Edmonton·First Person

Coming to Canada to start a new life meant choosing mementoes from my old one

When Giselle General and her brother immigrated to Canada from the Philippines as teens, it meant making decisions on what mementoes they wanted to bring with them.

Today, a golden cord from my parents' wedding is a keepsake that symbolizes our family ties

A Filipino couple kneels at wedding ceremony while a golden cord is held above their heads by another man and woman.
A golden wedding cord, used by Giselle General’s parents during their 1989 wedding at St. Joseph’s Parish in Baguio, Philippines, was tucked into a family jewelry box that her brother brought to Canada. (Submitted by Giselle General)

This First Person article is written by Giselle General, a Filipina Canadian living in Edmonton. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

When space is at a premium — two suitcases, one carry-on and a purse — how do you choose the items that will become keepsakes and family remembrances? 

In October 1999, when I was eight years old, my family along with dozens of our neighbours were riding a jeepney — a public transportation mini-bus — when it crashed down the mountain road near Baguio, Philippines. My parents and sister were among the many passengers killed; my brother and I both survived.

Almost eight years later, when relatives decided to sponsor us to Canada, my teenage self had to undertake the difficult but important process of deciding which family keepsakes to bring. I was already wearing some of my parents' clothes as loungewear in the house. Should I bring memories? Functional items? Or a combination of both?

Turns out, I couldn't bring much after being nagged into packing Filipino food and products as gifts for relatives in Canada.

A collection of award medals and photo albums.
Giselle General brought these photo albums, school records and awards when she first immigrated to Canada in August 2007. (Giselle General)

My two check-in bags were stuffed and I managed to fit just a few clothes, personal documents, school awards and three photo albums into my carry-on suitcase. With a broken heart, I hoped that I could bring more when I next came to visit. 

My brother, who came to Canada four years later in 2011, didn't get to bring a lot of family items either. But to my surprise and delight, he brought a jewelry box containing a golden wedding cord — one of several symbolic items in traditional Filipino Catholic weddings — used by our parents when they married in 1989.

I recognized the cord from photos I'd seen of my parents's wedding. "I've really got to find those photo albums," I remember thinking.

A collage of two photos: A red and gold octagonal jewelry box on the left, a golden chain inside the jewelry box on the right.
General is grateful to her brother, Gregory General, for thinking to bring the jewelry box containing their parents’ wedding cord when he immigrated to Canada in 2011, almost four years after she had immigrated. (Photos by Giselle General)

My chance came in 2013. When I found the photo albums belonging to my parents and sister, they were musty from moth balls but — to my huge relief — still intact. In another relative's home, I also found lots of older, neglected photo albums from our mother's side. These ones were falling apart, damaged by termites, cockroach eggs crusted between the pages, stained by water and rat pee. With no one taking care of them, I decided I would.

With help from my partner, we gathered the photos, dusted them off, spent hundreds of dollars to scan them, and finally brought all the albums back to Canada. 

I also found my mother's cross-stitch artwork, still framed, and displayed in one of the houses of my lola (maternal grandmother.) She didn't argue when I removed them from the frames to fit  in my luggage. 

This time, I had control of what to pack. 

In September 2019, my husband and I were married in an intimate, personal celebration that took place on the Patricia Heights Elementary School grounds in Edmonton, in front of a mural I painted two years earlier as part of a community art project. 

My brother was the best man and ring bearer. We used my parents' jewelry box to hold our rings and, in addition to the vows, we paid tribute to my parents and sister while holding the golden wedding cord that my parents once used. It was important to me to honour my parents's love — something that I witnessed so visibly growing up.

A bride, groom, best man and officiant at an outdoor wedding ceremony near a colourful mural.
Gregory General, right, holds the family jewelry box while serving as Giselle General’s best man and ring bearer during her September 2019 marriage to Corey Grajkowski. The mural on the left — which reads "Did you know you’re my love?" — was painted by Giselle in 2017. (Rob Lentz)

Over the years, my brother and I continue to talk about the family mementoes we've kept and sometimes negotiate who gets to keep what. I have kept all the photo albums, including his baby album, while he took all the cross-stitch artwork made by our mother. To my amusement, he has taken up cross-stitching himself. 

Watch |  My parents died when I was a child. Keepsakes help keep my love for them alive

First Person | A jewelry box helps keep the memory of my parents alive

1 year ago
Duration 4:38
Giselle General's parents were killed in a vehicle accident when she was eight. Photo albums and other treasures are among the few mementoes she brought to Canada that help connect her to family back in the Philippines and the loved ones she has lost.

In the Philippines, All Soul's Day falls on Nov. 2 and is a day when people travel to cemeteries to visit the graves of those who have departed. Canada doesn't have a day like this. 

But my unofficial role as the overseas family historian and curator — keeping these items in our home and preserving the memories — helps make up for this missed tradition. 

The wedding jewelry box, with the gold chain inside, stays in my home office, on a shelf with the photo albums and other trinkets brought with me to Canada. And my brother knows he can borrow the jewelry box whenever he wants.

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Giselle General

Freelance contributor

Giselle General is a Filipina Canadian and self-described “serial volunteer” who is trying to make a positive impact in the community. She volunteers for her neighbourhood, government boards and non-profit organizations, and writes for the Alberta Filipino Journal and on her blog FilipinaYEG.