My Earliest Memory – The Empress Of Canada, 1966 – And Other Thoughts On Memory

empress of canada passenger ship
The Empress Of Canada

Memories can be a peculiar thing. You can have them, lose them, and sometimes, memories will come flowing back into the mind like a river. Sometimes, when trying to recall something, the memories work like a small trickle, and then suddenly as you keep thinking about them, the trickle grows to a torrent.

What I Don’t Remember

One memory I don’t have is that event when I was born! However, my mom used to tell the story of my birth so often, that you’d think I should be able to recall the experience. I only recall her recounting the event many times, however. It seems that when I decided to be born, I also refused to breathe. There was some concern as the attending doctor at the hospital in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, tried to get me to breath (by the way, that was a first – the first baby born in the brand new maternity ward in that hospital). From how I’ve heard the story, the doctor tried all sorts of things to get me to breathe including little slaps on the rear end, and whatever else doctors did back then to non-breathing born babies.

This apparently went on for quite some minutes – my mom claims it was 20 minutes, by which time apparently my naked body had begun to take on a blue tone, before the doctor finally asked his nurse to go get him a bottle of Irish Whiskey. My mom was aghast and though the doctor was giving up and needed a drink. But instead, when the nurse returned with the bottle of whiskey, the doctor poured it onto a spoon and stuck it in my mouth. That is what caused me to breathe – and this would be a good time to point out that the word “whiskey” is derived from two Gaelic words that mean “water of life.”

In my case it seems the original meaning was more literal than perhaps it was supposed to mean.

If it means anything, I still enjoy Irish Whiskey – Jameson or Bushmill’s Black Bush is what I usually buy when I do.

Memories I Used To Remember But Don’t

After immigrating to Canada as as child of about 3 years old, and then returning about 4 years later, I had memories of some events as a young toddler in our home and backyard at Merville Garden Village. Today (and of course many years ago), those memories seemed to leave, although what remained, are the memories of the memories. That might seem weird, but I recall that I could recall and “see” those memories in my mind’s eye when I was 5 months short of being 7 years old. My mom would take me to places and we’d visit people that I had not seen, and I could recall events. I could recall throwing lumps of coal over the fence into our neighbour’s backyard and the lady next door would laugh at me and throw them back, for example. But as far as a “direct” memory, they don’t exist any longer.

Perhaps as I think of things, I might expand this section further but for now….

My Longest “Direct” Memory – Exploring The Empress Of Canada

We emigrated to Canada on a boat. Probably one of the last to do that (although I know there was a few more boats that would sail from the UK to Canada after us – the family of the girl I’d later marry came on the ship after us, and I can recall drives to Quebec City to pick up my grandfather who had sailed to Canada to visit with us).

And one of my earliest, if not the earliest memory that I have retained is the time I went “exploring.” Apparently to others though, I was “lost” on board the ship. I recall that I was out on a deck, and was fascinated with big thick ropes – ropes that took me a lot of effort to step over. I knew what ropes were, but had never seen such thick ropes before. I recall that I was in a happy mood and was just out for a walk.I apparently did this a few times as a toddler before – just head off for a walk and search parties would be sent out looking for me. But I suppose wandering off on a ship created some additional stress for the adults on board.

My memory is that, there I was, wandering around, checking things out, and enjoying the challenges of trying to step over big thick ropes, when as I approached some kind of door, a female stepped out of the door onto the deck, near me. I recall that she wore a light coloured dress with big flowers on it, and that I knew she was not a full grown adult, but I did know she was much older than me. I did not know the word or have the concept of “teenager” in mind back then, but today, that is how I would describe her.

When she saw me, she cried out, “Ian! There you are! I found you!” She ran over and swooped me up.

I don’t know if I had the words back then to describe my thoughts, but I knew that “being found” meant something “was lost,” and I was puzzled because I certainly did not think of myself as “being lost.” I can recall a sense of puzzlement as I was carried some distance, down some stairs and then into the dining room. As we appeared, there were some cheers from some people and it turned out there was quite a search party that had been going on, looking for me. My mom came over and took me out of the arms of the girl that had “found me” and started crying, and everyone else seemed really happy. There were ship’s staff and I believe one of them was the Captain – or someone that at the time, I knew had some authority on the ship.

And that is it. I remember nothing else on that journey across the ocean, although to be honest, I have not really tried that hard to do so. I just doubt that there’s much in the memory part of the mind. I know that when we arrived in Canada, at our final destination aboard the ship, there apparently was a big strike which made it very difficult for the luggage on board to be removed. Even though it was a “bad” situation according to my mom, I have no recollection of arriving in Canada, or the final journey to Toronto.

Another Early Memory – Dempsey Brothers Hardware

Now that I think of it, I am not sure if this was before we emigrated to Canada or just after; we had been here for a holiday before the decision was made to come to Canada to live. My mother was actually born in Canada, and her parents had a home in Willowdale, Ontario (a suburb of Toronto, but presently part of Metropolitan Toronto). My grandfather here had a car that had a push-button start. One day, he had drove with me in the car, to Dempsey Brothers Hardware near the corner of Sheppard Ave and Yonge St. He had left me in the car while he went into the hardware store. He had parked the car up against a fence, and I had some “fun” pushing that start button, which would cause the car to lurch forward and hit the fence and bounce off. I did it several times; it was a lot of fun!

When my grandfather discovered what I had been doing, he laughed and laughed! Of course, it was also a “learning opportunity” that I probably should not push buttons like that – and honestly, it’s amazing to think that today, a parent or adult guardian would be crucified for leaving a child unattended in a vehicle for even a short time.

Days were different back then….

Memories From 4 Years Old And Beyond

I do recall many things after the age of 4. However, I did have a really strange event occur when I was about 15 years old. Have you ever heard the expression, “I saw my life pass before my eyes?” Before I was 15, when I heard that expression, I usually took it to mean that a person was in a situation that was so fearful, they were “seeing their life” possibly end. In my case, I got a new interpretation of that expression:

The Moment I Saw My Life Pass Before My Eyes

I was working on a farm and considering what I see in a lot of youth today, I was responsible for an awful lot. I drove tractors, I drove the farm pickup truck (we were allowed to drive on public roads without a driver’s licence at that age, as long as we were driving between fields or directly from the main farm area to other fields), baled hay, I would often be responsible for properly stacking hay on the hay wagon before hauling the hay back to the barn, and a lot more.

One day, we were not ready to unload the hay from a wagon I had just brought in from the field, but we needed the tractor for something else. So I needed to park the hay wagon, remove the pin that “attached” the wagon to the tractor, in order to move the tractor. I parked the wagon in a place that was flat and was a normal place to leave it. But I did not realize that a big pothole had formed, and a back wheel of the wagon was sitting just at the edge of the large pothole.

I was standing between the rear tractor wheel and hay wagon when I pulled the pin and suddenly, the fully loaded hay wagon began to move toward me. There was not much distance between the hay wagon, the tractor wheels, and there I was right in between as the hay wagon lurched forward toward me.

At that moment, I recall in my mind, as if it was a movie on ultra ultra fast forward, seeing all of my life up to that moment. It was only a second’s worth of time, but in that second, everything passed before my “mind’s eye.” I was aware of this “super fast play” that seemed to be a recording of everything that had ever happened in my life, while I was trying to decide which way to move to try to escape being crushed between the loaded hay wagon and tractor wheel.

AT the time, I did not know it was a pot hole and that the weight of the hay had simply caused the wagon wheel to be put in motion; I thought in that second that I had a runaway hay wagon problem here, with just a second to react before being crushed. Thankfully, the wagon did stop as I jumped backwards. After taking a deep breath, I was puzzled by this “movie” that I had seen in my mind – I later put it up to perhaps the mind realizing danger, not sure what to do, and it was tracing its “memory banks” to figure out or try to determine a best course of action.

It could also have been something else – perhaps the fear caused the “movie” as a way of seeing everything that had occurred in life up to that point as I truly feared that I was going to be crushed and killed.

The Day I Went To Jail

As mentioned, I do have strong memories that have stayed with me after the age of about four. I recall being placed in a police holding cell (although I thought it was jail) when in Richmond Hill, as a child of around four.

But – I’ll leave that story for another day 🙂

1 thought on “My Earliest Memory – The Empress Of Canada, 1966 – And Other Thoughts On Memory”

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