Here’s a classic family photo of the Three Sisters mountains in Canmore, Alberta. Everyone in Canmore had these photos. I saw one at my cousin’s place - it had been my aunt’s. My daughter has one.
The Three Sisters peaks stand behind the Bow River as it flows in colours reflecting the sky. It is a summer day but looks muted, and the sky behind the clouds is more grey than blue. (A Moroccan lamp from my room peeks around the right corner, reflected in the glass of the framed photo.)
This special photograph had always been in our house, wherever we lived and however we moved. When Grannie left Canmore to live with us, all the church ladies of St. Michael’s signed the back of this commemorative gift to her. It had been hand-tinted, as many photos of those days were, turning mountain landscape scenes into “paintings”.
A travelling artist came through Canmore giving photo tinting lessons, making a living in the 1930s Depression, like a door-to-door Fuller Brush man, or a Watkins Rep. All the girls in town signed up, and learned to colour photos of the Three Sisters.
How mum taught me to do this - note the special emphasis on kleenex:
Supplies: A matte finish black and white photo, linseed oil, basic oil paint set, toothpicks, kleenex (a very big part of the process, as you will see).
Method: Place the photo on cardboard or something to keep the work area clean. Smooth linseed oil onto the photo, then wipe it all off using a ball of kleenex. Make tiny tips with kleenex wrapped over toothpicks to smooth the paint into the matte finish black and white photo. Put it on, wipe it in as you wipe it off. Add bits of colour as you wish, gently press the colour into the photo, then wipe off any extra, then add more, until you have the exact shade you wish. Continue this method to complete colouring the image. Then with a scrunched up kleenex, lightly wipe the entire photo for a final even layer of linseed oil.
To me as a little girl, this photo contained all the family history in one glance and it was a place to contemplate and wonder. Mum was one of four sisters, so they had Three Sisters plus one. I always wondered who was the sister that was left out. Maybe the one looking at the photo?
I contemplated these things. Why would mountains be a family? Are there other families with other sisters also represented by these same mountains? Who are these characters that the mountains hold in their histories? Eons of lives pass by them.
Each of the sisters had a framed and tinted photo like this everywhere they lived. They felt their family was forever mapped on the mountains as a personal Mount Rushmore.
To the mountains, the tiny fading history of those four girls growing up in Canmore just slides off their surface as if wiped away by linseed oil.
Trundling along on my own steam - with help
Knowing that you’re coming along with me and reading this makes it easier to feel good as I reach for something a little deeper.
When she helped me learn to walk, my mother first held both my hands, then, one hand, then I held her finger, and then the touch was lighter and lighter until she was no longer guiding me. Sometimes she just substituted a little pencil or a crayon for me to hold and talked to me as I confidently walked along, feeling guided.
That moment: Hey, wait a minute. That crayon or pencil wasn’t anyone’s hand holding mine, wasn’t my mum’s finger at all! It was me all along, trundling along on my own steam.
When I look at this memory as if it were a dream, I see the tools of writing: holding the pencil as I learn to explore, all the time hearing words and language naming the exploration. This memory dream tells me something about how writing guides me. Even if I’m only wandering around, exploring can be good, right? Finding my feet, as it were. Thanks for coming along as I stumble, barrel forward, fall back, and try again.
I’m now offering even more Personal Papers to paid subscribers! For the month of February, I’ll be writing those issues from the snug wood-heated cottage of Moy Mell. Details are HERE.
My (aspirational) Personal Papers schedule: Regular free issue comes out sometime during the week, and the Inside issue is sent to paid subscribers on the weekend.
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Addition: This resonant Three Sisters meme was sent to me after this post, so I thought I’d share it here.
Thank you Carol for sending these personal memories, they are so very precious. Love the hand coloured photo of the Three Sisters. Those are 3 very beautiful women. My husband Jacques won a helicopter trip for two through and around the 3 Sisters. Will never forget that day with the mountains so close you felt you could reach out ad touch them.
I love the thought that every family in Canmore had this photograph and that you even learned the elements involved in the hand-colouring. When we first came to Banff in the early 60's , Canmore still had vestiges of the old mining town it had once been. We are so lucky to live among so much beauty.
This a glorious piece. An amalgam of personal history with natural history and I love that you talk about learning to walk, the real learning to walk but also the metaphor of being out in the world untethered.