Core of Community: Monica Blackburn, Almonte

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In this series of articles, titled ‘Core of Community’, Millstone columnist Arnie Francis profiles citizens of Mississippi Mills who embody the spirit of community building.

Some people define themselves by what they do to earn a living, while others define themselves by their sense of place. Monica Geuer Blackburn fits neither category, yet both at the same time! This mother of two adult children and life-long partner to husband Chris, is first and foremost a person defined by family. That’s not unique in a community like Almonte, where old stock Canadians have been tilling, ploughing and cattle farming for two hundred years since the days of Shepherd’s Mills. That was when Englishman David Shepherd first saw our waterfalls and the opportunity to build a Little Manchester on the Mississippi.

Monica’s family history is a much more contemporary immigrant story, going back to the mid 1950’s when her father and mother emigrated from their art commune in the Yungas forest in Bolivia to the somewhat staid rural Canadian town. Her father, Johannes (known as Juan), then her mother, Els Geuer fled the Netherlands for South America in 1939 to escape the onslaught of the 3rd Reich’s violent expansion across Europe. Falling in love with their new home, her father and mother surrendered their Dutch citizenship in favour of Canada as a testament to their pride in their new home.

Her father, Juan was an artist and scientific mind, driven to reach beyond, what one writer calls, the “dichotomy of science and art”. His work has included an installation at the National Gallery of Canada and exhibitions in Europe, New Zealand, South America, Canada and the United States.  He was an intellectual, active in the Almonte community and at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Parish until his death in 2009, at the age of 92. Monica’s mother, Els, had been a librarian at the Elizabeth Kelly Library, (the Almonte Branch of the Mississippi Mills Public Library) for 30 years. Els, who is currently in seniors’ care, was a major influence on young Monica who spent many after-school hours and holidays at the library helping her mom. Monica also attributes her love for crafts and gardening to her mother. Coming from an artistic family, Monica naturally expresses an affinity to the creative world.

While her father was more dogmatic about the distinctions between art and craft (his own parents being stained glass artists), he imbued in her the love for the creative and the propensity to communicate. For example, a simple question posed by his teenage daughter would allow Juan to expound for hours. In a complementary manner, Monica’s mother exposed her to the magic of the written word and perhaps to the transformative power of reading in the imagination of a young child. Growing up in a liberal household, where faith informed the family’s sense of fairness and kindliness, and dinner table talk about travel and the world instilled the possibilities of a life spent in educating, Monica has continued her family’s sense of community participation through work, play and interests.

This amalgam of the creative and the instructive has led Monica to follow her parents’ footsteps in many ways: in 2017 Monica celebrates her 30-year work anniversary as a librarian in the Almonte Branch of the Mississippi Mills Public Library, and proud to be following in her mother’s shoes. She is also a published author of three children’s books, beautifully illustrated by Almonte artist, Sam Hamilton and published by Upstream!, the Almonte- based independent publisher of fun children’s books.

In Monica’s words, “art and literature connect communities, giving ordinary people ways to express themselves… to connect with each other….” Over her many years at the library Monica has been involved in a rotation of art shows and has led programs aimed at childhood learning. A helpful, generous person, Monica is well-known by library patrons in Almonte, many of whom have grown up into adulthood with the joy of books – rather than screens – sparking their imaginations.

For people who have young children in their lives, Monica’s experience suggests to her that good books can ignite a conversation, stretch the child’s vision of the world, expand the common-place vocabulary and be a great trigger for communication. Such literature can say a lot in a few words. Kids’ brains are ignited by a well written story where the words and pictures match and mirror each other, without blatant moral lessons or talking down. We have come a long way from the virtuous “fairy tales” of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen or the moralism of the Brothers Grimm folk tales –  stories that infused the parental attitudes of Victorian and Edwardian Britain and thus crossed the Atlantic to Canada. Such writing may be less relevant to today’s child, who does not recognize their place among princesses, princes, or evil witches. While Monica admits that some children’s writings did not always hit the mark, she views current Canadian and Australian children’s literature, in particular, as truly worthy of our patronage.

Ever acknowledging the influence of family, she credits her siblings (she is one of 8) for shepherding her tastes is all things artistic (for example, her sister Sunniva is an exhibit designer, sister Wendy is a graphic designer, and brother Fred is a retired elementary school teacher).  Monica loves food and travel, having been to Beijing, Nairobi and Europe with South America as a next stop.  With lots of cousins in Brazil and Peru and her parents’ art commune still owned by family in Bolivia, she travels – not just to sample the food – but to experience the lives and aspirations of those peoples whose countries and cultures help us see Canada as a neighbor to the world.

Her world-view is of an earth where friends value friends, family are friends, people are kind and accepting of each other and community is where grandparents and grandchildren can be close. To Monica, her mom and dad were real life heroes who came to Canada to make a better life for the Geuer family.

When you can make the time, bring a youngster or a youngster-at-heart to the Public Library and introduce them to Monica Blackburn.