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Touching Listening

Evelyn Mitchell and the burler she used at the Woollen Mill. Credit: Laura Murray

I’m Ella Mackay Singh, a Queen’s student, and I’m thrilled to be working with SWIHHP this summer! Part of what drew to this project was a phrase Laura used one day in conversation about the broad texture of human life. It was this suggestion – of tactility – that captured my attention back in November when I saw Laura’s photo of Evelyn Mitchell’s hands with her burler, a 1950s mending tool from the Woollen Mill, that I could imagine was still sharp today.

Since joining the team in May, I’ve been listening avidly to SWIHHP’s collection of over sixty oral history interviews. Meanwhile, alongside Phil Lichti, our audio producer, Laura has been working on a set of audio documentaries entitled Stories of the Swamp Ward. On June 1st, we invited those whose voices appeared in the first three episodes, and some community members who had done oral history workshops with Laura, to Calvary Church for a listening party.


Listening in Calvary Church. Credit: Ella Mackay Singh

It fell to me to call people to invite them for for this preliminary listen, and to each person I said all we want are your ears! But we got more. I wish we had a recording of the voices produced by the listening we did together. It was really just a small group of us dispersed among the pews, but lively conversation lit the whole place up. And it wasn’t simply an effect of the evening light coming in through the stained glass windows.

Conversation at the Listening Party. Credit: Ella Mackay Singh

Calvary Church is wonderful. It’s a sweet and very human mix of scruffiness and comfort. You should stop in some time. It’s at Charles and Bagot — a block from the Elm Cafe, if that is a place you know. Bob Fray gestured to the lettering his father had painted above the altar. My Presence Shall Go with Thee, it reads. We shared sweets in the adjoining reception hall, and I’m sure the sense of constant exchange prompted by the perpetual rummage sale on the far side of the room played its own part. People were moved to say “and then there was this other thing…”

Two weeks later, I’m still thinking about the milkweed pods collected by kids at Robert Meek School to fill life preservers for the war effort. I wonder how the seeds and floss would have felt to the children who collected them in the 1940s … and whether soldiers fighting overseas knew that kids had collected material on which their lives relied. I had coffee this week with Anna Thomas, who was also at the listening party —  she is a PhD student at Brown who left part of her heart in Kingston ever since her undergraduate days at Queen’s. She says she has been replaying and retelling moments from the listening party too. For her, it’s the description of the wedding photo taken outside Bennett’s Grocery that has really stuck, even though she hasn’t even seen it. Maybe there’s something about inviting people to imagine things that makes them more real than an actual sight or touch could achieve.

Kevin Blaney introduces himself. Credit: Ella Mackay Singh

There are another three episodes to come. Laura and Phil are working on the jigsaw puzzles of their composition, but I can tell you that we’ll likely hear about the oil seeping up through the Woollen Mill’s floors long after it closed, and about how stolen typewriters from Ottawa entered the neighbourhood via motorcycle. Not to mention how Bird’s Grocery could clear your sinuses with the smell of vinegar on the days when Josie Bird made her legendary taffy apples.

The measurements came from out of Josie’s head, we’re told, so I can’t promise the reveal of any secret recipes. Still, it’s worth your while to stay tuned and listen close. There will be another listening party for participants in July, as well as a launch in early fall when the work will be broadcast and made otherwise publicly available. I think you’ll like what you hear.

— Ella Mackay Singh