Her retirement home is now on COVID-19 lockdown and family visits are limited to meeting in the lobby. If you want extended time together, you have to leave the building.
That’s why we decided to go for a drive around Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Quarantined in my car, under sunny skies, we headed off to circumnavigate her favourite Vancouver landmark.
We headed into the counter-clockwise park ring road at the southern entrance at the Vancouver Rowing Club.
“There used to be a bison paddock around here years ago,” she said.
Just ahead, I pulled off and parked by a grove of magnificent Douglas firs next to an information and coffee kiosk, and the horse-drawn tour depot.
“This is where Peg Shepherd and I used to go sketching when you were just a little boy,” she said. “I remember taking you here for your first art class! It was called the Seven Sisters then.”
I told her I still have a vague memory of those painting trips that must have occurred in the mid-1950s.
“Look at that old cedar trunk over there – wouldn’t that be fun to paint?” she said. “Cedars have so many uses. …”
After getting a coffee for me and a raisin cookie for Mom, we headed off again around the ring road.
As we approached Brockton Oval cricket ground, she brightened up and said, “That’s where your uncle Basil (Dad’s brother) hit a ‘boundary 6’ into the ocean! He was a remarkably good cricketer. In fact, when he was at Oxford, he was captain of the Oxford University cricket team.
“I first met your father and Basil over there at the tea room in the Brockton Cricket Pavilion. My parents took me there to watch the cricket and that’s where I met the Robinsons.”
On we went and next Mom was reminiscing about the totem poles at Brockton Point.
“When I volunteered for the Lady Vancouver Club, we used to tell tourist visitors that these poles are B.C.’s most visited tourist attraction. I think they still are. The first ones came from Alert Bay. More were purchased from Haida Gwaii. Now there are new Coast Salish poles, too.”
I said I had early memories of visits to the totem poles with my sisters on family drives around the park.
At this point we both remembered the Christmas morning drives my father strictly mandated before we got to open our stockings. Dad would first take us to the downtown east side, to see who was out and about at 8 a.m. on Christmas morning at Hastings and Gore, and then we’d weave our way home, generally in contemplative silence, through a deserted Stanley Park.
“That was simply your father’s way of showing you how other people observed Christmas,” she explained.
Dad was then the director of what the Vancouver General Hospital called the Welfare Medicine Clinic. And he had little use for people who didn’t understand their privilege.
Next we passed the Little Mermaid (actually Girl in a Wetsuit) sculpture at the north side of the park.
“I saw the real one in Copenhagen, after it had its head sawn off!” she said.
As we passed the enormous southern pylon of the Lion’s Gate Bridge, Mom spoke of how her dad, a civil engineer, had criticized the bridge’s span when it opened in 1938.
“Its architecture comes to a point in mid-span; it should rather be a gentle curve. He always maintained this was a design flaw.”
No sooner had I heard this than Mom was asking, “What’s the name of that woman poet who has a statue of her coming up soon on the right?”
“Pauline Johnson, I think,” I replied. “She wrote Legends of Vancouver and The Moccasin Maker.”
We burst out of the darker forest into the open light of Ferguson Point. The western outer harbour of Vancouver spread in front of us.
“Stop here so we can find my brother Dave’s stone!”
And we did. It celebrates the Commonwealth forces who served in Burma from 1941 to 1945, men like my uncle Dave. I took a photo of Mom beside it.
Who would have thought a Sunday afternoon drive would become a retelling of Mom’s life through the medium of her favourite park?
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.