“I felt I was writing my way through the pandemic myself.”

laid out

A few days after the pandemic required us to stay home, to keep to ourselves, I began an essay I called “The River Door”. It was a phrase that came to me out of thin air when I woke up one morning in mid-March, just after I’d finished the draft of a novella. What did it mean, that phrase? I waited for a bit to see. I waited for the door to open to show me what I needed to do next.

For the past year or so, intermittently, I’d been thinking about my family’s experience of the Spanish flu outbreak in Drumheller in 1918. I knew a few things but not the whole story. I still don’t know it. But as I delved into the material I’d been gathering, as the enormity of our own public health crisis became evident, I realized that the door opening in front of me was the story of my grandmother and her first husband in their shack on the Red Deer River. I began to write a series of passages, not quite knowing how they would fit together. There was the squatters’ camp my grandmother lived in, there was the death of her husband, her brother, her infant daughter; and then there was the rough house she lived in on the other side of the river with her new husband (my grandfather). I wanted to find out more about the squatters’ camp. I’ve wanted to know more ever since spring of 2016 when I discovered that the homestead I’d always believed my grandmother’s first husband owned was a fiction. A family fiction. Instead of a quarter-section, he had a shack on School Lands near Drumheller. I researched the saga of the camp, tried to find out more, and yes, I did find out a lot, thanks to my older son who sent me the digital version of a microfilm devoted to the bureaucratic wrangling surrounding the camp itself, those who lived there, and the future of the land.

How to write about this? How to organize the passages? I decided I’d do it in 3 parts. I’d have sections set on the south side of the Red Deer River, where the squatters’ camp was located (I thought, although I hadn’t been able to locate a good map of it), sections set on the north side of the river, where my family lived after leaving the camp, and sections serving as doors into the Spanish flu pandemic, doors opening and closing, doors used as stretchers, doors abandoned.

I felt I was writing my way through the pandemic myself. I woke so many nights and came downstairs to work on the essay, slowly, because, well, there was—there is—so much I don’t know. Not just about history but about writing, about the best way to remember people whom I barely knew, or never knew at all. The thing I wanted most of all was a map of the squatters’ camp. Somehow I thought that would give me ballast in the current of this work. I’d search online, I’d send emails into the unknown (and it truly was the unknown because replies never arrived), but then I did find a wonderful librarian at the University of Calgary, Peter Peller, who works in Spatial and Numeric Data Services, who told me that the library had acquired some maps from the Glenbow Collections and he thought there might be something there. But the holdings were restricted because of COVID-19. When it was safe to access them, he would see what he could find. I felt I was writing my way through the pandemic, yes, and part of what I was learning was patience. Eventually, after I’d forgotten I was even expecting maps, Peter sent me scanned copies of a number of maps and one of them was exactly what I needed. I knew this because I’d read correspondence detailing a survey of the School Lands where the squatters’ camp was located so that the land could be subdivided and sold. The map gave me such a door into the past, my grandmother and her first husband in their shack on the south side of the river, with their big garden on land adjacent to a creek. I looked through the door, saw them in their industry, surrounded by their children, the youngest asleep in a basket as my grandmother hung out laundry.

This morning I laid out the essay on the table. Because it doesn’t follow a simple narrative arc, I am trying to see how best to arrange the sections so that they allow a reader to share my sense of discovery and also sorrow. This story does not have a happy ending. Well, it doesn’t end, not in the usual way, because of course this was a century ago, more children were born, including my father, and here I am studying the pattern of pages on a pine table, moving a page here, another there. I know now that I need at least two more sections. One will be called “The Starland Fonds”. The other will look carefully at the map. The world is still not safe in the way it used to feel safe. It wasn’t safe then, when my grandmother buried her husband, her brother, and her infant daughter. I move the pages of her story which has become my story, our story, the doors both welcoming and forbidding. A phrase came to me as I woke one morning in mid-March and the pages are laid out, incomplete still, insubstantial, but with some promise in them, the words a kind of palimpsest, my time to hers, to ours.


Friday, quotidian

Because you were up in the night, reading obsessively about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, imagining your own family in Drumheller, the laying out of one body after another, your grandmother somehow going on afterwards, because you were reading and trying to place them on maps (where is Ploeg Street? Is the area where you stayed last April, in view of the Dinosaur Hotel, roughly where they lived above the river?), because you were groggy when you woke but delighted to find a review by your son online, the son who has always loved history, and that made you remember the summers you spent camping, in search of places like Batnuni Crossing where traces of the grease trails could still be seen, and where you wandered Barkerville, each moment somehow shimmering, so that you made notes and wrote “Days of Gold and Fireweed” as soon as you got home (published in Red Laredo Boots),

at barkerville2
the historian and his brother (the mathematician) on old cart, at Barkerville, 1992

anyway, because you were groggy and lying quietly in bed, reading the Ormsby Review online and waiting for your coffee, you tried to ignore the cat’s rumbling stomach against your leg, no, you shouldn’t have ignored it because suddenly he rose and (there is no nice way to say this) threw up his entire breakfast and what suspiciously looked like a mouse corpse partly digested onto the homemade log-cabin quilt on the foot of the bed and then on the duvet (luckily not a down one this time of year), its lovely cover, and down onto the carpet. So instead of drinking your coffee, which was in fact on its way up, carried by your thoughtful husband, you leapt from the bed, the two of you found old towels and a bucket of warm water, you stripped the bed of every cover, and while you rinsed various linens, your husband scrubbed the carpet. The cat washed his paws nearby without a second look. The morning which you had hoped to spend writing was instead spent doing load after load of bedding, rinsing everything twice because, well, cat’s breakfast (and mouse corpse), and hanging it outside on the line where it will no doubt come in dusty with the Douglas fir pollen that is everywhere right now (between laundry loads you vacuumed the kitchen where a golden haze of pollen was on the floor and other surfaces because yesterday you had doors and windows open to the sunlight), and only now you are sitting at your desk, having taken a little time to read Alex Ross’s beautiful piece about Brahms and grief, so lovely that you immediately put on one of your favourite singers, Kathleen Ferrier, singing the Brahms Alto Rhapsody (preceeded on the cd by the ravishing “Two Songs for Contralto with Viola Obbligato, Op. 91”), and maybe it is time to get on with the day.

redux: in place, over time

*Note: Some things have changed since I wrote this post on October 6, 2015. I’ve discovered more information about my grandparents and the land they lived on in Drumheller. (My essay, “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”, published in Euclid’s Orchard, explores this.) And the young family in Edmonton expanded in 2016 to include Henry.


Canada is a huge country. When I was a child, my family drove across it, from Victoria to Halifax, and then back again two years later. In every province we travelled through, I lost my heart to small towns, imagining living there, wondering why we had to always live in the same places: Victoria, Matsqui, Halifax. What about Golden? Or Carberry? Or Annapolis Royal? When we lived on the west coast, we drove to Edmonton many summers to visit my father’s mother. While his father was alive, we visited both grandparents, but my grandfather died when I was two or three so I don’t remember much about those trips. I do remember sleeping in a small house with a metal roof behind the slightly larger house where my grandparents lived in Beverly, not far from the North Saskatchewan River. I remember hail on that roof and running with my brothers to the safety of the larger house where our parents were visiting with our grandparents and assorted aunts and uncles. I remember the heat of those summers and the great body of the river as it made its way from its home glacier in the Rockies to Saskatchewan.

And now my son Brendan lives in Edmonton with his wife Cristen and their daughter Kelly. Cristen’s father grew up in Edmonton so there are family connections on both sides. It’s not why they chose Edmonton — their decision had more to do with Brendan’s work (he’s a mathematician and he teaches at the University of Alberta) — but there’s something about the way places draw us, I think.  Over time they draw us. I hadn’t thought about Edmonton in years until my son moved there, bought a house with his wife, and began a family. Their family is already rooted, in a way. They are already familiar with winter, for example, and the sound of magpies. Their street is thick with elm leaves right now and Kelly will know the pleasures of walking through dry leaves in October before the snow comes.

In 1946, my grandfather bought a house from Jacob Prins. Here’s the bill of sale:

bill of saleI know, it’s hard to read. But for 200 dollars in February, 1946, my grandfather John Kishkan bought a house located on the Humberstone Farm with the understanding that the house would be moved on or before July 1st. My grandfather paid in cash. I think this was the little house we slept in. In the papers I found after my father’s death in 2009, there was a box of receipts and so forth for house-building materials, all dated late 1946 and 1947. I think my grandparents must’ve lived in the little house moved from the Humberstone Farm to their lot on 111th Avenue in Beverly and then they built a larger house on the same lot. Nothing grand. This is the house (photo taken by my auntie Ann’s great-granddaughter a few years ago):

their houseI am wondering about the stories contained in these papers and this house. My grandparents moved from Drumheller where they had a small farm (I believe it was land taken out by my grandmother’s first husband Josef Yopek in 1912) to Beverly. Did they sell the farm? Did one of my grandmother’s grown children keep it? (She had 8 children from her first marriage and they were mostly adults by the time my father was born in 1926. My father lived with one of the grown sisters in Edmonton for a time and perhaps as my grandparents aged, it was felt that they too should come to be closer to their family. Although the children were not biologically related to my grandfather and he certainly didn’t adopt them, I note that they are listed as his daughters and sons in his obituary.)

And I wonder why my grandfather bought a house from Jacob Prins. There’s so much I don’t know about my grandfather’s early life but when I read about the Humberstone Farm, which Jacob Prins bought sometime after 1927, I discover that it was not only a farm but also a coal mining operation. The Humberstone family bought a 1/2 section of River Lot 42, east of 34th Street and south of 118th Avenue, nestled in a broad bend of the North Saskatchewan River. The farm took up part of the land and as well as a coal mine, the Humberstones also ran a boarding house for coal miners. My grandfather’s history before he met my grandmother is sketchy. I know he was a miner, I know he worked in Kananaskis and Phoenix, B.C. and Franklin Furnace, New Jersey. But was there also an association with the Humberstone Coal Company?

So many questions — and no real possibility of answers. Anyone I could ask is now dead.

my grandparents

We walked a little through the river valley this past weekend while we were in Edmonton and I thought how beautiful the landscape was with the golden aspens and the mountain ashes laden with clusters of red berries and the noisy magpies gliding in and out of the trees. It’s not my place but I have ties to it, over time, and those ties are strengthening all the time. I was a child over on the other bank of the river, walking with my mother in the dust of summer, and now I watch another young family take pleasure in the seasons.

a family

A little Seferis to put things in perspective:

If pain is human we are not human beings merely to suffer pain;
that’s why I think so much these days about the great river,
this meaning that moves forward among herbs and greenery
and beasts that graze and drink, men who sow and harvest,
great tombs even and small habitations of the dead.


dad in metal car

I’m at work on (yet) another essay about family history and am trying to puzzle through something that is both about place and about the public record. In Euclid’s Orchard, in an essay titled “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”, I wrote about my discovery that the homestead I’d believed my grandmother’s first husband had taken out in the Drumheller area prior to her arrival in Canada in 1913 didn’t exist. Instead, she arrived to a squatters community.  In spring of 2016 I’d gone to the Provincial Archives in Edmonton to make a copy of a few documents I thought would help me to find the 1/4 section of land I’d always believed my grandmother’s first husband owned and was surprised to find instead the whole long file of maps, letters, petitions, directives, etc. On that day in 2016, I didn’t have time to do anything more than make one or two copies of pages I thought might be useful. Later, my son Forrest sent me a pdf of the microfilm detailing the difficulty the residents of the community had in petitioning the federal government for permission to buy the individual plots they’d settled on. Instead of a copy of the homestead grant and a map, I had 398 pages to decode and try to understand. I don’t believe that my grandmother and her first husband bought the plot they were living on when a portion of the land was subdivided in 1918. Their names don’t show up on the list of purchasers and anyway in 1918 that husband died in the Spanish flu epidemic and my grandmother had a new baby, her 9th, who was to die just a few months later.

In 1920 my grandmother remarried. She married my grandfather John Kishkan. They show up on the 1921 Census (though I didn’t find them at first because my grandfather’s surname was misspelled) and again in 1926, living on the north side of the river, near the Midland Mine. I suspect my grandfather worked there. A few weeks ago in Drumheller, John and I took the two photographs we have of my father as a child and tried to find the location of the small farm he lived on by matching the hills in the photographs with the hills near Michichi Creek above the Dinosaur Trail, formerly Midland Road (the address given on the Census forms). That process is what I’m writing about now.

It gets complicated and in many ways it’s a useless exercise. What can I possibly learn by looking at striated hills and barren ground? Maybe something. I’ve discovered that the actual section of land where the squatters community was and where my grandparents had their farm is the same. The records are confusing. It was School Land. It was owned by someone called James Edward Trumble and maybe it was owned by someone else. Maybe my grandparents owned a little piece. Or maybe they rented a piece. I hope to figure it out.

On this map (which asks to be a quilt, doesn’t it?), you can see Range 20 on both sides of the Red Deer River.

map of range 20.png

Imagine the small farm tucked against the flank of hill. Imagine waking to the striations, walking out to the morning in the shadow of those layers. My father once wrote a letter to me when I was living in Ireland, so it must have been 1978, and he mentioned he’d been to the funeral of his last living (half)brother, Paul Yopek. He’d driven to Drumheller after that funeral and wrote that he saw the hills where he’d walked as a boy but had never found anything worth keeping in his life. I thought he meant fossils but perhaps his comment was more ontological. Looking at the sedimentary layers exposed by weather, the mudstone, sandstone, the coal seams, and shale, all softly coloured and shimmering in the light, I wondered if they might take up a large space in the physical topography of a boy growing in their shadows. Paleontologists were at work in the 1930s when my father was a boy and perhaps he encountered one on his forays into the hills. Maybe he’d been asked to keep his eyes open and maybe he had and nothing ever showed up. The long rib of a creature as old as time. An ammonite. A nest of fossilized eggs. In his rough house, his mother made noodles, his father came home dark with coal dust.

          — from a work-in-progress

“Live in the layers/not on the litter.”

the layers

The other afternoon, as we were driving on Highway 10X from Rosedale to Wayne, Alberta, anticipating lunch at the Last Chance Saloon, where we stayed (memorably) in April, 2016, I was commenting on the hills on either side of the Rosebud River, the striations so beautiful in sunlight, and my husband (a poet) recited two lines of Stanley Kunitz:

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

I aspire to the layers. I aspire to finding out where I fit in the silt and rock and dry paper records of land purchase and settlement, in the names on the 1926 census where I found my father’s parents (before his birth a few months later) on Midland Road, Michichi (which I first thought must mean the small village of Michichi but then realized was Michichi Creek, in Drumheller on the north side of the Red Deer River). In the mud along the river where I walked yesterday morning, finding other footprints made before my own, on the dry wide main street on Drumheller where I explored with two of my grandchildren yesterday and the day before. I felt porous in that landscape, every bit of light and scent of sage and mineral tang of water entering my body. In the cemetery where we went to pay respects to the two babies who would have been my aunts (Julia and Myrtle), my grandson Henry, age 2, told his mum that he loved his grandparents. You should tell them, she said, and he turned to me, said, I love my grandparents. He is the age Julia was when she died. He is as alive as any child I’ve ever known. When I showed him the bear skin on the ceiling of the Last Chance Saloon, just above our table as we ate grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers, he said delightedly, A star bear! A star bear! (It was, in a way — its skin spreadeagled against the low ceiling…)

Yes, I felt porous, the generations coming to rest in my cheekbones, the small ache in my knees as I unfolded myself from the seat of the rental car in front of the renovated miners cottage where we stayed just a block from the river, its kitchen lit by Benjamin nonexplosive lamps that might once have lit the entrance to a shaft, maybe even the shaft of a coalmine where my grandfather earned a small living for his 10 dependents on a farm near Michichi Creek. My granddaughter Kelly wanted the old story of the mermaid at bedtime, not the Disney version but the heartbreaking story written by Hans Christian Andersen in the book I bought for her in Edmonton and which we read over several days, her questions so sensible: Why does the mermaid have to give up her tail? It’s so beautiful. And her voice? Why couldn’t she keep half her voice?

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Did the little girls buried in the Drumheller Cemetery love stories? Did anyone have time to read to them or hold them and sing, as we sang, the old songs, the ones John remembered, the ones I recalled? It was a hundred years ago that Myrtle died of diphtheria, 95 since Julia died of the same disease.I want nothing more right now than to live in the layers, folded into the place and the remnant lives of those who lived before me, lit by the soft light of those old lamps.

the lamp

“Something that happened a century ago, west of the 4th Meridian.”

julia's funeral

From Euclid’s Orchard, published last fall by Mother Tongue Publishing:

And did my grandmother ever tell us of her first husband and the shack he built for her on the banks of the Red Deer River, how he dug a garden in preparation, how he went under the earth for coal, some cold potatoes wrapped in clean cloth, or did this come from an aunt, looking back under poplars in a yard, thinking of the distance a family travels, by water, by rail. As far away as the Carpathian Mountains, so far that some of them die on the way to lives of their own? Two babies buried in the Drumheller cemetery, where we saw showy milkweed, heard the click of beetle wings, the small strophe of local music almost too faint to hear. And a husband, a brother, either sleeping in the mass flu grave or else somewhere forgotten,their own journey abandoned too soon.No,I don’t believe she told me.All of this I gleaned from a sentence here or there, a fragment of song, a remembered prayer on a string of beads. Something that happened a century ago, west of the 4th Meridian.

Migratory, like monarchs, we find our own urgent way to a place where the sun and earth greet us, give us rest. We find our place among wild plants on a roadside, we hear beetles and the lazy drone of bees. If we sit on the grass and let the dry wind ruffle our hair, will the voices come to us again?

“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?


some brought flowers

So, Euclid’s Orchard is well and truly launched.Maybe it began to feel like it was actually in the world when I saw the sign in Talewind Books earlier in the week,


and certainly when my publisher Mona Fertig and her husband arrived for lunch yesterday on their way back from Savary Island,


and, well, the day before that, when I baked the desserts that were waiting to be packed up for transport down to Sechelt.

just desserts

Two apple galettes (“One apple tree remains under my care. It’s a Merton Beauty, bought as a tiny plant at a produce store in Sechelt.”), a peach and blueberry galette (“…that road led back to the foot of Poignant Mountain, forgotten and then found, lard pails stained by blueberries…”), and a dense chocolate torte that uses 2 Tbsp. of flour so it’s easy to make it gluten-free with rice flour for those who don’t eat wheat. A round of Brie, a jar of last year’s pepper jelly, fierce with Vietnamese peppers, and a few Merton Beauties to have with the cheese.

The Sechelt Library opened its doors, set up chairs, long tables for those desserts, tea and coffee, and lots of posters of Euclid’s Orchard‘s vivid cover. I wondered to Margaret Hodgins (the Chief Librarian) if anyone would actually come but by the time she introduced me, people were spilling out of the doors. It was so wonderful to talk about my book and read passages to people I’ve known forever and new faces too. To talk about how math came late to me, after a visit to Brendan when he was at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute above Berkeley in 2013—he’d told us that he and Cristen were expecting a baby and I saw for the first time how we move forward in time, how we anticipate the future and how the past is hovering still, as potent as anything, that we are everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, and that Brendan knew equations that might help me to know this more deeply. To know him more deeply, as a man, as a father. And it was the Sechelt Library that had the copy of Joy of Math dvds that I brought home and diligently watched on my computer screen, understanding about 30% of the material but realizing how beautiful the structures are. (At least one person came to me afterwards to say that he was going to have a look at the Joy of Math. T. Kishkan, math recruiter?) I’d asked for a screen to have behind me as I read and on it a series of images passed quietly, some of them photographs from the book, and others of those strange presences who hovered as I was writing the essays: my grandmother and her first husband in the early days of their marriage; my grandfather’s sisters (I think they must be); the dusty streets of Drumheller, circa 1913, when my grandmother arrived with her 5 children after a long ocean voyage; an ultrasound of a beloved grandchild; my mother in a garden as a small girl; a funeral gathering by the house my father grew up in, though three years before he was born. I felt them in the room as I felt them last fall.

Anyway, it was wonderful, all of it. Some brought flowers.

jane's bouquet


harrisons on the woodstove

After the reading, Bev Shaw sold books and tucked a copy of the little keepsake John printed into them. (It helps to have a husband who is a letterpress printer, among his other accomplishments.)

keepsake with linocut

People ate and talked and I thought how the whole evening was a gift. A year ago, I wasn’t sure how the future would unfold because of what tests and scans had revealed. That’s all in the past now, part of the never-ending story that I am constantly listening to, trying to tell.



among schoolchildren

in school
two schoolchildren, one with a black eye.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? —William Butler Yeats (of course)

Here in Edmonton I am caught in a wrinkle of time. Every day I walk over to spend time with my grandchildren, the two that live here and, until yesterday, the one visiting from Ottawa. This neighbourhood, Strathcona, isn’t one my family lived in. When my grandparents moved to the area from Drumheller, in the late 1930s or early 1940s, they moved to Beverly. I’ve written in previous posts about the bill of sale from the Prins family for a small house my grandfather relocated to a piece of property in Beverly; and I have a file of bills and receipts for materials that indicate my grandfather also built a house on the property. I remember sleeping in a small house with a tin roof, separate from the main house, and how my brothers and I raced to the other house during a hail storm where we found my parents and my grandparents drinking coffee and talking.

The other day, some of us drove out to the Ukrainian Cultural Village Museum. I’d been before but wanted Forrest in particular (a historian who works in a museum) to see the churches, the train station, the Bukovyna house that must be something like the one my grandfather lived in before he came to North America. The grandbabies loved the chickens and pigs and spent a lot of time picking dandelions while Forrest, Manon, Cristen, and I tried to see as much of the historical material as possible. I think there’s something missing at the site (thank you, Myrna Kostash…)—from my explorations in Drumheller last year, I know that the Ukrainians in Canada were involved in the labour movement, and yet there’s not a whiff of any of that history at the Cultural Village Museum. My grandfather was a coal miner and so was my grandmother’s first husband, as was her brother. But still we had moments in the Museum, walking to and from the churches, watching a man scatter seed for the hens, hearing the price of cream (with and without freight charges) at the train station, where I had some insights into the lives of my grandparents in those early days in this province. And when we went to the Russia school (so-called because of transcription slips between the Cyrillic and the Latin alphabet), two of my grandchildren sat at a desk to scribble on slates and I remembered something my father once told me about his mother. It’s included in one of the essays in my forthcoming collection of essays.

Your parents barely spoke English. You said your mother attended school with you when you were six so she could learn to write, her large body somehow fitting into the chairs in a primary classroom. Of course this brings me to tears. Your parents were struggling to make a living so you were raised mostly by your grown half-sisters. They adored you, gave you every attention, and made you into one of those boys convinced of their superior authority. —from “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”, forthcoming in Euclid’s Orchard, September 2017.

a badlands antiphon


The one essay in my forthcoming collection that’s giving me trouble is a long one about the search for my grandmother’s first home in Canada. Or, more correctly, it’s about the search for a homestead taken out (in theory) by her first husband, Joseph Yopek, who came to Canada around 1911. His name appears on the Alberta Homestead Records, a guide I used to try to find out information about the place he prepared for my grandmother’s arrival from what’s now the Czech Republic in 1913.

The editor for this collection has rightly observed that the essay doesn’t quite work. All the parts are there but they don’t add up to a finished piece. I know she’s right. When my publisher wondered in the fall if I might have enough essays for a book, I thought I didn’t. And then I went through a series of medical tests that indicated I could be facing a fairly serious health situation. I thought to myself, You need to finish the work you’ve begun because your days could be numbered. Well, of course all our days are numbered but there you have it. And I confess I sort of rushed this particular essay. My hope for it was something other than the way I put it together. So my challenge right now is to find its true shape. In the beginning I wanted it to be an antiphon. Not necessarily the sort I knew, where a choir or group of voices (or sometimes even a single voice) responds to lines of a psalm or other liturgical text. But I wanted to call across the years to the man my grandmother married, a man who seems to have disappeared from any kind of recorded memory, and I wanted him to answer. I wanted to engage in a kind of song with him. But then I let the writing take me elsewhere. Into the dry archive of land grants and the Department of the Interior. Men writing to other men in the language of early 20th c. bureaucracy.

Yesterday I worked for most of the day on other essays. Their editorial requirements were pretty straightforward. Commas. Clarity. Eliminating all those parenthetical asides, or at least thinking about them in a different way. I enjoy this work. I want this book to be as good as I can make it.

But in the middle of the manuscript is this long brooding shadow. I kept scrolling past it to pretend that fixing it would be easy enough, why didn’t I simply leave it for a bit? And in the night, I was awake thinking about it and it suddenly seemed so clear. Return to your original vision. Sing to Joseph Yopek and maybe he will sing back. Never mind that he would sing in Polish, a language I don’t understand. Music can take us beyond language, can’t it? After all, the liturgy of Joseph Yopek’s church would have been Latin and surely he didn’t understand Latin, apart from its context. And when you think about it, liturgy is not confined to the Catholic church. The word itself is a Greek composite, λειτουργία, or leitourgia, meaning “public service”.  The liturgy I have in mind would be service to my family, our own particular music. And his part has been lost, this man who died in 1918 and whose grave I couldn’t even find in the small-ish Drumheller Cemetery.