September song, with boom box

As we were walking down to the lake this morning, to the area where we swim most days before the beach-goers arrive, we could see a young couple just coming out of the water. You beat us to it, I told them, and the woman said quietly, It’s beautiful. They both had the look. I know it. The way you feel after a swim in water that is full of weather somehow, lit green by sun and reflected cedars, pierced with dragonflies, shadowed by the mountain we live under, and wrinkled by light air movement this morning. You are never more yourself but you don’t even begin to think that while you are there. For a few moments, there was the sound of a boom box somehere and then it was replaced by a loon warbling near the little islands half-way across the lake.

(Yesterday, a video of my Edmonton grandchildren showed them clutching new music boxes, exactly like the one I have on my desk, the one that plays Für Elise, that I bought at Mouat’s store on Salt Spring Island a few years ago, and my granddaughter told us proudly that she has a boom box. She turned the handle and across the mountains I heard the faint and familiar notes of Beethoven.)

grandma's boom box

I finished reading John Berger’s Confabulations last night. In the essay “On Vigilance”, he wrote about swimming. He is in a pool, doing lengths, and he watches a tree he can see through the glass walls surrounding the pools. It’s a maple. Drawing it later, he realizes that what he has made is a text, “…a text of a silver maple tree.” I think we are always wanting a code for the moments of our lives that are numinous. I swim. I try to tell you how it feels to be in a lake made of weather, to come out the water with the muscular memory of it on my legs and my shoulders, to carry its scent home with me so that later in the day I stop, touch my hair, realize that I can smell the lake in the braid on my back.

When I was a child, my family camped on St. Mary’s Lake on Salt Spring Island. I lived in the water. It was green, it was light-filled, it held a girl’s body as tenderly as a mother cradles a baby before sleep. When I bought the music box in a store we’d visit on those camping trips so that my father could pick up fishing lures or kerosene, I knew I had found part of the code of those summers. How the canvas smelled when we woke to fun filtering through the trees around our campsite, the sticky sap on our fingers when we brought wood for the fire, the sound of my mother scraping burned fish off the old iron skillet.

Such texts belong to a wordless language which we have been reading since early childhood, but which I cannot name.
— from “On Vigilance”

In the hubbub of a weekend…

…crowd in Ganges, on Salt Spring Island, we took refuge in Mouat’s Store. Located in the heart of the village, Mouat’s has been serving customers since 1907. When I was a child, camping at St. Mary’s Lake with my family, I used to love going to the store with my father. He’d been looking for a lure, a hook, a new reel of fishing line. Or a part for a pot — he was nothing if not resourceful. He’d spend hours in hardware stores, looking (it seemed) at each nut and bolt, each small hook, determined to find its weak point or flaw. If he found none, he’d buy it, taking money out of a worn brown wallet. If we were lucky, we got a quarter. There was always something in Mouat’s to spend money on. Or dream of buying.

I never would have had enough money to buy a music box. But yesterday I did and so when I spotted this beautiful tin box with a little handle and painted with Jemima Puddleduck, Peter Rabbit, and that rogue Pigling Bland, I knew I had to have it. When you turn the handle, it plays Für Elise in a hesitating way. I love it. At first I thought I was buying for a grandchild but no. It’s for that little girl who wanted to play piano, who wanted something to transport her occasionally far from the world she knew.

music box

We were on Salt Spring for an event at the library. I was to read with Sarah De Leeuw and we were going to talk a bit about the essay—I’ve just published Euclid’s Orchard and Sarah’s Where it Hurts came out in spring from NeWest Press. But then Sarah wasn’t able to come and so Mona Fertig and my husband John read a little from Sarah’s work. Then I read passages and answered a few questions and we drove back to Peter and Mona’s in a drizzle of rain. We had drinks with an old friend Diana Hayes and her Pete and slept in a room overlooking the ocean, window open to the rain. Driving down to Fulford Harbour to take the ferry back to Vancouver Island, I felt (rather than thought) the beginning of a, well, a long essay, maybe even a book about the old coast. The coast I knew as a girl and still find traces of, on Salt Spring, on Vancouver Island, on the shore of Okeover Inlet or at Earls Cove, at Egmont, in places where the wood is weathered, the boats are useful, and people still know where they are. They’re not busy plotting for bridges from one island to another, for fancy forms of governance, for a billion dollar highway to blast its way from Squamish to Gibsons. They aren’t interested in sidewalks in rural fishing villages or buried power lines (because that’s how it’s done in Montreal). A bucket of clams is a dinner, a sockeye salmon a feast.

This morning we ate slivers of the most beautiful smoked salmon as we talked and then Mona poured tiny glasses of crabapple liqueur she’d made last year. I thought of Crete when I lived there and how sometimes the father of the man I was in love with poured Metaxa from a bottle he kept on his boat and we toasted the morning and our collective health. His son, who owned a taverna, took home a string of fish to gut and fillet for the evening crowd. I thought of my old friend Charles Lillard and his lines from “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”:

This is the old west where a secret cove with an old house
is called history, a raven cackling on a limb, mythology…

Where a music box playing Für Elise summons it all back. For now. Until I can write it all down.


We were looking at the photographs in Mouat’s Store in Ganges yesterday — my publisher Mona Fertig organized a reading for me and Trevor Carolan who just published a history of the Literary Storefront; John and I arrived early enough to explore Salt Spring Island first… — and I suddenly had one of those moments of recognition. Not for Mouat’s, which i’d already told John was a mecca for my father on our family camping trips to Salt Spring all through my childhood. So Mouat’s was familiar already. But it was the caption on a photograph of a Native couple in a canoe at Fernwood. Oh! That was the place I wrote about years ago in an essay, “Pioneer Jacket”, published in my Red Laredo Boots. I hadn’t remembered its name but I thought there was a long pier, a shell-strewn beach, a small store where we went for ice-cream on summer days 50 years ago. The summer before grade 7 (so I would have been 12) I bought a tiny bottle of sweet-pea cologne and I decided the next school year would be the one where I would dress carefully for school each morning. I’d choose  a piece of jewelery from the stash given me by a friend of my mother’s — all costume grade and all hideous; I know this now but I didn’t then —  and instead of dreaming over my bowl of porrige, i’d groom myself carefully for the day, as the girls did in the books I was reading (Cherry Ames, Trixie Belden). Of course it didn’t last; I am still the girl lingering over her coffee each morning, hair uncombed,  and not a jewel in sight. But the word Fernwood summoned that long summer, the pier, my resolution which made me feel so grown-up as I chose sweet-pea from the selection of little bottles of scent.

We went to the Info Centre for a map and found our way to Fernwood. Would I recognize the place? Or was I just hoping for another anchor for my chaotic and wistful hoard of memories?

And look! (“We  shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started… and know the place for the first time.”)


I have more to write. The farms, the sheep, the little guest cottage, newly created, which Mona and Peter made so welcoming and where I woke this morning to see a streak of pink over the sea. But that will have to wait, as I waited, unknowing, for the name of the place to return to me, and me to it.