Bits and Bites of Everyday Life

Bits and Bites of Everyday Life

On Intergenerational Storytelling

Dostoyevsky: 'The soul is healed by being with children.'

By Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair
True North Perspective

Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair is the author of The Neglected Garden and two French novels. Visit her website to learn more

“If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.” (Lyndon B. Johnson)

My granddaughter and I had the pleasure of participating in an intergenerational storytelling project organized by the RAFO (Rendez-vous des aînés) this year. We chose a theme and developed a story about an event dear to our hearts. I chose my first visit to Disney with my daughter over thirty years ago; Lea chose a weekend with her mom at Mont-Tremblant last year. On Tuesday, March 11, we presented our stories. People who were present enjoyed our narratives and came over to congratulate and thank us for sharing during the lunch that followed.

Ever since we started this project, the lifestyle differences between my generation and my grandchildren’s have played out in my mind. I was born on a farm in Cumberland, in the post-war era. At that time, my grandpa was alive and lived with us. I have some good memories of him, even if I was only three when he died. We had electricity but the farmhouse was not equipped with a bathroom. We were bathed in a metal tub placed in front of the furnace during the cold season. There was no water heater either so you had to boil water on the stove. Needless to say, this bath was provided only once a week on Saturdays since the next morning, we went to church. We didn’t have an electrical fridge back then . . . it would come later, along with a freezer. Instead, we had an icebox so my parents had to buy blocks of ice that had been cut up during the winter and stored in sawdust. We didn’t get a television till I was five; before that, entertainment came from a huge radio cabinet with a very scratchy sound or going over to Mrs. Séguin’s house on Saturday. They had a TV.

  Image: Alberte Villeneuve and her granddaughter Lea Anderson share their stories at the RAFO (Rendez-vous des aînés) in 2013.
  Alberte Villeneuve and her granddaughter Lea Anderson share their stories at the RAFO (Rendez-vous des aînés) in 2013.

There was no central heating in the house, just a kitchen stove (wood and propane) and a small furnace in the dining-room area. That heat didn’t travel well to our bedroom, so my sister and I would freeze in the wintertime. Our party-line phone was a large, wooden wall unit where you had to call the operator for outside calls. Each of our neighbours had a different ring to advise the call was for them. I think ours was three rings. There would be snooping on the line so we were advised not to talk about anything personal. Everything was secret with our family. Still, our dad often said we were lucky to have a roof over our heads and three square meals a day! Many didn’t have that luxury.

What a change from the lifestyle my grandchildren have! Their house has six bedrooms and three full baths. Only the two boys closest in age share a room. Today’s modern kitchens have everything, including the dishwasher. There is no shortage of vehicles, cell phones for calls, texting and taking photos, computers with internet, TVs, DVDs, Ipods, electronic games… Everyone showers or bathes every day and all have their own towel and facecloth set. Mom does laundry every day thanks to the heavy-duty washer and dryer.

Quite different between my generation and my grandchildren’s are the tasks and responsibilities that are expected. The password on the farm was “There’s work to be done!” We each had rotating chores, such as feeding the chickens and collecting eggs, rounding up the cows for milking, feeding the calves, cleaning the milking machine, weeding the garden and flower beds, mowing the lawn, picking veggies and fruit, doing dishes and housecleaning. I learned to drive a tractor at age five. My dad would tie me to the tractor seat and let me drive forward while he loaded the wagon with hay or oats… If I had to stop, I would jump with both feet on the “clutch”. I couldn’t reach the brake! I became very proficient in the use of farm machinery, often spending days in the fields, cutting, raking and baling hay by myself or working with my dad and brother when the bales were loaded directly to the wagon. Some neighbours appropriately called me Dad’s Hired Hand! But we were never paid for our work. Our parents’ attitude was, “We gave you life; you owe us!” I would earn money driving the tractor for other farming neighbours, picking strawberries at a nearby farm, babysitting or housecleaning for neighbours. And as soon as that happened, I was expected to buy my own toiletries, books and some clothes. Otherwise, you did without.

We didn’t go out much either! Our outings were limited to Sunday mass and visiting family. Of course, we enjoyed visiting aunts and uncles who had children our own age. At the end of summer, we went to the Ottawa Exhibition at Landsdowne Park. The Aberdeen Pavilion was a must. We were more interested in the rides but were only allowed one ride and one treat. I would often choose the nuts and chocolate-covered ice-cream bar. I longed to see more of the world!

My grandchildren’s life is not oriented towards serving their parents. Their parents offer them all kinds of opportunities to grow, develop new skills, see and experience new things. They started young to take classes in dancing, gymnastics, martial arts and play basketball and baseball. Lea does competitive dancing while Brice and Logan are into competitive basketball. Of course, they are expected to do some chores at home but these are geared to their age and skills and some chores are rewarded. This way, the children learn to manage money, to save some and spend some. Family outings and trips are fun and educational whether they be vacation travel or going to the cinema, amusement park, museum or a concert. They participate in family, school and community life and share visits back and forth with friends. They each have their own books, toys, games, skates, skateboards, bicycles . . . but they also share.

Image: Sharing a moment with the hosts... Alberte, Pierrette Boisvert, Lise Landel, and Lea.  
Sharing a moment with the hosts... Alberte, Pierrette Boisvert, Lise Landel, and Lea.  

Coming back to our storytelling, Lea’s story was about a most wonderful weekend spent with her mommy at the Mont-Tremblant dance competition at the Fairmont. Having her mom all to herself was a special treat as she has five other siblings. That they won first place in musical, and third place in jazz was the icing on the cake!

For me, the defining event was the one that gave me a chance to be a child again since I had been made to be responsible so young. The story related a time when I was a 33 year-old widow going through a difficult breakup, compounded by a family problem. When my principal ordered me to go away for the Christmas holidays, I was dumbfounded and thought it impossible till my cousin Ronnie told me his sister was going to Disney with her son and would appreciate company. Everything fell into place and Adèle, my daughter, and I had the most wonderful experience we could ever share: five days at Disney, then Cypress Garden, Busch Gardens and Christmas in Fort Lauderdale where Lorraine’s father was staying. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky so aptly said, “The soul is healed by being with children.”

And for those who think we are raising a bunch of narcissists and selfies, I say: “It all depends how you go about it! Teach them well, love and guide them and they will become wonderful citizens of the world.” And as Margaret Mead pointed out, “Children must be taught to think, not what to think.”