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Celebrating Dayal Kaur Khalsa


Dayal Kaur Khalsa: A Childhood Remembered; A Childhood Transposed

In Dayal Kaur Khalsa's world, children are cunning, they are creative, they are natural. I was drawn to her tales because her love of the written word and artistic expression celebrate, with honesty what it means to grow up in a world where growing up is a constant test of "Wit and Outwit."

Dayal Kaur Khalsa

Dayal Kaur Khalsa
July 17, 1999, marked the 10th anniversary of her death. She was born in Queens, New York on April 17, 1943. She died in Vancouver, British Columbia, on July 17, 1989. Having lived in Canada from 1973 to her death, she developed strong ties to many people and places. She bequeathed most of her original illustrations and manuscripts to the National Library of Canada in appreciation for everything the country did for her. The National Library is mounting this exhibition of her work from its collection in recognition of this country's appreciation of her genius and her contribution to its culture.

She was a fighter whose intellectual brilliance and emotional turmoil drove her down many roads of temptation during a time when drugs, alcohol and rebellion were common paths of exploration and adventure for young adults.

Her adolescent years, the 1950s and 60s, were times of turbulence and groupies, Woodstock and Civil Rights. She was an activist whose parents were not trained to handle their rebellious daughter. Given her early childhood background, the choice she made to join a Sikh Ashram and change her name from Marcia Schonfeld, seemed foreign to her Jewish, middle-class, New York upbringing.

Her father, Daniel Schonfeld, inherited a small business from his father. He and his brother manufactured braids and fringes for the textile industry. Her mother enjoyed the arts and worked in an administrative position at Queens College in New York.

Few other children's book authors and illustrators have created a legacy so unique in so short a time. From 1986 to 1989, she succeeded in completing nine children's books. Her last published book, 'Snow Cat', was published posthumously thanks to the efforts of her friend, Brian Grison. Her books bring us back to a time when early childhood was steeped in neighbourhood, family, summer vacations and childhood fantasy.

last illustration of Tales of a Gambling Grandma Dayal's final struggle with breast cancer caused her to draw on her deepest, most meaningful childhood relationship for strength; that of Grandma Shapiro. The effect of Grandma Shapiro's death from breast cancer in 1953 was devastating for Dayal and is revealed in the last illustration of Tales of a Gambling Grandma:

"Then I opened her closet door and slipped inside. I closed the door behind me and hugged and smelled all my Grandma's big dresses."

Grandma tells of jumping into a cart full of hay and covering herself, losing one of her shoes and, at the age of three, escaping to America with only one little black shoe, hidden in a hay cart drawn by a tired white horse all across the wide slate-green Atlantic Ocean. Photo of her house in<br />Queens, New York City
Photo of her house in
Queens, New York City
Dayal continues:

The house illustrated in My Family Vacation; Dayal is at the front window
The house illustrated in 'My Family Vacation'; Dayal is at the front window
"When my Grandpa died, my Grandma moved into [our] house in Queens. Then I was born; a pink little girl for her to hug and squeeze. My parents worked all day so right from the start my Grandma and I were always together...."

"My Grandma sat like a flowering mountain in her big green garden chair. All day long she knit scarfs and shawls and socks. She told me stories of her life and gave me two pieces of advice. One: Never, ever go into the woods alone because the gypsies will get you or, should you escape that cruel fate, you'll fall down a hole." Grandma in Green chair illustrated in Tales of a Gambling Grandma
Grandma in Green chair illustrated in Tales of a Gambling Grandma

Cossacks in kitchen illustrated in Tales of a Gambling Grandma
Cossacks in kitchen illustrated in Tales of a Gambling Grandma
"Two: Just in case the Cossacks come to Queens, learn to say 'Da' and always keep plenty of borscht in the refrigerator".

These and other gems of wisdom, all influenced Dayal to become the witty, warm and willful child I learned to love. As so often happens during the years, filtering stories through memory and emotional needs bring a new degree of perspective to the truth.

When Grandma came to America she helped Grandpa, who was a plumber, make some extra money by learning how to play poker. Of all things Dayal did with Grandma, the thing she loved the most was when Grandma taught her how to play cards. She learned how to play "Go Fish", "Old Maid" and "Gin Rummy".

Snapshot of Grandma Shapiro holding Dayal
Snapshot of Grandma
Shapiro holding Dayal
"Whenever I had a cold, Grandma let me stay in her bed. She made a tent from a sheet and an over turned chair. All day long we kept busy..... There was the smell of sweet perfume and musty old pennies... a square snapshot of my grandma holding me as a baby.... But most fascinating of all were my grandma's false teeth. I never saw her put them in her mouth. She always kept them in the drawer..."

Illustration from Tales of a Gambling Grandma/Sketch for unpublished May and Her MotherIllustration from Tales of a Gambling Grandma/Sketch for unpublished May and Her Mother
Illustration from Tales of a Gambling Grandma/Sketch for unpublished "May and Her Mother"
Later we will see a sketch for an unpublished book, "May and Her Mother", where the living room illustrated at page 29 in Tales of a Gambling Grandma is practically identical to that of the later book. In Tales of a Gambling Grandma, the warm loving contact is with Grandma. In "May and Her Mother", the contact is with her mother.

Until the end of her life, Dayal struggled with her relationship with her mother. In the final days of her life, she was able to express through her stories, the coming to terms with her mother to bring some closure to the relationship. During her final illness, she lived with Hari and his wife Ram Kirn Khalsa in Vancouver. Their ultimate parental-like devotion and caring gave Dayal the courage to let go and meet her death in peace.

Continued... *