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On Tour

April 19, 2009

Tricks of time and a pickled seal
Posted by Margaret Horsfield

Margaret Horsfield

Time is such a trickster, I thought, rather forlornly, a couple of days ago.  It blurs memory, trashes landmarks, changes townscapes.

On Friday we were back in Terrace after visiting Prince George. Back in my former hometown, I again felt lost, adrift.  As I had done when we first arrived in Terrace a few days earlier, I wasted time looking for things long gone.

But that evening in the library, I was thrown a lifeline between past and present, and time came sharply back into focus.  Many of the people there had known me as a child, or in high school, and their warm welcome to all of us, their interest, their support and enthusiasm combined to create a wonderful evening.  I was so grateful to them all for coming.  The tricks of time suddenly didn’t matter, after all.

In the Terrace Library, as on numerous other occasions, the subject arose of family letters, diaries and photographs.  So many people have attics, shoeboxes, files full of old papers, and often we just don’t know how to handle them. What should we do with them?  Do they have any historic value? Are they even remotely important?

At one of the high schools we visited on this tour, after hearing about some of the people in my book, one of the girls in the class asked “What’s so important about those people anyhow?  Why should they be in a book if they’re not famous?”  My answer to her was “Are you important?  Am I?  Is anyone in this room?”

I believe we are all important. We matter. Our stories contribute to the mosaics of our families and communities and our province.  We need somehow to remember these stories, to record them – of ourselves, our parents and grandparents, of our surroundings.  We can tell tales at the kitchen table to our children, write poems or books or plays – but we need to pass on our stories. If we don’t, the stories will be completely obscured, perhaps entirely lost when we die. 

In Prince Rupert on Saturday day, we found ourselves doing readings at the museum, a beautiful structure set against mountains and harbour, filled with light.  This was my kind of place, a repository of community and regional artefacts and documents and photographs.  Talking to the curator Susan Marsden, I was struck all over again by what hard work it is to establish and maintain this kind of facility, and how immensely, incalculably valuable it is, in more ways than one could possibly imagine.

Time tricked me again, in Prince Rupert, though.  Strange and unbidden, a long-forgotten childhood image surfaced in my mind from visits here.  The original Prince Rupert museum was a dark, small, poky place.  A burning question arose in my mind about that original museum,  but I hesitated to ask. I wasn’t even sure if it was based on a real memory. 

“Whatever happened to the pickled seal?”  I blurted out. 

Susan burst out laughing.  Everyone asks about the pickled seal, apparently, even many years after it quietly sprung a leak and had to be cast aside.  It sat in a corner of the old museum, in a large jar, an unearthly whitish green creature, weirdly floating in opaque liquid.  My sister and I found it grotesque and fascinating.

I was relieved to know that the memory was reliable.  Pity about the seal, but there are far, far better items on view in the museum in Prince Rupert, after all!

Our tour has now ended, and we are awaiting our plane home.  Only six days ago we clambered into the van, four writers and Bryan, our tour leader, who did all the organisation, entertainment and driving, exuding good humour and patience all along.  Thank you, Bryan.

We had no idea what this tour would bring. We had no idea of the stories we would hear, or create or gather on this trip – we did not even know, really, what stories we would end up sharing with the people who we met.  I was continually surprised, continually impressed and I know I have learned a great deal, probably more than I realise. 

It may take a while before I can put it all into focus. 

Time will help.  Tricks aside, it usually does.

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