Yesterday I was digging a bed in the garden, the one called Long Eye, laced under the surface with the roots of an extremely coarse grass. Where did it come from? Maybe in horse manure spread years ago. I was using the garden fork and then tracing the roots as far into the soil as I could, thinking about other things as I did so. I’ve always loved my garden. I remember using a pick to break up the rough soil about 35 years ago, one small area at a time, and then planting onions, some peas, lettuce. When the children were asleep, I’d go out in my nightdress to make sure that slugs weren’t feeding on the tiny seedlings. In those years John worked in North Vancouver and he’d be away for 3 or 4 days at a time. I didn’t know anyone here yet so my days were filled with children, simple meals, reading at bedtime because we didn’t have television, and would I have watched it anyway? Probably not. A confession: I don’t know how to turn ours on. It’s complicated. We have a satellite dish and there are several remote controls. I’d never watch on my own but some evenings there’s something special, the Ken Burns Country Music documentary being a good example. My friend Jillian Ridington asked me in the fall if I was watching it and I hadn’t realized it was on. But then the series began again this winter and we’ve tuned in most weeks. As Jillian said, there was a time when no one made distinctions about music. It was good or it wasn’t. When I listened to Hank Williams sing, it was eternal:
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry…
In the garden, I remembered the days I would check the plants in my nightdress, bats flying low over the grass, and I’d listen for my children. We didn’t have baby monitors. But the windows were open. I slept to the sound of loons and owls. They did too. They were imprinted by this life, I hope, and in turn they left their own imprints. I find those impressions in surprising places. Our initials on the footings of our house, drawn in damp concrete. A faint ghost of a girl on the climbing frame or halfway up a tree down the driveway. The names they gave to landmarks. Last summer, calling the Forest Service to report smoke on the other side of Sakinaw Lake, I had to check myself when the man asked me for a specific location. I almost said, Well, directly to the SW of Grass Lake Mountain, because that’s the name Brendan and Forrest gave to the hump we see from our dining area, the hill the sun falls behind in spring, the hill Venus hangs directly above in February.
Today someone I’ve known slightly for years asked me about my children. What was Forrest doing in Ottawa, he wondered. Well, he’s a historian, I replied. He looked puzzled. He can make a living at that? His actual employment is with Library and Archives Canada, I explained, but I knew I’d lost him completely. And Brendan? That was easier. Sort of. (The man remembered he was a pretty hot point guard on the school basketball team.) He’s a university professor. He teaches math. There’s more to it but I didn’t elaborate. His daughter knows Angelica and so maybe he knows she works at a museum. (She’s a registrar.) All of these callings have their roots here, I think. Brendan explaining negative numbers to my father as they walked down the driveway before Brendan was in school made us realize that pattern and numeracy were part of his natural language if not yet his vocabulary. And Forrest (memorably) dressed as a Father of Confederation for Halloween when he was 6. We didn’t have television in those years but we had books and we visited museums. Angelica came to her present work indirectly, I think. She did a degree—well, two degrees— in Greek and Roman Studies and worked part-time at a Heritage site. That work led to training in conservation methods and that (eventually) led to her present job.
In those early years, I couldn’t have imagined where they would find themselves as adults. I wanted them to have happy lives and it seems they do. When I work outside, I listen for them still. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but I do hear them. We have a little ring of stones we make a fire within on summer evenings. On winter evenings too, if that’s when they’re here. We wave the smoke from our eyes and talk. The grandchildren roast marshmallows on the long forks we bought at the Denman Island ferry dock many years ago. I think about it all. John and I are writing a book together, a shared account of building our house, and part of what I’m doing is going through old daybooks to find out what happened and when. A daybook offers too little information about feelings and sleep deprivation and being overwhelmed by the sheer number of things that had to be done in a day. A week. But it tells me that we paid the guy who made our driveway on a particular day and that the lumber yard was sending a truck with a sling of north species 2x4s on another day. And that the well-drillers were coming up during a week in the winter of 1982.
There was a memo-to-self to buy a bank draft to pay for William Morris honeysuckle cotton for bedroom curtains in 1983. An acceptance to an MFA program for me, something I started but never finished because by my second year I had two children under 3 and had no time to travel into Vancouver for seminars. No time to write. Sometimes I despaired about that but deep down I knew that one day I would have time and I would make the most of it. In the years when John worked in North Vancouver and I was here with my little boys (because by the time Angelica was born, he was able to move most of his teaching to Sechelt), I remember the darkness of winter and then the beautiful deep blue evenings of late February, the ones we’re approaching now, the same scribble of jet trails across the western sky like a message just for me.