standing in the light

I mailed a copy of a hard-cover storybook I wrote last summer to my aunt in BC last week. It tells the story of her grandpa — my great grandpa — who came to Canada in 1887 as part of the British Home Child emigration movement. It’s a significant part of Canadian history that you won’t find in any history books — a child labour scheme that brought more than 100,000 British kids to Canada, without their consent, between 1869 and about 1940.

We came desperately close to losing his story forever. How it actually came to be known is a story unto itself — for another day. Like so many British Home Children, he was full of shame about his story and he never spoke of how he came to be in Canada. But, he didn’t know in the generations long after him, along would come a great grand daughter who’d be born to tell stories. His included.

It’s true that history doesn’t move you more than when it’s in your own blood. George Pines died long before I was ever born, but I wanted to meet him in the worst way. Eighteen months after I started searching for him, I did.

As a little boy growing up in the slums of London, England in the 1870s, my great grandpa George was neglected by his family. After his mother died, and his father lost his battle with the bottle, George came to Canada with his younger brother William. In 1887, the boys were made to sail across the ocean together with 70 other home boys. For two weeks they sailed with hundreds of other passengers in the stifling below-deck hold of the SS Circassian, bound for Halifax. They were 12 and 10. And every day after their arrival, the shame of that old life drove them further into silence about it.

Days after arriving at a Stratford receiving home, George and his brother were picked up by farmers from North Easthope Township and put to work on separate farms. They would never live together again. Some years later, George met a girl from a farm down the road at a dance and he married her and bought his own farm. My mom adored her grandma Katie.

Before I left the for the post office to mail the book, I sat on the bed in the spare room, flipping through the pages which not only tell his story, but are full of vintage family photos. It’s an incredible story of perseverance and forgiveness. But what stood out to me that sunny Friday afternoon was something different.

It stood out to me that, even though we are a few generations apart, George and I had a lot in common when it came to secrecy and silence and shame. It stood out to me that perhaps the most important thing about a person is the thing you don’t know about them. And, it stood out to me that the concepts of intergenerational trauma and cellular memory — where cells in your body retain memories that can be genetically passed on — do not need to be proven to me.

More than anything else, what stood out to me was that by telling his story, especially because he never could, he finally came fully into the light. Just like I had eight summers before when I came out — fully into the light. I sat there entertaining the idea that it is entirely possible that the long-held cycle of secrecy and silence and shame, born in the slums of London, England and carried in the background of my family for well over a century now — may have been broken, with me, in 2012.

I guess only time will tell. I do wish, though, that George could have known the exquisite wonder that living in the truth is. I wish he could have felt the admiration and gratitude of his family — for his strength and perseverance. I wish he could have seen that nothing and no one is exempt from redemption. And, resurrection. I wish he’d known that his silent shame and secrecy would live on in the lives of all of the family that came after, in one way or another. People think that stories are shaped by people when, in fact, it’s the other way around.

Where George and I go our separate ways is that I couldn’t swallow the grief and shame over who I was the way he did. He stuffed it way down there, somewhere between Sunday dinner and worrying about his crops, and he focused on gratitude instead. Having to hide something like that just ruined me. It taught me that you don’t bury secrets. They bury you. It’s so subtle you barely know it and you think you’re in control of it, but whatever closet you are in eats away at you bit by bit. Until it destroys you.

I told my truth and came fully into the light for the first time in June of 2012. I feel like I’ve been coming out ever since. It’s never done. George’s truth was finally told, and he came fully into the light, in the summer of 2019 — when I finally published his story for my family.

It’s never too late to find out who you are and be that person. That’s what your soul was put on this earth to do. Find that truth. Live that truth. Somehow everything else will fall into place.

George, I wish you could have known, the way that I do, that to be fully seen by the people you love, and to be loved – not in spite of your brokenness but maybe even because of it – is a human offering that borders on the miraculous.

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