a river nearby


After a long day of medical adventures for my poor husband, it was a relief to sit on our deck under the vines and talk to our granddaughter Kelly, who turned 4 yesterday. “It’s my real birthday today,” she confided. Her party was last week so this was worth knowing: that you can celebrate twice (maybe more) but only one day is the actual day you become officially a year older.

Her birthday party included a bike parade, all the kids riding (or gliding, because her bike is a balance bike) with balloons and streamers on their handlebars. And there was also a treasure hunt. A neighbour told them that pirates had been known to come up the North Saskatchewan River to bury their treasure along Mill Creek Ravine, just a half a block from Kelly’s house. And you know how landscapes change over time, particular rivers and ravines. So there was a hunt for this treasure and sure enough, right under the porch of Kelly’s house—gold coins! And even better? There was chocolate inside.

I was not surprised to learn that pirates had been in the vicinity. It was foretold, after all, by the Arrogant Worms:

I hear in North Alberta there’s a band of buccaneers
They roam the Athabaska from Smith to Fort McKay

One of the photographs that arrived by email shows Henry on his bike in their backyard. We gave Kelly this bike for her second birthday. Now she’s moved up to a bigger size and it’s perfect for her brother.
Looking at him, I remembered one of the handful of photographs I have of my father as a child, also on a bike (well, a trike), and also near a river. The Red Deer, not the North Saskatchewan, but their body language is a shared language, across almost a century. My father looks like he would have been 3 or 4 in this photograph:
dad on bike.jpg

He’s wearing a sweater, which suggests this might be fall, his birthday, October, 1929? A boy who might also have dreamed of pirates, of treasure. I wrote about those photographs in Euclid’s Orchard:

I have a handful of photographs from the 1920s, taken on what I suspected was the land where Anna and Joseph settled and that my grandmother must have inherited after Joseph’s death during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. A funeral for Julia, the first child born to my grandmother and her second husband, my grandfather John Kishkan, in 1921 and dead of diphtheria in 1923. My father, Anthony Kishkan, known to his familiars as Tony, on a small trike in a rough yard with a dog. Another of my father in a little car with some wash tubs stacked behind him and bleak hills beyond those. I wondered if this was the land. Dry, dry, and a river nearby.

Sometimes people are too far away. You want to be part of the happy group eating cupcakes among children in a yard in Edmonton and you are instead driving down the highway to spend a day holding your husband’s hand as he is hooked to monitors (which showed that his heart is just fine so whatever else it might be, he has a strong heart). They are far away in time (your father on that bike, the dog barking at something arriving or departing behind him). And they are gone before you asked the questions you always meant to ask. But your father is also present in the body of that small boy on his bike. The half-smile, the collar turned up.

grey approximations

dad in metal car

It’s a strange experience to be pursuing the sad origins of my father’s family at the same time that my immediate family is growing and flourishing. In Edmonton, on the same greyscale film as these old photographs, oddly enough, I viewed the ultrasound of Cristen and Brendan’s baby, due in September. I saw the baby’s hand, the baby’s face. And last year, in late February, as John and I visited Amsterdam to attend a wedding, a call came to our hotel from our older son Forrest and his wife Manon to tell us that they were expecting their first baby. Moments later, an ultrasound of beautiful Arthur arrived on my small Samsung tablet. I hold all of these in my mind and my heart’s archive, these grey approximations of the lives I cherish, even the ones so far away in time, that I will never know exactly where the boy who rode that little car lived, or where the family gathered in front of a weathered house dispersed to after the funeral. And did that boy’s grandparents, my great-grandparents, back in the small house in the valley below the Mionsi forest, ever see a photograph of him? Ever learn his name? They never saw their daughter Anna again.

A time of birthdays. It’s Arthur’s today — the boy in the passage above, from Euclid’s Orchard, who appeared first to us in an ultrasound image in an Amsterdam hotel, is two. He sings, he loves his weekend breakfast at Bobby’s Table in Ottawa, and this morning he was celebrated in that restaurant with his own pancake.

birthday pancake

Via Skype, we watched him open the package of gifts we sent: a book, a pirate flag, a pirate ship puzzle, and other small things (we also sent him a wooden balance bike in summer so he could use it before the winter weather arrived). I think he liked the little soft globe, the earth writ hand-sized, best. That’s always the way with little kids. They like the wrapping paper (Arthur was drawing on the brown paper I’d wrapped the box in before his dad wondered if he’d like to do the puzzle), the tiny presents —a wee plastic aquarium you put water in and the fish grow!; but of course the adults tend to think the bigger the better.

Arthur’s cousin Henry turned one exactly a month ago. And the great-grandfather of both these boys would have been 91 in a few weeks. He is the boy in the little car in that bleak farmyard in the photo above. His is the shadow I live inside, mostly gladly, a shadow left by poverty and complicated history. He would have been good to these little boys, showed them how to use a fishing rod, and maybe even taught them Morse code. I cast my own shadow too, the one my oldest grandchild noticed in May as we were walking on the street in front of her house in Edmonton. Sometimes it dragged behind us, sometimes alongside us, a grey approximation of how we are connected across time.