confined space


Looking for something else connected to my father, I found this, in the births column of The Crowsnest of March, 1955: To Petty Officer A.J. Kishkan, Stettler, and Mrs. Kishkan, a daughter. This is the first time I appeared in print, though unnamed. When I was born, on January 6, 1955, my father was at sea, as we used to say, on the HMCS Stettler. The telegram my mother sent to him was received in Hawaii. Looking for images of life on the Stettler, I found this:


I don’t see my dad among these sailors enjoying their time at the Kam Inn, in Hilo, Hawaii. But who knows. I want to know more about his life in those years. He spent so much time away from us and in trying to figure out who he was, I’ve found strange little signposts. This is a passage from an essay I wrote in the spring, from a section about my father’s time on the MacKenzie River, cutting cordwood for steamships. (In this section of the essay, I’ve used both margins to try to weave passages together, as rivers weave and move apart. So that’s why the movement is right to left.)

I thought of my father, working for a time on one of the last MacKenzie River steamships, as a deckhand, and I think he cut cordwood too. He was 16 years old. Would it have been the SS Distributor? The SS MacKenzie? I don’t know, though my son thinks it was the Distributor, which began its life on the Thompson River. Both were decommissioned shortly after the Second World War; my father had enlisted in the last years of the war, then left the military to work in a meat-packing plant. It didn’t last and he enlisted again in the Navy, learning a trade and raising a family. (A report by an occupational counsellor says, “He enjoyed working in confined quarters aboard ship.”) But sometimes his eyes would go dreamy and he’d remember the long hours of daylight on the MacKenzie River and I wish now I’d asked about the work. (For so many years, my heart was frozen in his company.)

I’m curious about those confined quarters and tried to find images of what a radio room would have looked like in those years, when he was a radar technician:


And where would he have slept, as he dreamed of his young wife in Victoria, with her two small sons and a new baby, me, while he was so far away. I’ve found images of bunks, with lockers beside them, and the thought of him in a narrow bed, in a confined space, with limited time to think about us, waiting for him, makes me wish I had our years together to experience again. I’d have been kinder. Maybe he’d have been more patient. I’d have asked more questions. Maybe he would have too.

an algorithm for the passing of time

I’ve been sorting through some photographs I took while my family was here last week. I love this one, my grandbaby Kelly in the rocking chair in my study.

kelly in rocking chairJohn’s mum brought this chair for son Forrest when he was a toddler. For years it was in the kitchen, among the chairs in front of the woodstove (“Here’s an rocking chair for someone who likes to rock, an armchair for two more to curl up in.” Yup, we liked the Friendly Giant television show and yup, we had the chairs…) Then I moved it to my study when there was no one small enough to sit in it any longer. The quilt behind Kelly is one my paternal grandmother made for my older brother Dan when he was a baby. (He’s 64…) I never appreciated it fully until I began to make quilts myself, nearly 30 years ago. There’s nothing grand about it but it’s one of the few things I have from my grandmother. This little quilt appears in one of the first essays I wrote when I returned to writing after my children were born. For some reason it didn’t make it into my first collection of essays, Red Laredo Boots, but it did appear in Phantom Limb in 2007.

In Provo, I thought for the first time in years of the small crib quilt my grandmother had made for my older brother. Nothing of the sort had been made for me but the little quilt somehow ended up in my possession. I used it for my children when they were babies, its rough squares of old cotton — remnants of curtains, housedresses, my grandfather’s pyjamas — offering a comfort beyond warmth. I didn’t know my grandmother very well; she died when I was nine or ten. When she was alive, we visited in the summers and I found her to be rather terrifying — an ancient Slavik-accented matriarch who was practically deaf and lived surrounded by daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, seated in a yellow rocking chair on a porch of a house in Edmonton, far from our home. I looked, all the years later, at the crib-quilt she’d stitched and knew something of her hands, the way she saw colour, the thrifty spirit that must have been so pleased to find a use for the bits of good cloth. The quilt was backed with red and white ticking, perhaps left over from stuffing mattresses with goose feathers from the fowl kept by my grandparents in the days of my father’s childhood. It was obvious that my grandmother was not an accomplished quilter; her squares were lopsided and the stitching irregular; but I felt a kinship with her in a way more profound than I ever felt sitting by the yellow rocker and trying to decipher what she was saying to me, all those years ago, in summer.

The rocking chair in my study doesn’t sit empty. My old teddy bear Georgie has pride of place during the times when Kelly isn’t here.

georgie in rocking chairGeorgie was bought in Hawaii in January, 1955. My father was on the HMCS Stettler, enroute to Pearl Harbor, and my mother sent him a telegram to let him know he had a daughter. He returned home a few weeks later with Georgie. I’m sure Georgie was more handsome in those days but in some ways he has always looked the same to me. I couldn’t sleep without him as a child. Or at least I wouldn’t. Once, when I was three and living on May Street in Victoria, I left him on Moss Rocks across the road from our house. At bedtime — it was winter, I remember, and dark — my father had to go out with a flashlight to find my bear. In my family it became a story of how much my father loved me, though I always thought of it as a story about how much I needed my Georgie.

I know I keep saying this but where does time go? How can all these things whirl in my memory, retrievable but murky, how can it be that I remember something that happened when I was three and how can I still feel like the girl of six who made a bed for her bear in a wooden mandarin orange box and did the difficult thing and let him sleep alone? There must be an algorithm for this, for time passing and accumulating, though when I try to find out how that might look, I come across formulae too difficult for me to wrap my mind around. Time complexity analysis. Polynomial time algorithms. The sublinear time algorithm sounds promising and maybe I’ll try to figure that one out.

The person in my family who might know is my son Brendan, the father of Kelly. He’s a mathematician. He’s also the one who was musing about something like this as a boy of about five (it seems like yesterday) and who said, not to anyone in particular, but with a kind of wonder: “Stuffed animals are a lot like grownups. They get older and older and older but they never grow an inch.”

enroute to Pearl Harbor

This is the telegram my mother sent to my father 58 years ago to announce my birth.


I was born in Victoria and my father was away at sea. At the top of the telegram, he’s printed: Rec’d in HMCS Stettler Enroute to Pearl Harbor. I think of my mother holding me and dictating the text she would send to her husband, father of her two sons. DARLING THERESA DIANE ARRIVED EVENING WEIGHING SIX POUNDS ALL WELL WE ALL LOVE YOU AND MISS YOU…

The telegram came to me a few years before my parents died. They tucked it into a birthday package. Like most family papers, it hadn’t been stored carefully away — look, it’s torn, discoloured, and folded into 16ths. (My father probably kept it in his wallet until he arrived home to see his new tiny daughter. Six pounds!) And true to family tradition, I haven’t done anything special with it but keep it in my dictionary. I’d like to honour it, honour the memory of the mother who sent it to her husband, far away, though loved and missed (and in those years a telegram cost precious dollars, each word measured and considered). Maybe this is the year I’ll frame it or even simply enclose it in a mylar envelope to protect what’s left of it.

So much of our history is rag-tag. A telegram, the teddy bear my father bought in Hawaii as a baby gift and who still sits in my study, much worse for wear (or well-loved), in  a small wicker rocking chair. Photographs unsorted in boxes, some of the people beyond identifying. Or a phrase, Enroute to Pearl Harbor, with the mystery of that journey, the mystery of the man who received the telegram, held it in his hands, thought of the woman he loved and his two sons, and now a daughter. Probably he never felt so far from home.