It was the year I was in grade one. My father’s naval ship went to Asia for three months and for that period, my mother cared for us alone. When I think about it, I can’t imagine it was entirely unexpected – she’d married a sailor after all. He’d been in the navy ever since she’d known him. But we’d lived in Matsqui for four years of my early childhood – two two-year postings – before moving to Victoria in the summer of 1962 and for those years, my father worked at the radar base just behind the family housing where we lived in the house at the end of the boulevard, next to the Sward’s farm. He went to work each morning and returned each evening. So now I’m thinking that this might have been the first time he’d been away for such a long time.
Four children. She didn’t drive. There was a big grocery store, a Safeway, I think, on Fort Street, near Douglas, and some days after school, she’d take my younger brother and me with her to do the shopping. We walked. We almost always walked in those years, though buses ran down Cook Street and maybe even along May Street. But, no, I’m sure she worried about the fares (we were not well-off), so we walked. How far would it have been? I consult a map and count: 24 blocks. Each way. And for the walk back, we all carried two bags. This was before plastic bags with handles so imagine my brother and me with our paper bag holding macaroni, dog food, carrots, and tins of soup. Some days there would have been a treat – Lifesavers or a stick of gum.
I remember how she sat by a window with a cup of instant coffee, a cigarette, and a far-away look in her eyes. I knew even then that she longed for his return.
And one day I returned from school to find her in her – their—bedroom in a new suit and coat. The suit was powder blue with dark velvet trim on the pockets and collar. The skirt skimmed over her hips and flared a little, mid-calf. She looked so elegant, hardly like my mother at all, in seamed stockings and small blue shoes. The coat was Harris tweed. She told me this reverently. It had come from WJ Wilson on Government Street, by Trounce Alley. It was wool, its colours soft and muted: grey, brown, an aqua thread that somehow reminded me of birds. She said with such vehemence that I knew she felt guilty about how much she had spent: I’ll have it for my whole life so it’s worth every penny! She let me smell it and that scent imprinted in me: earthy, not unlike animals, and of her somehow too.
The day he returned, we met the ship at CFB Esquimalt. It was familiar ground in some ways. My brothers and I took swimming lessons there, at the Naden pool, free for the children of naval personnel. But this time we waited on a dock, or some sort of jetty, while men gathered on the deck of the ship and waved to their families. I can’t remember seeing my dad but of course he was among them and we were taken aboard the ship for a tour and refreshments and to see where he slept all those months he was away from us. It was not luxurious. And he was strange to us, or to me at least, in his naval uniform, among men with whom he’d drunk rum daily, maybe never using his Old Spice on Sunday mornings as he did at home, or sharpening our knives at his basement workbench, the sound of the whetstone making my spine shiver.
And he brought presents for us, packed into a fragrant carved chest which was my mother’s main gift. There was also a bottle of My Sin, bought (I’m supposing) at a duty-free shop. There were two cotton dresses for me, identical madras but for the colours: one was blues and greens, and the other rusts and browns. They buttoned down the chest and had full skirts. I remember I loved them. There was also a little music box for jewellery. I still have it, though I dropped it the first day and the mirror cracked, which seemed ominous. It played, and still plays, a sweet song that my father told me was called “China Nights”. As a child I believed this but later wondered if he just made it up on the spot.
No, he didn’t. Thanks to Google, I’ve found MP3 files of the song and it’s the same sweet melody. Further searching reveals that it was a song popular with U.S. Marines during the Korean War and that they often bought highly lacquered music boxes which played the song.. Sew girls – the women who worked in barracks, repairing and tailoring uniforms, would sing the tune for their American customers, and they told those customers that “China Nights” was a Japanese soldier’s lament for his Chinese sweetheart A little more research tells me that the music was “written by Shinko Takeoka and Hamako Watanbe sang the first version. The words were written by Yaso Saijo in 1939 (it is uncertain if Saijo was ever a soldier or ever in China, but the sew girl would probably like to think he was)”.
I wish I knew the itinerary of that trip. The camphorwood chest was almost certainly from China but where, exactly? Hong Kong? I know my father was there, for instance. In the mid-1990s, he arranged an envelope among the branches of our Christmas tree and when my mother opened it, she found plane tickets to Southeast Asia, to places my father had gone to on that particular trip and to which he wanted to revisit in her company. Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore – these were ports of call that still held romance for him. My parents went off in winter to tour those old haunts, sending postcards of beaches and golden temples.
When we returned with the stranger who was our father to our house on Eberts Street, my parents went into their bedroom and we were asked to leave them alone. I imagined my mother twirling for my father in her new suit and then the two of them hugging on the bed. Her Harris tweed coat was hanging in the front closet and I went in, closed the door from the inside, and put my arms into its satin-lined sleeves where I could smell my mother’s Avon underarm deodorant mingling with the wool.
I still have the chest. For years my mother stored all her sweaters in it and they had the distinctive smell of camphorwood. There was a shallow inner box that sat on a ridge around the top. She kept small containers with various pieces of jewellery on the shelf, and gloves. I keep my sweaters in the chest, and the linen tablecloths which have come from John’s mother (embroidered with brilliant flowers by his grandmother in Suffolk) as well as several from the Goodwill on Pembina Highway in Winnipeg, bought while I was killing time between readings on a book tour in 2001. I keep my pashminas there too, a kaleidoscope of them, many of them gifts from my children. Everything that comes from the chest carries the smell of my childhood.
And I have the coat, still in good condition though the cut isn’t flattering on me. But after a chance comment on a stage – a book of mine had been nominated for a prize and standing with the other shortlisted authors, I had a brief conversation with a man who’d written a book about his father, remembering him through the process of tailoring his father’s suit to fit himself. I mentioned my mother’s coat and he said, Why not have it remade? – I began to think about what I might to do to make it my own.
A thrift shop in the town near where I live always has Harris tweed jackets on its rack. And when I look at people shopping in the grocery store or waiting in doctors’ offices, when I listen to them speaking with English accents, or soft Scottish ones, I know why. (I think I know their values.) It’s an aging population in that town and when the men die, I imagine their wives asking sons if they want their father’s well-kept jacket. Most younger men wouldn’t be interested. So the jackets are carefully folded and donated to the thrift shop run by the auxiliary to the hospital. Funds raised by the auxiliary go towards equipment we all feel safer for knowing the hospital has in its emergency room and its operating theatres. Defibrillators, pulmonary devices, an MRI machine, and I believe the auxiliary even equipped a hospice unit, a birthing suite. I can’t bear to leave the nicer of the jackets on their hangers and gladly buy them for 4 dollars a piece. I have in mind a quilt, squares of alternating tweed and velvet, using jackets and dresses from the Thrift shop. But then I buy the garments and remember my mother’s assertion that she would have her coat for life and I can’t bear to cut into them. What do you do with the jackets that don’t sell, I ask the women working among the old clothes and shelves of mismatched china. I thought that I’d feel better about cutting into one if I thought it was going to the landfill if it didn’t sell or else recycled as rags. Oh, we make up parcels for homeless people on the Downtown Eastside, one of them tells me cheerfully. So then the thought of cutting up a perfectly wearable garment seems doubly wicked, though I have to say that no homeless person I’ve encountered in Vancouver – and we often stay in a hotel on the corner of Pender and Homer, walking out in evenings to a play at the Rickshaw or Firehall Theatre, passing the people camped out under the Army and Navy eaves – has been wearing a Harris tweed jacket, dapper with jeans or rough corduroys. My husband has at least three of the jackets; each son has several; and dinner guests often leave with a jacket in hand after a discussion about tweed has them confessing to always having liked the look of a tweed sport jacket and a tee shirt underneath. Or a turtleneck. A nostalgia for professors reading from a battered copy of Milton or Byron, or aging gardeners in the west of Ireland, men digging potatoes in a tweed jacket and gumboots, collarless shirt of rough linen or cotton, blue stripes on a creamy ground. I knew some of those Irish gardeners and sat with them by turf fires, drinking tea so strong that it curdled my throat; and I know that their tweed jackets were never cleaned but carried the odour of bog smoke and chickens, released by rain.