on heaven’s door

When we drove into the Waterton Lakes park, we were listening to Dylan. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” A song kind of melodramatic and full of guns but still somehow poignant. If you can listen to a whole song for a single line, a refrain, this is the one.

There were so many moments when I felt I was at that door. Early morning, walking along Pass Creek (this is one of its names and for obvious reasons, it’s the one I’ll use), through the red rock chasm, glacier lilies in profuse blooms on the slope. Driving the bison paddock where male bison were in the wallows and the females were settled along the edges of a small  lake, their young stilty-legged beside them. And mountain bluebirds on fenceposts—


Last night we had a drink at the bar in the Prince of Wales Hotel. We didn’t stay there but I thought I’d like to ascend its long driveway and have a glass of something sparkling as the light faded. The view of the lake in its bowl of mountain was sublime. When we wandered out into the lobby afterwards — a huge baronial hall, actually — John saw the dining room and decided we should have breakfast there this morning on our way to Pincher Creek, then west on the Crows Nest highway. We were the only ones there for the first while, eating our eggs Benedict (well, mine were Florentine) at a table overlooking that serene view, watching three bighorn sheep come towards the tall windows, stop just in time, then settle on the grass in front of us.

breakfast companions

Now in Creston where we just ate delicious Indian food and drank some local Baillie-Grohman wine, a 2016 Récolte Blanche, lovely with the spicy lamb and paneer. Tomorrow we drive west towards home, through the Boundary country where my grandfather worked in 1911 at Phoenix and where I always feel my heart widen in those open spaces between Grand Forks and Osoyoos.  If we’re lucky, there will be bluebirds near Princeton and we’ll watch for the beautiful St. Ann’s church near Hedley. If heaven’s door opened, I know what I hope to see.

postcard from Waterton Lakes

Plains bison with calves, black bears with cubs, a herd of bighorn sheep, a single mountain goat on the Cameron Lake road, bluebirds, two cranes flying above the meadows, deer, the sound of water, the snowy peaks, scent of poplar, mayflies over Emerald Bay, magpies in every tree, sticky geranium, larkspur, arrow-leaf balsam root, low soft blue lupines (I didn’t bring a plant book so can’t be specific), fescues and death camas and glacier lilies at Red Rock Canyon. Dear ones, how I wish you were here.

mum and child

moosehorned cedars circled his swamps and tossed
their antlers up to the stars
then he knew though the mountain slept the winds
were shaping its peak to an arrowhead

And now he could only
bar himself in and wait
for the great flint to come singing into his heart

—from “Bushed” by Earle Birney

the scent of poplars

He invented a rainbow but lightning struck it
shattered it into the lake-lap of a mountain
so big his mind slowed when he looked at it

—from “Bushed”, by Earle Birney

We are making our way home the slow route, via Waterton Lakes and then along the Crows Nest highway. We just walked around the village of Waterton after a long drive down from Edmonton and even more refreshing than the sight of the mountains all around and the cool lake across the road from our digs is the scent of poplars. So greeny and sweet. I must’ve camped here as a child—my parents often talked of the park and I remember them camping here in their old age, in the years when they were revisiting all their favourite places. So the scent of the trees is familiar and almost a palimpsest.

My father would have loved the a bighorn sheep grazing on someone’s grass. And later, we saw a whole herd of sheep on a lawn as we walked out to dinner (fabulous Alberta beef with potato and leek gnocchi, followed by Saskatoon berry pie, made by Hutterite women). Also a rainbow arcing over Vimy Mountain. And magpies, brown-headed cowbirds, deer idly browsing on poplars. But the internet connection, as promised, is weak, so I can’t post pictures. They sound like every postcard you’ve ever seen of mountain towns, though, don’t they?

among schoolchildren

in school
two schoolchildren, one with a black eye.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? —William Butler Yeats (of course)

Here in Edmonton I am caught in a wrinkle of time. Every day I walk over to spend time with my grandchildren, the two that live here and, until yesterday, the one visiting from Ottawa. This neighbourhood, Strathcona, isn’t one my family lived in. When my grandparents moved to the area from Drumheller, in the late 1930s or early 1940s, they moved to Beverly. I’ve written in previous posts about the bill of sale from the Prins family for a small house my grandfather relocated to a piece of property in Beverly; and I have a file of bills and receipts for materials that indicate my grandfather also built a house on the property. I remember sleeping in a small house with a tin roof, separate from the main house, and how my brothers and I raced to the other house during a hail storm where we found my parents and my grandparents drinking coffee and talking.

The other day, some of us drove out to the Ukrainian Cultural Village Museum. I’d been before but wanted Forrest in particular (a historian who works in a museum) to see the churches, the train station, the Bukovyna house that must be something like the one my grandfather lived in before he came to North America. The grandbabies loved the chickens and pigs and spent a lot of time picking dandelions while Forrest, Manon, Cristen, and I tried to see as much of the historical material as possible. I think there’s something missing at the site (thank you, Myrna Kostash…)—from my explorations in Drumheller last year, I know that the Ukrainians in Canada were involved in the labour movement, and yet there’s not a whiff of any of that history at the Cultural Village Museum. My grandfather was a coal miner and so was my grandmother’s first husband, as was her brother. But still we had moments in the Museum, walking to and from the churches, watching a man scatter seed for the hens, hearing the price of cream (with and without freight charges) at the train station, where I had some insights into the lives of my grandparents in those early days in this province. And when we went to the Russia school (so-called because of transcription slips between the Cyrillic and the Latin alphabet), two of my grandchildren sat at a desk to scribble on slates and I remembered something my father once told me about his mother. It’s included in one of the essays in my forthcoming collection of essays.

Your parents barely spoke English. You said your mother attended school with you when you were six so she could learn to write, her large body somehow fitting into the chairs in a primary classroom. Of course this brings me to tears. Your parents were struggling to make a living so you were raised mostly by your grown half-sisters. They adored you, gave you every attention, and made you into one of those boys convinced of their superior authority. —from “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”, forthcoming in Euclid’s Orchard, September 2017.

the Passable Builders at work

One plan for our time in Edmonton, if weather and time conspired congenially, was to help Brendan and Cristen replace a rotting porch at the back of their house in Strathcona and to build a new free-standing deck under the leafy maples in one corner of their back yard. It’s the place where outdoor tables go for summer meals and so plans have passed back and forth between John and Brendan for a few months. Best size? Lumber dimensions? John loves a project like this. It’s been a long time since two neophytes (poets!) built a house on the Sechelt peninsula and though many projects have arisen since then—adding rooms to accommodate a growing family; replacing the original decks —I have to say that my husband loves construction. I told him once that I thought humans had vestigial building knowledge in their hands and when the need arose to call on that knowledge, it would be there. (I know you’re rolling your eyes!)

Forrest, Manon, and Arthur planned to spend a week in Edmonton too. Five of our days overlapped with theirs. (I just took them to the airport.) All week John and his sons measured wood, hammered joists, screwed down long lengths of lumber for the decking. They joked that they were the Passable Builders (their surname being Pass). This morning, after breakfast, I asked them to sit on the porch (which may or may not see railings and perhaps a bench or two):

passable builders, with foreman

The old porch is waiting to have its nails removed:

old porch.JPG

And here’s the deck where we’ll eat our dinner tonight (the remaining two Passable builders are out buying the last two pieces of lumber to finish it as well as stair materials):

deck under maple

While details were being weighed and pondered (“Measure twice, cut once.”), I looked over to see how weeds thrive in sunlight:

weed thrive in sunlight


a few more hours

The hours pass. The days. I spend time with my sons and their families and I work on the copyedits of my forthcoming book (Euclid’s Orchard) in the quiet hours in between. I hear cars on 99th Street and magpies in the trees right outside the window. The hours pass. A soccer practice—

in the moment

Time at the splash park—

cooling off

And lots of time for reading—


I respond to the copyeditor’s queries about commas and the use of italic and my mind is both in this collection of essays (which is itself rooted in my family’s history in this province, among others) and in the lives of these beautiful children.

What I took home: the memory of all of them laughing, baby Kelly crawling on the grass, the sound of glasses clinking, the excitement of waking in the morning with the knowledge that I could be among them for another two days, another day, a few more hours. A few more hours. (from “Ballast”)

“it will all become clear to me”

Yesterday we left the Word on the Lake Festival in Salmon Arm after two intense days of workshops, conversations, much merriment, some interesting connections and reconnections. Myrna Kostash, for instance, read from a work-in-progress about her Ukrainian grandparents and old photographs and the urgency she felt to find out and record what she could of their lives. It was beautiful work. We talked afterwards about the stories we never heard as children but how we feel compelled to tell them now, though they’re in tatters and fragments.

John and I drove to Canmore for a night and then along Highway 1 to Cochrane, taking quieter highways until Olds and the journey north to Edmonton where our sons were gathered with their wives and children, ready for a building project that will happen this week. John’s family drove often from Calgary to the mountains in the years after their arrival in Canada from England in 1953. The road was windy and slow. It’s a route I took also as a child, though in the opposite direction, with my parents and brothers, traveling from Vancouver Island to my father’s parents who lived by then in Beverly and a little later to Edmonton itself after my grandfather’s death when my grandmother went to live with one or another of her daughters. My father would drive us to Drumheller to try to make peace with his earlier life there and there was so much he didn’t say, didn’t tell us, though the past hovered in the air as light and as fierce as mosquitoes. Once we stayed in the Rosedale Hotel and my mother made us sleep on top of the beds on our sleeping bags because the sheets were stiff with dirt. This wasn’t the Rosedeer Hotel in nearby Wayne, a little gem where John and I stayed for a night in the honeymoon suite last April and woke to frost on our window and the sound of magpies. For ages I didn’t think much about those earlier years but now it seems I am haunted by them and the decades that preceded them, when I was not yet born or even imagined.

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 within its small dimensions, and how to find my own way to it, dreaming or awake. The place on the bridge where my father fished, his line taut in the current, his eyes green as the water. Dragonflies stung the surface of the river, wings like nets. — from “West of the 4th Meridian: a Libretto for Migrating Voices”, part of Euclid’s Orchard, forthcoming in September 2017.

I looked over from my dinner under the maples in Brendan and Cristen’s backyard to see my older son Forrest playing with his niece Kelly and her cousin (Forrest and Manon’s son Arthur).

Forrest, Kelly, and Arthur

The lumber behind them will become a porch and a deck this week, if all hands are willing. And we will eat our dinners under the trees while overhead the magpies in the nest Manon and Arthur spotted yesterday in a big spruce make their sociable chatter. We don’t know how many there are but maybe by the end of the week we’ll see more of them.

Long walks through the ravine where we went today to see frogs (who remained hidden) in a tiny pond surrounded by lily-of-the-valley. Stories — I read five bedtime stories to Kelly (Arthur had already gone to bed at the little apartment his parents are staying in for the week) and looked over to see Brendan reading to Henry:

brendan and henry

These are the days, the nests, the babies and young children, the meals under leafy shade, and an urgency to record it also. To keep it all alive.

“the long roots of her mother’s mint”

great grandmother's mint

First thing tomorrow, we’re heading off into the wild blue yonder. First stop: Word on the Lake in Salmon Arm for a weekend of readings, workshops, and editorial sessions with aspiring writers. From there, to Edmonton where most of our tribe (we’ll miss Angelica!) is gathering for a week-long building project at Brendan and Cristen’s house. The lumber’s been delivered, the sand for settling foundations, John has filled the trunk of our car with tools (because most mathematicians don’t have power saws, assorted levels, a plumb-bob, crow-bars for prying an old porch off the side of a house, and various other implements collected and used in the long process of building a home here on the Sechelt peninsula). Forrest, Manon, and Arthur are coming from Ottawa so it will be a week of animated conversation, many bottles of wine (we’re bringing some of those too), and, for some, mojitos. I think of cocktails as Mother’s Ruin (it doesn’t take much) so won’t partake* but my contribution will be 2 pots of mint. As I’ve weeded this spring, I’ve kept the volunteer mint to take to Edmonton. Some of it already travelled to Ottawa and is part of a garden there where a small boy will be told one day, “Your grandma brought this and guess where it came from originally?” John’s mother used to visit and in the trunk (or boot, as she called it) would be many cuttings and roots of plants from her garden. I’ve written about this in “Ballast”, one of the essays in Euclid’s Orchard.

She carried rooted shoots of the original family wisteria in turn from her mother’s garden in Suffolk, wrapped in damp paper in her suitcase after one of her annual summer visits to her mum. Have you anything to declare, I imagine her being asked, and like me (who carries acorns and interesting cones and seeds from everywhere I visit), she took a deep breath, keeping inside every important reason for children to continue their parents’ gardens, and said no. In her suitcase, the long roots of her mother’s mint, the perennial geraniums.

And it will be a week of little trips too to places that speak to me — to us — of our family connections. Two springs ago, John, Brendan, baby Kelly, and I drove out to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, east of Edmonton. I don’t know many details about my grandfather’s life in Bukovyna but somehow seeing the Nazar Yurko house gave me some insights into the domestic culture of his village (Ivankivtsi).


We’re planning to drive out the open-air museum again this trip, with all the grandchildren strapped into their car-seats. They’ll see the house with its adjacent garden, where I remember drifts of ferny dill that the young woman weeding told me self-sowed everywhere. (I wanted to lift a little clump and tuck it into my pack. Maybe this time I’ll be bolder.) They’ll see the church

church at Ukrainian Village Museum

and I’ll show them a photograph of the church in their great-great-grandfather’s village and they might hear the echoes that I hear when I enter these buildings.

church in my grandfather's village

And then their fathers can muddle the mint that came from their great-great-grandmother’s English garden (via their great-grandmother, and then their grandmother) and make a jug of mojitos. So the world is remembered, mint and rum and the bells of old churches.

*I mean cocktails, not wine. I’ll drink more than my share of the Wild Goose Pinot Gris but mixed drinks catch up on me sooner than I’d care to admit.

for my mum, Shirley MacDonald Kishkan, 1926-2010


From “Tokens”, an essay included in Euclid’s Orchard, forthcoming from Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

What do I do with a bottle of fifty-year-old perfume? I am 57 myself. It’s not something I’d wear. I discovered Chanel 19 in 1972 and never have found any reason to change. I don’t even know if this bottle is still viable. Does perfume turn to vinegar, as an opened bottle wine will if not used within a reasonable time? When I sniff the bottle cap, I say that I smell my mother but how can that be? She wore perfume so seldom — ¼ of a bottle over 48 years. Maybe she knew she would never have another bottle of French perfume, maybe she wanted to ration it to keep the memory of my father’s return fresh. What I am smelling is the way I would like to remember her, in a rustling cocktail dress one or two evenings only, her feet wiggling into pretty shoes, checking her seams in the bedroom mirror, her eyes bright with anticipation of dancing! Not the old disappointments, a daughter who didn’t visit often enough, the house sold, her husband dead, the days growing shorter and shorter as the year approached the longest night, the bottle of French perfume forgotten in the camphorwood chest, among the gloves and her one cashmere sweater, an old silk square from Zanzibar folded neatly on the bottom.

the day after

The older I get, the more stressful it is to watch the election returns on the CBC news. Last night was a cliff-hanger and I kept leaving the room, returning, pouring a glass of wine, reading more of Alissa York’s gorgeous The Naturalist, listening for the magic number 44 and wondering if the NDP might actually get there. I confess I’m a social democrat from way back. The NDP isn’t perfect but the party is the one closest to my own hopes and aspirations for the place I’ve called home for most of my life. I’d like to think the Greens might improve on their social policy — it’s a little conservative at this point and their leader Andrew Weaver is a little elitist. A little too grumpy about unions. I hope he’ll evolve. But anyway, no clear winner last night, though the Liberals are in a minority government position right now. The advanced poll votes and absentee votes are still to be counted and I guess it will be a couple of weeks before we know whether to cheer or weep. I think it would be unconscionable for the Greens to form a coalition with the Liberals (who aren’t really Liberal at all) or to support them in any way whatsoever. But stranger things have happened and B.C. has a history of wild politics.

As I moved nervously back and forth in the house, I looked out to see these two grazing on the new spring grass.

evening visitors.jpg

And at bedtime, when we should have known how the future of the province would be unfolding but instead kept seeing those two numbers, 42 and 42, balanced in an unsettling way on the television screen, I felt like the mother of this pair. Don’t mess with me. Anything could happen.

spring grass.jpg