You know how attics can contain hidden treasure? When Marnie Hare Bickle moved into her new house north of Port Hope, Ontario, she rummaged around in the attic and found a cardboard box filled with papers. Heart racing with excitement, she discovered rough copies of memoirs written by the former owner, David Ford. Actually, there were several versions of them, and a box of all his letters from WW ll. She sorted and read all the letters first, then plunged with pleasure into the mystery of the memoirs.
David Ford was born in 1910 in the East Arctic to a family of several generations of Hudson Bay Company traders and managers. His father was highly respected and spoke the language of the Eskimos (Inuit) and Indians (Innu) he served. David grew up with the native children where they lived, hunted seal and caribou with them, learned the ways of wolves and polar bears and travelled by dog sled and kayak.
At 13, his parents sent him to Newfoundland for high school. When WW 11 broke out, Ford enlisted. Through a war program, he became pen pals with Ruth Hawkins and after the war he travelled to Port Hope to meet and marry her.
He never forgot the Inuit people of his youth. He may have written his memoirs to keep them close to him, and dispel homesickness. He may have written them to preserve on paper a way of life now gone, so that others would know the beauty and hardships of it.
Marnie edited the multiple versions of the story into one cohesive whole over the course of four years of monthly writers meetings. Every few pages took hours of editing. Every month I would listen to more of her story, which was his story, and be caught up in the drama of the lives of the Arctic’s first peoples. She would hear another chapter of my book, which was about writing memoir. We sipped lemon ginger tea, and inched forward into our literary endeavours. Four amazing years slid by. My book, The Gift of Memoir, was published. Marnie’s is about to be.
The following excerpt takes place when David has finished high school, and has returned to his father’s latest post at Southampton Island. (Marnie and I had a long discussion about how to translate Wakadlanga.)
I was the first white man they had ever seen. The small girl asked (in Eskimo), “Are you a white man?”
I answered, “Yes, but a poor one. I was born and raised in your native land but I wish to be an Inuk man while I am your guest.”
Smiling, she came up to me like a queen and put her plump little hand in mine and said, “There you are.” I shook her hand vigorously and asked her who she was.
“I am Caribou Hair,” she answered in a clear friendly voice. Turning to the rest of her companions she said, “Those you see here are my friends, Inuit.”
There was that word, Inuit. The People. The best name in the world. I knew I was home.
She reached out her short arm and pulled a small fellow from the crowd and said, “This one is called Little Worm.”
“Wakadlanga! No kidding!” I exclaimed, delighting in speaking this magic Eskimo word used so much in this part of the Arctic.
“Pleased to meet you, Little Worm,” I said in English.
That was too funny, and they giggled and squirmed and said, “Oh, he speaks English, too!”
Little Caribou (who was eight, I would find out later) continued talking to me. “Little Worm is my future husband.”
“That is when he grows up to be a Big Worm,” I said.
I had not heard so much children’s laughter in a long time.
Caribou Hair protested. “I do not wish to marry Little Worm. I want to marry a man who can carry a boat from one place to another on a dog sled.”
I turned to Little Worm. “Are you going to have a boat when you grow up?”
“Oh yes. I am going to own several boats that will only be used on the water,” intimating that this business of having to haul a boat overland was plain stupidity. I wondered to myself if he might be right.
Marnie, thank you for taking me time travelling to the Aboriginal Arctic! And thank you for the self portrait below of David Ford. For those who would like to read more authentic stories of the East Arctic, read Kenojuak by Jean Blodgett, published by Penumbra Press. Some of the same people appear in both Kenojuak and David Ford’s stories.
If any of you have rough copies of old letters or memoirs to sort through and edit, I’d love to hear about them.