Building a family

To the family of Frank Balen & Greta Tvys Balen

Where to begin? I could talk today about all the things my father taught me –how to clean a fish, paddle a canoe, find the best blueberry patch.

I could recount memories of my father’s kindness and generosity–the morning calls he made from work to me at university to check in with me, OR the countless hours walking the Sunsite estate deck with 6-week old Paul, then Mikaela, then Geordie on his shoulder. Or volunteering to be my driver for weeks of radiation treatment I needed in Sudbury.

But I’m not.

Instead, I want to talk about this event —this celebration of life as the celebration of family because when I think of Frank– I think of Greta. And when I think of Greta, I think of Frank. And what I think about is the work they did together to build a family.

Where I work I am constantly faced with questions about identity, belonging, truth, and reconciliation. My students’ struggle to find their place, to make sense of what it means to be Anishinabe in the 21st century—to simultaneously be able to cheer on the Raptors and to turn their backs on Canada 150. And their struggle is causing many of us to wonder about our own sense of identity.

Nation building is hard work. It’s hard work because our differences push at us, demanding our attention when what we need to do is respond to the pull of our shared values. And we need to trust that others will do the same.

I remember my mom telling me about a time when a colleague of hers threatened to make a play for Frank. Mom, pregnant at the time, told her “go ahead if you can get him, he was never mine. But you won’t get him.”

Along with their love and profound trust in each other, our parents shared a progressive perspective.

Remember mom working through pregnancies and staying in the workforce afterwards; changing careers mid-life. I recall the day she told us that she had received her real estate license…dad’s face beaming with happiness for her.

Remember mom and dad living and working apart in 1976 long before it became common practice: mom, David and I living in Hull and Dad in Mattagami.

Remember, dad embracing 21st-century communication in his 80s learning how to use a tablet and then connecting virtually with many of you at Mike’s funeral.

They were so modern.

We can wonder why they were so progressive. It could be because of the times, their upbringing and education. But I think it might have more to do with their desire to belong in this new country. Frank and Greta never turned their backs on their past—traditions like colouring easter eggs and hosting lamb barbecues and in particular serving foods like palacinke, pierogi, cabbage rolls, kapusta, and kugelis lived on in their home. But, there were no trips back to the old country, no tamburica lessons and dad refused to teach me how to speak Croatian.

We were Canadian. We had a camp. We fished and hunted. We went to Expo….Ca-na-da 1 little, 2 little, 3 Canadians. We love thee. Now we are twenty million. 

And mom and dad did love Canada–from the rocky Cambrian shield to the red bluffs of PEI. I suppose there were times when we rocketed to our destinations, but what I remember most is mom calling out, “Antique shop just ahead, the sign says 10 miles”. We’d groan. Or dad announcing, “Ice cream in 5 miles! Anyone interested?”

Mom loved antiques—Canadiana in particular. Pine tables, press back chairs, hurricane lamps. When you’re not from the place you’re in, you have to construct your past. Surrounding themselves with antiques is one way to say we belong.

But there were others. Everywhere they lived, mom and dad purchased art by local artists. Paintings and quill boxes. Dad continued this custom most recently purchasing two Norval Morriseau prints. I remember how proud and excited he was to add them to his collection.

Image of “Sermon to the birds” from bearclaw gallery

I believe that mom and dad worked intentionally to build a narrative for us: a past, present, and future. To ground that story in this place—you belong here.

This land is my land. This land is your land.

There is no family home to pass on; no legacy other than the story they created together. And what a story it is.

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3 Comments

Filed under Teaching

3 responses to “Building a family

  1. Oh, hell, Julie.
    This is so gorgeous, so powerful, so true. We share much of that kid of immigrants journey. As you know, I’m listening to Braiding
    Sweetgrass, and right now, I’m listening to the chapter about being part of a place. 2 feet on the shore. That’s how your parents and my dad were. Looking forward.

    Thank you for this. You helped me understand my dad more in writing about yours.

    Like

    • I am glad that it has resonated with you Lisa. I posted my words (spoken this past Saturday) here because I felt that I need to archive them somewhere. As always, we never know who will benefit from our experiences. Interestingly, I learned about the value of sharing parts of my private life with my PLN through #etmooc and Alec Couros when he shared with us his loss. This is the biggest, most important part of life my parents taught me: be open to change. We can both hold onto tradition and alter traditional ways. It’s a complex idea.

      Like

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