Picturing the Past
Dear Ellie: Lettres from the WestLettersPhoto AlbumPostcards

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Treasures in the Attic

Ellie pushed open the hatch that led to the attic of her grandmother's old house. Dust swirled as the air from downstairs rushed into the closed, warm space. It had been years since Ellie had played in this attic, but her memories of boxes of dress-up clothes, an old Victorian-style doll house, and the many happy hours spent putting on puppet shows in the theatre her grandfather had built when her mother was a little girl came flooding back. As her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, Ellie surveyed the small, cluttered room. As a child, she had spent a great deal of time with her grandparents while her parents were at work. The attic had always been a source of great delight on cold winter afternoons or rainy days. But as she grew older, the dress-up trunk and porcelain dolls had lost their appeal, and she preferred to spend afternoons at the mall with her friends or home alone listening to music.

Now, at 18 years old, Ellie was seeing the attic with new eyes. The doll house and puppet theatre were still there, along with many other familiar objects. The old cedar chest sat in the corner of the room, exactly where it had always been. Inside, she knew, there was an old ball gown, wrapped carefully in tissue paper. Ellie remembered that there had been other things in that trunk that, as a child, she had carelessly tossed aside; photo albums and letters... It was these items that Ellie wanted to see now. When her grandmother had died last month, it had been hard on Ellie. She felt guilty for not spending as much time with her as she had when she was a child, but her grandmother seemed to understand that she was not a little girl anymore.

For some reason, Ellie had begun to wonder what would happen to the things in the attic. Her mother had cleaned the old house, and most of the items inside had been distributed to relatives. When her mother decided that the attic would be next on the list, Ellie asked if she could help. Now she walked slowly across the attic floor, ducking under the low ceiling. "I don't remember having to duck the last time I was up here," she thought, as she made her way past boxes of her mother's old records.

Kneeling in front of the trunk, Ellie opened the lid. The ball gown was there, still wrapped and pressed. Her grandmother had told her about the night she had worn this dress, when Ellie's grandfather, James Russell, had come into her life. The handsome law student had swept her off her feet at the University of Toronto Arts Ball in 1935. Ellie remembered her grandmother's dreamy expression as she recalled that day: "He was so handsome when he pulled up to the driveway in his father's car and pinned a red rose on my dress." Grandpa had been a kind man, and Ellie remembered how he used to read to her from adventure books when she was a kid. He had died when she was 12. Ellie carefully removed the gown. Underneath, just as she remembered, were two photo albumsbound in leather with painted Indian heads on the covers and a bundle of letters tied with a ribbon.

Ellie reached for a professional-looking photograph that rested on top of the photo album. It was a picture of her Grandma and Grandpa. On the back of the photograph, her grandmother had written in careful handwriting:

Eleanor Taylor and James Russell, April 1937; Ellie's graduation with Basic Diploma of Nursing.

I am happy to be finished school and starting work at the hospital, but it is also a sad time because my dear James will soon be leaving to work at my Uncle Louis's law firm in Winnipeg for the summer. Law seems to be more James's father's passion, and James has this notion that if he spends most of the summer working in Winnipeg, he can convince his father to help him take a vacation tour of the West. He is fascinated by trains; I do believe he would have worked on the rails if his father had not insisted on university and law school. Maybe once he has taken this trip he will be able to settle down and help me plan this wedding!

Ellie set the photo down and carefully untied the ribbon that bound the letters. The first envelope was addressed:

Eleanor Taylor
105 Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario

She opened it carefully, and unfolded the letter. The page had grown yellow, but the ink was still dark. She began to read.

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