Sunday, June 27, 2010

Jane Blaffer Owen - a spirit that will linger

Jane Blaffer Owen passed away at the age of 95 two weeks ago, on June 21st, 2010 in Houston, Texas. Jane's parents owned Ste. Anne's from 1939 to 1981, when they sold it to my family.  As one of the surviving Blaffer children, Jane was the main contact for her parent's estate for the purposes of this transaction.  I have fond memories of when we lived at Ste. Anne's - known amongst the locals as "The Grafton Castle", hearing stories about the Blaffer family and their annual summer pilgrimage to Canada for their summer vacation, stories that made them seem like an urban legend in my youthful eyes.  Years later I came back to work for my brother Jim who was in the process of transforming Ste. Anne's from a family bed and breakfast into a country inn and spa.  One of my first projects was to help with the co-ordination of a book called The History of Ste. Anne's. In doing the research for the book, the writer we had hired contacted Mrs. Owen to delve into the details surrounding the Blaffer family and their time in Grafton. Jane was kind enough to send us a number of photos of her wedding day at Ste. Anne's back in the 1940's. I too was married at Ste. Anne's, and instantly felt a connection to Jane. I sent her back some photos of my own wedding, not expecting that this "legend" would have the time of day for me.  But she did.
We began corresponding regularly. This contact led to many visits for myself and my family over the years to New Harmony, Indiana, Jane's home away from home.  Her legend status was quickly replaced with a warm respect and love for this woman who silently did so much to enhance all that she touched. She welcomed us with open arms each time we visited her. Jane had a quiet drive and love for life that was absolutely contagious. My children have fond memories of driving on the back of her golf cart, late at night, down the middle of the road. She was fun to be with, she possessed a keen sense of humour and she was an incredibly astute business woman.
I feel so blessed to have known Jane and to have been touched by her. She never judged me, never made me feel 'less than' or silly, she just accepted me - silently.  I like to think that Jane's vision and spirit are at the heart of Ste. Anne's on some kind supernatural level. She was a woman of faith, community, healing and giving - with no pretension, qualities that have become the basic foundations on which Ste. Anne's Spa has been built.  Heaven will be a better place now that Jane is there.  Adieu my friend!
posted by Marijo Corcoran

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Five Pairs of Shoes and a Bag of Bananas

My dad is almost 84 years old and bent from degenerative disc disease in his back, the legacy of years working as a bricklayer. He suffers from renal failure and must undergo dialysis three times a week in order to continue living. Added to that, the patches of skin cancer on his head and back and his prostrate cancer, I’m sometimes amazed that he is still with us.

My dad is a quiet, introspective man, which is where I get those qualities from. He is also an extremely stubborn man, a trait I hope I have not inherited.

My dad immigrated to Canada in the early 50’s in search of a better life for his small family. Sometimes, out of the blue, he will regale us with stories of the war and of his life.

Before my parents married, dad worked in France in a steel foundry for almost two years. The work was hard but the pay was very good and so dad stayed. Dad tells the story of how, up until that point, he had only ever owned one pair of shoes. The shoes had been bought new but were too tight on his feet from the very beginning. After the soles wore out, he had them resoled, a process that made them even tighter. He wondered whether shoes were just supposed to be this uncomfortable. After all, these were the only pair of shoes he had ever owned. So when he was in France, and earning more money than he had ever seen before, he decided to buy some new shoes. Maybe, he thought, one could actually have shoes that didn’t hurt your feet. So he bought some shoes and they felt divine, so he kept buying, until he had bought five pairs of shoes. Each pair was a different style and colour.

In Italy, there were many fruits that he had seen in store windows but could not afford to buy. In France dad ate his first banana and by all accounts was quite impressed with the taste. After he broke his wrist on the job, he decided to spend some of his disability time back home. He took the train back to Italy to visit his family and of course his fiancée. He must have looked like quite the sight at the train station with his five pairs of shoes and a large bag of bananas. Dad would bring my mother gifts of chocolate and fragrant French soap. She claims to still have a bar of the soap, some 60 years later.

I treasure these stories that dad tells us because they are part of our legacy, to be passed on to newer generations. Some stories, like the ones of the shoes and the bananas, are funny. Others of the war and the resistance movement are frightening and heart breaking.

Dad still loves bananas, but unfortunately now that he can afford as many as he likes, he’s not allowed to eat them because of their high potassium content. In case you were wondering, he still has more shoes that the rest of us and they fit just fine.

Happy Father’s Day Papa

My Aunt Dorothy

My Aunt Akiko Dorothy Nakamachi passed away a few weeks ago. She wasn’t really my aunt, but 40 years ago my best friend Koji generously shared his aunt with me.

Over the years I grew to love and admire this woman. She was intelligent, witty and in the words of my younger brother, “really cool”. Paolo considered her cool because as a single woman she had travelled all over the world, twice going to Africa. That alone made her cool in Paolo’s eyes.

Aunt Dorothy’s life was one worthy of an epic novel. Born and raised in Vancouver, she fought Japanese racism to graduate as a registered nurse from St. Paul’s Hospital, after the Bishop interceded to get her admitted. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour, she was interned in the B.C. interior at Greenwood internment camp, where she was the only nurse treating over 4,000 Japanese detainees. Many of the detainees had contracted T.B. and eventually so did Aunt Dorothy. She was transferred to a hospital and had a lung removed.

After the war the Japanese were not allowed to return to B.C. so she moved to Toronto. She entered the University of Toronto, where she earned an additional nursing degree and then worked as a Public Health nurse until her retirement.

Years later when the conservative government formally apologized to the Japanese who were interned, each of them was awarded $21,000 as a redress settlement. My Aunt Dorothy took that money and promptly bought herself a full length mink coat and hat.

Aunt Dorothy never married but I learned that she remained ever the romantic. I discovered that she and I shared a love for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It gave me joy to be able to gift her with BBC videos of both, which I know she treasured.

In her last year she sent me a gift via Koji. It was a lovely damascene brooch she bought on one of her many trips to Japan. The brooch, made of iron or steel with interlacings of silver and gold, depicts a pagoda and the ever present Mount Fuji. I wore it over my heart at her funeral.

Since her passing, Koji has been going through Aunt Dorothy’s things and distributing them to family members. He gave me 16 English bone china tea cups and saucers that speak to me of my Aunt Dorothy’s grace and elegance, and of course of her love of tea. He also asked if I would like a statue of the Virgin Mary that St Paul’s hospital gave her at her graduation in 1940. I told him I would be honoured to receive it and to find a suitable place for it in my home office.

My Aunt Dorothy passed away in her sleep, just short of her 92nd birthday. I hope when I grow up that I’ll be just like her; intelligent, witty, strong, romantic and of course “really cool”.