Note: this was written 6 years ago, after a trip from Edmonton to Drumheller. I was writing about the difficulty of family history then and in my forthcoming book, Blue Portugal, I write about it again.
When you visit a place where a difficult parent was young, you find yourself looking for them — at them — in a different way. My father was melancholic. He was given to gloomy prognostications about the world, himself, us, and maybe even life itself. He was born in Drumheller, a place we traveled to as children a time or two, to visit relations mostly, and I seem to remember a visit to the cemetery to stand back while my father paid homage (if that is the word) to two sisters buried under a single stone along one edge of the cemetery. In the complicated and slightly tangled kinship chart that was his family, one of the sisters was born to his mother and her first husband. That child died in infancy, of diphtheria, seven years before my father was born. Between her birth and death, there was also the death of my grandmother’s first husband, of Spanish flu, and someone whom I think might have been my grandmother’s brother. (I am trying to figure out dates, places of birth, etc.) My grandmother, a widow with eight children, remarried a year or two later and had a baby daughter with her new husband (my grandfather). That baby died at the age of three, also from diphtheria. Then there was my father. He was much younger than his half-siblings –whom he never considered halves. They were his brothers and sisters and in his father’s obituary, in 1959, they were listed as his sons and daughters. At some point in his childhood, my father left Drumheller to live with a sister in Beverly. My grandparents stayed in Drumheller for a few more years. My grandfather was a coal-miner, though at which of the valley’s fabled mines, I have yet to find out. The other morning, standing on the Rosedale side of the Red Deer River, looking at the suspension bridge swinging slightly in the wind, the bridge built by the Great West Coal Company in 1931 to take men to their mining operation, I wondered if it might have been that one. (“Warning: The coal in the slag heaps has been smouldering for years. DO NOT approach smoking coal or climb slag heaps. A thin black crust may hide coal or burned out caverns underneath.”)
So when you visit a place where a difficult parent was young, and you see the bridges, the bare hills, the low buildings crouched out of the wind, the taverns “under new management”, and the remnants of hard small farms, you begin to know that parent in a different way. This country is called the Badlands, defined by the Canadian Encyclopedia this way:
Barren, scoured and eroded by water and etched by weathering and wind-driven sand and rain, badlands are dramatic landforms that develop an intricate network of deeply incised, narrow, winding gullies and occasional fantastically shaped HOODOO ROCKS.
Steep, often precipitous and densely rilled slopes almost devoid of vegetation are striking evidence of the forces of EROSION. To European settlers, such areas were clearly worthless. Perhaps the term badlands is derived from the French terres mauvais à traverser, meaning “land hard to cross,” as the French were among the earliest explorers in the interior of western North America.
I wish my father was still alive so I could ask him questions. There are so many. Was the man who lived in the next lot, the one with your grandmother’s maiden surname, was he her brother? Did you swim in the river? Did you see bluebirds? (We saw a courting pair in the hills above the Last Chance Saloon.) How often did your mother visit her daughters under the grass in the Drumheller Cemetery? Did you ride your bike as far as Wayne, as far as East Coulee, as far as Carbon? Was St. Anthony’s church the one where you were an altar boy? Were you allowed to swing on the suspension bridge while coal smouldered in the distance? Is your mother’s first husband one of those buried in the common grave for Spanish flu victims (though he isn’t named on the plaque)? I wonder what one I’d begin with?
There are days when I know I’ll remember standing on the bridge over the Rosebud River, just after 7 a.m., watching magpies in the willows along the edge, with the sun already warm on those bare slopes. Dad, it’s a bridge I wish I could stand on with you.