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I suck at arts and crafts. In elementary school, I dreaded the first day of class when we had to measure, cut out and glue covers for our school books. My friends would quickly assemble perfectly tight covers while mine bagged and sagged and eventually slid off.
In high school, I failed sewing, defeated by the task of making a simple apron. To this day, I am extremely pleased with myself whenever I manage to thread a needle and sew on a button. Pathetic, really. I have my excuses: poor eyesight, lack of fine-motor skills, insufficient exposure to art supplies as a child. Most of all, it's my general impatience and lack of confidence.
So what am I doing inside a store dedicated to the art of making scrapbooks?
My youngest niece, Gina, sent me this e-mail: "Whatever happened to those wartime letters between Grandpa Ron and Grandma Lil? I'd love to read them!"
Her request sends me to the basement to haul up my late father's battered valise. Inside are the letters they wrote to each other from 1940 to 1941, when the war kept them apart after only one year of marriage. I'm overwhelmed by the number of letters and stop counting after 100. They wrote every day, sometimes twice.
I start reading their letters. Before long I'm weeping uncontrollably, flooded by love for them. My parents come alive again in these letters. They are so young and idealistic. So much in love. Their letters sing with praises for each other. He is the greatest husband in the world and she is the greatest wife. She wants to have his baby before he goes overseas; he thinks it will be too hard on her, but in the end she prevails. Their letters pulsate with excitement as they anticipate their reunion before he goes overseas. In November, 1940, she boards a train in Penticton, B.C., to join him at his training depot in Brandon, Man. Later that month, Gina's father – my older brother – is conceived.
I get a grip on my emotions and face reality. At 68, I've entered the zone of mortality. I'm going to memorial services for people younger than me. It's time to pass these letters on to the next generation, to someone who cares about family history and who will keep them for another generation. I call Gina and offer her the letters. Yes, she says, then asks if I have any pictures of her grandmother. My mother died 30 years ago as of last month. Gina, and the four other granddaughters, were too young back then to have any memories of her.
In my dad's recycled chocolate boxes, I find old photos of my parents as well as scraps of memorabilia: a brochure from their honeymoon hotel, their wedding booklet, telegraphs.
I look at the calendar and see I have enough time to make a scrapbook for Gina by Christmas.
Standing nervously in the scrapbook store, I blurt out my confession to the clerk: "I don't know anything about scrapbooking and I have no artistic skills."
She looks at me calmly and I feel slightly less rattled as she shows me around the store, pointing out scrapbook supplies.
"You will need a good adhesive. We carry two types: the forgiving and the non-forgiving. This one here bonds immediately and if you've placed the photo wrong, it can't be moved."
I opt for the compassionate glue and move on to a large binder, transparent sleeves, heavy stock and decorative black corner doodads for the photos. I show her the black and white photos of my young parents.
"Matte paper is better than shiny for this project. It wasn't a shiny time."
She places the studio photo of my parents on the paper. It's the studio one of them in Brandon. She is wearing her new pageboy bob and my dad's RCAF wings are pinned to her blouse. Dad is in his uniform sporting a goofy grin.
"This photo needs to be trimmed. There is an edge here that makes it lopsided. Do you see it?"
I ask her to demonstrate. She obliges, pulling out a paper trimmer from under the counter, a device that I view with mild anxiety. She deftly measures and cuts, adds the glue, squares the photo and presses it onto black paper. It looks beautiful. My young parents smile up at me.
For one panicky moment, I consider throwing myself on the mercy of this scrapbook professional. I could offer her money to do the scrapbook for me. She is so capable and confident.
No, that would be crass. I have to do this myself.
The expert clerk has moved on to another part of the store.
"You will want to hand-write captions and sidebars, to provide supplemental information. Be sure to leave room for that when you place your memorabilia. I recommend you use archival ink pens. Please do not use the computer. It won't look right. It has to be personal."
Oh, great. My handwriting is barely legible. I know she's right, though. Guess I'll be practising the Maclean's Method of Handwriting again to be worthy of archival ink.
Christmas seems to be coming closer the longer I stay in this store.
Back home, I take over the dining room table and begin. When I get frustrated, I remember the letter my mom wrote her sister in December, 1940, describing the handmade Christmas presents she was making for her family. I scrutinize the progress of my handicraft.
My scrapbook is not perfect, but it's not bad either. I put on Tommy Dorsey to listen to their song, I'm Getting Sentimental Over You. Maybe I could write that in gold ink under the last photo.
Connie Gibbs lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C.