What Are They Carrying? by Jane Macdougall

The packages are small, tightly wrapped. They tuck nicely up under the arm. You imagine they are gloves. Kid leather gloves, carefully chosen from a very limited selection, perhaps from Saba Brothers? A clerk behind a glass counter had helped when picking them out. Perhaps they are a gift, as the person carrying the package is wearing gloves. And a hat. Always a hat.

There is purposefulness to these excursions. Shopping, it seems, is a mission, not a diversion. Certainly not recreational. You provisioned your life and then you returned to it. When you went downtown, you got dressed up. Ladies wore dresses; men wore suits, or at least blazers; all shoes are polished. Granville Street was the opposite of casual. There are no headsets, no ear buds, no stumbling texters or cell phones adhered to the side of the head. The interface is with what is right there in front of you. Under your feet. All around you. The other faces on the street. It is a parade of the here and the now. You dress up to participate in this parade. You are saying: I am this city and this city is me. A photo is taken. It is a document of all that you are. All that the city is.

Grandmothers are often in tow. They form troikas with sons and daughters-in-laws, or a brace of grandchildren. The little boys, in short pants, a convention long vanished now. It must be a weekend, a Saturday morning. Stores closed at noon on Saturday. The city was shuttered on Sundays. Friday nights were not spent at a mall. Pursuits were less solitary. Commerce had yet to be exulted as the single greatest purpose of life.

The photos are in black and white.

Seems fitting: the world was more black and white then. You didn’t make it up as you went along. There were rules. Rules so firmly understood that they need not be posted anywhere.

The girls are lovely. There is something present – something hard to define – in the girls. From a cascade of adjectives I settle on ‘demure’. Self-possessed, occurs to me, also. Am I wrong in thinking their agendas have not been hijacked by an economy that utilizes sex as a mercantile hammer? The young men present a face lost to this time. Theirs is not the aspect of extended adolescence, but a countenance of emerging responsibility. A shining moment in time between youth and adulthood. Expectations were different. Better? Worse? I don’t know, but different.
In each photo, a message: Today is important. These people are important. I will want to remember this day. This day when we are young. Or old. Or beginning. Or ending.

We are now, my family, fourth and fifth, even sixth generation Vancouverites. We have these photos. If the house were ever to burn down, these photos are things I would miss most.


Jane Macdougall remembers Vancouver back when you could smell the mill up the inlet at Wood Fibre when the wind shifted. There are no streets named after her family, but they’ve been traipsing the west coast in general, and Vancouver in particular, for generations. Jane is a writer whose work appears in a wide variety of publications, including weekly in The National Post.