I didn’t know myself
They’ve left, beginning the long day’s journey back to Ottawa, with visits to a friend in Vancouver planned, and they’ll drop Angelica off at the seaplane so she can return to her life in Victoria. And already I miss them. Families are such complex archives — the haircolours, the gestures, the stories. And how lovely it was to have a week living in the rich density of that archive. Though it had its moments of confusion. We’d pulled out some boxes of photographs and documents from my parents’ house and there were a couple of envelopes of things I’d set aside to give to my brothers when next I see them. Their baby pictures, our parents’ wedding photographs, old report cards, the church announcement (St. Andrew’s, Victoria) of my brother Dan’s baptism June 24, 1951 (and the back of this is so interesting, with its advertisements for businesses long gone: The Posy Shop at 623 Fort Street, ph: G-5422; Crown Dress & Hat Shop Millinery, Dresses and Accessories 614 View Street; The Toggery Shop Men’s and Young Men’s Clothiers, Hatters and Furnishers “Quality Always Assured” at 1105 Douglas Street). I was doing something else and Angelica was looking at the stuff in Dan’s envelope, including a baby photograph of him, when I heard her call out, “This is you, Mum, not Dan. Look, here’s your birthmark!”
I was born with a dark birthmark the size of a dime on my wrist. It wasn’t raised, it never bothered me, not as a child or a young adult — although there were times in my adolescence when I was embarrassed by it (as I was with my surname until I was about 18), it was part of me and I thought it would stay with me my entire life. Then we spent a winter in Utah and I met a plastic surgeon at a dinner party and he urged me to have it removed. He would remove it, he said, for no charge. (He was Robert Redford’s dermatologist and spent a lot of time making the beautiful people even more beautiful. None of them wanted marks or blemishes or tags of skin.) But I didn’t want to have it removed. He insisted I take him seriously; he said I was at risk for skin cancer and that I should reconsider; so when we returned home that spring, I arranged with my doctor to have it dealt with. I miss it. I have a strange little scar on my wrist now instead of my friendly dark circle that somehow reassured me as a small child. It was my own special mark.
Before this, I didn’t have many images of myself as an infant. Cameras and film were expensive and in the early years of their marriage and young parenthood, my parents took pictures sparingly. This looks like a portrait — it’s been coloured in that old-fashioned way. John remarked that I should have known it was me because my feet haven’t really changed. And there are those sturdy calves, also unchanged. In fact, among my three brothers, Dan and I share a body type — our father’s.
It’s very fitting to have one’s children and grandchildren visit in January. A month named for Janus, the Roman god of doorways, of beginnings, usually represented with two heads, one to look back and one to look forward; often one face is bearded and the other clean-shaven. I always think of the month itself (the month of my birth) as a jani, or ceremonial gateway, an opening. I was surprised at how I felt to see that 60-year old photograph of my infant self, birthmark intact, and how appropriate it seems to have it now to look at and think about, as the month progresses. It’s a kind of vertigo, a whoosh of apprehension of both time and its obstacles, but also its possibilities. To look back, with gratitude (that I was born, I was loved, I was part of a family) and also regret (the loss of that birthmark!); and to welcome the gateway into the unknown (the garden yet unplanted, the future children unborn). To remember the old businesses of Victoria, the infancy of my brothers, and to look into the deep future as easily as the deep past.
O, the tree, growing from the sidewalk—
It has a little life, sprouting
Little green buds
Into the culture of the streets.
We look back
Three hundred years and see bare land.
And suffer vertigo.
— George Oppen, from “The Building of the Skyscraper”