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.