“What are years?” (cont.)

mum on gonzales beach

What are years, that they accumulate, that you hardly notice them, and then you do. I wrote about time yesterday and this morning I had the feeling that I was forgetting something. Something important. I looked in my datebook: no appointments. And then I remembered. 9 years ago today my mother died. 10 years ago yesterday my father died. (A sad synchronicity.) My father was difficult and I’ve written about him in “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”, an essay in Euclid’s Orchard. My mother wasn’t so difficult. I’ve written about her too, in “Tokens”. If you’ve read “Tokens”, you will know something of her story: that she was born to an unwed mother on Cape Breton Island in 1926, that she was given up at birth, raised in a foster home. She’d grown up knowing her biological father’s surname; it was the one she was given at birth. But she was kind of ambivalent about finding out about her biological parents. I think I understand that but I wanted to do some sleuthing after she died, and I did, and for years, I followed clues with no success. Then I did Ancestry’s DNA test and voila, I found her father. Well, I figured out who provided the sperm. He was in no way a father to her. In truth, I believe he was already engaged to the woman he married, a very accomplished doctor who became the chancellor of a large university. They had children who were my mother’s half-brothers, though she never knew this. I haven’t been able to figure out who my mother’s mother was. She is not even a footnote in the life of the man who impregnated her.

My favourite photograph of my mum shows her in all her beauty on Gonzales Beach with my older brother, her first-born. She and my father and my brother lived in a small cottage above the beach, now long-gone. She loved water, she loved the sun, and it must have been heaven in summer to walk down the stairs to the beach. In later years, when we lived on Eberts Street, she would walk with us to Gonzales Beach (because the whole waterfront along Dallas Road was contaminated with raw sewage; this would be the early 1960s), with a picnic, and we would swim and build sand castles. Did she remember the earlier house, the earlier walks to the shore, when she sat in the sand with her infant son, not knowing what the years would bring? Do any of us ever know?

Under Cape Breton’s rocky soil, under the parks in Halifax with their views of the sea, the sound of gulls, of commerce, of pianos and fiddles from open windows, under the earth the buried creeks hide their secrets. And you can hear something, a murmuring, a rill of original water, of origins, of fish in their lost habitats, eels, amphibians entering their dark waters,and in memory, birds at the vanished banks, their beaks poised, and secrets, secrets, my mother’s buried history in the damp ground where water longs for the sky.

I expected to find her parents, expected to solve the mystery of her birth, and instead I’m left with questions. Different ones than the ones I began with, and maybe unanswerable, but I understand some things more completely now. Her capacity for love, her generosity, her lack of self-regard, which made my own seem like vanity. I remember visiting the Foundling Museum in London and realizing how stories like hers still draw us to their mysteries.

At the Foundling Museum, a spyglass, a hairpin, the handle of a penknife. Padlocks, a tiny black hand pierced with a hole for a ribbon, a handful of coins, pierced, notched, worn thin by thumbs stroking, stroking, stored in the archives. I have My Sin, a tweed coat, a memory of Mrs.Nobody on her chair in the kitchen. I have a hole on my sleeve the shape of a heart but no scrap to match it with and the sound of a creek running underground on its way to the sea,with everything of my mother in it, and nothing. I have every regret for the way her life began, and ended, a motherless child, so far, so far from her home, no one looking for her in the listservs, among the dry records of Vital Statistics, no one, no one but me, my face against the glass case of all those unclaimed tokens, those stories begun perhaps in love and ending in sorrow.

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






Yesterday we ambled along Nova Scotia’s South Shore in a rented car, through Chester (impossibly beautiful) and Lunenburg, founded in the mid-18th century and very beautiful, though crowded with tour groups. We had lunch at the Magnolia Grill and this was our view as we ate haddock cakes with fresh salad and lovely warm baguette:


We drove up to Annapolis Royal where we had reservations at B&B and explored the fort and cemetery before dinner at Bistro East — maybe the best pasta I’ve ever had: Digby scallops and a generous amount of lobster in a lemon cream sauce over handmade noodles. We headed out this morning and were delighted to arrive in Paradise, founded in 1650, or at least that’s what the sign said (but surely that’s late?).


These residents of the outskirts of Paradise were particularly interested in our presence in the community:


We drove all the way to Antigonish (known to readers of Canadian literary magazines for the review published at St. Francis Xavier University) and found a comfortable hotel. A light supper at the wonderful Townhouse Pub (oh, the local Knoydart cheese!) served by beautiful young women floating around the room like graces. And we’ll return a bit later to hear Gabe Minnikin, part of the fabled Halifax folk supergroup The Guthries. Everywhere we go, we find music, or it finds us.

And tomorrow we’ll drive to Cape Breton for three nights. I anticipate music in abundance.


“My husband went on a trip…and returned with a gift for me, a hand-blown paperweight with a beautiful sea anemone inside. There are five tentacles of pink and blue glass. I believe it was made with rods of glass, like in millefiore, but the rods have been hollowed or opened rather than stretched. I know that sea anemones are carnivorous — we see them on the local beaches, at the intertidal zone, waving their tentacles in the air for prey. Touching them with a finger, we feel the faint suction, then see them retract. I know they are territorial and can clone themselves so that often a colony will develop which consists of genetically identical anemones; when another colony encroaches, those on the periphery engage in battles to defend their little area of rock. Maybe they are defending their genetic integrity. Looking at my paperweight, I imagine that something has been captured inside it, something precious and rare.” (from Phantom Limb, published by Thistledown Press in 2007)

I’ve returned to work on a memoir about my mother and my paternal grandmother. My mother was given up at birth — she was born on Cape Breton Island — and put into a foster home where she lived until adulthood. She kept the surname of her biological father, MacDonald, and she knew the surname name of her biological mother, McDougall. But everything else is a mystery. She insisted she never wanted to know about her birth parents because she felt she’d been abandoned and any loyalty she felt was directed to her foster mother and sister. But when she died in 2010, I felt compelled to try to find something about her origins. I have some papers but nothing leads to me to anything like a source. Vital Statistics in Halifax, where she was raised, have told me that I have no right to a copy of her birth certificate (which she knew about and which she said included the names of both her parents) until 100 years after her birth — that will be February 8, 2026. I’ve posted queries on genealogy websites in Nova Scotia and I’ve tried a few other things as well. But so far, nothing.

The paperweight John gave me when I was first musing about my mother and everything I didn’t know about her background sits on my desk, to the left of my computer. Most days I pick it up, look at it, use it to hold down bits of paper or file cards. This morning I looked into it, wondering if family secrets can ever be truly solved or understood. I have a renewed interest in pursuing my mother’s mysterious story, the sensitive tentacle of her connection to Cape Breton Island and further back, Scotland.




We visited the Foundling Museum in early February of 2012, a year and three months after my mother died. We’d stopped in London for a few days on our way somewhere else and we wanted to do things in Bloomsbury, near our hotel, on that particular day. The Foundling Museum provides a glimpse into the culture of London’s Foundling Hospital, founded in the mid-18th c. as a place for unwanted babies or children their parents could not care for. (I am learning that these are two different concepts.) The Museum was in a gracious building on Brunswick Square, near Coram’s Fields, named for the founder, and a place for children (any person over the age of 16 is considered a adult and must be accompanied by a child to enter the Fields with their sandpits and football pitches, their swings and duckpond, a petting zoo, and trees for dreaming under).

My mother was a foundling, essentially, a child born to an unwed mother and given to a foster mother to raise until adoptive parents could be found. But the foster mother never released her, nor adopted her. I have puzzled over this for a long time.

Her foster mother made and kept the distinction between her two biological children (whose father, a doctor had died after the Halifax explosion, not from injury but from succumbing to the Spanish influenza due –as we were told– to exhaustion from having helped so many burned and maimed victims of the explosion) and my mother. One story my mother told: her foster mother would go to the homes of people who wanted to adopt my mother and would return saying, “I can’t offer much but I can offer as much as they can.” A kind of pride, a stubborn resistance to letting my mother go. But was it love? In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a child in my mother’s circumstances was marked. How simple it would have been to erase some of that stigma by adopting her, giving her a name with a legacy of stories to nestle into.

My mother knew her biological mother’s name – McDougall. My mother had her biological father’s name: MacDonald. She was born in Sydney, Cape Breton Island. Her foster mother was in Halifax. Why didn’t she stay in Cape Breton, why wasn’t she fostered there, or adopted there? I wondered if there was some connection between her biological parents and her foster mother. She was told her biological father was the brother of a Halifax doctor. But no more than this.

At the Foundling Museum, I was moved to see the cases of tokens left with children accepted at the Foundling Hospital by their parents, usually their mother. Tiny keys, buttons, hairpins, a spyglass, thimbles, coins, playing cards, a single hazelnut, a bone fish. There were small fragments of fabric, snipped from an item of clothing, a piece of patchwork with half a heart stitched on it in red. They were carefully wrapped with billets – forms containing information about the child: serial number, date of admission, physical characteristics – and then sealed with wax, the child’s name and number written on the outside of the packet. If a parent returned, he or she would have to describe the token or bring a matching fragment of cloth. By then the child’s name would have been changed in order for a new life to begin (Charles Bender became Benjamin Twirl but when his mother presented the other half of the red heart on patchwork, he re-entered his old life). Or as was often the case, the child had already died.

“The most important fact about the tokens is that . . . they were left as identifiers – they were not gifts for the children, keepsakes or love tokens, as has often been stated. They were official “documents” – easily recognisable items that could be used to prove the identity of an infant if the parent or parents found themselves in circumstances to take it back.” – from An Introduction to the Tokens at the Foundling Museum, by Janette Bright and Gillian Clark.

After my mother’s death, I took so many papers and photographs home with me, only gradually sorting them in a cursory way to figure out how and where to store them. There was a bag which had been sent to my mother by the neighbour of her foster mother and sister in Halifax, a woman who inherited the contents of their house after the death of my mother’s foster sister. (My mother received a thousand dollars and charm bracelet.) The bag contained a photo album with pictures of my mother as a child (she’d never had anything like this to show us when we were growing up and asked her about her childhood), and many papers of various sorts: her foster sister’s nursing history, clippings about Halifax history, and to my surprise, a mylar envelope with the remnants of a telegram in it.

The telegram is foxed and tattered; there are signs that it was once folded and in fact the top of it is still folded, the part indicating that the form is the Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s Telegraph and outlining the terms and conditions.

It was sent from Glace Bay, N.S. on December 9th, but the year is unreadable, to Dr. Watson, 108 Agricola Street, Halifax, and the message reads as follows: “Can you take my practise at once and remain four weeks. I am to be operated on tomorrow for appendicitis. Answer and state terms.”  Then the name of the sender: the initial(s) is/are hazy (there might be one, or possibly two) and occur just where the telegram has been folded but the surname is MacDonald.

Dr. Watson was my mother’s foster mother’s husband. He was born in Jamaica to a family of Scottish sugar traders from Mull; the family moved back and forth as the business flourished and changed. I don’t know how he ended up in Halifax but my mother’s foster sister said he’d been part of the Grenfell Mission, providing medical services to remote communities in northern Newfoundland and Labrador. My father remembered a journal kept in a roll-top desk in the Watson household in Halifax which he said should have been part of the National Archives and I’ve often wondered what happened to it after my mother’s foster sister died.  It wasn’t in the bag of clippings and old nursing yearbooks.

I send out emails to the library in Glace Bay, to Vital Statistics in Halifax, and to a Cape Breton geneaology site, hoping that someone will be able to tell me something about my mother’s biological parents, something about Dr. Macdonald who sent the urgent telegram and who (I am hoping) might prove to be a link in the chain of my mother’s family. I study the telegram for hidden meaning and come up with nothing. Or everything: “…official “documents” – easily recognisable items that could be used to prove the identity of an infant…” Is this why it was saved in a mylar envelope and kept with a photo album showing my mother as a curly-haired child in a garden with dogs?

Vital Statistics tell me this:

Ms. Kishkan,

 Birth records and birth certificates are restricted documents and can only be issued to those stated on the record or their parents.


 Yours truly
Vital Statistics

I write back to say that my mother died in fall of 2010 at the age of 83 (but I was wrong; she was 84) and it was likely that her parents were also deceased and so couldn’t the next of kin have access to her birth certificate? And the person who signs him or herself as Vital Statistics replied:

Birth records and certificates are restricted for 100 years from date of the birth.


 Yours truly
Vital Statistics

Will I still be alive in 2026? Will I remember? Will the trail, however faint it might be now, however overgrown and forgotten by almost everyone alive, will it have disappeared completely? I put my hope in the agencies on Cape Breton Island itself, hoping that they will recognize that “the most important fact about the tokens is that . . . they were left as identifiers”  and that they help me to make an identification, across 8 decades and a continent. My mother’s ashes were cast into water on the west coast of Vancouver Island as well as under a tree in my garden so she will never know the sad circumstances of her birth but I want to add to the archive I am keeping in my heart, made of small details: that her hair was dark and curly in childhood, that she wanted a middle name (she loved the name Sybille), that the Halifax she grew up in was full of old houses and leafy streets, that someone heard her first infant cry and either reached for her with love, or didn’t.