from a work-in-progress

grandma's house and fields

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.

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 10, then 9, then 8, 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”.

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, 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.



“the house shelters day-dreaming”

grandma's house and fields

In a dreamy moment yesterday, I found this photograph of my grandmother’s house online. She came from a village in the Beskydy Mountains, in what’s now the Czech Republic. In 2012, I was lucky enough to see her house, in snow, when a friend took John and I to her village, Horni Lomna. I wrote about that visit here. Hers is the house at the back of the photo, the one at the foot of the hills. That looks like an orchard behind the house, doesn’t it? A few years ago a kind woman in Horni Lomna sent me other photographs of the house and the garden directly behind it. She told me that she thinks the house is only used in summer and it’s owned by several people, one of whom has my grandmother’s mother’s surname, the surname I gave my character Patrin in my novella of the same name. Unfortunately those photographs and the other information the kind woman sent were filed on my old computer, the one that died suddenly. Some stuff was stored on Google Drive but not that. (Oh, the lessons we learn.)

I’ve been looking at this photograph, thinking about it and a girl growing up in it. My grandmother had two sisters whose names are recorded in Horni Lomna’s town hall and I suspect she also had a brother, the man with her original surname who showed up as one of the residents in the squatters’ community my grandmother lived in when she first came to Canada in 1913, the subject of “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices” in my last book, Euclid’s Orchard. That man, Josef Klus, arrived in Canada a month or so after my grandmother and on the ship’s manifest, in the category detailing reason for travel, it’s noted that he was joining his sister in Drumheller. Josef died in the Spanish flu epidemic, the one that also took my grandmother’s first husband.

So this photograph is compelling to me for all it says and doesn’t say. The landscape is so verdant. An orchard. Sheep probably. Pigs. She left that place for this one:

julia's funeral

This is 1923, the funeral of Julia, the first child of my grandmother’s second marriage. (There were 8 living children from her first marriage as well as a daughter who died in infancy, of diphtheria.) I have no idea if this house still exists. I’ve tried to find out the history of her houses in Drumheller—the one listed as a “shack” in the materials related to the squatters’ community she settled in with her first husband (and 5 children, 4 more quickly arriving); the one that replaced another (the shack?) that burned to the ground. And this is the last house she owned in Alberta, the house my grandfather build in the 1940s. It’s the subject of something I’m working on now. My father inherited this house and sold it after my grandmother’s death. I have one or two memories of staying here, not in this house specifically, but in a smaller house on the same property (I believe it was a house my grandfather bought from the Prins family and had moved to this property either before he built this one or just after.)


What does a house contain, what memories does it hold? Gaston Bachelard tells us what a house allows us: “I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” But are we also contained in its continued space, the corner of a street in Beverly, Alberta, near a park where children play, as we played, on the long summer days? And is my grandmother still a shadow among those trees in Horni Lomna or remembered in the small panes of glass gazing out towards the road?


“A man often died alone”

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (Franz Kafka, from a letter to Oskar Pollak, January 27, 1904)

It’s violent language to use about the experience of reading but I understand it. There are books, and then there are books, the ones that break you open and let all the elements batter your heart. Your mind. And I would extend this to the writing of books as well. I write to find out. I don’t work from outlines or templates. I can’t imagine a workshop that would teach me how to do the kind of writing I do. Which isn’t to say it’s particularly original or inventive or important. I don’t mean that. But I mean that it’s mine. When I go into the work, it’s my own strange journey; the baggage I carry is never quite enough or quite right but I couldn’t find a list telling me what else I might need.

The work I’m trying to find my way through right now keeps surprising me. (I’ve put my novella-in-progress aside because, well, I need to do something else at present. And the novella’s time will come.)

I remember asking my dad if his parents had brothers and sisters. “I never asked,” was his reply. I couldn’t imagine not knowing. My brothers were so important to me (still are) and I believe my children feel the same way. Their own children will know who their uncles and aunts are, as I knew my dad’s brothers and sisters. Not well, because they lived far from us and they were the progeny of a first marriage; my father was born late in my grandmother’s life and so his brothers and sisters were much older. (He was born in 1926 and the oldest of his brothers — twins — were born in 1905.)

In the research I’ve been doing after my brief trip to Drumheller the other week, I’ve found a man I believe was my grandmother’s brother. I first saw his name — Joseph (or Jozef) Klus — on a list describing the squatters on Section 11, Township 29, Range 20, west of the 4th Meridian (the land I thought my grandmother’s first husband was granted under the Dominion Homestead Act and instead discovered that no, he and his family were part of a squatters’ settlement on that land). Joseph Klus is listed as occupying Lot 6. (Shack 10 x 15 built into bank $25.00). My grandmother’s family occupied Lot 9. Hmm, I thought. Could he be related to my grandmother, whose maiden name was Klus? Searching for more information about him, I discovered he died in the Spanish flu epidemic on October 26, 1918. (My grandmother’s first husband died two days later.)

From the Drumheller Mail, November 29, 0001 (a mistake, I suspect, but don’t know if it should be 2001, so will simply leave it):

“Even as a man was dying, another was waiting to occupy his bed. A man often died alone, among strangers who could not understand him even when he was only begging for water. Terror of the Black Death kept family or friends from visiting him. Some victims never got to our hospital; they had been abandoned to die in a dugout or shack,” wrote nurse Gertrude Charters, a volunteer who dared to enter the quarantined Drumheller during the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918.


“Drumheller was hit worse than others, partly because the living conditions were terrible. This was an era where Drumheller was called Hell’s Hole because the living conditions were so terrible. Primitive shacks, latrines which were never cleaned and latrines which were too close to the water supply,” says the Atlas Coal Mine’s Linda Digby. “This was when the population explosion had just happened and the infrastructure just wasn’t there.”
The Drumheller Hospital wasn’t built until 1919, with the flu outbreak tapering off around that time.

Last night, talking to my son Forrest (a historian), I told him about Joseph Klus and wondered if I’d ever know if he was my grandmother’s brother. Forrest very quickly accessed the Canada Passenger Lists 1881-1922 online and found Joseph sailed from Rotterdam to Nova Scotia in December 1913 with the purpose of joining his married sister in Drumheller. So yes, almost certainly her brother. (She herself had sailed from Antwerp to Saint John in March of the same year, in steerage, with 5 small children, in order to join her husband who’d come the previous year.)

jozef klus

A kind woman in Horni Lomna, my grandmother’s village in what’s now the Czech Republic, searched the parish records last year and told me that my grandmother had two younger sisters. But nothing about a brother. The passenger list gives his occupation as “farm labourer”. I think of him traveling from the remote Beskydy Mountains, green and beautiful, to Rotterdam, across the ocean, then crossing the country by train, to join his sister in the squatters’ settlement where he built a shack into a bank and settled in to do, well, what? Did he marry? Was there anyone to care for him as he died? I imagine my grandmother was very busy trying to keep her children healthy — there were nine by then — as her own husband lay dying in their own shack. But surely she’d had offered what comfort she could.

I don’t know why I need to know all this and to try to make sense of it a hundred years later, my father dead, anyone else who might have been able to help me figure out this story dead, both Josephs buried near spruces in the Drumheller cemetery, their shacks obliterated from place and memory. In my extended family, no one knew about Joseph Klus. I don’t know why the thought of him makes me weep helplessly but it does. The thought of all of them, hardly remembered.

“calls back…”


My mother has been dead for nearly five years. I’ve been working on a book about family history — hers, in part; but mostly my father’s mother’s history in Horni Lomna, in what’s now the Czech Republic. Most days I find myself thinking about the strange and wonderful cartography of motherhood. How a small wooden house in a tiny village in the Beskydy Mountains held the girlhood of my father’s mother, spruce trees along the road in front and the slope of the mountains behind. Fruit trees in snow. The sound of churchbells. And how my mother’s mother was unknown to her — my mum was given up at birth to a foster home and raised to think of herself as motherless — and how that first terrible loss shaped her. She told a granddaughter once that she’d only ever wanted to be a mother, as though she needed to fill the emptiness of herself with that function. When I was young, it never seemed enough to me. I wanted more of her, from her. But now I realize — too late — what she gave me and my brothers.

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee. (Sonnet 3, Shakespeare)

In Toulouse, in March, I dreamed of my mother. I’d been thinking a great deal about geographical loneliness. Not only for a place one has left, often forever (my grandmother never returned to Europe and as far as I know, she had only very sporadic contact with her family there), but also the loneliness we feel when we try to follow the traces our ancestors made across a landscape. A field loved by a child for its birdsong, the scent of plum blossom after a long winter, a tree planted to celebrate a wedding, a birth, an occasion long-forgotten. So the dream of my mother surprised me. She was on a tour, just before heart surgery. I always wanted to travel to France, she said, her eyes glowing as she jostled and joked with her new friends, but no one would ever go with me. She had photographs – a long road leading down to the sea, a restaurant filled with sunlight, a plate of sausage. I held her hand and thought, I have another chance. We went to the restroom together and she was running. Please, Mum, don’t run, I pleaded with her, only half in fun. Please. I don’t want you to die on me!

I wish I’d taken her to France, though I wonder if she truly wanted to go or if the dream came from my own pleasure in the sight of umbrella pines, orange trees, the silvery leaves of olives.  She confessed once, after my father died, that she’d always hoped to go to Greece. I looked at her with such surprise, I remember, because the trips she took were to Reno or Disneyland and once, to Hawaii. Packaged tours, on buses or charter flights. Later she and my father travelled to places he’d been to in the Navy and insisted she’d love: Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand. I don’t think she did love those trips but my father was persuasive.

I have an album sent to her after her foster sister died. Mostly it’s a record of her foster sister’s life but there are a few early photographs of my mum, aged three, in a garden, or standing by some stairs. She is chubby and dark-haired. So far away in time, in geography — she grew up in Halifax. But somehow curiously present (“Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee…”).



wild and pruned

I’ve written three books that are autobiographical in nature. Two of them are collections of personal essays which explore family stories, the natural world, history, and landscape. And one of them — Mnemonic: A Book of Trees — does those things too but through a particular lens, using a structure which provides a (loose) through-line. The book is a memory grove and the narrative takes place among trees past and present, wild and pruned.

I’m not a user of social media, apart from this irregular blog. Mostly it’s because I don’t understand the parameters. And I don’t much like the language.  Twitter, “friend” used as a verb… About a month ago I asked my daughter to help me set up a Facebook page, thinking that I was somehow not participating the cultural conversation. Within an hour I had many friends. I had messages. I looked at photographs. Every time I walked by my desk, I’d think, “Oh, I wonder what’s new with my Facebook friends?” I’d check. I still hadn’t learned the code about status updates or likes or any of that so I was a bit confused but I realized that one could waste spend a lot of time in the Facebook world.  That night I was awake for hours wondering what on earth I’d done. So I got up in the wee hours and did whatever one does to unsubscribe or unjoin Facebook. I felt such relief! We all have a line in the sand, I guess, and who knew this would be mine? I think it’s my metabolism. I want long relationships, in person, or conversations on the phone. I want to walk with my friends or give them dinner, not *heart* something they’ve said on Facebook. But I also realize that I’m very much among the minority in this respect.

I really enjoyed a recent piece in the New Yorker: “A Memoir is not a Status Update”, by Dani Shapiro. She writes of the difference between living out loud on Facebook, “sharing” every breath we take,  and the methodical work at the heart of writing a memoir. “I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details—the ones that we post and read every day—for the work of memoir itself.”

For the past two years I’ve been working on an extended work of non-fiction, a memoir of sorts, and it’s a very slow process indeed. One frayed thread takes me to the Beskydy Mountains in the Czech Republic, one tangled thread to Bukovina and the dense information in the metrical records of my grandfather’s village, one sad thread to Cape Breton Island, and one to the intricate and mysterious world of mathematics. And then there’s the actual thread, the spools of cotton I use to stitch together the quilt that accompanies this work.

“We live in a time in which little is concealed, and that pressure valve—the one that every writer is intimate with—rarely has a chance to fill and fill to the point of explosion. Literary memoir is born of this explosion. It is born of the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history. One of literary memoir’s greatest satisfactions—both for writer and reader—is the slow, deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain.”

I get a little notice on the sidebar of the screen I use to compose these posts, asking me to refresh my connection to Facebook. But I’m not going to, not yet. I think it’s more important to keep my attentions focused on that slow deliberation, on the basket of thread I sort through regularly to see what colours I have to work with and what I might need in the future.

log cabin





spring bells

Tomorrow we’re heading away for a couple of weeks so I’ve just been wandering around, seeing what’s in bloom (not much: miniature daffodils, crocus, snowdrops, a few stray blossoms on the rosemary bushes), and generally sighing heavily at all the work there is do around our garden. It’s not that I mind the work — I love it! But I’m wondering about time. Will there be enough? I’m also moving quite rapidly to the conclusion of my novella-in-progress (Patrin) and I’m trying to slow down that process, to spin it out a little longer, as I’m enjoying the writing of this book so much. My character is in the maple pastures, the javoriny (and any of my Czech friends can correct me if I’ve misunderstand this concept) which I think are the grassy areas in mixed forests in the Beskydy Mountains of eastern Moravia.

So, time is what I’m thinking about, and spring flowers, and also the fact that the two lovely female deer who visited regularly last spring and summer have been around again. Their small heart-shaped footprints are in the mud and they’ve been grazing on daylilies. I wish they wouldn’t but how to stop them? We no longer have a dog, always the best protection against deer in the past. When I came in from my wandering, I was looking at the rose around the front door, wondering if I’ve pruned it enough (it’s very rampant), and I noticed the elephant bells hanging there.


They might be a solution if only one had enough of them. How lovely that would be — the sound of thousands of elephant bells in the wind! But honestly I can’t imagine them keeping deer away, or elephants for that matter.

Here’s a bouquet for St. Patrick’s Day!


The year after

A year ago, I published a memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. Of all the books I’ve written, this one is perhaps the most personal. I trace significant moments and patterns in my life set against a larger arboreal canvas. Trees are the equivalent of Cicero’s architectural spaces. In thinking about them, their natural history and the human history associated with them, I discovered that they have guided me and sheltered me in ways I hadn’t even realized. I write this at my pine desk, looking out the window to a cascara, some firs, an arbutus, several cedars, a mountain ash. Every view from every window of my house is framed by foliage. In some of those trees, I see my children at play, building a fort, or simply climbing for the challenge of reaching a half-way mark. At the back of the house is a copper beech I planted to commemorate my parents and the little bits of grit at its base are their remains, still not completely washed into the soil.

In many ways, the past year has been shaped by this book. I travelled a little to read from it – Vancouver Island, the Okanagan, Kootenays, even to Alberta. I read from it in Brno, Prague, Olomouc, Ostrava, Ceske Budejovice, meeting fascinating people along the way and hearing their stories of trees. I saw the spruces lining the road leading to the house my grandmother was born in which in turn have led me to the work of the great Czech photographer Josef Sudek – he photographed the Mionsi Forest in the Beskydy Mountains just above my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomne. All of this is contained in my current work-in-progress, in some ways simply an extension of Mnemonic. Maybe that’s the best way to look at my writing in general: a single ongoing work.

The other day I saw a child walking with his mother near Sechelt. He was trailing a huge maple leaf while his mother pushed an infant in a stroller. It reminded me of the day a young neighbour showed my children how to run with a maple leaf against her face like a mask. She raced along the trail with such energy and joy while the sun filtered through the bigleaf maples, part of this grove of trees, children and parents, the living and the dead held together by the intricate lattice of memory.

Remember us

I was awake in the night, trying to puzzle my way through my current writing. I am hoping to explore the trajectory of my grandmother’s life, from the small house in Horni Lomna (there are photographs of it in my posting on February 26) to Drumheller and then to Beverly. There’s so much I don’t know but I’m learning how to read the maps at least, learning the names of the places she lived, understanding (from the road in front of her house in the Beskydy Mountains) what trees she would have seen, the animals and birds (thanks to Petr and Lenka who scanned a document on the Mionsi Forest which has the names of flora and fauna in Latin which I can figure out, rather than in Czech which would present difficulties…Rana temporaria, Aruncus vulgaris, Accipiter gentilis, and Corvus corax – already it sounds like home. Not that we have that particular frog but at least I’d know what I was looking at…).

As a result of an afternoon at the British Museum a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about the Fayum portraits from the Coptic period. These were usually painted on wood panels – oak, lime, fig, cedar, acacia, among others – in tempera or encaustic, with bright pigments, and in a naturalistic style. They were portraits of the dead. Tucked into the folds of the wrappings around mummies, they provided both (it seems to me) a sense of identity as well as a commemorative function. After two thousand years, the faces still look directly at the viewer. There is so much to be learned from these portraits. Loving attention was paid to hair styles, jewellery, clothing. Remember us, they ask from eternity.

I have photographs of members of my own family and wish I knew more about them. They look out from their moment on paper – a funeral, a posed shot of young girls (and I can tell which one is my mother because I know how it feels to hold her mouth—my mouth – that way), two plump women with arms linked, one of them with the same features as my grandfather from Bukovina (and in fact the photographer’s information is printed on the back: Photograph Atelier “Riviera”, Inh. Ferd. Straub, Czernowitz, Hauptstrasse 16), never suspecting that they will end up haunting a woman in the next century.