My grandmother 'Fortunata' standing by her home.
Though most people think of place as a geographical location (and certainly geography has a huge impact on our lives), for me the definition is much broader. Recently, I have undertaken a project to make sense of dozens of little notes I wrote to myself following visits with my grandmother. (She passed away a number of years ago, at the age of 101.) How is it, that while patching together her stories, I feel an intense sense of ownership, as though I myself have lived through her realities? How is it that when I am reminded of her stories— the custom-made wooden yoke her father made for her to haul water; and how at fourteen years of age, she was sent to work full time at Woolworth's for ten cents an hour following her father's serious work accident; and how she resourcefully unpicked sugar bags to make shirts and collected the worn woolen rollers from the mill to make blankets— how is it that these stories resonate for me? And how I feel a powerful surge of belonging to those places she describes, when in actual fact, I have never known such places? I can only answer that place is not only an external reality, but also includes the internal geography of the mind and heart. And for every human being, that composite is something very unique.
For me, 'place' is where internal geography meets external geography. And I experience the external geography (my home; Northern Ontario and all its wonders), through the visceral experiences of ordinary day-to-day life. Today, 'place' is the frozen blanket I pull from the clothesline on a crisp January day; it is a cake recipe I follow that has been nibbled at the corners by mice; it is the sound of our 100-year old piano as I stumble through a new song. For me, 'place' is the combination of every place I have ever lived, every experience I have ever had, and every meaningful connection that I have ever shared. As a practicing artist, 'place' influences every work that is conceived and created. Without it, I would be left working in a vacuum. It is, I believe, what gives shape and meaning to all creative endeavors.
I would like to close this reflection on 'place' with one of my grandmother's stories I found on a scrap of paper. There is a tenuous moment here where a child is caught between one person's sense of place and another person's sense of place. In Fortunata's words— “I'll always remember Sister Gevita. Us girls liked her, but one day she shocked me. You see, my mother got a call from a neighbour whose baby was sick. 'Can you send your daughter over to interpret when the doctor gets here?' The neighbours were always calling on me to translate for them because I was fluent in Italian and English. Well, my mother would never turn anyone down so she kept me out of school for the day. The next day, Sister Gevita called me out into the hall and asked me where I'd been. After I told her, she said 'Your mother was wrong to keep you from school.' That shocked me, her saying that about my mother. I never did tell my mother about it. She probably would've pulled me from school permanently. I mean, doing charity, that was my education, as far as my mother was concerned.”