June 2014: Soul Symbols
Last month was quite remarkable in how a few themes wove together into the tapestry of my life story. For book club, I was reading Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2008). This novel is a beautiful and transforming blend of two stories of two different orphans from two different eras in two different “Children’s Aid” systems. These two main characters’ lives cross paths through unusual circumstances and find healing through the sharing of their stories.
At the risk of generating a spoiler for a book that is well worth the read, the parallels to my own life were somewhat uncanny and even disturbing in that the author was able to write so profoundly about a subject she spent hours researching—including interviewing young and old. It is not a story of her personal experience, yet she writes like she lived it—or at least crawled inside the minds of abandoned children and wrote from their thoughts and feelings.
The novel dovetailed with my own story upon the arrival of a cherished item from my childhood—my birth mom’s antique, upright piano. It has survived many prairie moves, but none so far as to cross all the Prairie Provinces in one go. This aged piano does not have an illustrious pedigree or background story—other than it was gifted to my mother by her piano teacher who had it shipped from Kingston, ON to Western Manitoba somewhere around the turn of the last century. I do not know when it came into my mother’s possession—before marriage or after. It has certainly been part of the living room furniture as long as I can remember. She learned to play on this piano, as did I, and my younger half-sister.
I was a bit nervous about the arrival of this piano. It has so much unexplainable significance to me. I was concerned I might crumble into a puddle of tears. So I was much surprised when the opposite happened: I felt a door had opened and reinserted a piece of my soul; or as if I had finally awaken from a two-year nightmare. A lost piece of me was back.
So how does this connect with the Orphan Train? Well, a thread woven through the narrative was the significance of symbols that connect us to blood family. The older woman had a Claddagh (the hands represent friendship, the heart represents love, and the crown represents loyalty) pendant on a silver chain from her beloved Irish grandmother. The only connection this older orphan had left were her memories and that pendant. The teenager in the story had also received charms for a bracelet from her father, for her eighth birthday, before he died. These charms were in the shapes of animals with symbolic meaning from his Native Indian culture: a bird for protection, a bear for courage, and a fish for resisting the negative influence of others. These symbolic treasures went with these orphans to every place they ever called home—even when what little they did have had to be left behind on occasion.
Intersecting with the symbols were narrative threads about what we can carry with us through life depending on our circumstances (such as portaging one’s canoe of belongings from one body of water to another). Once I wove together the significance of my piano as a connection to my blood family, I had to chuckle at the thought of portaging my piano in a canoe! However, I am fortunate that the many moves my family did make were not limited to canoe-loads. I have not had to transport my treasures in trunks across the ocean, in canoes, or even backpacks. My piano remains a connection to my past because of the amenities of the present—such as transport trucks—and not being completely separated from family.
Symbols are significant. What treasures in your life lift you up or weigh you down? Do they trip you up or enable you to move on? Do you have to make huge adjustments to accommodate your symbolic treasures? Or are most of them carried in your soul without tangible reminders?