What are years, that they accumulate, that you hardly notice them, and then you do. I wrote about time yesterday and this morning I had the feeling that I was forgetting something. Something important. I looked in my datebook: no appointments. And then I remembered. 9 years ago today my mother died. 10 years ago yesterday my father died. (A sad synchronicity.) My father was difficult and I’ve written about him in “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”, an essay in Euclid’s Orchard. My mother wasn’t so difficult. I’ve written about her too, in “Tokens”. If you’ve read “Tokens”, you will know something of her story: that she was born to an unwed mother on Cape Breton Island in 1926, that she was given up at birth, raised in a foster home. She’d grown up knowing her biological father’s surname; it was the one she was given at birth. But she was kind of ambivalent about finding out about her biological parents. I think I understand that but I wanted to do some sleuthing after she died, and I did, and for years, I followed clues with no success. Then I did Ancestry’s DNA test and voila, I found her father. Well, I figured out who provided the sperm. He was in no way a father to her. In truth, I believe he was already engaged to the woman he married, a very accomplished doctor who became the chancellor of a large university. They had children who were my mother’s half-brothers, though she never knew this. I haven’t been able to figure out who my mother’s mother was. She is not even a footnote in the life of the man who impregnated her.
My favourite photograph of my mum shows her in all her beauty on Gonzales Beach with my older brother, her first-born. She and my father and my brother lived in a small cottage above the beach, now long-gone. She loved water, she loved the sun, and it must have been heaven in summer to walk down the stairs to the beach. In later years, when we lived on Eberts Street, she would walk with us to Gonzales Beach (because the whole waterfront along Dallas Road was contaminated with raw sewage; this would be the early 1960s), with a picnic, and we would swim and build sand castles. Did she remember the earlier house, the earlier walks to the shore, when she sat in the sand with her infant son, not knowing what the years would bring? Do any of us ever know?
Under Cape Breton’s rocky soil, under the parks in Halifax with their views of the sea, the sound of gulls, of commerce, of pianos and fiddles from open windows, under the earth the buried creeks hide their secrets. And you can hear something, a murmuring, a rill of original water, of origins, of fish in their lost habitats, eels, amphibians entering their dark waters,and in memory, birds at the vanished banks, their beaks poised, and secrets, secrets, my mother’s buried history in the damp ground where water longs for the sky.
I expected to find her parents, expected to solve the mystery of her birth, and instead I’m left with questions. Different ones than the ones I began with, and maybe unanswerable, but I understand some things more completely now. Her capacity for love, her generosity, her lack of self-regard, which made my own seem like vanity. I remember visiting the Foundling Museum in London and realizing how stories like hers still draw us to their mysteries.
At the Foundling Museum, a spyglass, a hairpin, the handle of a penknife. Padlocks, a tiny black hand pierced with a hole for a ribbon, a handful of coins, pierced, notched, worn thin by thumbs stroking, stroking, stored in the archives. I have My Sin, a tweed coat, a memory of Mrs.Nobody on her chair in the kitchen. I have a hole on my sleeve the shape of a heart but no scrap to match it with and the sound of a creek running underground on its way to the sea,with everything of my mother in it, and nothing. I have every regret for the way her life began, and ended, a motherless child, so far, so far from her home, no one looking for her in the listservs, among the dry records of Vital Statistics, no one, no one but me, my face against the glass case of all those unclaimed tokens, those stories begun perhaps in love and ending in sorrow.