voices from west of the 4th meridian

I keep hearing them, voices from a hundred years ago, on the banks of the Red Deer River. I’m working on something I think of as an antiphonal essay, a series of calls and responses. Sometimes the calls are my own, back through the decades, to ask questions of my grandmother and her first husband, the other members of that early incarnation of my family who lived in a settlement of squatters in Drumheller from 1913 – 1917; and sometimes the calls are theirs — to the institutions and individuals who were part of the world they lived in. And the responses? They are often choruses of voices, or occasionally a single voice. The voice of Frank Collins, Superintendent of School Lands, Department of the Interior, Winnipeg, who wrote “I do not consider that we should force the squatters to vacate this land as it might seriously affect the operation of the mines…” He knew, as others knew, that the reason people had built shacks illegally on a quarter section of property known as School Lands was mostly because they were poor, there was nowhere else for them to live in the tiny community of Drumheller, and their labour was needed in the nearby coal mines. The voices of representatives from the Canadian Northern Railway who responded to Frank Collins: “The squatter situation has developed to our disadvantage.” The voices of the surveyors, the mayor of Drumheller (in a terse telegram): “Conditions are a menace to towns health and finances as we are practically debarred from any revenue from people on this land.” Later voices from people remembering what it was like to live in the settlement:”There were many coyotes running in packs. When they howled there were very noisy and would wake up the children. Each house had its scrap heap where you put out ashes, etc. The coyotes would come across the river in search of food from these scrap heaps. At night you could see them run from these heaps when you went outside…The houses were longer one way than the other, and could be converted into two rooms. They had a caravan roof, had tar-paper on the outside walls and roof and had no water or toilet inside. Those homes with children had bunk beds put along the back wall.” There were nine children in the home of my grandmother and her first husband so I am trying to listen to the voices inside their house (20×25 feet) and outside, as my grandmother chased her chickens and hoed potatoes in the big garden (its dimensions, 80×125 feet, found their way onto the list detailing the worth of the buildings in the settlement once a decision was made to allow the squatters to buy their lots). I hear them, I hear them across the decades, and it’s like a plain-spoken opera, an oratorio, the voices beautiful in their insistence on being heard. Even the questions on the patent application for homesteads:

When did you build your house thereon? And when did you begin actual residence thereon?

How much breaking have you done upon your homestead in each year since you obtained entry, and how many acres have you cultivated each year?

How many horned cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, of which you are owner have you had on your homestead each year since date of obtaining entry? Give number of each year.

So I listen and notate and try to find a shape for this material and all the while I have these photographs on my desk, a little gallery of lost time.


“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.

“If we return to the old home as to a nest”

I’ve been hard at work on an essay about my father’s family and the discoveries I made on a recent trip to Alberta. It’s a sad process, in a way. I think of them in their bleak house in Drumheller with its legacy of death and illness — the Spanish flu, diphtheria. The graves in the nearby cemetery, the marked ones and the unmarked. In the photographs I’ve been studying, there are blurry moments when I suspect I’m seeing ghosts. A hat on a chair. A dog watching an empty road, as though in anticipation. But those ghosts are also my ghosts so it’s work I need to do.

This morning I walked out to the garden to pick some kale for my morning smoothie and heard robin song. It was coming from the huge crabapple tree, given us 35 years ago by John’s mother; it’s now in full bloom. It’s so beautiful that you don’t even notice that the top branches were broken last fall by a bear. If you’re not familiar with this tree, you see only the deep pink blossoms, alive with bees and robins, and you don’t know that the fruit is small and scabby. And you won’t know that Vera Grafton once climbed its lower branches to gather fruit for jelly. That was the visit when she told me that her father had courted her mother by canoe, across Georgia Strait. Her mother lived in Nanaimo and her father was a member of the Shishalth Nation. How many years ago was that? Vera was in her 80s, I believe, when she picked the crabapples; and that was in 1997 or 1998. So think back, back, to the early days of the 20th century.

Coming back from the garden, I saw one robin fly to the nest under the eaves by the side porch and another quickly settle itself on the nest. This is the tree where they wait for the exchange to take place:

nest (2).JPG

This nest site is not the best place from our perspective. The side porch is where the woodbox is and on weekends like this one — wet and cool — we still use our woodstove. When we left for Alberta, there was nest building in an elbow of grapevine on the south side of the house. Dry grass, moss, lichens, small twigs. Then returning last week, I looked up as I was bringing in stuff from the car and there was a almost-completed nest under the eaves by the porch. No sign of the builders but next morning one of them at least was back at work. And we’re bringing wood in the front door, enough for one fire at a time. But watching the robins is worth a little inconvenience. Some years three clutches of young have fledged from this location. I often wonder if each year’s parents are the original parents or else subsequent generations who return and return and return. The song returns, the blossoms return, and that bear will return (alas).

nest (1).JPG

We have pleasure to look forward to over the next few weeks. The sound of chicks, then the occasional glimpse of them — or their open beaks! — as the parents work to keep them fed. The diligence of the parents as they swoop in and out with worms and other delicacies. And if we’re lucky, the sight of the young leaving the nest, flapping ungracefully on their first flight, often careening briefly through the air and landing in the lilacs. The parents scold and encourage. Some mornings we’ll see the family entire in the blue air as the young literally exercise their wings and learn to feed themselves.

Of course by now you will know that I am talking about my own family == three children raised in our homemade house, nurtured and loved, and coaxed easily from the nest with every hope for their long survival. Oh, and their return! “So there is also an alas in this song of tenderness. If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.” — from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, with thanks to Gaston Bachelard.

There are ghosts, and ghosts. The blurry moments in the old photographs of my grandparents’ home in Drumheller as a funeral is recorded or a young boy — my father — rides his tricycle over the hard earth. The scratchy signature of my grandmother’s first husband on a petition to Ottawa, begging to be allowed to stay in the shack he’d built on land he didn’t own. It’s all mine, if I can only record it and commemorate it in all its difficult details.

“I’m remembering everything backward”

This time last week we were returning from Alberta, a trip taken in part to visit Brendan, Cristen, and granddaughter Kelly, and in part to travel to the Badlands in search of ancient Kishkans. We were last in Drumheller in 1987. It was the summer Angelica was two and we went to visit the Royal Tyrell Museum so her brothers could feast their eyes on bones and reconstructions. We camped. Angelica had a tantrum in the foyer of the Museum, in full view of everyone leaving the wonderful presentation for families and children. Forrest and Brendan imagined, I think, that one could simply walk trails and find fossils and they were disappointed to learn that such things weren’t possible. (A little how I felt when I found out one couldn’t wander the Burgess Shale in a casual way.) When we’d planned the trip to Drumheller, I might have thought there would be an opportunity to find something of my family’s origins there, as new immigrants to Canada. My father was still alive and I remember asking him where the family homestead was located. Is it just hindsight, knowing what I know now about that “homestead”, or was he cagey about it? But actually there, I realized I would have to know more in order to find what I thought I was looking for. I thought there would be an opportunity to ask my father detailed questions and I thought he might be willing to answer them.

What I gathered, from stories, tattered paper, one online record from the Alberta Homesteads 1870-1930 database listing my grandmother’s first husband and a legal description of a plot, a few old photographs, like this one, my father as a three-year old (it’s written on the back) in the yard of the “old house”,

dad in drumheller

anyway, what I gathered was that there was a homestead. I thought my grandmother would have inherited it after her first husband’s death in 1918. My father talked about a “farm”, chickens, a cow whose milk my grandmother turned into butter to sell during the hard days of the early 1930s.

Instead, I learned, in the Provincial Archives of Alberta, reading documents on microfilm, that my grandmother’s first husband was part of a settlement of squatters. A settlement of desperately poor people living on School Lands near the townsite of Drumheller in 1914 on. There’s a long paper trail (on microfilm, that is) of these people applying to have the land subdivided so that they might be able to buy the small plots they’d built houses on. The letters from Ottawa are stern, and understandably so, I suppose. (No one wanted to condone the settlement because, well, what if everyone did it?) The houses are detailed in one letter, with values determined. My grandmother’s husband’s dwelling is described as “a shack, 20 x 25, with a garden 80 x 125; value $150.00)”. Some of the dwellings are dugouts, with canvas roofs. Some are covered with tarpaper. Someone has a stable (value: $15.00) I don’t quite understand how the whole situation was resolved — many of the documents were hard to read and I ran out of time in 1918 when it seemed that an offer was about to be made to the squatters to allow them to buy their plots. By October, my grandmother’s husband was dead, in the Spanish flu epidemic and she was a widow with 9 children. One died a few months later.

I don’t know if this was the land my father grew up on. His mother married again and there was a child born in 1921. This is her funeral, with a note on the photograph indicating again, “the old house”.

julia's funeral

I think it might be called the old house because apparently there was a fire and a house was lost. This one? I don’t know. And was the second one built on the same land, the one that housed the new marriage, two more children, with one dying, the tiny girl in the coffin above, now buried with her half-sister in the Drumheller Cemetery, but we know, or at least I know, that the dead take up as much space in a house as the living do.

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, I saw the ultrasound of the baby who will be born in August. (The same grey scale film as these photographs, oddly enough.) I saw the baby’s hand, the baby’s face. And last year, in late February, as John and I were in Amsterdam to attend a wedding, a call came to our hotel from Forrest and Manon to tell us that they were expecting a baby. Moments later, an ultrasound of that baby — beautiful Arthur — arrived on my small Samsung tablet. And all of these are held in my mind and heart, 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.

I’m reading Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe right now, a strangely compelling novel. It took some getting used to — the prose is anything but brisk and lively — but the main character, a writer in his seventies, is reliving the early years of his life. There’s a poem in the novel which functions as a sort of mantra — the first two lines were written by the character’s mother and finished by him. He realizes that it tells the story of that relationship and it also sums up so much of what he is thinking about at the late stages of his career and his life.

You didn’t get Kogii ready to go up into the forest

And like the river current, you won’t return home.

In Tokyo during the dry season

I’m remembering everything backward,

From old age to earliest childhood.

Last night, after dinner, we walked a route that brings us home through the woods. I was thinking and remembering so many things on the walk. How the maples are blooming earlier than usual and what was that song I was hearing (a warbler?) and how many times did Angelica and I collect tadpoles in the pond we pass on the walk and the last time my father did this walk with us, he could barely walk back. I keep thinking that if I just pay attention, it will all become clear to me, the old house, how close it was to the Red Deer River, who slept where in its small dimensions, and how to find my own way to it, dreaming or awake.

bridge over the Rosebud River

bridge over Rosebud River

When you visit a place where a difficult parent was young, you find yourself looking for them — at them — in a different way. My father was melancholic. He was given to gloomy prognostications about the world, himself, us, and maybe even life itself. He was born in Drumheller, a place we traveled to as children a time or two, to visit relations mostly, and I seem to remember a visit to the cemetery to stand back while my father paid homage (if that is the word) to two sisters buried under a single stone along one edge of the cemetery. In the complicated and slightly tangled kinship chart that was his family, one of the sisters was born to his mother and her first husband. That child died in infancy, of diphtheria, seven years before my father was born. Between her birth and death, there was also the death of my grandmother’s first husband, of Spanish flu, and someone whom I think might have been my grandmother’s brother. (I am trying to figure out dates, places of birth, etc.) My grandmother, a widow with eight children, remarried a year or two later and had a baby daughter with her new husband (my grandfather). That baby died at the age of three, also from diphtheria. Then there was my father. He was much younger than his half-siblings –whom he never considered halves. They were his brothers and sisters and in his father’s obituary, in 1959, they were listed as his sons and daughters. At some point in his childhood, my father left Drumheller to live with a sister in Beverly. My grandparents  stayed in Drumheller for a few more years. My grandfather was a coal-miner, though at which of the valley’s fabled mines, I have yet to find out. The other morning, standing on the Rosedale side of the Red Deer River, looking at the suspension bridge swinging slightly in the wind, the bridge built by the Great West Coal Company in 1931 to take men to their mining operation, I wondered if it might have been that one. (“Warning: The coal in the slag heaps has been smouldering for years. DO NOT approach smoking coal or climb slag heaps. A thin black crust may hide coal or burned out caverns underneath.”)

So when you visit a place where a difficult parent was young, and you see the bridges, the bare hills, the low buildings crouched out of the wind, the taverns “under new management”, and the remnants of hard small farms, you begin to know that parent in a different way. This country is called the Badlands, defined by the Canadian Encyclopedia this way:

Barren, scoured and eroded by water and etched by weathering and wind-driven sand and rain, badlands are dramatic landforms that develop an intricate network of deeply incised, narrow, winding gullies and occasional fantastically shaped HOODOO ROCKS.

Steep, often precipitous and densely rilled slopes almost devoid of vegetation are striking evidence of the forces of EROSION. To European settlers, such areas were clearly worthless. Perhaps the term badlands is derived from the French terres mauvais à traverser, meaning “land hard to cross,” as the French were among the earliest explorers in the interior of western North America.

I wish my father was still alive so I could ask him questions. There are so many. Was the man who lived in the next lot, the one with your grandmother’s maiden surname, was he her brother? Did you swim in the river? Did you see bluebirds? (We saw a courting pair in the hills above the Last Chance Saloon.) How often did your mother visit her daughters under the grass in the Drumheller Cemetery? Did you ride your bike as far as Wayne, as far as East Coulee, as far as Carbon? Was St. Anthony’s church the one where you were an altar boy? Were you allowed to swing on the suspension bridge while coal smouldered in the distance?  Is your mother’s first husband one of those buried in the common grave for Spanish flu victims (though he isn’t named on the plaque)? I wonder what one I’d begin with?

There are days when I know I’ll remember standing on the bridge over the Rosebud River, just after 7 a.m., watching magpies in the willows along the edge, with the sun already warm on those bare slopes. Dad, it’s a bridge I wish I could stand on with you.

The honeymoon suite at the Last Chance Saloon


That’s where we are tonight, old marrieds in Wayne, Alberta. I’ve been hunting for ancient Kishkans in the Provincial Archives in Edmonton and the Drumheller Cemetery. Surprising discoveries which I’ll write about later (think squatters rather than homesteaders…). A certain poignancy to finding names on old microfilm and realizing how surprised those new Canadians would be to know that three generations later, a young couple has settled in Edmonton, across the river from a later 1st generation home in Beverly; and that their little child hears magpies every day (my father loved magpies). How the world changes, and doesn’t. My father also loved prairie crocuses, which are in bloom on the hills above Wayne —


the distances

This time last week I was basking in the company of my new grandbaby. In Edmonton, there was rain and John and I visited the Royal Alberta Museum where I really liked the Western Threads exhibit — quilts, hooked rugs, a few exquisite dresses of hand-dyed silk. We explored the Bug Room and imagined ourselves into the future, showing Kelly the cases of huge stick insects, the tarantulas, and the various beetles.

This morning, life is both rich, and (I confess) a little lonely as I think of how quickly babies change and grow. We Skyped yesterday and it was good to see that tangle of arms and legs and small downy head cradled by her dad but it’s not the same. And now I know how my parents felt when my children were small, how their parents felt — my grandparents (ironically) in Edmonton while my family lived in Victoria, or Matsqui, or Halifax. My mother’s foster mother was in Halifax so we did see her weekly while we lived there in the early 1960s but our relationship was always formal, not intimate. As I suspect was her relationship with my mother. For all the years we lived on the west coast, my mother wrote to her mother weekly. I have some of the photographs she sent to Halifax from Victoria — a young woman with her first son, then later her four children; those children posed with Santa Claus or standing in rivers and lakes in their bathing suits. Those children posed in front of reconstructed dinosaurs near Drumheller on summer visits to Alberta.

Before that, the vast distance between Central and Eastern Europe and Drumheller, which is where my grandmother came to with her first husband and five children, then seven. Did my grandmother’s parents and relations in Horni Lomna know of her own second marriage, my father’s birth, the subsequent generations? And will I ever know them? Online databases make certain discoveries possible but others are hidden in history. Or in the uncertainties presented by my own inability to read other languages. I’ve been tracking one thread — my grandfather’s connections to Sniatyn, in Galicia — but it keeps fraying, running thin. Certainly nothing to hook into a rug or piece together as a quilt block. Not yet.

In the meantime, I’m thinking of a quilt for Kelly. I made some baby blankets and a crib quilt but that was before I knew who she was, before I’d held her long fingers in mine. Or had my fingers gripped by hers. I have some ideas and will keep them in my mind until I can see how to stitch something that will be hers alone.

kelly and her parents

memory and assumptions

I’m learning to be more careful when it comes to reading the past. For instance: I believed my father’s stories about his mother and her journey to the new world. This world, though of course North America was very different in the early part of the 20th century, before the wars, before the Great Depression, before climate change and the migration of populations to the cities that swell and strain at their seams as I write. So when did your mother come to North America, I asked, and he told me 1911. But the passenger manifest proves it was 1913.  The second mistake is mine entirely. I read the names on the manifest — Anna, Josef, Jan, Paul, Barbara, Franc –and assumed the Josef was my grandmother’s first husband. But then I scrolled over and saw that in fact Anna was travelling with five children. Josef was her son! So she was alone on the Mount Temple in the winter of 1913, in steerage, with five children. Paul and Jan (who became John) were twins, and were 4; Josef was 3, Barbara, 2, and Franc was a year old. It seems that Anna’s husband had a brother in Drumheller, Paul Yopek, and I’m guessing (or assuming) that Josef senior had gone on ahead to make arrangements for them. His name appears in the Alberta Homestead Records for this parcel of land: Section 11, Township 29, Range 20, Meridian 4.

Did he meet them in Saint John when the Mount Temple arrived on March 4? Or did she travel across Canada by train to Drumheller with her five small children? I know that a sixth child was born 9 months after her arrival so things must have gone well, in any case.