I went out to begin the watering but found myself admiring the abundance of a summer garden. It’s not long ago that I showed you the hopeful beds of March, with their painted signs and tiny sprouts of garlic (which is all harvested and hanging in the woodshed to cure), a little clump of chives, the first crocus — and a lot of bare soil. We’ve had runs of hot weather followed by days of heavy rain and other than producing slugs the size of the late dinosaurs, the results have been pretty fine.
This time last week I was basking in the company of my new grandbaby. In Edmonton, there was rain and John and I visited the Royal Alberta Museum where I really liked the Western Threads exhibit — quilts, hooked rugs, a few exquisite dresses of hand-dyed silk. We explored the Bug Room and imagined ourselves into the future, showing Kelly the cases of huge stick insects, the tarantulas, and the various beetles.
This morning, life is both rich, and (I confess) a little lonely as I think of how quickly babies change and grow. We Skyped yesterday and it was good to see that tangle of arms and legs and small downy head cradled by her dad but it’s not the same. And now I know how my parents felt when my children were small, how their parents felt — my grandparents (ironically) in Edmonton while my family lived in Victoria, or Matsqui, or Halifax. My mother’s foster mother was in Halifax so we did see her weekly while we lived there in the early 1960s but our relationship was always formal, not intimate. As I suspect was her relationship with my mother. For all the years we lived on the west coast, my mother wrote to her mother weekly. I have some of the photographs she sent to Halifax from Victoria — a young woman with her first son, then later her four children; those children posed with Santa Claus or standing in rivers and lakes in their bathing suits. Those children posed in front of reconstructed dinosaurs near Drumheller on summer visits to Alberta.
Before that, the vast distance between Central and Eastern Europe and Drumheller, which is where my grandmother came to with her first husband and five children, then seven. Did my grandmother’s parents and relations in Horni Lomna know of her own second marriage, my father’s birth, the subsequent generations? And will I ever know them? Online databases make certain discoveries possible but others are hidden in history. Or in the uncertainties presented by my own inability to read other languages. I’ve been tracking one thread — my grandfather’s connections to Sniatyn, in Galicia — but it keeps fraying, running thin. Certainly nothing to hook into a rug or piece together as a quilt block. Not yet.
In the meantime, I’m thinking of a quilt for Kelly. I made some baby blankets and a crib quilt but that was before I knew who she was, before I’d held her long fingers in mine. Or had my fingers gripped by hers. I have some ideas and will keep them in my mind until I can see how to stitch something that will be hers alone.
It’s early and I’m in Kamloops, enroute home from a wonderful few days with my new granddaughter Kelly. We drove for 10 hours yesterday, along the Yellowhead trail, through Jasper where a single bull elk was posing like Fabio for tourists, turning his muscular shoulders this way and that, his magnificent antlers framing the mountains.
Kamloops is one of my favourite small cities. One thing I love about it is that you can see beyond it. This morning I was lying in my bed watching the sun rise over the eastern hills just beyond the city and even now I can smell the Thompson River through my open window. We’re staying at the Plaza Hotel, built in 1928. We like its slow old elevator and the pretty rooms.
The Plaza is right downtown and it’s good to walk along Victoria Street where it’s easy to imagine the earlier city. In my first novel, Sisters of Grass (Goose Lane, 2000), the protagonist Margaret Stuart comes to Kamloops with her family in the spring of 1906. I spent a lot of time looking at archival photographs to get a sense of what she would have seen, how the streets were, the route she would have taken to attend a concert by the famed soprano Emma Albani (which did take place here in May of 1906).
Last night we walked down to the Brownstone Restaurant where we’ve eaten several times in the past and never been disappointed. It’s housed in a gracious building which was the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, built in 1904.
We ate rabbit marbella and drank a luscious Argentine malbec in a room with high ceilings and deep red walls. Sometimes when we’ve been there, we’ve watched trains pass and heard the long whistle but not last night.
This morning we’ll drive home over the Coquihalla highway and through the Fraser Valley, all haunted by memories of earlier trips with our children. It’s all part of us — the tang of sage in the air as we drive up out of the city, the soft sky fringed with pines, the sultry air near Hope. At least twenty five years ago we pointed out the shale on the Coquihalla Summit to Kelly’s father, a little boy of four or five, and he exclaimed, “Shale! I wish I was the land!”
When you live in one place for a long time — it’s been around 33 years for us here in the house we built near Sakinaw Lake (I say “around” because we bought our property in 1980, spent as much time as possible, more than half of most weeks, here until we “officially” moved to our unfinished house in the fall of 1982) — you notice the small and large dramas of those you live amongst. Lately we’ve been watching mud-daubers fill their nests with spiders for the larvae to feed on until they become long-waisted wasps themselves. It’s a bit creepy but also really interesting. Last night we must’ve been right in the flight path as one gathered spiders from under the deck and then flew to the small nest it had built under the eaves of the deck where we eat our dinner. It kept flying right by me but they are quite benign and although I moved my chair a little, I didn’t feel threatened. Not the way I feel later in summer when the vespula wasps (hornets and yellow-jackets) come to the table while we’re eating, landing on any kind of protein. They love the skins of barbequed salmon or roast chicken and they’re quite aggressive. I know, I know. They have a place in the scheme of things (and I love to watch them eat scale insects off my lemon tree) and they mostly go about their own business until late in the season when they seem desperate for meat, even humans.
The Roosevelt elk in our area were introduced in the late 1980s, though most people agree that this was part of their range until they were extirpated in the 19th c. The idea was that the elk would move up and down the big Cheekye-Dunsmuir power line and forage on maple and other brush that was being removed at that point by herbicides. Every time B.C. Hydro applied for a permit to spray or hack and squirt some terrible toxin in what was actually watershed, people understandably got upset. It was hoped that the elk would be part of a natural solution to the problem. And I think they were but no one expected them to settle in quite so happily and make themselves at home in local orchards, a market garden, the golf course…
I don’t like it when they eat the vines on the side of our house or essentially our whole small orchard (this is partly the subject of my work-in-progress, “Euclid’s Orchard”) but it’s always a thrill to see them. They’re huge. Some nights when we’re driving home from dinner with friends, we see them crossing the highway, 20 or more, the heart-shaped yellow rump patch glowing in moonlight. Or we encounter them while we’re hiking, a long fluid line of them disappearing into the woods when they catch our scent or see us in the distance. Last week we saw two cows, one lying down, and the other standing near her. They were on the other side of the cutline but didn’t move. I wondered if there might be a calf nearby. (The females leave the herd to give birth and return 2 or 3 weeks later, once the young one is mobile enough to keep up with the herd.) Elk are creatures of the ecotone, the transistion area where two ecological biomes meet. In this case, there’s a wide grassy corridor under the power-lines, scattered with thimbleberry, salmonberry, elder, wild gooseberry and currant, ocean spray, and other deciduous shrubs, bordered on both sides by dense woods. The grass is as golden as hay right now. Where the cows rested and watched us was perhaps a quarter of a mile away.
This morning we went for a walk in that same area, early, to avoid the heat. We kept an eye out for the elk but didn’t see any. Then at one point on the gravelly trail (the Suncoaster trail system utilizes old logging roads and Hydro access roads), we saw many many recent tracks on the dusty ground as well as very fresh scat. (It was still wet and when we returned that way 40 minutes later, it was dry.) I loved the stories in the tracks. A few really large ones — the bull? — and many slightly smaller ones. And then really small ones, tiny ones, the prints of calves who’d recently joined the herd with their mothers. The air was full of the scent of elk, as pungent as horses. Had they paused to take the sun? Were they watching for predators (there are bears up there and coyotes, the occasional cougar, and sometimes even wolves)? Or was this a social moment, calves shy by their mothers’ sides, and the herd (or harem it is really) accomodating new members in sunlight while ravens circled, red-shafted flickers feeding on ants and other insects in the dry grass, and no bears or coyotes in sight? Here are some notes towards the wild choreography, the fancy footwork. And the score? Oh, something moody and sweet, featuring woodwinds, particularly the flute and the oboe d’amore!
In my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (Goose Lane, 2011), there are many brief meditations on time. As I was writing that book, my parents and parents-in-law were fading, and then dying. In the fall of 2009, my father (with whom I had a complicated but not unloving relationship) was in the process of leaving the earth. Well, he was, and he wasn’t. I’d left my home on the Sechelt Peninsula several times in early fall to visit my mother in Victoria and assist her with arrangements for my father; he’d gone into hospital with a whole lot of medical issues (prostate cancer, dementia, plain ill-humour…) and with my help, and (more usefully, I think) the help of my brothers, we were trying to find a placement for him a long-term care facility. This coincided with a trip John and I had planned for ages — two weeks in Paris, a week in the south of France, and two weeks in Venice. My older brother Dan urged me to take the trip. We had a plan in place and there wasn’t much I could do — and it seemed that he might go on until the New Year in any case. I went to Victoria, held his hand (though he didn’t know me at that point), helped my mum with some stuff, and then went to France. I called at regular intervals and by the time we were in Venice, it seemed that my father was truly dying. It was strange to try to figure out the time difference and the logistics of who would be where at a particular time of the day. Should we phone my mum? Or my brother Dan (who was in Victoria)? Or my daughter Angelica, who lived in Victoria and who was helping her grandmother? Should I fly back to Canada? They all said no. (Do I feel guilty about this? Oh yeah.)
In Mnemonic, I wrote this, in a section called “In Venice, a death”:
O the metaphysics of time: that I could stand at a phone kiosk on the Campo San Pantalon, calling my mother on a Saturday evening in November to reach her as she drank her morning coffee. “I won’t lie to you,” she told me. “He has a cough that the nurses say means he will probably die this weekend.” Her weekend was beginning was mine was half-finished.
I remember that time so vividly. I’d never been to Venice before though John had and it was so beyond what I’d ever imagined. People talk about the smell. In November there was no smell, beyond the drift of strong coffee from the little bars, the rich dense scent of history in every church or palace, the beautiful odour of gardens on Torcello as we walked from where we’d been let off by the vaporetto and then the dim smell of stone in Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (built in 639) and the 12 c. Santa Fosca where I lit a candle for my father (he was a very lapsed Catholic but candle wax is a powerful link to him and his religious paradoxes).
And when I called again, from the Campo San Pantalon, which was just opposite the little pension where we were staying, with its own glorious church, it was to discover that my father had died the night before. But what day? It was night for me, morning in Victoria, and they were talking about the previous night. I tried to grapple with my sense of time. What had I been doing? Where was I? Were the candles in time, or too late? Did the smoke mean anything in the cool November air on Torcello where cats prowled as we walked the path and where we stopped for a glass of prosecco for the pleasure of sitting at a small table and writing into our respective notebooks?
Time is again on my mind as I wait for the birth of my first grandchild, due any time now. I think of the baby’s father (my son) and how I was so impatient for his birth. I wrote a poem for him, which was printed on his birth announcement, and in it I confess to impatience:
Every day I vacuum and clean,
make sure your clothes are ready.
Please come. I wake in the morning
from dreams of you, I love you,
you are curled up back to my heart…
Today a note from the grandchild’s mother assured me she is comfortable and relaxed. So I tidied the linen shelves, sorted out what I wanted to keep and what I no longer needed (single sheets from the years when my children slept in bunk-beds or their own narrow pine-framed beds). I aired and refolded the sweet-smelling linen (sachets of lavender!) and organized the shelves for the next chapter of our lives.
How quickly those previous chapters have concluded themselves! My father five years gone, some of his ashes under a copper beech I planted in honour of his father’s birthplace: Bukovina, “place of beeches”. My mother who followed him, exactly a year later, and some of whose ashes have joined him there. I still see the tiny bone fragments when I water. My children gone out into the world, their pine beds given away, and now the old sheets tucked into a bag for the thrift store. And in the thread of time that is always now, we are waiting for the new child to join the family, a basket of blankets and quilts ready for its bed.
“I am no philosopher, he thought, fumbling for a cigarette, but if continuity is anything, it is in this. Bright pictures in the dark of the mind, each an echo of something, but still unique.”
The “he” in this passage is Claude Monet and it is nearly half-way through the day described so wonderfully in Light, a novella by the late Eva Figes. Monet has been up for hours, before dawn, “the dark just beginning to fade slightly, midnight blueblack growing grey and misty, through which he could make out the last light of a dying star.” He is in pursuit of light and the reader follows him, his extended family, the servants, and a lunch guest, as the light shifts and changes, highlights at one moment a willow, at another the opening bowls of water lilies in the pond he created for them.
The relationships in the novella are complicated. Monet and his wife Alice have children from previous marriages. Suzanne, one of Alice’s daughters, recently died and the two grandchildren are staying at Giverny, cared for by Marthe, an unmarried daughter. Another daughter has fallen in love with someone who Monet dismisses: “It’s absurd,” he said, “since the boy has neighter money nor prospects.” The widowed husband of Suzanne is contemplating marriage with Marthe. Monet’s son and step-son have their own agendas. The servants keep the house running during the intense heat of the day and the mercurial nature of the painter who must be placated and obeyed. All of this is both subordinate to the light but also illuminated momentarily by its changing qualities.
I’m so glad I found this novel (thanks to Sarah at Edge of Evening — http://edgeofevening.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/midsummers-eve/
So many things conspire in these pages to make a perfect narrative. The language, the canvas (Sarah calls it “circadian” and I think that’s perfect), the sense of a world about to change (it’s 1900; and even the Abbé Toussaint who arrives at the end of lunch says, “I believe the Church must come to terms with science, if it is to survive. To me the theory of evolution is the greatest miracle of all.”), a gardener kneeling on the path to plant out new seedlings and deadhead the old, and the stately passage of the sun across the sky from dawn to dusk make for an elegant and beautifully controlled story.
This morning I was musing at my desk when I realized I was seeing quite a lot of activity on the part of a robin darting in and out of a grapevine on a corner of the house beyond my window. Robins have nested in that particular elbow of vine in the past but not this year nor last. The nest I was delighted to see on the beam over the patio was robbed just after eggs had been laid. It was poignant to peek in after realizing the female robin hadn’t been near it for a few days and to see one empty shell and another on the ground directly below it. Ravens can’t get to this particular area so I wondered what might have eaten the eggs. This was before the weasel got into our house and raced around, up my bookshelves, and down the hall. So was it the weasel who ate the eggs?
Watching the robin take moss and mud to the nest area this morning, I also heard her mate singing loudly from the nearby arbutus tree. A last gasp at summer — for this is about as late as I’ve seen robins building nests. I thought of John Clare (1793-1864) walking the lanes of England, noticing the nests of every kind of bird in hedges, on the ground, nestled in the boughs of trees. “Birds Nests” was the last poem he wrote (and there she is again, while I type this, taking a beakful of lichen and moss to the vine):
Dead grass & mosses green an hermitage
For secresy & shelter rightly made
& beautiful it is to walk beside
The lanes & hedges where their homes abide
The nest isn’t finished yet.
When I went out to try to take a photograph, the female glided out to the birdbath where she made nervous sounds:
One year I was lucky enough to watch a robin shape her nest, using the wrist of one wing to smooth mud on the inside (there she is again!), and I thought how my own house has been shaped by my hands and by John’s. The rooms big enough for a family, small enough for dreaming, and even inspected by a weasel who raced from one end to the other, bright eyes taking everything in.
I’m going to go and fill the birdbath so she can cool off now that the sun is back. Her mate is singing again. I’m hoping for the best.
Each day, a new one —
— and also an old one, but in new colours:
Some mornings, looking out, I am at a loss for words to tell of how beautiful this world is — the flowers, the visitors, small and large:
I’m reading Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded right now, a novel set during the second World War, in Brighton, and it’s full of the heat of summer as well as Virginia Woolf — the main character is reading The Waves and even attends a lecture by Woolf. My own writing is at a standstill for reasons I am attempting to parse — the density of the materials I’m trying to bring together, my own unwillingness to go as deeply as I need to. I sit at my desk with a box of family papers and maps, photographs, messages written in languages I don’t understand. So I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf this morning and hoping for some inspiration from that most graceful of muses.
“In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.”
And there it is.