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Monday, December 30, 2013

EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY

 
My family, about 1953
 
 
 
I can't remember the occasion on which this picture was taken, but we are posing in the back yard of our house on Kitchener Street and the whole family is there, including our foster brother and sister and her brother who was visiting. In the front row from the left, I see the youngest cousin, Lynette Humphreys and next to her with the braids is her sister Merilyn. In the second row, from the left is cousin Adele, my sister Jean, my Mom Winnie Filer, my Auntie Grace Humphreys and me. Right behind me on the right is our foster brother Jimmy Dobie. And in the very back, between Mom and Auntie is Uncle Rev. Frank Humphreys, my dad Rev. Fred Filer and on the back left, my foster sister Louella' brother whose name I have forgotten. Luella, age 14, was the photographer.
 
 
By looking at us you would never guess that in a few short years there would tragedy. It began with Louella. She was 12 years old when she met my parents at the Keats Island Baptist Camp where Dad was pastor and camp director and Mom was the camp nurse. She had been sent to camp by the Social Services. Every year they sent children who lived in their children's home to the camp. In those days they didn't have so many group homes or foster care and kids from disadvantaged and messed up families were taken into care and placed in this home (somewhere around Marine Drive I think) that was like an orphanage. Luella's father was an alcoholic and her mother had left the kids, as far as I know. Both Luella and her mother were in the Home until my parents met Luella at camp and decided to bring her to our home to live. Her brother, I think, was eventually in foster care too.
 
 
Luella was a difficult girl but my parents did all they could for her and she was treated the same as my sister and I. She had only been at our house for about two years when she requested that the Children's Aid take her back. She found my parents too strict and didn't like to obey all the house rules, attend church and behave in an appropriate way. She might have even been stealing money out of the jar where mom kept coins for small purchases at the grocery store. It was with great regret that my parents let her return to the Home. And it was even with more regret when later they learned she had run away from there and was pregnant. Nobody knows what happened to her child but it's assumed it was taken away for adoption. Not long after that Luella ended up in the Girls Home (prison for young offenders) on Cassiar St. 
 
When she got out of the Young Offenders prison she went into the care of the Salvation Army. One day my mom got a phone call from them to say where Luella was.  She went out and bought some roses and was headed to the Salvation Army home to visit but by the time she got there, Luella was gone.  And soon after, she was incarcerated in Oakalla Women's Prison. She was  17 years old and a drug addict. 
 
A friend of mine worked at Oakalla as a matron. She was there the day the tragedy happened. Luella was found dead in her cell.They claimed that she died of a brain tumour, but my friend speculated it was likely a drug overdose because at that time heroin was readily available to inmates. I went to Luella' funeral at the funeral home on Powell St. by Gore Ave.  The casket was open. They had dressed her in an older woman's blue dress. She didn't look like the innocent kid who used to live with us. She looked like a worn out old lady.  That vision of her has never left my mind.
 
Not to many years after this photo was taken, my foster brother Jimmy, who had also met my parents at the Keats Island camp when he was 12 yrs old, found his birth mother and her new husband.  Jimmy had cerebral palsy and was living in the Children's Aid Home when my parents first met him. My parents invited him to come home for the weekend and he misunderstood and thought they meant 'forever'. They didn't have the heart to send him back.  He was the most delightful boy, charming in every way and loved by everyone he met.  Mom took him to speech therapy and he tried his best to be like other kids. He was determined some day to drive a car.  
 
I'll never forget the day dad enrolled him in Templeton School and Jimmy came home crying. They had put him in the 'special' class with children who were below average and low achievers. He was mortified. It also upset him in later years when people thought he was 'drunk' because of the way he stumbled when he walked. Dad had the school put him in a regular class and he did his best to keep up though it was hard for him to write with a pen. (Nowadays they have computers for kids with disabilities). He managed to get get through junior high and then he got a job as a janitor for Fleck Brothers. 
 
When he found his birth mother, she was living on a shrimp boat over in Deep Cove with the man she had married. Jimmy was invited to visit them. He was delighted about going, but unfortunately while there he fell on the ladder leading down into the hold and injured his ribs.  It wasn't long after, when the ribs failed to mend, that the doctors discovered that Jimmy had cancer. And it was terminal.
 
When he died, my parents got messages from all over the neighbourhood from people whose lives Jimmy had touched. Just watching him bravely struggle down the street day after day was an inspiration to everyone. And his bright spirit, beaming smile and good nature endeared him to everyone.
 
We buried Jimmy's ashes under a tree at the Campfire Rock on Keats Island because that's where he had met my parents.  When he died he left a sum of money which my parents used to purchase the cottage we used to have on Keats.  And at the camp there was a camp cabin named for him with his picture on the wall. 
 
Of the people in the picture, only my sister and my cousins and I remain. Everyone else is gone now. First Uncle Frank who died far too young after a gall-bladder operation; then my dear Mom who passed away at age 53 from cancer; My Auntie Grace, mom's younger sister, who was my favorite and a most inspiring woman; and then my dear dad who lived to be 90. 
 
Yes, every picture has a story, and this one had some sad parts to it. But it's nice to look at it and remember, and think about how happy we all were that moment the photo was taken. 
 
Post note:  When I wrote my play "The Street: A Modern Day Tragedy", set in Strathcona and based on true events, I based the character of "Sally" on my foster sister Luella.  And the play is dedicated to Luella and my former boyfriend Jimmy Bain, who inspired the story. The play was produced successful by Theatre in the Raw and ran for 3 weeks at the Web Cafe on West Hastings St.
 
 




Wednesday, November 06, 2013


WHEN DADDY CAME HOME FROM THE WAR
a Remembrance Day story.
This photo was taken of us before Dad left for the war. Mom, Dad, my little sister Jean and me.

I remember the day my Dad came home from The War. We were living at grandpa's house on Cobourg Street in Stratford Ontario where my mother, sister and I had stayed all the time dad was overseas. My grandma had died not long before the war ended. The War was a big part of our lives. Every kid in school had at least one family member: father, uncle, grandpa or brother, fighting overseas. Almost on a daily basis someone in the school would learn their loved one had been wounded or killed. I was lucky. My dad was coming home from The War.

During the four years he was overseas, every night we'd sit at the table in grandma's kitchen and listen to the BBC news on the radio. I still remember that static, far-away sound of the news-caster's voice. On the wall by the table was a big map, and we'd stick pins in it to show us where The Action was. There was a special pin marking the place were Dad was serving as a chaplain in the #10 army field hospital in Holland.




I thought of my dad often during those years when he was away. I remember going to Kingston with my mom and sister just before he was shipped overseas, and his last visit to Stratford when we went as a family for a portrait, dad looking so handsome in his arm uniform wearing his captain's hat and clerical collar. I was about 9 then and my dad was very special to me. I remember, going back to my early childhood living on the prairies, walking with my dad down country roads or visiting farm houses where he knew people from his congregation. I have a picture of myself, age 3, with dad holding me up to sit on a fence so I could pet the sheep. I remember my dad working in his garden, and preaching on Sundays, and telling me stories about his life when he was a boy in Wales, and later working in the coal mines in Caerphilly from when he was 14 to when he immigrated to Canada and met my mom. I had missed my dad so much, and when he was going to arrive home at last, I was more excited than at any other time.

And then, he came home. But it wasn't the same dad I remembered. He was a different dad, still handsome in his officer's uniform, a bit thinner and perhaps more careworn. But he was a stranger. I remember running to my room, sobbing uncontrollably, partly from happiness and relief at having him back again, but also for reasons unknown to me then. I didn't realize til years later just why I had cried. Now I understand it was that he was 'different' because of all he had seen and lived through. I remember later reading through piles of letters he had saved sent to him by parents and loved ones of young men he had buried or who had been wounded. My dad's job as chaplain had been to comfort the dead and dying and their families. He had lived through terrifying and devastating experiences. Once, he told us, a buzz bomb had stopped buzzing right over the hospital. He had thrown himself to the floor and prayed. And thankfully, the bomb exploded somewhere farther away. All these experiences had 'changed' my dad. But really, deep down he was still the same dad I had known before The War, full of compassion and love and gentleness. He won the MBE for his honorable service at the army hospital. And he won the respect and love of everyone he met.

So on this Remembrance Day I still think of that day so many years ago when he returned from the war, that 'stranger', but still he was my Dad. And I think of all the children in the world who are waiting for their Dads to come home from The War, and pray they get back home safely.


 Rev. Capt. R.F. Filer, MBE

Friday, February 15, 2013

FIFTY SHADES OF KINKY: Sex Talks at the Vancouver Museum






There I was in a room jammed with people, surrounded by gizmos and gadgets — everything from nipple tassles and condoms to books of erotic literature.
 

 
 
It was the reception of the opening of the Museum’s edgy new exhibit: Sex Talks in the City.  People milled about, wine glasses in hand, and browsed the display cases of curios, some dating to the turn-of-the-century. It had been suggested to wear something red, so many of the women were tarted up in red dresses, some with up-dos reminiscent of the 30’s and ‘40’s. Even a few men wore ‘costumes’ suitable for the evening.  As it is the Lunar New Year, I thought it appropriate to wear my embroidered red silk Chinese jacket and black velvet pants.

 

 
 
The aim of the Museum is to normalize conversations about sexuality through photos, intimate artifacts and question. One room contains a series of dresser drawers that hold a variety of sex toys, burlesque attire and even some 19950’s mail-order ‘men’s physiques’ pamphlets. One drawer that amused me contained a ‘baby’ (doll) wrapped in a blanket. It seems that one person had told the story of how, when they were a child, they had come home from school one day and discovered a new-born baby in their parent’s bedroom dresser drawer. The baby had been born while the child was at school and because they lacked a proper cradle or crib, the mother had places her newborn in the drawer. From that time until they were an adult, the child thought babies came from inside drawers! (That would definitely be more comfortable than under a cabbage in the cabbage patch!)

Many of these intimate artifacts were once taboo topics but these days they are being talked about openly. The aim of the exhibit is to normalize these conversations between young and old. The exhibit is contained in three rooms, divided between different motifs and topics from the classroom, the streets and to the bedroom, representing everything from Vancouver’s sex trade to teen sexting.
Vancouver Police "rap" sheets, circa turn of the century
 
One exhibit I found interesting is a wall full of ‘rap’ sheets with photos taken of prostitutes, johns and anyone found in brothels or selling illegal liquor back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in Vancouver. Most of the women ranged in age from 17 to 65. Many of the men were Asian or black indicating some racial profiling at that time.  In the ‘classroom section’, near the display of electric “body massagers” were desks scrawled with questions about birth control asked by students from Grades 4 – 12. An adjoining display explores the phenomena of teens exchanging intimate messages and photos on-line and by texting.

Anything you want to know about homosexuality is there for you to see and read about.  One of the drawers contained a rubbery artificial penis used by a trans-gendered person who might want to pee standing up like a man!  Another display case has creepy, kinky sex tools including a hideous mask and whips. It seems there’s a fairly good-sized community of “Kinks” in the city!
Code words used by "Kinks" to indicate the sex-play has gone too far
 
Kinky sex anyone? (pretty scary!)
 
 
“Sex Talk in the City” explores the changing attitudes towards sex and sexuality in Vancouver. It’s a brave, new concept for a Museum to chronicle topics that have been taboo in the past. Sex education’s evolution is highlighted at the exhibit. Sex-education videos from the 1980’s are there for visitors to view. There’s also a copy of Asha’s Mums, a book about growing up with lesbian parents, banned by the Surrey school board until 2002. And books purchased by the Little Sister’s Bookstore that have been confiscated at the US border.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many other museums would be brave enough to present such an intimate display. Certainly none in those Bible-belt areas of the southern USA.  This display is bound to prompt discussion. There’s a lot there to talk about, and even to laugh, at making learning about sex less uncomfortable.

The exhibit runs until September 2, 2013.  Go and see for yourselves! There’s always something new to learn.
museumofvancouver.ca/sextalk
Twitter:@museumofvan