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.”

family pictures

“As ephemeral as our footprints were in the sand along the river, so also were those moments of childhood caught in the photographs. And so will be our family itself, our marriage, the children who enriched it and the love that has carried us through so much. All this will be gone. What we hope will remain are these pictures, telling our brief story.”(Sally Mann, writing in the New York Times about the furor around the publication of her book, Immediate Family, in 1992.)

I’ve begun American photographer Sally Mann’s new book, Hold Still, a memoir, and every page so far has me making a mental note. She is such a congenial writer and I keep thinking, Yes, oh yes — someone who shares my sense of family history (even if hers is much more, well, illustrious than mine), of how a book can include visual elements that so many publishers would be reluctant to include. Unless of course you’re Sally Mann.

And thank goodness she is. I’ve loved her images in the past. I remember the extraordinary flutter of attention when she published Immediate Family, a collection of ravishing photographs of her children alive in the world of their Virginia farm. Some of the images portray the children at play, in the river, on a long wooden porch — and in many of them, the children are naked. As children living in a rural area with a healthy sense of themselves often are. I remember my own children here on our rural property running under sprinklers in summer and rolling in the grass, clothing abandoned. When they became socialized, well, to be honest, once they began school, that carefree joie de vivre evaporated.

I remember criticism of her book coming from surprising sources. Mary Gordon, for example, who responded to one photograph, “The Perfect Tomato”, this way:

“The application of the word ‘tomato’ — sexual slang for a desireable woman — to her daughter insists that we at least consider the child as a potential sexual partner. Not in the future but as she is. The fact that the children are posed by their mother, made to stand still, to hold the pose, belies the idea that these are natural acts — whatever natural may be.”

That photograph, in the Guggenheim Museum , breaks my heart with its beauty. And proves that people see the world the way they want to see the world. It’s innocent or radiant or potentially dangerous — or all of these. Art can make us uncomfortable, I suppose, even as it celebrates the layers of what it means to be a child balanced on a cluttered table, with tomatoes just picked arranged on its surface, in a shaft of ethereal light, perhaps about to fall. It’s what is. I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.

So the book will be my companion over the next week. And companions often provoke one to look back, to remember, as part of the series of responses they elicit from you as you accompany them through their own memory grove. In my first book of essays, Red Laredo Boots, I wrote about my family. They were young and they were at the centre of my daily life. I also wrote about my extended (and inherited) family. There’s an essay in that book, “The Tool Box”, which meditates on family history by itemizing the contents of a wooden box John had been given by his mother. The box was a gift to his father from his paternal grandfather when John’s parents emigrated to Canada in 1953. We received it in the mid-1990s. I found it so potent, somehow. That a grandfather who John had hardly known would make a box for a son — John’s father — without any sort of building desire or ability; yet John and I built our own house. The box seemed (in the way objects can) to be emblematic of that mystery. John’s mother was horrified that I would write about such a thing and she was hugely offended by the essay. Although she had been separated from John’s father for decades when my book came out, she felt I had overstepped my privilege as her daughter-in-law by writing an essay which referred to what she called “her story”. We were estranged for several years and came to a kind of impersonal truce eventually. I realized then how dangerous personal material could be — not just to the writer who plunged into it but to those who felt a sense of ownership. Those boundaries, the borders — they are fluid of course and about as capricious as anything can be. But I’ve always felt I needed to try to figure them out. Would I intrude on territory others felt was off-limits or somehow sacred? Yes. Was I willing to take the chance that I might offend members of my family — immediate or extended? Well, I never begin a piece of writing with that intention. But I recognize the potential in almost everything I do. In my case, it’s not photographing my children in all their naked beauty — not for their nakedness alone but for the moment when the image transcends the ordinary to become something else: “The fact is that these are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind and shade. These are not my children at all; these are children in a photograph.” Which is so sensible somehow and gets to the heart of the artistic impulse. Mine is to examine the multiplicity of memory and my — our — relationship to it. What might be made of that, in all honesty but also in service to artifice itself.

On the wall above my desk is a drawing my daughter Angelica made when she was about six. I believe (and this is the way I remember it) that she gave it to me as an apology for something she’d done or said. It is something I cherish — and parsing it from this day, 24 years later, is interesting: she’s under a rain-cloud and I’m under the sun. She’s small. I’m large and extravagant in what I remember as my party-dress from those days  — a two piece Moroccan confection with beads along the shoulders and the hem of the skirt which clicked deliciously when I walked. Her blond hair. My red hair. (I’m not a red-head but maybe that was the time I tried the Body Shop’s henna rinse. A mistake but here it is commemorated on a piece of paper from the recycling box. Remember the old printer paper from the dot-matrix printers where you had to tear off the perforated edges which held the paper in place on the printer?) I have no hands — mothers could perform magic in those days. I’m smiling. She’s grimacing. My name’s in bold black and hers (note the lower-case a) is scanty (though it comes first!). We are pretty much the same size now and she is about as accomplished as a young woman can be. Whatever happened to occasion this drawing makes me grateful for the discords in families because I have the record of it in all its childish iconography. One day I’ll write about it. Or wait. Maybe I just have.

after the argumentSome of us write about our families because they continue to beguile us, to confuse us, to provide mysterious paths to the past and to the future. Sometimes when I give public readings, people ask if my children mind being present in my work. Sometimes they do, I think. But theirs — ours — is the world I inhabit. It’s our brief story. Or part of it at least.

“I certainly knew that the context of place was important in my family pictures, but I also knew that I was creating work in which critical and emotional perception can easily shift.” That’s Sally Mann again and all I can say is that I am so looking forward to the rest of this book.


A few weeks ago, John and I drove up Vancouver Island with Forrest and Manon  — this was after Brendan and Cristen’s wedding — and stopped in Nanaimo for lunch and some shopping. We all went our own way, arranging to meet at the Literacy Nanaimo Bookstore before taking our lunch to a park to eat in sunlight.

I poked around, looking for the elusive silver-plated punch bowl I’m certain is out there, somewhere, waiting for me to find it. There’s a beautiful one, a bit battered (but big enough to hold five or six bottles of white wine, and ice, on a summer evening) in the Plaza Hotel in Kamloops. But they won’t sell it. Oh, call me Edwardian but I want one and I keep checking second-hand stores, the elegant silver shops on Fort Street in Victoria, antique barns, and even the odd pawn shop.

At the appointed time, I went to the bookstore and found the others there, all of them with stacks of books. It’s a great store. There’s always unexpected treasure. I found Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Afterlife, her essays and critical writing, and have spent the last few days reading her wise and calm assessments of (mostly) fiction. She wrote generously. Her insights into novels such as Middlemarch and A Few Green Leaves make me want to read them again. I loved them the first time around but now I have a few things to look for, courtesy of Ms. Fitzgerald. A turn of phrase, an insight into character…

I also found my own book, Red Laredo Boots (New Star Books, 1996), for 6 dollars. I’ve only had a single reading copy for years so it’s nice to have an extra, just in case. It’s on my desk so I’ve been peeking into it, remembering the things which inspired individual essays. This morning we picked blackberries so it was serendipitous to have the book fall open to “Cool Water”:  “…I feel a certain loyalty to Himalayan blackberries, Rubes discolour, the kind I picked as a child on Matsqui prairie in the Fraser Valley. I remember my father pointed out a farm, the James Farm, and said that old James was responsible for bringing Himalayan blackberries to North America from Scotland in the last century. I don’t know how true that is, and it does have an apocryphal ring, but I thought those blackberries the very essence of high summer. Although there were occasional pies (I don’t remember jam), the way we usually had them was in yellow melmac bowls with a scant teaspoon of brown sugar strewn over and then milk. The milk turned pink and had the tiny fine hairs of the berries floating on top.”

I wrote that essay before I had access to the Internet and I know now that I’d probably spend far too long trying to figure out how and why and when Rubes discolor arrived in North America. (I think Luther Burbank had something to do with it but I’m not going to get distracted now.) And my father has died since then. But the memory is still perfectly intact – his voice intoning across Townshipline Road as he pointed to the long driveway leading to that farm, the Lombardy poplars on either side straight and true.

It’s poignant to read “Undressing the Mountains” now, too. It recalled a first trip back to the Pacific Rim area after an absence of more than twenty years. How strange it was to try to reconcile the way I’d known those long beaches as a girl of 18, camping alone, naked at times, and the mother of three who travelled there with her husband and children, her own parents, and her mother-in-law for a weekend at a resort, complete with whale-watching. I’ve returned several times since then and am more accustomed to all the posh hotels, the RVs lumbering from one parking lot to the next, and of course I’m no longer that girl, or at least she’s buried too deep to mind as much as I minded on that first return.


Last week Angelica and I wandered for a bit in Ross Bay Cemetery after her thesis defense and I kept an eye out for a few favourite stones. I saw Emily Carr’s grave, and the plot where Sir James and Amelia Douglas are buried — one summer, maybe 1962,  a friend and I kept this plot swept and tidy and were written up in the Victoria Daily Times newspaper for doing so! But I’d forgotten to look for Judge Begbie’s grave, the one my father always told us honoured a man who distinguished himself by hanging many miscreants. (I know now that this isn’t actually true.) And there’s a moment about him in Red Laredo Boots, in an essay about Barkerville:  “We eat our evening meal at Wake Up Jake’s. Fussy table linen and odd Victorian landscapes locate us in time. We eat huge plates of roast pork with applesauce, chutney, root vegetables, wonderful rhubarb pie and thick sweet cream. Judge Begbie sits at an opposite table, a bottle of claret at hand and his hat and cloak on a bentwood rack beside him. He is talking to a  young man about the finer points of a case involving claim jumping, and I want to lean to him, say “A hundred years from now I’ll be playing on your grave in Ross Bay Cemetery, a child of seven, the same age as my daughter who, as you see, won’t finish her dinner” A young woman in a long cotton dress comes out of the kitchen, wipes her hands on her apron, and sits at a harp. Closing her eyes, she plays “Star of the County Down” in such sad slow strains that I wipe a few stray tears from my own eyes. It is not only for the music I cry but for the ghosts who stand by her harp. Ned Stout, John Fraser, Madame Bendixon, coming in off the street to request, each in turn, a song, an air to keep them from passing out of memory. Outside the sun is falling behind Barkerville Mountain, the last rays gilding the fireweed with such golden flame that we are all touched by its heat.”