That house you can see in the centre of this image is the house grandmother grew up in. Or so I thought. I’ve since learned that the original house, in a small village in the Beskydy Mountains in what’s now the Czech Republic, was taken down in the 1950s and a new one, on the same footprint, and in the same vernacular style, was built to replace it. The fields around it were my great-grandfather’s. He farmed. My grandmother left in 1913 and she never returned.
Tomorrow evening I’ll be reading from my new book, Blue Portugal & Other Essays at the Arts Centre in Sechelt. (If you are on the Coast, please come! I’d love to see you and there will be cake and keepsakes printed on our Chandler and Price platen press, embellished with hand-dyed cotton and shell buttons.) I’ve been looking through the pages, wondering what to read that might offer an accurate sampling of the book itself. And I’m listening — this is a coincidence — to a recording of Janáček’s “On An Overgrown Path” and “In the Mists”. These are such fine and poignant pieces, exactly the musical correlative of the photograph, fields soft with mist, leaves falling from the trees, because it must be October. So I’ve chosen one piece to read tomorrow night that follows my own hearing of these pieces for the first time, an encounter with an aspect of my grandmother’s background, because the small town where Leoš Janáček was born is just over the mountain from my grandmother’s village and the folk songs he based these piano cycles on were songs she must have been familiar with.
This here is the narrow path
as winds through the vineyards
that I would tread along…
Listening to the young pianist playing Janáček’s “In the Mists,” I close my eyes and imagine the landscape where you were born. Foothills of the Beskids, near Janáček’s home village. He was a folklorist as well as a musician and gathered the songs and spoken tales of Moravia-Silesia. Did you sing? Did your family have its own musicians? Did you listen to the bells on the sheep and imagine them into simple tunes? Listening, I am in Moravia, I am in a village of white buildings painted with ultramarine flowers by Anežka Kašpárková, I am myself a babička, stitching blue cloth in long red stitches, my four grandchildren running in the tall grass.
Listening to the young pianist playing “In the Mists,” I hear birdsong, the brittle canes of winter roses brushing against my house, the sounds you would not have noticed in your daily work (a house without roses), feeding chickens, washing the laundry of a family of ten, then nine, then eight, then rising again, the deaths and births echoing the seasons, the river freezing, thawing, the return of green leaves on the cottonwoods in Drumheller, on the beeches of your childhood home in Moravia-Silesia, all of it hidden in mist, morning mist coming down off the Beskydy Mountains, frozen mist in your final years in Beverly, a stone’s throw from the North Saskatchewan River.
Listening to the young pianist playing “The Madonna of Frydek,” I am in the fields of barley, soft grasses, poppies. A blown-away leaf, the composer said, could be heard as a love song. The children are running ahead, a bag of apples slung over the back of the oldest.
Listening to the young pianist playing “The Madonna of Frydek”, I remember the sign for Frydek as we drove to your village. We drove on, past the sign, past the coat of arms for Horni Lomná, drove on, through snow, past the church with the spring of eternal waters (said to have cured those suffering cholera), past the graveyard inaccessible in snow, the miracles of Mary, and a road ghosted by the footsteps of my grandmother’s family, her two sisters, the brother who no one remembers, who died in his dugout house in a squatters’ camp in Drumheller during another epidemic, hearing them somehow in the snow, the light wind, and now in the penultimate chord as the pianist completes his encore. Now, now, now. I am applauding and I am brushing tears from my eyes in the dark hall.