that she sings the following line: “Our daughters’ daughters will adore us and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, ‘Well, done! Well, done! Well, done, Sister Suffragette!’” This line is couched between “Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.” and ‘”From ev’ry corner of the land: ‘Womankind, arise!’ Political equality and equal rights with men!” This idea, of daughters’ daughters singing in grateful chorus combines two of my soap-box issues – the importance of feminism and the importance of historical knowledge. There’s not a whole lot of cheering on the Suffragettes these days. Not even by the daughters’ daughters (or great-granddaughters as the case may be!) For the most part, we in the 21st century Western World take women’s right to vote for granted. Like a lot of other rights won over the years. Some of us even believe the battle is over and has been won. We think that we’ve progressed, moved forward, and beyond. But for those of us who study history, as professionals or otherwise, not only do we understand how false that belief is, we also know how dangerous it can be.
It’s been a heavy week. The world has felt heavy. The news this week has given us one thing after the other to grieve and lament – people and places torn apart by human action (or inaction), natural disaster and the unrelenting forward movement of time. Yet even while the present has demanded my attention and sympathy, I’ve found myself lost in the grief of a hundred years ago. The fate of historians I suppose. In the midst of working through some details for the not-so-secret manuscript I’m preparing, I found myself surprised by the prevalence of loss and devastation in the lives of my subjects. At the centre of my work is a woman named Lady Julia Parker Drummond. If you’ve ever heard me talk about my work, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Julia. I’ve been writing (and re-writing and re-writing) a section about loss as experienced by mothers.
Julia Parker married her childhood sweetheart at the age of 18. Their families had spent their summers together at Cacouna, a small village on the Lower St. Lawrence River. I know very little about their relationship but they were married very young, even for the time, and he was a clergyman based in Quebec City which meant that she was giving up both her denomination and her hometown through this marriage. He became very unwell in the days surrounding the wedding. The doctor recommended a mild climate. Despite taking respite in the south of France and Spain, he died within the year. She was alone in Europe, 19 years old, a widow.
But she returned to Montreal and stepped into love all over again when she married a much older George Alexander Drummond. He wrote to her:
My darling — my soul doth indeed hold her constant so absolute that I feel as if envious fate must have some rebuff in store — but let us hope that the special provenance which has drawn us together will not desert us in the inevitable storms of life. Your own loving George
She gave birth to her first son, Julian St George in 1885 (a first-born son named after her!) That summer, while at their cottage in Cacouna, Julian died of an unknown cause, what we would call SIDS today. Does the grief of a child dying surpass the grief of a lost lover? Like other mothers of this age, she had her baby boy photographed one last time.
The following summer, again at Cacouna, Julia gave birth to Guy Melfort Drummond. This boy who survived the perils of infancy was raised with every advantage and opportunity – an elite education, travel, and a close-knit family. He was charming and eloquent and very bright. And he was undoubtedly the apple of his mother’s eye. The only image in her book Some Addresses is of the two of them in an endearing and affectionate pose. George A. Drummond, then 80 years old, lived to see Guy graduate from McGill University in 1909 but died the following February. This meant that at the age of 49 Julia was entering widow-hood for a second time. Again she entered the valley of grief, loss, heartache.
Yet it was early in the new century. And there was as yet much optimism about what the new age would bring. Personifying these hopes were young men like Guy Melfort Drummond. Guy was being groomed by the Conservative Party of Canada as a future great leader and those in close quarters believed he would be the Prime Minister of Canada one day. In this capacity, he joined the military after McGill and achieved the rank of Captain in 1912. During that time, he courted the beautiful Mary Hendrie Braithwaite. With all the pomp and circumstance of the day, the couple were married in Montreal in April 1914. Three months later, the declarations of war turned the world upside down. Though he was by then working in Montreal, Guy returned to the military and requested a demotion so that he could serve on the front in Europe.
It was at the second battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915 that a massive gas offensive was used on the battlefield for the first time. Guy was not on the front lines that day, but as the retreating soldiers reached their rear position, he stayed to rally the troops and help his comrades. His reward for that bravery was a bullet in the neck. He died instantly on the outskirts of St. Julien, a small village in Belgium. Julia received the telegram in London, where she was working with the Red Cross. Her beloved son was dead. She kept that telegram her entire life. I felt a sacredness when I held that same telegram for the first time a few years ago.
Two husbands, two sons. Alone in Europe all over again.
Julia stayed in England for the entire duration of the war (minus her top-secret visit to Guy’s grave facilitated by friends in the British military hierarchy). She continued her work with the Red Cross, establishing (and personally funding) an Information Bureau for Canadians – her attempt to keep soldiers connected to their families back home. Perhaps she couldn’t face Montreal without her son. Perhaps her duty to Empire and God held her firm even in the grip of personal devastation and loss. Her contribution in spite of this pain did not go unnoticed. She was awarded the Médaille de Reconnaissance, the British Red Cross Medal, and the Serbian Red Cross Medal.
Julia returned home to Montreal in 1918. Her city was a different place. Not only was her son gone, so were his classmates, his colleagues, her neighbours, her employees, her friends. For death had come not just on the battlefield but also for those on the Lusitania, for those affected by the Spanish Flu epidemic, and for those who had returned from war with shell-shock and just couldn’t live with the sounds and sights and smells that filled their memories.
But hope springs eternal. Waiting for her in Montreal was Guy Melfort Drummond II. Mary had been pregnant on the day Guy left for the front.Though he’d never meet his father, this son of Guy’s would grow up to hear stories about his papa. Mary eventually remarried and gave birth to three siblings for Guy. Julia remained an important part of their family life.
A hundred years doesn’t change grief – it still feels the same, it still devastates the same way, it still pulls us under. We are feeling that same grief today. But a hundred years later, hope also feels the same – the reason we keep stepping forward.
I received one of the biggest compliments of my life a little while ago. It came from the mom of one of Jack’s classmates. I don’t know her very well but she volunteers a lot in the kindergarten class and so she and Jack know each other quite well. After a parking lot exchange, where it really did feel like we had shared our hearts in that gluttonous 6 minutes of in-between-things time, I received this email:
“You are so very sweet and kind… Not hard to figure out how come Jack has such a kind heart.”
To be compared to Jack is truly the most amazing thing ever. For those of you who don’t get to spend every day with this boy, here is why. Jack is smart. Wicked smart. The kind of smart that sneaks up on you because it’s like his brain has been busy figuring out the world while you were wondering if his socks match. Language and math (certainly a language as well) are his specialties. That might have something to do with his environment…because he’s also fascinated by space and sharks and timelines and video games and hockey. But lots of kids are smart. Jack’s secret superpower is his heart. This kid is generous beyond anything I’ve ever known. The examples I could offer of this phenomenon are endless. But allow me just this one. Today is Jack’s birthday and his first gift was this:
Sugar cereals are not common in our house so this was an extraordinary treat for Jack. When I asked which cereals he was going to choose this morning, he said “I don’t know yet. Kate, which one do you want?” Seriously, this kid makes me well up with tears almost every day of his life. His ability to think of others, to understand where they are coming from and then love them fiercely right in that place is beyond special. His heart is soft and caring and real. This also means his heart is vulnerable which worries me sometimes. Because he finds change and critique and unkindness very, very hard. He’s learned how to say though that his heart hurts and we try to walk through those hurts together because as much as he understands people, he can’t understand why people choose to be mean.
I don’t have any clue what Jack’s life has in store for him. I do know that whatever path he chooses, those who walk with him will be blessed beyond measure by his light. If you were to ask Jack what he wants to do when he’s a bit older, he’d probably tell you he wants to be a goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s chosen the Penguins as his team so that neither Daddy, a Leafs fan, nor Mommy, a Habs fan, get their feelings hurt.
I did something today that lots of people do every day. And yes, it may have had something to do with my favourite pre-school mommy. Or with procrastination. Or just with trying something new. I’ll go with that one. I did something today I’ve never, ever done in my life. I made cupcakes. From scratch. Tomorrow is J’s birthday (6!!) and I will be that Mommy bringing the home-made cupcakes to school. (I don’t even know how to write homemade. Is it one word? hyphenated? two separate words??) In case you are wondering – this is not the start of something new. This is absolutely a one off kind of thing. Sure, it was fun to make the cupcakes but not more fun than picking out beautiful ones at the bakery. I’m happy to hand the reins over again!
The same day I published the posts Keep Off and Coming Out, the story of Rehtaeh Parsons broke. I didn’t know it at the time. My good friend David asked me not to read the news until the next morning. He’d seen the story and knew that it would hit me hard. Since then, there has been an explosion of public rage. As there should be. It is one of the most horrific, heart-breaking stories ever. Rehtaeh’s story is making us look in a mirror. Not the slightly warped flattering mirrors they put in change-rooms at clothing stores. No – this is a crystal clear mirror with that harsh neon lighting, pointing out all the blemishes we’d rather not see. The mirror is showing us that we fail to protect children. Every single day. It is showing us that we are a society of bullies, rapists, acquiecsents, child-porn viewers, incompetents, misogynists, and the list goes on. We need to own up to this and we need to make some heavy decisions in the coming days. We need to walk out of the Coliseum, and choose not to be celebrators of violence and oppression and spectacle. Hell, we need to dismantle the Coliseum all together. (Just in case it’s not clear, I’m not suggesting that Facebook or Twitter or any other kind of social media or technology is the “Coliseum”….)
Because here’s what I know about our society. We are also a people of compassion and justice and empathy. We are people who care deeply about the suffering of others. We are people who stand with those who cannot stand by themselves. We are people who give time, money, space, and our own hearts. We are people who can listen. We are people who will hold hands for as long as we need to. We are people who write letters to politicians, who design and legislate laws that protect the oppressed. We are people who want to understand.
But we are human. So we make mistakes. And we get angry. And we get overwhelmed by the hugeness of it all. It can be paralyzing. I feel paralyzed by it right now. I don’t know where to start. What I want to do is call Rehtaeh’s parents and apologize to them for the way we failed. I want to visit the boys who violated Rehtaeh that night, who are now young men, and tell them that I’m sorry we taught them it’s okay to do what they did. (I also want to tell them how enraged and despairing and broken their actions make me but that I’m going to spend the next days and weeks and months working through that rage so that something good comes from this.) I want to borrow someone else’s brain to create a software that detects and prevents this kind of cyber-bullying. I want to write letters to Stephen Harper and beg him to reintroduce funding to the 35 women’s groups he cut funding from in the past 6 years. There is so much I want to do but where do I start? What can I really do to effect change?
Can I start with these?:
I am a mother so I will teach my children compassion and love and respect. How do you do that? How do we teach our children compassion and love and respect? How many times a day do I fail at this? How many times have they seen me not loving, respecting, living compassion? What about me needs to change so that they learn by example?
I am a teacher so I will challenge my students to recognize and stand up against injustice and oppression and hatred. How do you do that? Are they even listening to me? No seriously, how do I do this?
I am a citizen so I will vote in favour of justice, I will resume my weekly letter-writing campaign, and I will take responsibility for the choices of politicians (hard as that may be!) This can feel so discouraging, these drops in the bucket. Especially in the midst of apathy and power inequalities and selfishness. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
I am a woman so I will be a sister. I don’t write this lightly. Because others have stood beside me, I will hold my hand out.
I am a writer so I will keep writing. Who am I kidding? Let me try this again.
I am an historian so I won’t forget. Better.