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Low Down Articles

How I Got Here

Article 3 of 14     


This article first appeared in the "How I got here" column in the December 12, 2018 issue of the "The Low Down to Hull and Back News". Reprinted with permission. Search complete list of Low Down Articles.

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From WWII camp to Gatineau Hills

By Phil Jenkins

Ilse Turnsen is closing up the Wakefield Library, a warm book-filled oasis, while outside, tents for the Christmas market are being set up in the chilly air. Being a volunteer librarian is just one of the many ways that Ilse is, as she puts it, "an engaged citizen of the Gatineau Hills." She is one of the very many women Elders (with a capital 'E') with which the Hills are blessed.

Ilse Turnsen
Ilse Turnsen was conceived in a WWII prison camp in Italy, grew up in Seattle, moved to and worked as a teacher in Ottawa before retiring and moving to La Pêche where she volunteers at the library. Photo Phil Jenkins.

"I was conceived in a prison camp in Italy during World War II," she says, as she begins the story of her journey from there to here among us. Her Austrian-German parents met in the camp (her father had somehow bought his way out of Buchenwald). Four years later, a ship across the Atlantic and a train across the United States took her family to Seattle. There she grew up in a home where political debate (this was in the 1960s) graced the dinner table. As she speaks of her mother, a very smart woman who had been a sprinter on an Olympic team, the respect and gratitude shine through.

When it became apparent that her American husband, a political philosopher, might be drafted for Vietnam, a friend at Carleton University helped him emigrate to Ottawa in 1966. Ilse was pregnant when she arrived in the Canadian capital. She went into teaching in Ottawa and made a city life for herself. "When I was at school in Seattle, I took 'Anne of Green Gables' out of the library and made a vow I would adopt a child." She did, and, like Anne (who also became a teacher), she was destined to make roots in a caring, trusting community - the one just the other side of the river.

But it wasn't until Ilse had been through a second marriage, raised her three children, and retired from being a special education teacher that the chance to leave the city presented itself. A lifelong friend to whom she had been a dorm mum at Carleton and had often visited was living in the Hills, and she had skied here. And so Ilse crossed the river into La Pêche. "For a while I laid low, and then joined up, at the library and with the Grannies. A couple of years later, during a Canada Day parade, the Grannies group I was marching with was cheered by the bystanders. I knew I had made the right choice."

Since then she has dived in, heart and soul, moved around a little and is now settled in an apartment a short walk from the covered bridge and the Wakefield school, where she is frequently to be seen, gently passing on the ways of the world that she and her fellow Elders have strived to make a better place.

Ilse closes the library and begins the walk back to her home, feet crunching in the snow. The smile on her face as she strolls along the river never fades.