Mind the gap

I attended a workshop once—no, twice—with writer and poet Betsy Warland. As one of the exercises, Betsy asked us to sketch a public place where we often go to write—perhaps a café, library or park—and then to situate ourselves in the scene. Our sketches were quite revealing about our personalities and how and where we choose to be in public.

The first time, I filled my page with connecting lines and drew myself as a dot in the middle of it all.

I typically write at my computer in my home office, which is located near the end of a 22 km gravel road to nowhere in the bush of the Skeena River valley in northern BC. My lines in the sketch represented the internet—the only public space I frequent most of the time. My drawing made it blaringly obvious why I was less productive than I wanted to be in my writing—too many distractions. Now I disconnect the wifi before I write.

The second time I did the exercise, I had just come back from visiting my family on Vancouver Island. I sketched the floor plan of the Fountain Diner, where I like to go for breakfast when I visit my son in Langford. I situated myself in my favourite little booth in a corner at the back of a wing near the door. In that spot, I feel tucked out of sight. With a view of both the sidewalk and the door, I can watch the world go by.

I think of that exercise when I look at this photograph of Fir Street at 8th Avenue in Vancouver. It was taken in 1953, when the city repaved Fir Street after constructing the new off ramp for the rebuilt Granville Street bridge. It’s the houses on 8th Avenue, to the right of the piece of equipment with the canopy, that interest me in this picture. Three houses with a gap between the second and the third.

It looks like a house is missing, but it’s there, tucked out of sight in the back. The tiny two-bedroom house my mother grew up in. The postage stamp my grandmother chose, in 1935, to raise her family in. Did she choose it because she was like me and preferred to be tucked out of sight?

I have so many photographs taken in the gap.

A long boardwalk connected the house to the street, and my grandmother grew flowers between the boardwalk and the fence. Those flowers, and the Willises’ house behind the fence, are the backdrop to many of my mother’s family photos.

Like the one above of my mother (left) and her family taken about 1943. Or the one below of my beautiful grandmother, Bett.

She was born on this day, May 27th, in 1907, in Burslem, Staffordshire. Which, I learned when I visited it, has notices on the floor of the railway station between the platform and the tracks that say “Mind the Gap.”

I can’t help but mind the gaps. The gaps are what fuel my curiosity about Bett and her life. All the missing pieces of the stories my mother loved to tell about “the house on 8th.”

Some of Mom’s photos show bits of the house, like this one of my grandmother and Dora, her lifelong friend, who was a second grandmother to me.

Others were taken on the sidewalk in front of the house. All those ones face east toward Granville Street, like this one of my aunt Deanna taken in 1947.

Until I found the photo of the paving project in the Vancouver City Archives, I’d never seen the view toward Fir Street. I’d never understood my mom could stand on the corner of 8th and Fir and see downtown Vancouver across False Creek. My vision of the neighbourhood she described in such detail was incomplete.

I never saw the gap.

In reality, my grandmother chose the house on 8th for an economic reason—the rent was low. But I’ve learned in decades of researching my family’s history that there is usually more than one reality in play.

I like to think of my grandmother tucked into her private space, tending her flowers and her children. Watching the world go by along 8th Avenue while remaining hidden in the gap.

The “mind the gap” photo that accompanies this post on the homepage is by AXP Photography on Unsplash.

9 Responses to “Mind the gap”

  1. Joan Conway

    It’s the keen observer in you that makes for good writing. How else can one but notice all of the richness that occurs in spaces not so noticed initially.
    Lovely post Leslie

  2. Sheila Peters

    I love this story, Leslie, and the photos. I’ve been going through the photos my mom kept in a small box in her bedside table – they go way back. Trying to figure out where they were taken is intriguing. Along with a couple of letters, they hint at a part of her life we knew little about, about a young woman who didn’t really reveal herself to us. Speculation is such fun!

    • Leslie

      So interesting that she kept some photos in her bedside table – they must have had a special meaning to her. I’ve been thinking a lot about what mothers (myself included) reveal (or do not) to their children. With my mom’s dementia at the end of her life, I experienced some of her self-protective secrecy dropping away, and she revealed parts of herself to me that I hadn’t seen before. I treasure that experience. And agree – speculation is such fun!

  3. Theresa

    This is so rich, Leslie. I find the idea of filling in the gaps left by photographs compelling and maybe kind of obsessive. But if not us, then who will do this? And if not now, then when?


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