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Guest Books

Don’t forget to be friendly to outsiders, for in so doing,

some people, without knowing it,

have entertained angels.

Hebrews 13:2

A while ago, I cleaned out a small desk. Along with dried-out pens, and outdated waste schedules, I found a Visitor’s Book.

I bought that visitor’s book nearly twenty-five years ago. Like the ones my mother had, it was meant to keep a record of those who visited and shared meals with us. Alas, the most recent entry is 2007, so the book was a bit of a fail, but the names that are there remind me of good times.

There’s the signature of my husband’s buddy, recording a happy visit after they hadn’t seen each other in years. There are names from a reunion of friends, long ago teenagers, from a summer job I’d once had, and folks who came to my dad’s 70th birthday party. As well, there are signatures of family and friends who came to our daughter’s nursing graduation party, and others who attended another daughter’s wedding rehearsal meal. Most precious of all is the writing of relatives no longer with us.

But the memories in my book are so few compared to my mother’s. Her books are a genuine archaeological site; and layers of family history are revealed when the pages are turned.

In the beginning, my parents were members of the conservative Mennonite church, once a large group in the Markham area. They are all gone now, but here is how life worked back then.

Socializing, for that group, was a continual round-robin of good food and good visits. Wives prepared food on Saturdays in anticipation of inviting guests for lunch when the Sunday church service was over. I’m not sure how they kept track of whose turn it was to host and who would be the guests, but it seemed to work out. My child’s heart delighted in sitting at the dining room table, stretched out to accommodate as many as fourteen places. It never crossed my mind to think of the work it meant for my mother, but amid the flurry of leave-taking in the late afternoon, I can still hear her say, “Don’t go until you’ve signed the guest book.”

We had overnight company, too, when friends and relatives, sometimes several generations removed, stayed with us for a day or two. Back then, folks travelled by Mennonite Your Way before it was a thing – and it is a thing! Check out the link if you doubt me.

But my parents’ hospitality wasn’t limited to family and friends. In the sixties, they, and others, became friends with a woman who opened her gracious lakefront home to the University of Toronto’s international students, far fewer then than now. By extension, we became a Canadian family to some of those students and they often visited our farm. Mom’s guest book has names written not only in English but also in Chinese, Thai, and Filipino translations. As children, our curiosity about other cultures was moulded during those visits. We strained to understand heavily accented English, and our Canadian palates struggled to eat the strange foods our guests sometimes prepared – things like wonderful stir-fries, with bamboo shoots and bean sprouts, that we now love. Likewise, the family from India, who remain lifelong friends, helped form an early enjoyment of curries and roti.

Somewhere in those books is the signature of a young First Nations woman who lived with us for a couple of years while attending high school. Scattered throughout those years are the names of her friends and acquaintances, billeted with other local families, who came to visit.

Mom (R) with a couple of women from Toronto who occasionally visited. They all shared a birthday month, and they also shared a cake, by the look of it!

In the early 70s, Mom struck up a pen-friendship when she responded to a newspaper article. The woman and her family lived on the east coast, and her husband was a lobster fisherman; such a different life from ours. That family visited a number of times, and they always signed the book.

Another, more unlikely, source of names in the guest book were friends, and friends of friends, who came from the States to have hernia surgery at the renowned Shouldice Hospital, not far away. The spouse stayed with my parents while their loved one was in the hospital.

For many years, Mom and Dad were listed as hosts in the actual Mennonite your Way book, and this brought travellers seeking economical vacation accommodation. Sometimes they used a bedroom, and sometimes they camped in the yard, but each one signed the guest book before going on their way.

Some visitors required a unique kind of energy. I remember a woman from a tough, low-income area of Toronto whose mental health challenges meant she seldom stopped talking. Her children loved our farm, and my father took patient care of her active young son. Their names are all in the book. There were several others with emotional needs who received gracious friendship during their visits.  They each signed the book, and I’m sure my mother’s name is signed on their hearts.

I am in awe of the number of people my parents hosted over the years, and I am equally humbled. Compared to their generous hospitality, my record is dismal. What opportunities have I missed, and whom might I have helped if I looked beyond my own busyness – my parents were as busy as anyone – and into the lives of others? It’s not too late, I know, and perhaps by writing this piece, my introverted self will be challenged to reach out more often.


Phyllis writes words: words for stories, and words for books. Phyllis writes words for blogs too.

8 thoughts on “Guest Books

  1. Another beautiful story of a bygone era! I remember a lovely Christmas work dinner at your home, should have signed the book!

  2. Thank you Phyllis for this wonderful article. Hopefully, we haven’t missed too many opportunities. Soup is always a good start.

  3. I love this memory, Phyllis! My parents had a guest book too – I bet your mom signed it at least once. What a great tradition that was. 🙂

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