When I was born, in 1947, my parents engaged a housekeeper to help my mother care for me and cope with my three elder siblings. The other day I met my nanny face-to-face for the first time; or, to be exact, the first time in sixty-six years.
Her name is Naomi Miller and she tapped me on the shoulder somewhere between the main course and dessert at a banquet in Kamloops. The occasion was the annual conference of the BC Historical Federation, and while I had no idea Naomi was going to be there it didn’t surprise me that she was since she has long been involved in the local history and heritage communities.
I say face-to-face because Naomi and I had communicated by mail about a decade ago. She had seen my name on the subscriber list of the provincial historical magazine, of which she was then the editor, and she wondered if I was the same Daniel Francis she had been hired to look after as a newborn. On another occasion we talked on the telephone when she called to say how much she liked my book, Far West, a history of British Columbia for young readers.
But as I say, it was in Kamloops where we actually met and where I learned more about the circumstances of how she came to be changing my diapers. In 1947, she told me, she was a nursing student at Vancouver General Hospital and living in the students’ residence where my grandmother was the matron (a detail of my grandmother’s biography that I had not known). Needing to take a break in her studies, Naomi was looking for a paying job. My grandmother arranged for her to help out my mother.
Naomi only worked for my parents for a couple of months, she told me, before she returned to nursing school. None of my siblings recall ever having had a nanny, however briefly. But in Kamloops Naomi remembered all three of them and was delighted to hear of their lives.
As the photograph of our reunion suggests, Naomi is a lively octogenarian, still involved in local history gatherings as well as other activities. She has been president of the BC History Federation, a director of the BC Heritage Trust, a recipient of a BC Heritage Award and the author of books and articles on Fort Steele, the history of nursing and other subjects. (I begin to wonder if I imbibed my interest in history from the cradle!)
Which is actually the point of this digression into family history, to give a shout out to local historians. While academics fight the “history wars” and wonder “who killed Canadian history,” in smaller communities all over the country history is as alive and well as ever, sustained by the efforts of non-academic enthusiasts like Naomi Miller and all the other people who attended the Kamloops meeting. Not only do they produce a great deal of fine research, they sustain its publication and its publishers. Here in BC, for example, Harbour Publishing has been keeping alive the local history of the coast for forty years. It couldn’t have done so without the many local history buffs who both produce the books and consume them.
I recall one of the best museum exhibits I have ever visited was in a tiny hall on Cortes Island, well north of Vancouver, where local volunteers had mounted a summer-long exhibit on life in Von Donop Inlet. Von Donop is a long, sinuous inlet on the north coast of the island where logging had gone on for many years; it is one of my favourite anchorages on the coast. The exhibit featured interviews with former residents of the inlet, photographs and thoughtful displays relating the history of this out-of-the-way corner of the province. The professionalism of the exhibit was impressive, but so was the effort that had gone into collecting the information on display, all carried out by “amateurs.”
No one had told these residents of Cortes Island – or Naomi Miller and her colleagues -- that Canadian history was dead.