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

a woman dead for five decades (from a work-in-progress)

The dream was as natural as life. She was there, sitting in a big chair, and I sat with her, my daughter (about fifteen) at my other side. I held her hands with their long cool fingers. She had almost no accent. If the dream had been real life, she’d have been about 120.

We talked. I can’t really remember what we talked about but I was sorry I’d left it so long. I didn’t say this to her but I felt it intensely: if I’d known she was still alive, I’d have visited much sooner.

Holding her hand, I turned my face close to hers. I went to Horni Lomna, I told her, and tears ran down her cheeks. I should have brought you a picture. But those trees…

She said, not as an interruption, but as a memory: those were plum trees. The tears coursed their way down her wrinkled cheeks, water finding a route across dry land.

And spruce? I asked. Spruce, on the road leading to the church?

She nodded.

And is it the Lomna River that passes just in front of the house, with the little bridge over it?

She didn’t say anything.

I put my daughter’s hand in hers. This is your great-granddaughter, I said. But she was thinking about something else, her thin hair pulled into a bun and her house-dress faded. Or perhaps couldn’t see us there in the room where none of the dates fit together – her birth, the trees covered with snow in February in Horni Lomna, the age she was when I was born, my own age when she died, and what would a woman dead for five decades be thinking about in a room with two strangers sitting beside her? Maybe the plum trees by that small house, maybe the weather, maybe the years and what they’d brought, and taken.

my grandmother's house

five generations

I’m reading James Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days, as beautifully written and thoughtful a book as any I’ve ever read. Last night, just before I turned off my light, there was this:

“We know at first hand, as witnesses, perhaps five generations, most brilliantly of course our own; in one direction those of our parents and grandparents, in the other, children and grandchildren. In my own case much was lopped off. The past is haphazard. I think of the remark of the English cabinet member who was retiring to the seventeenth-century Cornwall farmhouse that had always been in his family. It is the men without roots, he said, who are the real poor of this century.”

In the falling light, I thought of this, while tiny bats passed the windows — I hadn’t pulled the curtains — and I thought of it again immediately upon waking. Most days I look at the materials (and they are meagre at best) my parents left and try to think of other ways to interpret them. I’ve written queries to the places named on my grandmother’s birth certificate, tentative testings in English to people with my grandmother’s maiden name, her mother’s name. In the tiny village she came from and the small town nearby, I suspect someone sharing those names is connected to her, to me. But no word comes back. I’ve sent messages to the offspring of my grandmother with her first husband — the children and grandchildren of my father’s half-sisters and brothers — but again, little or nothing. Who were they in their daily lives? What stories did they tell? Who did they leave behind, in Horni Lomna, and Ivankivtsi in Bukovina? I want roots, yes, but also the sound a stone makes thrown into the past, echoing and re-echoing, the widening music finally including me.

P1080293
On this travel document, my grandfather’s surname is Kiszkan.

Of quilts and woodsmoke

Today I’m hoping to begin a quilt. I have some Moravian blueprint bought in Roznov last February, at the Wallachian Open Air Museum —http://www.vmp.cz/en/visitors-tour-the-museum/roznov-pod-radhostem/ The Museum was fascinating, a collection of traditional Wallachian wood buildings, set among spruce trees. It was there (and a little earlier that same day, in my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomna) that I began to feel the stirrings of my own Czech blood. (I’m a quarter Czech, I said to John in wonder as we left that part of the CR by train. How is it that it took me 57 years to realize that?) Anyway, I’ve preshrunk the beautiful fabric and I’m trying to “see” what might be done with it.

blueprint

In the meantime, here’s a short section of the novella I finished last week. I’ve given it to my husband and my daughter to read, to see if it hangs together, if the dialogue works the way I’ve presented it — I didn’t want to clutter the page with quotation marks or em dashes so I tried to embed the dialogue within the actual narrative. I might have to revisit this but for now I like it. So this is the narrator, a young woman in her late 20s in 1978 (and no, she’s not me…), considering a quilt she has inherited from her grandmother, a Roma woman who came to Canada in 1913, falling in love with a Czech man on the Mount Temple and marrying him once they arrived in Canada.

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1978

I shook out the quilt. It was large, big enough for a queen-sized bed, composed of scraps of wool, mostly, though I could also identify some coarse linen, a few bits and pieces of velvet, and the back was striped ticking, the kind you find on old mattresses. I think it was in fact a cover for what would have been a mattress in the Calderas’s wagon and it was pieced together, probably from scavenged outer edges of the bag once the central part had worn thin. A bag, roughly woven, to hold dried grass or hay, or goose feathers. The stripes had been deep blue – I could tell this by examining the seams where the fabric still kept its vibrant colour, those blue stripes on a creamy ground. Now both were faded almost to grey.

The wool scraps were loden, once green – again, I could tell this by looking closely at the undersides of patches from which the stitching had loosened. And the velvet was black, though faded and rusty. The green wool and black velvet was appliquéd to linen squares, the stitching fine as bird tracks, in thread that was now a faded yellow but which once had obviously been rich gold. I had glimpses of the original colour where the stitches had been covered with sashing, now frayed. And between the squares was sashing pieced from various lengths of grey wool.

The smell of woodsmoke and musty air. My grandmother’s house. My own small flat, on the second floor of the converted theatre, had a set of double windows with a generous sill. I hung the quilt to air, leaving it for an hour or so while I rode my bike into Oak Bay village to buy some groceries. Nuts, rice, and yoghourt at Earth Household; carrots and apples at the Super Valu. I decided I had enough money for a bottle of wine and chose a Hungarian red, the one with the bull on its label.

Riding back, I saw the quilt hanging from my windows like a banner. I propped my bike against the side of the building and looked up. The loden green scraps were leaves, scattered over the surface. I saw this when I looked from a distance, adjusting my eyes to its perspective. Groups of two in some squares, three in others, a single leaf in many. I ran into the building, up the stairs to my apartment. I touched the fabric. It was densely woven, a kind of felt. I bent my face to the leaves and inhaled something animal, oily. Rubbing my fingers together, it was like touching sheep, that coarse wool suffused with lanolin. My grandmother told me once that her father had worn a cloak, a loden cloak, given him by a man who’d bought some of the copper pots. It was very warm, she said, repelling both wind and rain. Sometimes he’d open it to allow two or three of his children to shelter within. We sat under trees while the rain poured down and it was our own tent, warmed by our father’s body.

The year after

A year ago, I published a memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. Of all the books I’ve written, this one is perhaps the most personal. I trace significant moments and patterns in my life set against a larger arboreal canvas. Trees are the equivalent of Cicero’s architectural spaces. In thinking about them, their natural history and the human history associated with them, I discovered that they have guided me and sheltered me in ways I hadn’t even realized. I write this at my pine desk, looking out the window to a cascara, some firs, an arbutus, several cedars, a mountain ash. Every view from every window of my house is framed by foliage. In some of those trees, I see my children at play, building a fort, or simply climbing for the challenge of reaching a half-way mark. At the back of the house is a copper beech I planted to commemorate my parents and the little bits of grit at its base are their remains, still not completely washed into the soil.

In many ways, the past year has been shaped by this book. I travelled a little to read from it – Vancouver Island, the Okanagan, Kootenays, even to Alberta. I read from it in Brno, Prague, Olomouc, Ostrava, Ceske Budejovice, meeting fascinating people along the way and hearing their stories of trees. I saw the spruces lining the road leading to the house my grandmother was born in which in turn have led me to the work of the great Czech photographer Josef Sudek – he photographed the Mionsi Forest in the Beskydy Mountains just above my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomne. All of this is contained in my current work-in-progress, in some ways simply an extension of Mnemonic. Maybe that’s the best way to look at my writing in general: a single ongoing work.

The other day I saw a child walking with his mother near Sechelt. He was trailing a huge maple leaf while his mother pushed an infant in a stroller. It reminded me of the day a young neighbour showed my children how to run with a maple leaf against her face like a mask. She raced along the trail with such energy and joy while the sun filtered through the bigleaf maples, part of this grove of trees, children and parents, the living and the dead held together by the intricate lattice of memory.

Their journey

This is the ship’s manifest where I found small details of my grandmother’s journey from Europe to North America in 1913. Her name, her first husband Joseph Yopek, and 4 of their children, the ones born in Horni Lomna. (5 more were born in Canada, with one, Myrtle, dying in infancy. My grandmother had two more children with her second husband, my grandfather John Kishkan; one, Julia, died in infancy, and the second was my father…) I see that they are listed as Poles — I know that my grandmother’s husband was, but she was described in all her papers as Czech. So much to find out, so much to decipher…

Our daily bread 2

I am thinking that bread must have been made in the house in Horni Lomna where my grandmother was born in 1881. This wasn’t my mother’s mother – I have no idea who my mother’s mother was; or, wait, I have an idea, but I will pursue that a little later on – but my father’s: Anna Klusova, daughter of Adam Klus and Eva Szkanderova. There are other names, a long line of them running across paper like the blue thread of the Lomna River I see on the map in front of me. Her house, just near the river, a small bridge crossing it by the road, and then a path, deep with snow when I visited in late February of 2012. I could see her house from the cleared yard of the house directly in front of hers but I couldn’t cross the white field to peer in the windows where she must have looked out to see what was going on in the world of sheep and spruce trees.

Deer pausing to drink from the river, or maybe a fugitive wolf, or a goshawk swooping down to take up a shrew in its talons. I know these animals exist today in the Mionsi  forest above the house and in those years their numbers must have been considerable. In fairy tales, the young girl walking home alone was often shadowed by a wolf. The church where my grandmother worshipped and was married from is perhaps a mile from her house. I imagine her walking home from Mass with her scarf pulled up over her face against the wind and hearing wolves in the mountains, knowing they would enter her sleep in the bed she surely shared with a sister or two. Or noting the stamp of lynx paws in the snow as they led over the bridge and up into the trees.

So the windows where she looked out: I’ve seen them. And there’s a chimney, so they had fire, and of course they would have eaten bread. My father didn’t cook much but he did make pancakes and he always put buckwheat flour in them. Buckwheat figures in some of the dishes of the Beskydy Mountains so perhaps my grandmother’s father (my great-grandfather: how intimate a term to use for someone I never met, will never know, and yet whose house I yearn for at this great distance: the Sunshine Coast to Horni Lomna; something in excess of 8000 kilometres), described in my grandmother’s certificate of birth and baptism as a farmer, well, perhaps he grew buckwheat on that slope of hill behind the house. There were fruit trees under a burden of snow. Plums? Apples? In summer photographs, the valley of the Lomna River is verdant and lush. I imagine the taste of apples grown there, fed by those waters.

Can a relationship be recreated with such small ingredients? With the possibility of buckwheat, the dream of wolves? Only think of bread – pulverized wheat berries, water, yeast. Salt had to be brought in to the area for sheep and people; they traded plum jam, slivovitz, woollen goods, and cheese. In that small house, I imagine the bowl of dough rising by the hearth, curds in a wooden trough, and jars of plums gleaming on a shelf.