The Angina of Memory: Finding Posey

My first memory is of sitting in my father’s lap, my hands gripping the steering wheel of the car under my father’s, as we hurtled down the middle of a narrow road bordered by advancing trees on both sides. I know now that we were driving on the infrequently used back road to the CIL plant in Nobel, Ontario. It must have been a weekend. Perhaps my father needed to fetch something from his office or maybe it was a spontaneous joyride. It might have been autumn, in 1955 or 1956. The memory is black, greys, and white, not colour. I would have been 2 or 3 years old.

The small town of Nobel was built in 1914 to house the workers at the new Canadian Explosives Limited factory, which supplied ordnance to the Canadian Expeditionary Force during WWI. By 1939, with the advent of WWII, the company opened another plant in Nobel and employed 4,300 people. After the war, and when we lived there, the Nobel operations produced explosives and chemicals for agricultural and industrial use. To reflect its product diversification, it became Canadian Industries Limited. The company had plants across Canada and my father worked at many of these locations, including James Island in British Columbia and in Beloeil, McMasterville, and Shawinigan in Québec. The last was Nobel. That is where I knew Posey.

Photograph: Posey, my younger brother, and I in Nobel, circa 1958

The town of Nobel was, of course, named to honour Alfred Nobel. Nobel, a Swedish engineer and chemist, created dynamite by stabilizing the highly explosive nitroglycerin as a detonator. In the 1860s, workers in Alfred Nobel’s dynamite factories noticed they had headaches during their work week, which disappeared on their days off. At the same time, workers experiencing the chest pains of angina noticed they disappeared at work and re-surfaced on their days off. The nitroglycerin circulating in the air of the factories relieved the angina and caused the headaches due to dilating the blood vessels of the workers. While nitroglycerin is highly volatile and ideal for its explosive qualities in dynamite, it also has a medical purpose in dilating or temporarily expanding the blood vessels. This action on the circulatory system relieves the pain of angina when the heart is not receiving enough oxygen via the bloodstream. Alfred Nobel experienced the heartache of angina, as did I later in life.

This important side effect of the industrial process was overlooked until 1876. In the meantime, Thomas Lauder Brunton was experimenting with brandy, ether, ammonia, digitalis, and lobelia to lower blood pressure. While reluctant to administer nitroglycerin to his patients, in 1867 he discovered that the organic compound amyl nitrite relieved their angina pain. He received a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1900 and in 1907 King Edward VII made him a baronet. Nine years after Brunton’s discovery, Dr. William Murrell starting using nitroglycerin for the same purpose. Today, cardiologists routinely prescribe nitroglycerin for relief from angina.

Like me, Alfred Nobel was prescribed nitroglycerin for his angina. He wrote to a colleague, “Isn’t it the irony of fate that I have been prescribed nitroglycerin to be taken internally! They call it Trinitrin, so as not to scare the chemist and the public.” Nobel refused to take the nitroglycerin. He had a stroke, was partially paralyzed, and died at the age of sixty-three, some say prematurely. In his will, Nobel gave most of the existing and all future proceeds from his patents to create the foundation that funds the Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry, economics, medicine, and peace. To avoid the possibility of a headache, I never used my nitroglycerin.

The town of Nobel appears to have been designed to replicate the organizational hierarchy of the plant. Being the family of a professional engineer and plant foreman, we lived on a street in Nobel that surrounded an oval park with other such families, as well as the CIL plant’s supervisor, J.E. Godfrey. My father was a mechanical engineer and Posey’s was a chemical engineer. The park was about 160 metres long and 40 metres wide, and the ovoid road surrounding it 400 metres long. The park had a wooden slide for tobogganing in the winter. You’d climb the steep stairs to the top, pulling your toboggan, and zip down the chute and across the snowy park. As well, the men from the neighbourhood would construct a skating rink with wooden walls and heated change rooms each winter. I remember my dad strapping on my “cheese-cutters,” or double-bladed skates, for the rink. Behind our house, we could walk through the bushes and scrub pine to the beach. Learning to swim to the floating diving platform offshore was a rite of passage. For me, it was a long doggy paddle.

I lived in Nobel for 5 years, from 1954 to 1959. We moved away during the Christmas break, mid-way through Grade 1 when I was six and a half years old. I don’t remember much about my time in Nobel. I remember the company Christmas party at the community hall. I remember the impressive collection of rattlesnake rattles in the Healey’s garage. A rattlesnake once bit Reg Healey and his leg turned black. I remember our hot roast beef sandwich lunches in Parry Sound, after church on Sundays. I remember the huge boulder in our basement. I remember the smell of Dettol, which my mother used to disinfect everything. And I remember the little girl my age who lived across the park and that we were the best of friends. Her name was Posey.

I vividly remember the invitation to Posey’s house for a sleepover one summer. Her house was at the northwest corner of the longer side of the oval and ours was on southwest corner. Her house was eighty metres from ours and visible from her screened-in veranda, where we were to sleep. I was about 5 years old. We were in our pyjamas, sitting in our beds on the porch and the sun had just set behind the pine trees when I began to feel anxious. Posey’s mother brought out cookies and glasses of milk, but this didn’t sway me. I was homesick and wanted to go. I packed up my teddy bear and walked across the town oval, in the dim light. For 65 years, I’ve held that memory of abandoning Posey on her veranda — her mom holding her hand on the front steps — as I trudged home by the light of the streetlamps and setting sun.

When my sister-in-law had all the family photographs digitalized a few years ago, I finally saw Posey again. None of my four siblings and I had seen the stash of photographs my mother had hidden away for safe keeping. She took with her the explanations and memories surrounding them when she died. They are treasures.

There is a photograph of Posey and I, shot from a distance, in the oval park with her dachshund. It looks like we are having a serious discussion, and the dog is paying close attention. It’s beyond cute.

There are photographs of Posey and I on the couch in our house, watching our new black and white television and sitting with two of my brothers.

And there is a dramatic photograph of us as 6-year-olds, shot from behind. It might have been our first day of school and our last year in Nobel. In 1959, her family moved to Pointe Claire, Quebec and mine to Sarnia, Ontario. I never saw her or heard from her again.

Searching for Posey on the internet, using her surname, proved fruitless. “Posey” appeared to be a nickname or name of endearment. My older sister, whose memory I took for granted would be superior to mine about anything related to Nobel, told me Posey studied medicine in university. That didn’t help my internet search. There are long lists of physicians and Posey may have adopted someone else’s surname through marriage. It was proving to be a challenge to find Posey, which added to her allure and mythology in my memories.

After the success I had using genealogical research sites to explore my Norwegian heritage, over the past couple of years, I decided to try these tools to find Posey. My sister again stepped in to report that she recalled her given name as being Elizabeth. My genealogical investigations confirmed her parents’ wedding in Montréal. As well, it turns out that the paternal grandfather of Posey’s mother was Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton, the physician who discovered that amyl nitrite could relieve the pain of angina, pre-Alfred Nobel’s nitroglycerin prescription. However, locating Elizabeth remained a problem, even now armed with her married name — there was a strong possibility she lived in New Zealand.

Searching physician registries in New Zealand proved unsuccessful. It was only by chance, while searching for information about the fate of her mother that I discovered what I needed. In 2016, close friends of Posey’s deceased mother had written a lovely memorial about her for a newspaper. I went to the source and sent an email to the authors, explaining I was Posey’s best friend from ages ago and hoped she might enjoy the photographs of us as much as I did. Could they please pass the photographs on to Elizabeth, I asked. They did.

Posey emailed me this morning. I’d be dishonest if I said my heart didn’t jump. She wrote back that she thought I was confused as she was not Elizabeth but rather Elizabeth’s younger sister. She said it was interesting that I remembered being her best friend because she remembers her best friend as being Nancy. She added: “I carry no conscious memories of you” and noted that “Memory is not very reliable, is it?”. She thanked me for the photographs and for reminding her of a part of her life that she had forgotten.

She’s not wrong about memory. It is not dependable. Perhaps our respective mothers put Posey and I together for the interim, when her best friend Nancy left Nobel on summer vacation with her family. Maybe the photographs I have are remarkable only for the fact that they chronicle those few and exceedingly rare occasions we were in each other’s company in Nobel. It is also possible that my mother was the default babysitter when Posey’s mother wanted to escape the dull rural monotony of the isolated company town of Nobel. Perhaps we weren’t best friends, or friends at all. I wish my mom were alive. She would know the answer.

I am reluctant to surrender my memories of Posey, however distorted they are or confused I may be, even in the face of the conflicting evidence. Posey has held a tiny spot in my 5-year-old heart for too long for me to abandon her again.

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