Where did the past go?

piano rolls

Lately I’ve been wishing I had certain people to talk to again. There are conversations I miss. The writer Edith Iglauer was one of the first people I got to know when we first moved to the Coast. We had a small writing group. Edith, Howard White, Bryan Carson, Frank White, John, and me. I remember the first gathering we had, at our house (because I had 2 children then, soon to be 3, and there were no local babysitters), and how Edith brought the opening passage of what became her book, Fishing With John. Mr. Shawn wanted her to work on the first two sentences a bit. She wanted it to be perfect, though in truth I’d almost never heard a better piece of writing:

Each year, from spring through fall, a number of small vessels with tall poles stretched out on either side appear, like large birds, on the coastal waters of British Columbia. They seem to sit motionless on the surface, but they are moving gently at a speed of around two knots. They are trollers–with a lacework of lines and hooks hanging into the sea from their poles–searching for salmon.

In those years I was writing almost nothing because I had the children and John taught most of his classes in North Vancouver. There wasn’t time to sit at my desk and think. But I hoped I’d return to writing and Edith was so encouraging. She offered me the corner of the machine shed she’d turned into a writing space when her late husband John Daly was alive. He’d be on his side and she’d be near him but doing her own work. I was grateful for the offer though in truth it wasn’t space I needed but time. And eventually I had that. I have it still and never lose the sense that I am lucky.

For some reason I’ve wanted to talk to Edith lately. To sit with her as I did in the nook that was her dining area, looking out into Garden Bay, or at my table, with some papers spread out, her current work or mine, and to talk about writing. Which usually turned fairly quickly to talk of food, local issues (we were both involved with a ratepayers’ group, taking on one thing after another), children, and a hundred other things. But if I needed advice, she was very happy to offer it.

Last week I couldn’t sleep and came downstairs to find a book to read. I took The Strangers Next Door from the shelf in my study and went back to bed, turning on my small reading lamp, and there was Edith’s voice again. She was talking about Pierre Trudeau, whom she’d profiled for the New Yorker, and she was up in the North, attending a meeting with Don Snowden, who was kind of a hero to her, and she was on the Bella Coola hill with Tom Gee,

…his elbows on the wheel, steering with them while he lit a cigarette. It was a horrifying sight. “You’d be surprised at the number of people who come in and don’t drive out again,” he said casually. “They put their cars on a barge instead and fly home. The road was just a goat trail when I came over it in 1956, and pretty tough here in the beginning; not the way it is now, with lots of turnbacks and turnarounds. Hello there!” he exclaimed, as a boulder hit the truck and rolled over the embankment.

I remember having tea with her after John and I had driven to Bella Coola and back with our children and we laughed about the hill. She’d gone to Bella Coola with John Daly by boat with the idea of relocating but after her one trip up the hill, she told John, “If you move to Bella Coola, I’ll come and visit you. Maybe.” (My thoughts exactly.) A lovely place but the road and the grizzlies were just enough to make me feel out of my comfort zone. Her too.

Over two nights, I read The Strangers Next Door and when I’d finished, I missed her more than ever. I missed her enthusiasm, her single-minded focus when something interested or troubled her (politics for example), her generosity. Her profiles of Bill Reid, Hubert Evans, Arthur Erickson, and Trudeau the Elder: I wonder if they felt she was giving them as much as they were giving her? When my son Brendan was finishing his first degree (in mathematics and physics), the university he was attending recommended him for a Rhodes Scholarship. He had to put together an application package and he needed character references. He asked Edith, whom he’d known all his life, if she’d write one for him. She was excited and invited him to her house where she interviewed him and then wrote a profile, not unlike the ones in this book. I remember she faxed it to me to see if I thought it was ok and it was just so amazing. She described him at one point leaning forward, his elbow on his knee, as he explained an idea to her, and now I am hoping he saved a copy of it. My point in that she gave the same attention and courtesy to her subjects whether they were Canada’s Prime Minister or a young man from her community whom she’d known since he was an infant and who’d played hide and seek in her basement at the Halloween party she gave every year. I missed her but I also felt we’d been talking. Her work is lively with her voice, her curiosity, her care.

springboard

This morning John and I went with a friend to see his late uncle’s collection of boat engines, water pumps, a springboard from an early logging operation (my friend’s grandparents settled in this area in the early part of the 20th century), and every possible (and impossible) artefact imaginable. They are all on shelves, the floors, and any other surface in a building called Bert M’s Museum. What are these, I asked, pointing at boxes stacked on end in a larger box. Oh, those are player piano rolls, he replied. He showed me the Easthopes I ‘d come to see–they figure in a novel I’m writing– and showed us the huge Garry oaks his uncle had planted decades ago (which delighted me as I hadn’t known my favourite tree was growing so near to me, other than the small seedlings I started with acorns from Vancouver Island), and the little house by the water that had been his grandparents’, then his uncle’s, and I felt a little the way I felt when I closed Edith’s book. Where does the past go? It doesn’t go away, exactly. Some of it is in books, Edith’s for certain, and some of it is in Bert M’s Museum.  Over on Oyster Bay, a friend is still growing Bert’s beans, his engines will have pride of place in my novel, and I know that Edith’s spirit is alive and curious enough to make me want to get the details right.

engine

4 thoughts on “Where did the past go?”

  1. How lucky you were, Theresa, to have Edith as writing companion and inspiration! She’s an inspiration to us all, the clarity of her voice and her vision, that she continued to write so well far into her nineties, and that a cosmopolitan American writer adopted not just Canada but rural B.C. A beautiful post, as always.

    1. She was a force of nature, Beth. So many memories. And yes, she wrote beautifully into her 90s. She and Frank gave me a little calamondin orange tree for my 50th birthday and somehow it reminds me of her — vivid, a bit prickly if you’re not careful, generous with its output.

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