Former Lakecity resident Sandra Hayes-Gardiner returned to Williams Lake this month to launch her art show and book in the Station House Upper Gallery, both titled One Life – Growing up in The Pas. It is both a visual and literary experience.
Born in The Pas in northern Manitoba, Hayes-Gardiner was inspired to write an artistic introspective of growing up there when the small community along the Saskatchewan River celebrated its 100th birthday last year.
Hayes-Gardiner had an unusual upbringing. Her father was an undertaker and the family lived upstairs above Hayes Funeral Home. Her dad operated several other businesses as well, including a meat shop and storage cooler facility.
Through the metal floor grating, Hayes-Gardiner could hear and look downstairs to see people below grieving the loss of loved ones in her father’s morgue.
“I learned to be invisible and silent looking down into a family’s crumpled life,” she writes. “I was gripped by a strange attraction to their grief.”
Hayes-Gardiner’s multimedia display shows tangible aspects of her life. Her Girl Guide uniform, a 1954 newspaper clipping describing the tragic death of a young girl killed in a freak elevator accident, photographs of her parents, an image of her book cover, and a pair of buckskin moccasins with canvas tops that the she acquired while working as a counsellor in the Chilcotin.
All the artifacts in the collection pertain to the book.
The book cover illustration is an overlap of two photographs. One shows the author running in the snow at Clearwater Lake near The Pas, and other is an image of the family funeral home.
At her art show opening at the Station House Gallery, Hayes-Gardiner stated that when the morgue wasn’t in use, she and her sister transformed it into a play area. “Death was a forbidden topic except in my home where my sister and I used the morgue for elementary gymnastics.”
She says she learned it was important to both respect death and celebrate life. “We can be gone in a heartbeat and tenderness is important in a man.”
Hayes-Gardiner says she surprised herself while writing the anecdotes of her life. For example she started a narrative to describe her father and friends during hunting season in the fall, and ended up reflecting on the systemic racial prejudice that existed in The Pas at that time.
The Cree population lived on one side of the Saskatchewan River and the settler population on the other.
“The two communities side by side were divided by more than the river,” Hayes-Gardiner writes. “They were divided by history, language, culture and, likely, fear.”
She says she grew up with a prejudice that white society was better than native society. Then a memory of Cree women with their children sitting in a circle in her back yard plucking the geese for her father’s butcher shop made her stop and think.
“I was raised with little knowledge of their history … instead I grew up in a climate of white privilege.”
Since then she says she has been influenced by the wisdom of native elders to enhance and expand her own spiritual and professional life. “Elders have taught me to laugh more and not take myself so seriously.”
Hayes-Gardiner laughs that she grew up a protestant in a town with delicious Catholic boys she wasn’t supposed to date. Her short chapter, Those Catholic Boys is quite delightful.
She says her Williams Lake hiking group encouraged her to explore beyond the pavement of city life, and her work with Cariboo Chilcotin aboriginal community took her beyond her fear.
Her poem Prayer of the Bush draws on memories and experiences both in Manitoba and British Columbia. “Listen, for there are things to learn here,” she writes. “You will never know them unless you are quiet and your heart is open.”
Hayes-Gardiner’s multimedia montage will be on display in the Station House Upper Gallery for the month of September and her book is available for sale in the gallery gift shop.