Those Special People:
Vicki Healy (nee Holden), Shelburn, 2023.
At 76, Vicky has a slim, wiry frame - evidence of an active, athletic body and eyes that reflect an intelligent, determined mind. For the last twenty years, she has devoted much of her energy and skills to a hands-on restoration of her great-grandfather’s house.
I just finished a tour of this unending project - unending, because she may not personally complete it, but hopefully, her son and grandchildren will keep at it. Her personal experiences and memories of the house span seventy years, and her research and discoveries within the walls - while renovating, span over two hundred years. The peeling layers of wallpaper and floorings unveil the presence of the inhabitants of the dwelling in archeological layers.
This restoration is a labour of the heart - something I, a painter understand as a passion that never retires but adapts to changing circumstances and necessities. Vickie’s intent is ignited by close links to her past familial generations. These links are stored in her memories; in images of family photos; rediscovered in preserved documents; and visible in her grandmother’s paintings. The Holden family heritage is maintained, and by the efforts of her heart and hands, she is keeping it alive.
While ancestry can be an empowerment for some it can be a burden for others. My heritage, existed in the memories of my parents since no tangible artifacts survived WW2. Over 20 family members were killed - three generations of Slovakian Jews - farmers, professionals, and business people, living at the border of Germany, largely secular and educated in the German language and culture. Their homes, farms and businesses were ‘taken over’, or rather, absorbed into the lives of others.
All Jews who survived Hitler’s massacre have stories to tell, some of my family escaped to Shanghai, Ecuador, Palestine, and Britain, with false papers but without tangible artifacts. Other family members were hidden in bunkers by neighbours, others, blue-eyed, pale-skinned and Slavic in appearance, convinced humanity would prevail, were murdered. Not white enough, I guess, but these details are for another time. So goes it for wartime refugees - they do survive with their shirts, memories and stories, but few concrete artifacts that can attest to their pasts.
Apropos of belonging, I found a quotation by Iain Pears in The Portrait(2005) Penguin Books, NY.
….” Oh, to be more portable! How convenient it must be to be Jewish, and carry your ancestors around with you, not needing lumps of dirty soil to strike up a conversation. They are reviled for it, but they are the fortunate ones, not us, who must pine away if we so much as move one country to the left or right”(pg. 94).
As such, I was raised to live in the present, un-anchored by the ‘impedimenta’ of previous Nash/Bachner generations. The lack of ties did not give me sorrow, but rather a specific view of humanity, and the freedom to create my own path, aware of, but unburdened by the traditions and customs of short, pale-skinned, blond, slivovitz-guzzling Slavs. Rather, I feel an abstract connection to their secular-Marxist-Jewishness. My parents, although deeply saddened by their losses, thankfully, were not embittered, hate-filled, or mentally deranged as a result of the war. They approached life pragmatically and looked forward optimistically to life in the ‘new world’ - Quebec in 1955.
My parent’s pragmatism was obvious when I left home at 17. My mother Valerie’s advice: don’t forget to feed the dog and be careful around men. Frankie, my father, advised: have a happy life, always keep the gas tank full, all people resist change, and, don’t trust men. Thus forewarned, I was released into the new world by two hard-working people, both grateful to have survived WW2, and living ‘well’ in Canada. Once in a while, they reminisced about the lives they lived before ‘their escapes’, but generally, we were a family who lived in the ‘here and now’.
I feel nostalgic about my lost ancestry when I encounter people with strong family connections. Perhaps the rootedness and tactile connections to family ‘things’ would make me feel more like others. Maybe I remained in Québec all these years because I feel at home positioned in the margins. Fitting in, but not quite.
My current artist’s biography reads:
I am the child of Slovakian-secular-Jewish parents who were WW2 refugees in London, England. Hence, I identify as “white-ish”. In 1955 my family emigrated to Montreal Qc. where officially, I am considered an ‘Anglophone’, although I speak, write and work in French, and understand German. This reality has both opened and closed opportunities in the development of my art career - I reside partly in, and partly out of Quebec culture.
After meeting Vicky, I wondered how different my life might have been, with a concrete connection to a home and a place. Meanwhile, down at the Shelburne NS docks, Vicky rows by in a dory, her grey pigtails flowing in the wind, and her hat firmly attached to her head. She rows with the determination of someone convinced of where she is going and from where she has come. As for me, I share her satisfaction with her rootedness.
Please stay tuned for November’s blog.