How My Book Almost Didn’t Happen

SONY DSCThe following is a version of my talk at the book launch for The Day Soon Dawns on Sunday, April 19 at Parkside Centre.

I thought I’d tell you a little about how the book came to be . . . or rather how it almost didn’t happen.

I was about fifteen, my daughter’s age, when I learned about World War II in history class at Lo-Ellen. Even then, I knew my father had stories, but I couldn’t really make sense of them. He didn’t say too much, and I was afraid to ask. Even then, I vowed to write his story someday.

Years passed. Then decades. You know how it is . . . you think you have so much time and then, whooom, it’s gone. In the spring of 2011 my mother called me up. I was folding laundry and reminding my kids to get ready for swimming. She had that tone  . . . you know the one. What did she want? I wondered.

She said, “One of my friends wants to write your father’s story.”  She paused. I waited. “I told her my daughter is going to do that.”  And there it was. It was time. I knew I had to write the stories down before it was too late. So, I started reading Holocaust memoirs and researching everything I could find about Stutthof.

Before we started meeting regularly, my father said, “If you really want to hear about my stories, the best time is around 3:00 AM. That’s when I wake up from nightmares and everything is vivid. They replay like movie reels.” Had he been suffering nightmares for seventy years?  All of a sudden, his insomnia made sense.

I began interviewing my father every Sunday afternoon in January 2012. We sat for hours talking about what he had experienced during his childhood in Oulu, Finland, his experiences of the Winter War as a boy of only eleven and his life as a merchant marine at the tender age of fifteen. He had lied about his age to get the job, of course. But the war was on and they needed men.

Sometime during that winter, my mom and dad were planning to visit my sister-in-law Judith in Sault Ste. Marie. My brother Tom and his wife Carita were driving them down. On the morning of departure, my father was in Tom’s driveway, gathering the garbage can, when he slipped and fell on some ice. When they approached him, he brushed them off. “I’m fine, no problem,” he said. But, in the car, he kept wondering where they were going. He didn’t dare ask anyone for fear the trip would be cancelled. A few days later, he went to the hospital. He had suffered a concussion.

The next Sunday I visited, as usual, to find my father a little muddled. He tried, but he was clearly having difficult remembering. He was disorientated. I looked at my mother. She shook her head. Maybe the stories were gone. Eventually, he started talking in his native Finnish and a look of relief passed over his face. Of course, I didn’t really understand much, but at least the memories were intact. Eventually, time allowed him to recover and we continued our sessions.

By late winter, I had written pages and pages of typed notes about my father’s early years. But he skipped right over those crucial months: his arrest, his transportation, the camp, the Death March, evacuation by sea, his liberation. He had told me about life after the war, moving overseas, travelling and working in Canada, meeting my mom at Sampo Hall, and his early married years. I loved the stories and faithfully recorded them. But, I must admit, I was a little worried.

I told my mom, “I don’t think this is going to happen. He doesn’t want to talk about what happened in that camp.”

As wise mothers do, she said, “Give it time.”  And I did.

Eventually, he opened the doors to Stutthof and we entered together. For almost seventy years, the stories had been there — waiting to be told. The time was finally right: a storyteller only needs a willing listener and, well . . . time.

There were many other moments that may have prevented this book from ever happening. A colleague of mine who had read the book commented that there were so many times in his early life that things could have tragically gone the other way. She was right.

The fact that we have my father’s stories to tell today is testament to the fact that time and time again he found a way to cling to hope and survive his circumstances. What a powerful lesson for all of us.

I believe everyone has a story, but those stories are in danger. As time passes, memories fade away or are lost altogether. Loved ones and friends are afraid to ask questions, wanting instead to protect the storyteller from the painful past. But it is through telling our personal stories that we create connections with others. Through stories we share our common humanity. By telling stories, writing stories and reading stories, we come to understand who we are in this world and how we can make this world better a better place.

I’m so pleased that although time will pass, my father’s stories will remain. My children and my children’s children will understand what happened to him. They will know what it means to endure incredible hardship and still become kind, generous and gentle people. I hope they will become empathetic listeners of other people’s stories, and maybe someday they will have the courage to tell their own stories, too.