redux: the Passable Builders at work

Note: this was two years ago today. I’ve been out on my own deck, planting zinnia seeds and moving pots around, remembering the pleasure of watching my sons and their father work together, making jokes, adjourning for beer at the end of the day. And somehow during those days in Edmonton, inbetween walks with the children, making food with my daughters-in-law, driving out to the Ukrainian Village Museum,  I proof-read the final galleys of Euclid’s Orchard with those same men and their lives on almost every page.

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One plan for our time in Edmonton, if weather and time conspired congenially, was to help Brendan and Cristen replace a rotting porch at the back of their house in Strathcona and to build a new free-standing deck under the leafy maples in one corner of their back yard. It’s the place where outdoor tables go for summer meals and so plans have passed back and forth between John and Brendan for a few months. Best size? Lumber dimensions? John loves a project like this. It’s been a long time since two neophytes (poets!) built a house on the Sechelt peninsula and though many projects have arisen since then—adding rooms to accommodate a growing family; replacing the original decks —I have to say that my husband loves construction. I told him once that I thought humans had vestigial building knowledge in their hands and when the need arose to call on that knowledge, it would be there. (I know you’re rolling your eyes!)

Forrest, Manon, and Arthur planned to spend a week in Edmonton too. Five of our days overlapped with theirs. (I just took them to the airport.) All week John and his sons measured wood, hammered joists, screwed down long lengths of lumber for the decking. They joked that they were the Passable Builders (their surname being Pass). This morning, after breakfast, I asked them to sit on the porch (which may or may not see railings and perhaps a bench or two):

passable builders, with foreman

The old porch is waiting to have its nails removed:

old porch.JPG

And here’s the deck where we’ll eat our dinner tonight (the remaining two Passable builders are out buying the last two pieces of lumber to finish it as well as stair materials):

deck under maple

While details were being weighed and pondered (“Measure twice, cut once.”), I looked over to see how weeds thrive in sunlight:

weed thrive in sunlight

 

blue windows

windows

Yesterday I had a laser procedure to mend a retinal tear in one of my eyes; the other eye is being monitored because of suspected vitreous detachment. This is probably a result of my fall on ice in Edmonton last week. I thought I had a badly bruised and possibly cracked coccyx (my doctor confirmed that either or both are likely) but then developed some visual, well, not problems exactly because the experience was very beautiful but apparently beauty is not a consideration when your retina is torn. You need to have it repaired, and as quickly as possible. I’m lucky.

Yesterday I asked my (new to me) ophthalmologist about some things I’d seen while being examined in the Royal Alexandra Hospital’s Eye Institute on Sunday evening (another lucky thing, because there just happened to be a young ophthalmologist in the Institute who was willing to examine me and who alerted me to the necessity of immediate action once we were back on the Coast) and he told me I’d experienced “entoptic phenomena”, visual effects within my eye. I won’t detail those right now because they fit so beautifully into an essay I am writing called “The Blue Etymologies”, an exploration of the colour blue, my work with indigo dye (the image at the beginning of this post is cotton dyed last year), some old blueprints associated with my grandparents in the 1940s Beverly (then a small mining community just outside Edmonton but now part of the city), some cyanotype prints by the 19th century English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, and some other elements a little too complicated to explain just now.

The world of our senses is extraordinary and profound. We see, and then we realize how that happens. We have intense lights directed into our eyes and we see images so beautiful that we weep. Maybe a little because of the discomfort of a cracked tailbone as we sit on the examining chair and the pressure of the ophthalmologist’s tools. But maybe we have been given something else. When I was trying to describe this sensation to my son Forrest on the phone the other evening, he wondered if I’d read Oliver Sacks’s essay, “Altered States”, in which he sees indigo. No, I hadn’t. But yesterday, before my medical appointment, I found a copy at our library and read the essay last night before sleep.

I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…

His methodology sounds a little more interesting than mine (a hard fall on the butt and a torn retina) but yes, that was it. The colour of heaven. Right before, or rather inside, my eye. He never found it again.

stories of snow and shooting stars

We spent five days in Edmonton, visiting our family there. It was cold. Of course it was. Walking from the car to the house, I slipped on ice and my feet shot out from under me. Maybe I cracked my tailbone. The pain was (and is) pretty intense. But this is an injury for which there’s no treatment apart from pain-killers and time. It was wonderful, though, to spend those days with loved ones. One afternoon, John and I stayed with the kids while their parents worked. We made a gingerbread house which was a big hit, particularly the gumdrops. (Our house had long drippy streams of icing and did not resemble the suggested version on the box. And luckily Grandpa John was able to repair the broken wall with extra icing, though it kept threatening to cave in again.) Afterwards he read Kelly and Henry a story about other houses and a wolf who was able to blow them down.

help

Aunty Angie came for three nights from Victoria and so there was a trip to the new museum, tickets for a performance of “Nutcracker in a Nutshell”, and a sleigh-ride around the snowy streets of Strathcona, pulled by Sugar and Spice, blond Belgians from Rattray.

sugar and spice on whyte avenue

On our last day in Edmonton, I wondered at the shooting stars, long streams of silver, I was seeing to the side of my right eye. And the tangles of, what, hair?, that kept drifting across my vision. After some calls to various medical facilities, Brendan and John took me in a blizzard across the low bridge over the North Saskatchewan, its surface a constellation of ice stars, to an emergency room where I was examined, then examined again because I was lucky enough that a resident ophthalmologist just happened to be in the hospital, and told I almost certainly have a posterior vitreous detachment. I won’t say I wasn’t a little scared but it was also strangely beautiful to have a glimpse of my inner eye. The ophthalmologist was puzzled when I asked why I was seeing a particular landscape and a skyscape and thought maybe it was my brain trying to make sense of the instruments and their intense light. Her immediate concern was to try to make sure I could have a follow-up examination at home this week or she was going to insist I stay in Edmonton for further retinal examinations. But finally we left, drove back in the blizzard, and ate Cristen’s delicious dinner (saved for us to enjoy with the bottle of good wine John had bought and the box of assorted macarons I’d chosen at an excellent bakery the day before).

waking

The next morning we woke to a foot of snow over the cars on our street. But people were out and about and so we packed our rental car and drove carefully to the airport. Shooting stars were the least of my worries as we passed abandoned vehicles along the Calgary Trail. We flew home with stories of snow and those silver stars and beautiful children on a horse-drawn sleigh and the mystery of what my eye saw, and didn’t. I am seeing a specialist tomorrow to have another dilation but I think that I will be fine. I think of that wonderful poem, “Stories of Snow”,  by P.K. Page—I was lucky enough to hear her read this several times in her beautiful patrician voice—and what it tells us about vision:

And stories of this kind are often told
in countries where great flowers bar the roads
with reds and blues which seal the route of snow –
as if, in telling, raconteurs unlock
the colour with its complement and go
through to the area behind the eyes
where silent, unrefractive whiteness lies.

the signatures

Last week, while in Edmonton, I posted a photograph of the house I believe my grandfather built in Beverly, in 1946. I knew I had some files of tax records, building materials receipts, and other miscellaneous  papers related to the property my grandparents moved to from Drumheller, so this past week, at home, I’ve spread out the stuff on our dining table (we’ve been eating by the fire, our plates and glasses on a small bench between our chairs….) and tried to piece together a story. I’m still in the very beginning stages of understanding anything much about this period in their lives but I’m planning to continue and also planning to collect what information I’m able to when John and I travel to western Ukraine in September in search of my grandfather’s roots.

I was surprised to find a big blueprinted page of a subdivision plan allowing my grandparents and two other couples — Peter and Pearl Pawliuk, and John and Jennie Walrich — to divide up a large parcel of land. (The survey took place in 1953 and the final plan was approved in 1954.) I will try to figure this out but in the meantime, I was looking at my grandparents’ signatures on the plan and realized that they both looked identical. Hmmm. I knew my grandmother attended school in Drumheller with my father in the mid-1930s; she sat in his classroom, at a small desk, because she wanted to learn to read and write. And the story about my grandfather was that my father taught him to sign his own name at some later date. I think my grandmother signed this document for both of them. I found another document, the bill for the survey itself, with my grandfather’s name on the back, painstakingly signed in blue ink, one clear signature (my grandmother’s?) and two quavery ones. (Someone else signed for the Walrichs with a note asserting it was His Mark and Her Mark.) Was this a practice run for all the legal stuff to come? I have only three photographs of my grandfather. Only a few faint memories. (I was 3 when he died.) I am trying to piece him together, his past, his life as my father’s father, and every small detail has to mean something in the process. It’s all I have.

signatures

Postcard from Beverly, Alberta

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My grandfather built this house in the early 1940s, I believe, when he moved with his family from Drumheller to Beverly, now part of Edmonton. There was another small house behind this one, purchased from the Prins farm, for $200, and moved to this lot. I have a file containing all the receipts  for materials used in the construction of this house, as well as the bill of sale, handwritten, for the smaller house, and it was odd to look at the place this morning, my granddaughter in the car, trying to think of the way a landscape holds us in the plain details as well as the grand ones.  Five generations and a river between my Ukrainian-speaking grandfather and a little girl singing of trains.

“I tasted my way back to the long table…”

fruit.jpg

From “Ballast”, a work-in-progress:

In the thatched house at the Ukrainian Cultural Village Museum near Edmonton, some rough linens, lengths of bright woven cloth on the benches of the good room where guests would be brought, where a wedding was celebrated by 70 guests eating and dancing, the “owner” told us, a man from Bukovina whose daughter-in-law worked in the fenced garden. There were potatoes, beets, feathery fronds of dill everywhere, self-sown, a hardy variety: did it travel with the family from Bukovina, a twist of paper containing its seeds, its beloved flavour, the flavour of home? Along with Black Krim tomatoes, Koda cabbages (from Polish relations), the Viktoria Ukrainskaya peas? Seeds traded with Mennonites for their own hoarded heritage, with Sudeten Germans and Croatians and Armenians for cucumbers, along with Lyaliuks from Belarus. We ate cabbage rolls and cucumber salad green with dill at the snack bar and I tasted my way back to the long table set up in the backyard of my aunt and uncle where my father’s family gathered every time we visited Edmonton, the woman in the kitchen all morning rolling dough and filling pedeha with soft mashed potato and cheese curd and sliced green onions so strong my eyes watered. Slices of hard sausage dark with caraway, and rolls with hard crusts. My uncles held a fist of bread and a glass full of something clear which they drank down, grimaced, then laughed. We had our own drink, raspberry juice with a whiff of vinegar, compot it was called, and was poured from the quart jars, murky with floating fruit, we were asked to bring from a certain shelf in the cellar where spiderwebs draped the windows. Sometimes we pretended to be the uncles, drinking deeply and dancing with our glasses raised high, laughing and slurring our speech. We didn’t know what sorrows they carried in their pockets, hidden away at times like those, but tolerated by their wives who cooked and wiped at red faces with a tea-towel damp with steam.

in place, over time

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.