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Life, death and immortality in reel time

Updated: Feb 19

Earl Fowler

They laugh, they smoke, they mug for and hide from the camera. Mostly, they fill their plates and stuff their mouths with Christmas turkey after Christmas turkey in these amateur home movies made long before the camcorder and long before the VCR. Now the green, dark family ghosts are too silent to be real.

And many are the dead men. All silent, reel to reel.

Having transferred the 1950s ghosts from colour reversal Kodachrome film shot mainly by my Uncle Bill on his 8mm home movie camera to a DVD disc — itself a superannuated relic from the 1990s — I parse their motions as if perusing the Zapruder film of JFK’s passage into the netherworld most of them now share.

As under a green sea, I see them drowning.

We cousins and two preceding generations of family and friends cavort and comport ourselves among the Coca-Cola bottles and the combovers, the chesterfield doilies and the TV dinner trays, the Art Deco standing ashtrays and the old RCA television console housed in a radiogram cabinet that was indubitably the finest piece of furniture in the living room, unless you counted a perennially out-of-tune upright piano with broken keys as forlorn as phantom limbs.


There are some marshmallow-topped birthday cakes, Eagle Creek wiener roasts, vigorously contested school track-and-field meets and backyard Easter egg hunts mixed in with the good china and the polished silverware, but for the most part it’s a succession of turkey and ham feasts beside tinsel-adorned Christmas trees with their warm strings of fire-hazard lights under the same feather-light decorative strands that were tacked and taped to the ceiling every year and arrayed with dozens and dozens and dozens of Christmas cards. In the Fifties, at least in this remote rural outpost of predominantly Protestant Canada, just about everyone sent Christmas cards to just about everyone else.

Uncle Bill, Aunt Marian and their six children lived in an old two-storey house that had belonged to my grandparents in what was even then just a remnant of a village, 40 miles west of Saskatoon.


The front of the home housed the district’s post office and a cramped general store, whose quirky range of merchandise ranged from household necessities to vacuum-tube-and-transitor-era electronics to minacious quack pharmaceuticals to what stands out most clearly in my memory and on the film as the camera pans: comic books, dime Westerns and such edifying pulp magazines as Man’s Life, Weird Tales, Startling Stories and Stag.

Featuring barely clad women (an image of one in high heels and a bikini while riding a pink missile was seared into my brain forever), bare-chested he-men wrestling aliens with octopus tentacles and such, the covers possessed a bona fide superpower: instant mesmerization of the formerly innocent. (See inside for “full frontal” revelations.)

If the store didn’t have it, you didn’t need it. Or, at the very least, you could stride across the unpaved street to the grocery store run by Uncle Allan and Aunt Margaret, who bought it shortly before his service in the army during the war. Allan made a seamless transition from stalking Nazis to stocking shelves when he came back. Stocking shelves and smoking. He was a quiet man who liked to flirt with my mom and call her a dumb Swede. No one else needed to talk much when Margaret was around.


Their store smelled strongly of overly mature bananas and grapefruit, I remember, and along with meat and vegetables you could purchase everything from men’s shirts to party dresses to table hockey games (I still have an early one dating from the 1920s, with pinball flippers and painted pegs for players, that I bought at the store’s liquidation sale after Allan’s death more than 40 years ago). When he was a boy, my dad had bought an ice cream cone from the previous owner and discovered a dead fly only when he got to the bottom. It was the last cone he ever ate.


The arrival of “Jap oranges” was the annual sensation of the Christmas season.

Bill and Marian took over the post office after he, too, returned from his army war service. My grandparents accommodated them by moving to the city. Grandpa impetuously sold his Saskatoon house after my grandmother died in 1959 (he said he couldn’t bear being there without her) and wound up in a series of increasingly grim rental suites for the final two decades of his life.

The struggles of the Great Depression — when two thirds of the Prairie population was on relief — and the ensuing hardships of the war saw the population of Saskatchewan plummet from from 922,000 in 1931 to 830,000 by the early Fifties. Indoor plumbing was years on the horizon for many country dwellers, if it ever arrived at all. Ditto for medicare and the decent highways that would spell an end to places like this, too close to bigger centres to compete with their cheaper goods and the overpowering allure of more prosperous, easier lives for anyone young and ambitious enough to escape.

The extension of electrical power to most of the province didn’t really begin until 1949 with the passage of the popular Rural Electrification Act by the government of CCF premier Tommy Douglas, a socialist who would surely grieve to see how little progress has been made in recent decades on social justice and Indigenous issues.

As do I. As would at least some of the older folks seen in these frames, who had their feet firmly planted in the era of butter churns and cattle roundups, hired men and threshing gangs, lignite coal and sod homesteads, gophers and grasshoppers, land rushes and livery stables, railway section gangs and fowl suppers. Above all, you helped your neighbours in need.


Well. Maybe not all your neighbours.


The Indigenous people who had lived on the Plains for thousands of years before the settlers arrived — the Cree and Dakota, Nakoda and Lakota, Siksika and Blood First Nations, the Dene in the north — had by now either been penned up in the apartheid system of segregated reserves or largely left to fend for themselves in the boreal forests of the north, far beyond the margins of European settlement.

Where the great plains begin. At the hundredth meridian. At the hundredth meridian. Where the great plains begin.


We kids had no idea, of course. How my brother and I snickered the year Grandpa’s trousers ripped from from back to front as he clambered into the backseat of the ’48 Ford that was my dad’s pride and joy (that’s my mother and me next to the car in the still I’ve attached to this essay). How we snorted and chortled while trying to suppress our giggles during the cousinly cacophony of synchronized celery chomping.


Amid the laughter of the bingo and the card games; the small-town glamour of the bow and bolo ties, the Charlie Chamberlain and Marg Osburne Sunday-best outfits that extended from the spats (straight out of Dickens, where this is all leading) and staid waistcoats of my grandpa to the spangled dress shirt (straight out of the Grand Ole Opry) that Allan wore every yuletide; the barrettes, brooches, batons and flouncing princess dresses of the girls with ribbons in their hair; the latest crop of babies bathing in brightly coloured basins; the war-painted older boys woo-woo-wooing like Indians from B-movie Westerns; the random plunking of ukuleles and the blast of cap guns; the blinking of the google glass eyes of the scarifying hard faces of porcelain dolls; the fragile muslin of the angel wings worn by the girls in the church Christmas pageant, the Holy Family creche display cheek by tail with the full-size Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer knockoff Allan fashioned with his jigsaw; the aging Great Dane named Hero coerced into giving lugubrious horsey rides to the smaller kids like me, the bigger children wriggling under tables and armchairs and emerging covered with dust bunnies after wedging themselves under beds during hide-and-seek epics that went on for hours; the store posters of Santa gleefully guzzling a Coke; New Year’s kaffeeklatsches of the ladies drying dishes in the kitchen with the peeling, sloping linoleum while the men feigned enthusiasm, stretched sore backs and stifled yawns before early broadcasts of U.S. college football bowl games involving teams they couldn’t have named to save their lives; the flabby upper arms of the kindly grandmother who died when I was four quavering like chicken wattles, her death accelerated by a crash in the ’48 Ford when my church-bound grandfather hit a tractor pulling out from a field; the new tricycle with its soon-to-be-torn-off tassels still blissfully intact; Aunt Marian uneasy as ever while leaning unobtrusively in the doorway; teetotaling Uncle Bill regularly eating himself into a stupor as we returned, this time wearing those colourful, proper English paper hats pulled from intoxicatingly explosive Christmas crackers, for a second run at the turkey and the mashed potatoes and the gravy and the jellied salads and the doughy, too-eggy Yorkshire pudding just before we departed for our home in the city along treacherous roads in minus-42 weather and absolute darkness except for the brightest view of the Milky Way you ever saw from the rear window if you stretched out just right (no disobliging seatbelts in those days), the wind blowing skiffs of snow from infinitely flat fields extending in daylight hours to the horizon in all directions but now merely an invisible rumour beyond the ditch; amid all this, amid even the inconsolable howling of a new baby brother all the way home, a child’s wail at Christmas, one Christmas so much like the other, there were dollops of joy and inklings of tragedy even a four-year-old could descry.

A sketch of a shapely female leg poking up from a bathtub suddenly interposes itself on the screen as a bit of connective tissue linking consecutive Christmases. “Interested? You should see what’s coming,” says the sign the bather is holding.

If only we had.

One year my Uncle Mack, the youngest of my father’s three brothers, dropped off three of his four girls and never came back. He’d run off to join the Royal Canadian Navy as a teenager, married, divorced and stayed in the navy after the war before descending into an alcoholic haze on Winnipeg’s skid row for a 50-year lost weekend. He sobered up a few years before his death in the Eighties, got a job as a commissionaire and tried to make amends with his daughters; I don’t know how successfully.

Mack’s youngest girl had stayed with their alcoholic mother in the Maritimes. The older three wound up being divided among the brothers’ families for a year before being reunited in some godforsaken group home. Uncle Bill’s camera caught brief clips of them looking abandoned and utterly lost among relatives they barely knew. Not the family’s finest hour.

My grandparents and their farmer friends, my parents and my uncles and my aunts are all gone now, with whatever remains of their bodies mouldering under bleak granite grave covers at the cemetery, a perpetually windy checkpoint security entrance to the underworld that gave me the willies as a child and still does when I dream about it today, not infrequently: the sharp triad spears atop the black cast iron fence that delineates the perimeter, the jiggly Giacometti shadows of the mourners with the sun low in the sky, the ancient metal watering cans hanging from hooks, the faded plastic flowers along cracked and crumbling headstones, the disconsolate tremolo of the heavy iron picket gate as one pushed it open or forced it shut. Requiem mass in D minor (eternally unfinished).

Tie me with fences and drag me down.

And now, of course, we cousins are morphing into sepia ghosts ourselves who will never quite finish our dinners, our ineffable gestures or our idiotic capers and high jinks.


The motorcycle-crazy one who most resembled James Dean or even Marlon Brando from The Wild One killed himself decades ago after a marital crackup. The body of another — a shy, tall, brainy woman born during the war, who became a gangly teen squirming uncomfortably under the bright, pitiless gaze of the Kodak Cine 8 — was found in her North Vancouver condo just before Christmas a few years ago. According to the coroner, she had been dead for weeks.


Cancer claimed one of her brothers two years ago and another this September. Say goodbye and good night. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

On a trip back to Saskatchewan, my wife and I drove through the old stomping grounds a decade ago. The stores of my uncles had been picked clean and bulldozed flat, as had most of the structures in a village that had once boasted a bustling school, the church my grandfather helped build and faithfully attended until shortly before his death, three lumberyards, a hotel, a pool hall, a harness shop, a blacksmith shop, a livery barn and three implement agencies.


But for some weatherbeaten grain elevators and few scattered houses owned by area farmers or people willing to endure the long commute to Saskatoon in exchange for cheap property, the place is quite literally a ghost town. The pioneers who homesteaded in this part of Saskatchewan, as my grandfather and his brother had in 1905, have passed into history just as surely as the First Nations people they displaced. With a much shorter tenure to boot.


And their descendants? Those of us lucky enough to possess home movies of our lost or fraying families are a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, when the first of the three visiting spirits — the Ghost of Christmas Past — takes him back to the vistas of his childhood. Initially he feels joy at seeing all the familiar haunts and departed love ones, then is flooded with regret over all the opportunities he missed to have behaved with more wisdom and kindness toward them. They cannot hear his cries.

No less than the ghost of Jacob Marley, we all wear the chains we forged in life. We make them link by link, yard by yard, reel by reel.

“Spirit!” said Scrooge in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”

“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”


“Remove me!” Scrooge exclaimed, “I cannot bear it!”


He turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it.

“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”


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Larry Johnsrude
Larry Johnsrude
23 พ.ย. 2566

A touching story beautifully written, Earl, bringing back my own memories of growing up in a general store on the prairies, watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the Kennedy assassination on a 1959 Marconi black-and-white televisions, seeing John Diefenbaker roll through town on a passenger train and sitting mesmerized while Tommy Douglas talked about Mouseland at a packed Melville arena. Stories I may save for another day. Best wishes.

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Thanks Larry. Some particularly greedy cats are grooming themselves to take over both the Canadian and the American mouselands, I fear.

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Mark Abley
Mark Abley
20 พ.ย. 2566

Incredibly evocative, Earl. I love so many of these details. Bravo!

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Paul Morgan
Paul Morgan
17 พ.ย. 2566

I was dreaming of 1920s table hockey (Johnny Bower in goal for the Leafs? He must have started about then, perhaps before tables themselves were invented) and enjoying the depiction of old-time family feasts, then things turned grim ... but I guess that's life, and death. And Kinley too had little chance of survival, in the shadow of metro Perdue. Still a lovely piece, Earl.

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Gateways to Asquith both. Thanks, Paul.

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David Walker
David Walker
17 พ.ย. 2566

I love the haunting picture you paint of life on the Prairies. No Michael Landon here. Just real people struggling to survive. Thanks

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Quinn McIlhone
Quinn McIlhone
17 พ.ย. 2566

Beautiful. You evoke the ghost of Christmas past in the east as well.

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