redux: “all those waters changing as we changed”

This post was from March 6, 2017. We did all gather in Edmonton that spring, the rivers are still changing (and unchanged), and I have a box of Euclid’s Orchard, the book I was just finishing copy edits for when writing the post. If you’d like a copy,  let me know. In fact, if you’re interested in any of my books, let me know. In honour of approaching spring, I will offer any of them at 15% off, shipping at cost.

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I had a difficult relationship with my father. I loved him and I believe he loved me. But we couldn’t talk to one another easily. He found me remote, as I found him. He taught me some important things, though, and I miss him. (He died in 2009.) I talk to him more and more, to try to limn the dimensions of our relationship — I always thought it kind of one-dimensional but realize now it was complicated and even nuanced. In my forthcoming book, Euclid’ Orchard, there is an essay about this: “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”. In the essay I talk to my father in a way we were never able to talk in the years I lived with my parents, and afterwards, when he and my mother visited us here. I tell him how I wish things had been different. It might be too bitter. But it’s honest, if that matters.

The old-fashioned knots you’d tied long ago wouldn’t loosen enough to let you take ease in a chair on the deck of a cabin. And by then the fish knife had gone to my son. Herakleitos on the Yalakom River, on the Cowichan, on the far-seeing MacKenzie where you were young, the Red Deer, all those waters changing as we changed—and were ever the same. There were roads that led to them, and away.

I think about my father a lot now that I see my sons immersed in fatherhood. They are tender and loving with their children.

pass-boys-and-their-babies

My father was born in 1926 to very poor immigrant parents. His father was a coal miner and he was illiterate. No bedtime stories. My father grew up not knowing anything about his parents’ parents, their extended families. I explore this in other essays in the collection, trying to map his emotional geography, which is now my geography, my maps scribbled with the cryptic markings of love and loneliness. Of regret and sorrow.

We spent the weekend in Vancouver, with our son Brendan, daughter-in-law Cristen, and their two young children. Our daughter — Kelly’s cherished Aunty Angie (“My Auntie Angie.”) — joined us for part of the time. We ate great meals and laughed a lot and had some outings that I know will be happy memories for Kelly. (Blue frogs at the Aquarium! Big fish! The soft pink feet on the ducks in the tropical conservatory…) Kelly has plans for May when we will visit her family in Edmonton and she is thrilled that her Auntie Manon, Uncle Forrest, and cousin Arthur will be there at the same time. (We are all going to build a new porch for Brendan and Cristen’s house.) She is very excited at the prospect of sharing the double stroller with Arthur. And of throwing stones into Mill Creek with him. By then Henry might be able to throw a stone too. Over the weekend, he was happy to lie on the floor with his Grandpa John, pushing toys back and forth.

grandpa-john-and-henry

The road that leads to Edmonton from the west coast is one my family drove many summers to visit our grandparents who lived in Beverly, in a small plain house on a quiet street near the river. It was a river my father remembered in his later years — the smell of poplars coming into leaf, its dangers at spring melt. And the Red Deer, that flowed past his family’s first home in Drumheller. All the rivers of our shared geography, unchanged, and constantly changing. Although my father never read Herakleitos, I found him in Guy Davenport’s elegant translation. I found him over and over, changed and unchanged. “The river we stepped into is not the river in which we stand.” It never was. But where else can I look?

“The sound of huge bodies crashing into the woods”

morning
some of the herd, last winter

This morning, around 6:30, we were lying in bed, talking, Winter the cat at our feet, when the cat suddenly jumped onto the windowsill, alert. He was watching and listening. And listening, we heard a squeal. Elk, I bet, said John, and I went downstairs to see what I could from the still-dark living room. Yes, elk. I saw two of the great golden shapes, sort of smudgy in the near-light, where our cleared area meets the woods. And on the deck off our bedroom, John saw a couple more. They crashed into the woods.

By the time I came to my desk, I’d forgotten about the elk. I’m working on some essays, lyric essays I guess you’d call them, and right now they’re all over the map. I mean this literally. One of them yearns for the rivers of Bukovina, the Prut and its tributary the Cheremosh. One of them explores the trees of Horni Lomna, one of them remembers the MacKenzie River and my father, who worked on steamships on the river as a young man; and others are located here, including one called (provisionally) “Bitter Greens”. This is the essay I opened this morning, trying to find a way to weave a couple of narrative strands together, trying to find the music in plants, broken fences, and, what? Elk. So they were here all along and that sound, the squeal, should have alerted me to the dangers of trying to keep a garden safe when I’m not the only one hungry for greens.

Red Russian kale, Scotch kale, Tuscan kale, Siberian, Redbor, some unknown or unnamed marriages between two or more of these varieties. Garden arugula, field arugula, wall-rocket, red dragon, all self-sowing. Lamb lettuce (or corn salad, depending…), buckshorn plantain, dandelions (the new leaves for salad, the more mature leaves for pizza or green pie), lambs quarters with its dusty leaves the shape of goose feet, chickweed. How I long for them after a long winter, though I usually have tubs of kale close at hand so I can fill the blender most mornings for a green tonic. But a salad gathered in a big colander, scissors snipping the new leaves of this or that, sorted (because slugs like them too), then dressed with good oil, lemon juice or a light vinegar (balsamic is too robust for the early salads), maybe a tiny smudge of Dijon mustard, the one green with herbs, and it’s a meal I could eat every day.

Looking out the window as I washed dishes, I saw a golden rump and a darker body behind the woodshed. An elk calf, half-grown, eating the suckers from the base of the Kwanzan cherry. I quietly went to the utility room window, the one opening directly to the little deck beside the tree. Five more elk, adults, pulling at boughs, a huge cowwas she actually inside the vegetable garden? Something had come the previous night and nipped all the new growth on the kale plants that had already been grazed by elk (the same elk?) while we were away in Ottawa a week earlier. And a week before that, grazed by the blacktail doe that comes every year with her fawns, yearlings last year, twins this year. My heart sank. But I opened the door and rushed out, shouting. The sound of huge bodies crashing into the woods, more than 5 (that was only what I could see), and everywhere the smell of them, like horses.

confined space

stettler

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:

STL0006

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:

swansea_radio1_1960

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.

“One cannot step twice…

northwest territories

…into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.” — Herakleitos of Ephesus, trans. Guy Davenport.

I am thinking of my father today, his difficult love. As I work on an essay about his father, I begin to understand him differently. What was held close for reasons I’m trying to fathom, what was withheld, too, and for what reasons.

Herakleitos on the Yalakom River, on the Cowichan, on the far-seeing MacKenzie when you were young, the Red Deer, all those waters changing as we changed—and were ever the same. All roads leading to them, and away.
—from “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”, Euclid’s Orchard

 

“creeks in the darkness”

bridge over Rosebud River
bridge over the Rosebud River, April, 2016

I am currently at work on an essay about rivers and blood clots. An odd combination, I know, but I seem to have a clotting disorder (I’m waiting to see a hematologist for further tests) and it’s made me think a little more seriously about how our venous system works. How everything flows normally and then doesn’t. And of course that led me to think about rivers, the ones I love and return to, and how they change too for reasons that have some similarities to what happens with our veins. So it’s very absorbing, this essay, and I woke this morning with that kind of excitement I’ve always felt as I enter the deep waters of writing. It’s leading me to the north, to the MacKenzie River, where we were lucky enough to spend a few days in Fort Simpson at break-up, and to Englishman River, where I camped as a child and then as a young woman in desperate straits, and this morning to the Rosebud River as we drove it two springs ago very early and stopped at the aqua bridge between Wayne and Rosedale to listen to magpies. And in my mind is how to keep the various strands winding around each other, as the channels of braided rivers split and rejoin, as banks erode and are changed over years or centuries.

A deep cramping pain. Some swelling. In the Emergency room, my history is taken. Pulmonary embolism a year ago. Suspected deep vein thrombosis. 6 months of blood thinners. Many scans and tests.

A lab technician is called from his bed to take my blood for a d-dimer test to determine if there is active clot activity. An ultrasound is set for the next morning, though it is well into that morning when the technician draws blood from the pool of my right arm. I do not wait for the results because I want some sleep and the person in the other bed is on a powerful narcotic that makes her itchy, causes her to moan on her side of the screen that separates us. The medical staff is not happy I’m leaving.

We drive home on a dark highway. It’s a 45 minute journey and after 30 minutes the Emergency room physician phones me on my husband’s cell phone. In the car, the loud opening chords of “Sultans of Swing”, a moment when I regret he didn’t set his ring tone to something sweet—the Brahms lullaby or “That Sheep May Safely Graze”—as I struggle to stab in the right place to answer it. The physician tells me that my d-dimer test is positive for blood clotting, that I may have a DVT, and that I must return immediately to begin a course of anticoagulants.

As I’ll be coming in later in the morning for an ultrasound, I can’t just wait until then?”

No, I must insist you come back now.”

So we turn around and head back, my husband silent with weariness. He won’t let me drive. About halfway to the hospital, we see a large animal on the side of the highway. Not large like elk, which we see quite often. And not a coyote. Bigger than that. It takes a moment or two, and the glare of the animal’s golden eyes, for us to realize we’re seeing a cougar. I’ve lived on this peninsula for 35 years and I’ve seen just two cougars in that time. I’ve heard two more, I think, but sightings are rare.

All down the coast, we passed creeks in the darkness, Homesite, Meyer, Anderson, Maple, Haskins, scribbling down the mountains. And I would do it all again, sit at the desk with a nurse taking my pulse, my blood pressure, arranging for bloodwork, ultrasound, medication to prevent a blood clot moving up into my lungs, for the glow of the cougar’s eyes in our headlights, and the knowledge of water finding its way to the sea.