monsoon cabbages

We’ve had a run (like a rash?) of wild wet days, rain spilling out of the gutters, the creeks. Today is the first day there’s been real sun for ages and even it’s sporadic, taken over by high white clouds every half hour or so. But the garden has responded to rain. I can’t believe this is the same muddy patch that caused me such despair in February. This is what the cabbages and peas (and spring onions and kale grown close together for salad) look like this morning:

monsoon cabbages

And this is the same area two months ago, seen from a slightly different angle:

looking northwest

As for the sun, bring it on.

A moment

I was just looking out the window, wondering when — or if — the rain will ever stop. And I saw an adult red-breasted sapsucker in the cotoneaster, the one we call the bird tree because it hosts grosbeaks, warblers, tanagers, and sapsuckers, sometimes several of these at once. I quickly realized there was also a juvenile sapsucker in the tree too, sitting on a branch while the parent industriously drilled into the bark. Then I saw the young one open its beak and the parent fed it — well, what did it feed it? Bugs in sap? A simple drink of sap? I managed to take two photographs but of course missed the actual moment of the feeding. But in the second image, you can see the young bird with its beak open and waiting.


Searching for John Kishkan

I’m reading Myrna Kostash’s All of Baba’s Children, in part to find out something about my grandfather’s early experiences in Canada and in part to find scraps of my father’s childhood. All of Baba’s Children was first published in 1977 and has never been out of print. It’s an investigation into the experiences of the Ukrainians who came to western Canada and went through both the process of assimilation (whatever that means) and also the kind of uber-nationalism that people who’ve left a beloved place often devote themselves to in the new country. The farms, the schools, the communities, the newspapers — I read in a kind of wonder, as though I’ve found something important to me and my own family’s history but I’m still not sure how we fit into this context.

I’ve read some of Myrna’s other books — the wonderful Bloodlines, the unforgettable Frog Lake Reader — but for some reason, I left this one unopened. What was I afraid of, I wonder? Last night I kept putting the book aside to try to figure out how my grandfather’s own voice might have sounded in the passages of interviews Myrna uses to introduce chapters. Peter Shevchook, for example: “My father came over in the spring of 1899. He came over for the forests. You understand, he came from a regime where you had to pick up every twig and ask the lord for everything. He went out to the Mundare area and picked out the bushiest land he could find.”

But that wasn’t my grandfather’s story, or at least not what I know of it. He left Bukovina in 1907 — or at least that’s what his little travel book indicates. He may have gone to Franklin Furnace, New Jersey. He shows up in Phoenix, B.C. in 1911 — but that might not have been him (there were cousins with similar names). He was a miner. He didn’t own land until he met my grandmother who had a small farm in Drumheller (she’d come to Drumheller in 1913 to join her first husband).

He wasn’t interned during the First World War as many Ukrainian men were but he was sent away from a mine in Kananaskis — or at least this is family lore. But where did he go? So many gaps and silences.

Myrna’s book is detailed and passionate. It’s filled with material that feels and sounds familiar — the meals, the hardships, the role of the Orthodox Church in sustaining particular aspects of culture and community, the stubborn allegiances to the language and music that told people who they were in the face of the Anglo class structures that marginalized immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. I’m only half-way through All of Baba’s Children and am savouring every word.It’s taken me so long to begin my own tentative investigation into this part of my history and I’m grateful to have such a great guide. I post photographs of my garden, my quilts, our little rambles here and there, news of my books, and yet this also is mine, even if I know so little about it.

Julia Kishkan's funeral
Julia Kishkan’s funeral

more of the same, but different

I’ve just picked vegetables for a special dinner tonight (friend Liz is coming!) and am delighted with the broccoli crowns (just cut one…), the Mendel peas from seed saved from last year’s crop, and a few curly garlic scapes because they were too pretty not to include. And roses — again, roses, because how could you not cut them over and over and put them in pots for their beauty? And the tablecloth from Arles.


And this morning I did a bit of detailing on the salmon panels, using red fabric paint. The indigo is lighter this time around because I tried boiling the wax out of the batiked areas and it seems the dye was not quite as fast as I’d hoped. But it’s still a good blue, I think, and I have a whole pile of cottons stacked to see what seems to work best with these two long panels — they’re 70 inches wide, one with the fish heading into the natal stream, and one with them leaving it. In the next few days I’ll spend some time spreading out lengths of fabric on the floor and seeing how the panels look with dark red or a Japanese print with raindrops or even the Moravian blueprints. After I’d dyed the fish panels, I dyed about 3 metres of the unbleached cotton with the left-over dye and the result is nice — like a faded chambray shirt. I know I’m not a real quilter because I don’t plan. All the books tell you to chart your design and use colour wheels and so forth. (I know writing manuals tell you much the same thing: make an outline, keep file cards of your characters, plan out your chapters. Sigh.) But my eye is more random, looking for surprising relationships and unexpected connections. Who knows what this quilt will look like when it’s finished? All I know is that I love every step.



One of my favourite poems about fathers (and sons) is by the late Stanley Kunitz. I encountered this poem in the last century, as an undergraduate, and it both confounded and thrilled me. Its dreamlike quality and its mythic power were immediately apparent and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. They still do.  Those last two lines… Yet there is quotidian detail to anchor the poem — the odor of ponds, the information about the speaker’s sister, even the turtles and the lilies, so familiar to me from my walks over to the marsh on Hallowell Road where turtles bask on logs among yellow pond lilies. And the biblical echo, so haunting: “I lived on a hill that had too many rooms…”

Father and Son

Now in the suburbs and the falling light
I followed him, and now down sandy road
Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet
Curdle of fields, where the plums
Dropped with their load of ripeness, one by one.
Mile after mile I followed, with skimming feet,
After the secret master of my blood,
Him, steeped in the odor of ponds, whose indomitable love
Kept me in chains. Strode years; stretched into bird;
Raced through the sleeping country where I was young,
The silence unrolling before me as I came,
The night nailed like an orange to my brow.

How should I tell him my fable and the fears,
How bridge the chasm in a casual tone,
Saying, “The house, the stucco one you built,
We lost. Sister married and went from home,
And nothing comes back, it’s strange, from where she goes.
I lived on a hill that had too many rooms;
Light we could make, but not enough of warmth,
And when the light failed, I climbed under the hill.
The papers are delivered every day;
I am alone and never shed a tear.”

At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted
Their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! You know
The way. I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes;
No trace, I promise, will remain. Instruct
Your son, whirling between two wars,
In the Gemara of your gentleness,
For I would be a child to those who mourn
And brother to the foundlings of the field
And friend of innocence and all bright eyes.
0 teach me how to work and keep me kind.”

Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me
The white ignorant hollow of his face.

–Stanley Kunitz

Did I feel like this about my own father — that he was absent from my life (Stanley Kunitz’s father committed suicide 6 weeks before his son was born so he truly was absent), that I would do anything to connect with him (“I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes…”), that finally he was in my life only as a deathly detached presence? No, I don’t feel like that, exactly. But of course my father was a mystery to me, as I know I was to him. He didn’t know me as I wanted to be known — but perhaps this is always true of our relationships with our parents. When he died I was in Venice. I learned of his death in a phone booth on a dark canal. It wasn’t unexpected but it was sad. I regretted not being there, not having told him the things I was grateful for: camping trips in childhood with his buckwheat pancakes for breakfast, burned on one side and undercooked on the other; the books he introduced me to (I still have his copy of Frederick Niven’s Wild Honey, easily the most evocative book I know about the Thompson Canyon and the small communities of the Boundary country); the patience he demonstrated when teaching my sons to fish. He surprised me once by telling me how much he’d liked Robert Kroetsch’s novel Badlands and that one day he wanted to drift down the Red Deer River on a raft. I told him if he did that, I’d join him. I wish we had. Would we have talked of things that matter and shared a sundowner of good whiskey? Who knows.

Here’s my dad, aged 2 or 3, outside his home in the middle of the badlands. Maybe it’s never too late to say thank you.


stopping on the Bridesville-Rock Creek road for the bluebird (of happiness)

We’re spending a few days exploring in the Similkameen-Boundary area under blue skies filled with tumbling clouds. Today we drove to Grand Forks, taking the winding Bridesville-Rock Creek road through the most beautiful soft forests and grasslands. A charmed landscape. We knew this almost right away, that we’d entered an enchanted place, when a small rabbit hopped off the road and a bobcat bounded across into the trees a little further along. Deer, ground squirrels, a marmot — every one of them looking suprised to see a car, the squirrel waking from a deep sleep in the sunlight  to scamper aside. A mountain bluebird took its time with whatever it was eating. A worm? A grasshopper? We kept seeing wildflowers — scarlet gilia, Indian paintbrush, and then a small thicket of larkspur, sticky geranium (I think it was this one, the Geranium viscosissimum; I was so busy trying to get a photograph while it waved in the wind that I forgot to touch the leaves…). We drove into Grand Forks to discover the Farmers Market in full swing which was lovely. John bought a confit of blueberries and garlic and some pickled asparagus and then we went went to the Borscht Bowl for the eponymous soup and some light vareniki made with buttermilk dough. Amazingly good.

will sing from the nest

In the large wild-sown cotoneaster out our kitchen window, we see lots of birds. They like the flowers, the berries, the insects that feed on both. I think they like the view too — looking west towards Sakinaw Lake and the hump of Texada Island beyond the rise our children called Grass Lake Mountain. This is where the sapsuckers brought their young last June, the whole family buzzing and feeding on sap and insects. (

This morning we were having coffee and noticed activity in the tree, branches waving back and forth. When we looked closely, we saw two birds we’d never seen before. They were obviously a pair, feeding close together. Luckily the Stokes Field Guide was handy and we were able to identify them almost immediately as Black-headed Grosbeaks. We’ve had Evening Grosbeaks around before but not these guys, or at least not when we’ve been able to see them close up. Who knows what flies and feeds and nests when you’re busy doing something else? When your eyes are to the ground where the snakes are abundant — and they are right now! — and the tree-frogs have begun to show themselves on iris leaves and the lizards are scuttling here and there in sunlight?

So here’s the pair, a bit blurry because I had to take their picture through glass, and I love what the Field Guide tells me: “Both male and female incubate the eggs and will sing from the nest.”

five generations

I’m reading James Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days, as beautifully written and thoughtful a book as any I’ve ever read. Last night, just before I turned off my light, there was this:

“We know at first hand, as witnesses, perhaps five generations, most brilliantly of course our own; in one direction those of our parents and grandparents, in the other, children and grandchildren. In my own case much was lopped off. The past is haphazard. I think of the remark of the English cabinet member who was retiring to the seventeenth-century Cornwall farmhouse that had always been in his family. It is the men without roots, he said, who are the real poor of this century.”

In the falling light, I thought of this, while tiny bats passed the windows — I hadn’t pulled the curtains — and I thought of it again immediately upon waking. Most days I look at the materials (and they are meagre at best) my parents left and try to think of other ways to interpret them. I’ve written queries to the places named on my grandmother’s birth certificate, tentative testings in English to people with my grandmother’s maiden name, her mother’s name. In the tiny village she came from and the small town nearby, I suspect someone sharing those names is connected to her, to me. But no word comes back. I’ve sent messages to the offspring of my grandmother with her first husband — the children and grandchildren of my father’s half-sisters and brothers — but again, little or nothing. Who were they in their daily lives? What stories did they tell? Who did they leave behind, in Horni Lomna, and Ivankivtsi in Bukovina? I want roots, yes, but also the sound a stone makes thrown into the past, echoing and re-echoing, the widening music finally including me.

On this travel document, my grandfather’s surname is Kiszkan.

A rose by any other name

Years ago I planted a white rugosa rose at the foot of a post supporting the little area of deck outside my bedroom window. The rose didn’t do much and when its rootstock took over, I let it. It competes with honeysuckle and trumpet vine for wall space but what a competition — the honeysuckle will begin to bloom just as the rose is finishing and the trumpet vine takes over a bit later in the season. The tree frogs love this tangle of green and often chorus away in their surprisingly big voices. (We used to refer to the one we heard as Luciano but then realized there were more so now we simply call them The Tenors…)

I think this must be Rosa canina, the dog rose. And for about two weeks in late May- early June, it’s a tumble of these soft pink blooms. loud with bees.