“I smelled the river” (from a work-in-progress)

On a map of the area, I see Beharrell Road and I think that was the road I’m remembering. We knew the Beharrell family who had a farm nearer Pringle’s Store at Ridgedale. We stayed with them once on our way back to Victoria from Halifax where my father had been stationed for two years. There was a horse and I was allowed to ride it. A barn with hissing cats protecting nests of tiny kittens. A huge dining room table that we sat around for a dinner of rich food and where I hoped the meal would go on forever. It was a house with dim cool rooms, windows shaded by full trees. My heart would explore, find corners I couldn’t bear to leave, chairs emptied of their generations of inhabitants.

Another farm, on Fore Road, also took me deeply into its fields and rooms, the high reach of its hayloft. The daughters of the farm babysat my brothers and me on the occasional evening when my parents went out, and from that contact, my parents got to know their mother and father: Skinny and Myrtle Gillberg. We bought milk from them, one brother going over on his bike with a gallon jar in the carrier. Their farmhouse was turquoise and old, without an indoor bathroom, though there was a toilet of sorts in the cellar. (We stayed with them sometimes and what a decision if I had to pee after dark: to the outhouse behind the house itself, smelling of active bowels and lime, dense spiderwebbing in every corner, and loud with flies; or else down the cellar with a candle or a kerosene lantern?) A tree by the front door trailed tent caterpillars summer after summer and Mrs. Gillberg was afraid of them. If one landed in her hair, she’d scream. This amused my brothers but I have to say that I hated the feel of them on my own face or in my hair. Their whiskery bodies made my skin crawl and their guts were horrible. There was a couch in the Gillberg’s living room which had survived the flood of 1948. I’d press my face to its shaggy arms and imagine I smelled the river. To get to the second storey in that house, you had to creep into a closet in the one bedroom on the main floor, push aside the dresses and winter coats, and find a narrow flight of stairs. The daughters slept up there and one of them smoked, hanging out the window so her parents wouldn’t smell the evidence on her when she came down from her tower, smoothing her hair as she emerged from the closet.

There was a partly-subterranean bunker by the road where the milk cans were kept for pick-up – this was before milking parlours, before pumps. The bunker was cement and very cool, even on hot summer days. Once my older brothers tricked me into going down into it by myself, later in the day after the milk had been collected, and once I was there, they closed the door, telling me that when they turned the knob a certain way, water would fill the small space. There was a bench and I sat there, waiting for the end. It didn’t occur to me that it might be a joke – I saw nothing funny in the prospect – and I remember crying softly as I waited, thinking of everything I would miss: my teddy bear Georgie, our dog Star, Christmas morning, the taste of my mother’s chocolate chip cookies, warm from the oven. When my brothers finally opened the door and helped me to the surface, they begged me not to tell our parents.

Mrs. Gillberg had soft arms and she made the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten, richly coloured from the eggs we hunted for in the barn or outbuildings, sometimes finding them still warm from the hens. She’d fry bacon from their own pigs and let us drink coffee well-diluted with milk. And the milk! The jugs she brought to the table had thick layers of cream on top. If no one was looking, I’d scoop it out with a finger. She made pies and biscuits and cakes yellow with eggs and cream. If I’d wondered before where dairy products came from, I knew after one or two meals at her table, having seen the jars of milk come into the house and those eggs on her counter waiting to be wiped. (It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder how the hens produced them.) And if we timed our visits to the barn just right, we could see Mr. Gillberg or his hired man Chappy on three legged stools, cheeks against the cows, squeezing milk from their udders into metal buckets while cats waited in the shadows. On summer mornings, sunlight poured through the open loft doors, where haybales were thrown from the wagon, fresh from the fields, and swallows entered like swift wishes, dropping feathers which we caught in mid-air.

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My father tried to teach my mother to drive along Beharrell Road. It wasn’t a success. She knew the basic rules about steering and how to use a clutch. She’d practised with him along the boulevard in front of the radar base’s housing, my brothers and I watching from a safe place, while she ground the gears and reversed in a wobbly line. When they went out for road driving, they had to take us. We were warned to be silent but it was hard not to scream when my mother drove us into a ditch, my father shouting in exasperation as she  wept into her hands over the steering wheel.

“I will take an egg…”

“I will take an egg out of the robin’s nest in the orchard,
I will take a branch of gooseberries from the old bush in the garden,
and go and preach to the world…”  Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass

Yesterday we went to pick up some promised duck eggs from friends who live nearby. Their ducks are laying well and we’ve been enjoying the results. Favourite way to eat them? Cooked in a little butter for three minutes and served on a bed of steamed spinach. But yesterday Jay said they had some extra pheasant and quail eggs and would we like a couple of each? Oh yes.

So here they are, duck eggs, the smaller pheasant eggs, and two mottled quail eggs, in a oak bowl on the counter, waiting for me to decide what to do with them. I’m going to spend the day in the garden, planting out cabbages given me by June last evening when we went to have dinner with her and her husband John, and I’ll take some time to admire our gooseberry bushes which survived the garden reconstruction nicely and are in bloom, attracting bees and hummingbirds. And our dinner tonight will be these beautiful eggs.

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we were wildness (from a work-in-progress)

There was a baby shower for someone at the Ridgedale Community Hall and I remember attending with my mother while my older brothers were at school and my younger brother played at the home of a neighbour. The women were all dressed in their best, several of them, my mother included, wearing their fur coats. My mother’s was muskrat, which made me wonder because we saw those animals in the creeks leading down from Poignant Mountain. The shower involved games which the women entered into joyfully, taking ribbons from the gift-wrappings to turn into a hat for the celebrant, and then watching as the mother-to-be held the little sweaters and nightgowns they’d brought to her face before handing them around the circle. There were soft blankets and rattles, diaper pins with clasps of pink and blue, and tiny bonnets of pleated cotton. Tea was served in china cups and each woman had provided squares or cookies or tarts, arranged on paper doilies spread over delicate plates. Most of the women smoked, holding their cigarettes between fingers which sported neatly shaped and coloured nails, even though many of them were farm wives. I watched their hands move through the haze of smoke, gesturing and emphatic. I became drowsy among the murmurs and the laughter, and found the table where the coats had been carefully laid, curling up among the muskrat and camelhair until someone lifted me gently from the pile, saying it was time to go home. I found my mother’s legs to bury my face in, rubbing it against the fur, then realizing that everyone was laughing at me because it wasn’t my mother at all – her coat was still folded on the table – but a woman who’d never had a child.

My older brothers went to school in Matsqui but there was no kindergarten class (the year I was eligible for) so I stayed home, waiting for the bus to return them each day. Some days one of the girls they returned with handed out the crusts of her sandwiches, soft white bread that we never had at home. I’d crouch on the boulevard like a wild child, wolfing down crusts with their faint taste of tuna fish or ham. And what did I do, those long days waiting for my older brothers? I made shelters in tall grass with my younger brother and several other children too young to attend school, rooms we created by lying on the ground and crushing the grass flat, shaping each room to our bodies’ dimensions, ceilings the blue sky. We couldn’t be seen from the row of houses though our mothers could hear our voices so they knew where we were and that we were safe from possible danger. In our airy house, we exchanged our clothes with each other. Whose idea was it? I don’t remember. But we were caught out when I put my own undershirt on inside out and my mother discovered grass seeds in its thin cotton. There was conferring, there were questions: how far had the damage gone? I was used to wearing my older brothers’ hand-me-downs so it was no big deal to wear a boy’s shorts for an hour, to hand my underpants to another child and wear his or hers for the duration of our game. But some of the other mothers nipped that game in the bud, their mouths tight and fierce as they led their children home. The grass slowly rose again in our abandoned rooms.

Once or twice that I remember, I waited with my parents for my brothers to be released from their classrooms on Friday afternoons and then we drove over the Mission bridge to shop at Eatons. We’d eat supper at a cafe on the main street of Mission City, a hamburger or egg salad sandwiches, accompanied by milkshakes served from tall metal beakers beaded with moisture. The waitress would pour some of the contents into a glass and then leave the beaker on the counter so we drink the remainder once we’d finished what was in our glass. We’d suck up every last drop with our straws, running its tip around the bottom of the glass until our father scolded us for making farting sounds with the straw. Stop that, he’d order, the vein on his forehead pulsating in the way it did when he lost his temper. We usually knew just how far we could push him but sometimes we underestimated and he’d take us outside and wallop us on the sidewalk. Our mother never protested. We were wilfulness, to be controlled. We were wildness, to be brought to a civilized state by the rod.

 

faces, opening to the light

I can only grow tulips in pots on my decks. The deer inhale them otherwise, eating the succulent leaves as they emerge from the ground. Many years ago, when our dog Lily was still alive, deer never ventured near our house and I recall tulips in many areas of the garden then. Now they don’t even bother trying. Some days, looking out the window over the kitchen sink, I see deer on the patio, nosing around to see if there’s anything to eat. Roses? Lilies? What about a tendril of clematis? It might be time to bring home another dog.

Yesterday I noticed the tulips in this pot beginning to open so I moved the pot into the light. It had been tucked against the east wall, under the shade of cotoneater. Within a couple of hours, the flowers had opened so beautifully that I caught my breath, coming up the stairs to see them.

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Paperweight

“My husband went on a trip…and returned with a gift for me, a hand-blown paperweight with a beautiful sea anemone inside. There are five tentacles of pink and blue glass. I believe it was made with rods of glass, like in millefiore, but the rods have been hollowed or opened rather than stretched. I know that sea anemones are carnivorous — we see them on the local beaches, at the intertidal zone, waving their tentacles in the air for prey. Touching them with a finger, we feel the faint suction, then see them retract. I know they are territorial and can clone themselves so that often a colony will develop which consists of genetically identical anemones; when another colony encroaches, those on the periphery engage in battles to defend their little area of rock. Maybe they are defending their genetic integrity. Looking at my paperweight, I imagine that something has been captured inside it, something precious and rare.” (from Phantom Limb, published by Thistledown Press in 2007)

I’ve returned to work on a memoir about my mother and my paternal grandmother. My mother was given up at birth — she was born on Cape Breton Island — and put into a foster home where she lived until adulthood. She kept the surname of her biological father, MacDonald, and she knew the surname name of her biological mother, McDougall. But everything else is a mystery. She insisted she never wanted to know about her birth parents because she felt she’d been abandoned and any loyalty she felt was directed to her foster mother and sister. But when she died in 2010, I felt compelled to try to find something about her origins. I have some papers but nothing leads to me to anything like a source. Vital Statistics in Halifax, where she was raised, have told me that I have no right to a copy of her birth certificate (which she knew about and which she said included the names of both her parents) until 100 years after her birth — that will be February 8, 2026. I’ve posted queries on genealogy websites in Nova Scotia and I’ve tried a few other things as well. But so far, nothing.

The paperweight John gave me when I was first musing about my mother and everything I didn’t know about her background sits on my desk, to the left of my computer. Most days I pick it up, look at it, use it to hold down bits of paper or file cards. This morning I looked into it, wondering if family secrets can ever be truly solved or understood. I have a renewed interest in pursuing my mother’s mysterious story, the sensitive tentacle of her connection to Cape Breton Island and further back, Scotland.

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“I saw the new moone wi the auld moone in hir arme…”

The last few nights there’s been the most beautiful new moon hanging over our house and you can see the faint shape of the old moon in its cradle. I thought of Sir Patrick Spens and those haunting lines:

“Late late yestereen I saw the new moone,

Wi the auld moone in hir arme…”

new moon

This new moon has coincided with dry sunny days and when I checked the Farmer’s Almanac, I read that if the crescent Moon holds its points upward, able to contain water, it predicts a dry spell. I’m planting onions, potatoes, red cabbages, and broccoli, so let the dry spell continue.

Of quilts and woodsmoke

Today I’m hoping to begin a quilt. I have some Moravian blueprint bought in Roznov last February, at the Wallachian Open Air Museum —http://www.vmp.cz/en/visitors-tour-the-museum/roznov-pod-radhostem/ The Museum was fascinating, a collection of traditional Wallachian wood buildings, set among spruce trees. It was there (and a little earlier that same day, in my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomna) that I began to feel the stirrings of my own Czech blood. (I’m a quarter Czech, I said to John in wonder as we left that part of the CR by train. How is it that it took me 57 years to realize that?) Anyway, I’ve preshrunk the beautiful fabric and I’m trying to “see” what might be done with it.

blueprint

In the meantime, here’s a short section of the novella I finished last week. I’ve given it to my husband and my daughter to read, to see if it hangs together, if the dialogue works the way I’ve presented it — I didn’t want to clutter the page with quotation marks or em dashes so I tried to embed the dialogue within the actual narrative. I might have to revisit this but for now I like it. So this is the narrator, a young woman in her late 20s in 1978 (and no, she’s not me…), considering a quilt she has inherited from her grandmother, a Roma woman who came to Canada in 1913, falling in love with a Czech man on the Mount Temple and marrying him once they arrived in Canada.

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1978

I shook out the quilt. It was large, big enough for a queen-sized bed, composed of scraps of wool, mostly, though I could also identify some coarse linen, a few bits and pieces of velvet, and the back was striped ticking, the kind you find on old mattresses. I think it was in fact a cover for what would have been a mattress in the Calderas’s wagon and it was pieced together, probably from scavenged outer edges of the bag once the central part had worn thin. A bag, roughly woven, to hold dried grass or hay, or goose feathers. The stripes had been deep blue – I could tell this by examining the seams where the fabric still kept its vibrant colour, those blue stripes on a creamy ground. Now both were faded almost to grey.

The wool scraps were loden, once green – again, I could tell this by looking closely at the undersides of patches from which the stitching had loosened. And the velvet was black, though faded and rusty. The green wool and black velvet was appliquéd to linen squares, the stitching fine as bird tracks, in thread that was now a faded yellow but which once had obviously been rich gold. I had glimpses of the original colour where the stitches had been covered with sashing, now frayed. And between the squares was sashing pieced from various lengths of grey wool.

The smell of woodsmoke and musty air. My grandmother’s house. My own small flat, on the second floor of the converted theatre, had a set of double windows with a generous sill. I hung the quilt to air, leaving it for an hour or so while I rode my bike into Oak Bay village to buy some groceries. Nuts, rice, and yoghourt at Earth Household; carrots and apples at the Super Valu. I decided I had enough money for a bottle of wine and chose a Hungarian red, the one with the bull on its label.

Riding back, I saw the quilt hanging from my windows like a banner. I propped my bike against the side of the building and looked up. The loden green scraps were leaves, scattered over the surface. I saw this when I looked from a distance, adjusting my eyes to its perspective. Groups of two in some squares, three in others, a single leaf in many. I ran into the building, up the stairs to my apartment. I touched the fabric. It was densely woven, a kind of felt. I bent my face to the leaves and inhaled something animal, oily. Rubbing my fingers together, it was like touching sheep, that coarse wool suffused with lanolin. My grandmother told me once that her father had worn a cloak, a loden cloak, given him by a man who’d bought some of the copper pots. It was very warm, she said, repelling both wind and rain. Sometimes he’d open it to allow two or three of his children to shelter within. We sat under trees while the rain poured down and it was our own tent, warmed by our father’s body.