“I’m remembering everything backward”

This time last week we were returning from Alberta, a trip taken in part to visit Brendan, Cristen, and granddaughter Kelly, and in part to travel to the Badlands in search of ancient Kishkans. We were last in Drumheller in 1987. It was the summer Angelica was two and we went to visit the Royal Tyrell Museum so her brothers could feast their eyes on bones and reconstructions. We camped. Angelica had a tantrum in the foyer of the Museum, in full view of everyone leaving the wonderful presentation for families and children. Forrest and Brendan imagined, I think, that one could simply walk trails and find fossils and they were disappointed to learn that such things weren’t possible. (A little how I felt when I found out one couldn’t wander the Burgess Shale in a casual way.) When we’d planned the trip to Drumheller, I might have thought there would be an opportunity to find something of my family’s origins there, as new immigrants to Canada. My father was still alive and I remember asking him where the family homestead was located. Is it just hindsight, knowing what I know now about that “homestead”, or was he cagey about it? But actually there, I realized I would have to know more in order to find what I thought I was looking for. I thought there would be an opportunity to ask my father detailed questions and I thought he might be willing to answer them.

What I gathered, from stories, tattered paper, one online record from the Alberta Homesteads 1870-1930 database listing my grandmother’s first husband and a legal description of a plot, a few old photographs, like this one, my father as a three-year old (it’s written on the back) in the yard of the “old house”,

dad in drumheller

anyway, what I gathered was that there was a homestead. I thought my grandmother would have inherited it after her first husband’s death in 1918. My father talked about a “farm”, chickens, a cow whose milk my grandmother turned into butter to sell during the hard days of the early 1930s.

Instead, I learned, in the Provincial Archives of Alberta, reading documents on microfilm, that my grandmother’s first husband was part of a settlement of squatters. A settlement of desperately poor people living on School Lands near the townsite of Drumheller in 1914 on. There’s a long paper trail (on microfilm, that is) of these people applying to have the land subdivided so that they might be able to buy the small plots they’d built houses on. The letters from Ottawa are stern, and understandably so, I suppose. (No one wanted to condone the settlement because, well, what if everyone did it?) The houses are detailed in one letter, with values determined. My grandmother’s husband’s dwelling is described as “a shack, 20 x 25, with a garden 80 x 125; value $150.00)”. Some of the dwellings are dugouts, with canvas roofs. Some are covered with tarpaper. Someone has a stable (value: $15.00) I don’t quite understand how the whole situation was resolved — many of the documents were hard to read and I ran out of time in 1918 when it seemed that an offer was about to be made to the squatters to allow them to buy their plots. By October, my grandmother’s husband was dead, in the Spanish flu epidemic and she was a widow with 9 children. One died a few months later.

I don’t know if this was the land my father grew up on. His mother married again and there was a child born in 1921. This is her funeral, with a note on the photograph indicating again, “the old house”.

julia's funeral

I think it might be called the old house because apparently there was a fire and a house was lost. This one? I don’t know. And was the second one built on the same land, the one that housed the new marriage, two more children, with one dying, the tiny girl in the coffin above, now buried with her half-sister in the Drumheller Cemetery, but we know, or at least I know, that the dead take up as much space in a house as the living do.

It’s a strange experience to be pursuing the sad origins of my father’s family at the same time that my immediate family is growing and flourishing. In Edmonton, I saw the ultrasound of the baby who will be born in August. (The same grey scale film as these photographs, oddly enough.) I saw the baby’s hand, the baby’s face. And last year, in late February, as John and I were in Amsterdam to attend a wedding, a call came to our hotel from Forrest and Manon to tell us that they were expecting a baby. Moments later, an ultrasound of that baby — beautiful Arthur — arrived on my small Samsung tablet. And all of these are held in my mind and heart, these grey approximations of the lives I cherish, even the ones so far away in time that I will never know exactly where the boy who rode that little car lived, or where the family gathered in front of a weathered house dispersed to after the funeral.

I’m reading Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe right now, a strangely compelling novel. It took some getting used to — the prose is anything but brisk and lively — but the main character, a writer in his seventies, is reliving the early years of his life. There’s a poem in the novel which functions as a sort of mantra — the first two lines were written by the character’s mother and finished by him. He realizes that it tells the story of that relationship and it also sums up so much of what he is thinking about at the late stages of his career and his life.

You didn’t get Kogii ready to go up into the forest

And like the river current, you won’t return home.

In Tokyo during the dry season

I’m remembering everything backward,

From old age to earliest childhood.

Last night, after dinner, we walked a route that brings us home through the woods. I was thinking and remembering so many things on the walk. How the maples are blooming earlier than usual and what was that song I was hearing (a warbler?) and how many times did Angelica and I collect tadpoles in the pond we pass on the walk and the last time my father did this walk with us, he could barely walk back. I keep thinking that if I just pay attention, it will all become clear to me, the old house, how close it was to the Red Deer River, who slept where in its small dimensions, and how to find my own way to it, dreaming or awake.

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