“A map of houses and days, of secrets and details noticed by a child fiercely in love with the pattern trees make with their shadows…”


We spent a few days in Victoria, visiting Angelica and Sahand, and it was (as usual) a time of great pleasure and wistful nostalgia. They live in the neighbourhood where I spent part of my childhood; in fact, they are a block away from my elementary school, the one in which I sat near a window and gazed out at Moss Rocks, thinking of the wildflowers on its sunny slopes, and wondering how many more hours I had to sit in the classroom before I could take the path over the rocks and home. We lived near the Ross Bay Cemetery. My mother would say to us on summer mornings, “Go play in the cemetery. I don’t want to see you until lunch.” I rode my bike down its quiet lanes and I had my favourite graves. Some of them were the graves of children; I cried by a small stone armchair with an empty pair of shoes, the grave of D.B. Campbell, who died in 1913 at 17 months of age, “a little hero”. I used to lie on the warm grass and listen to water. Impossible, my father said. But I knew I heard water. It wasn’t until about 2005 that I found out about the buried streams under the cemetery and in fact throughout Fairfield. I gave the experience of listening to water to Tessa, one of the main characters in my novel, The Age of Water Lilies. And like Tessa, I also played in the yard of Stewart Monumental Works where men engraved tombstones while children darted among the slabs of granite and marble and buried each other in the sand beneath a crawlspace under the building. “A map of houses and days, of secerets and details noticed by a child fiercely in love with the pattern trees make with their shadows in sunlight, of the softening touch of moss on an inscription set in motion in a box canyon where lovers lay in dry grass and dreamed of a future now collapsed by violence. Off the edges of the map, the world settles its story and what can anyone do but remember the route water takes through the decades on its singular journey to the sea.” And much earlier than any of this, the Lekwungen people used the creeks as transportation corridors through their territory. A place contains so many layers of history, so many occupations, so many stories. Sometimes, if the light is right and we are attentive enough, we can apprehend something of this richness. A house, a grave, a creek, a case of masks in the Royal British Columbia Museum with information about the Winter Ceremonials to remind us that our own experience is recent, that the ravens we hear in the yews at the cemetery are the descendents of those who inspired the Crooked Beak of Heaven.

And then a night in Vancouver — John was reading at the Vancouver Public Library as part of the Vancouver Writers Festival Incite Series — where we stayed in our favourite hotel   (speaking of history): http://victorianhotel.ca/   It’s kind of quirky and the breakfast room is always in yet another stage of renovation but the rooms are comfortable and the rates are so reasonable, particularly for Vancouver. (And imagine, you get breakfast too: wonderful croissants and baguettes with fruit and coffee.) When you sit at the table in the window of your room in the morning, you have the sense that you are truly somewhere. Not just anywhere, but a place, a location, a building with echoes of its making in the brickwork around the windows, the little glimpses of other buildings around the corner:

from the Victorian Hotel

The hotel was built as a guesthouse in 1898 and occupies a corner in what might be termed a “transistional” neighbourhood. But on the other corner, Finch’s — the best sandwiches in the city: we had fresh baguette stuffed with sliced free-range eggs, butter lettuce, dijon and mayo, and thick slices of tomato. Nearby, Sikora’s, for cds (some of us will probably never learn to download music. I still don’t know what an ITune is). And around the corner, The Paper Hound, a marvellous independent bookstore.

Driving away from the Victorian, along Hastings yesterday, I saw the Marine Building ahead of us, cradled by a curved glass tower in morning sun. The new, the old. The Marine Building is one of the most beautiful structures in Vancouver. It was built in 1929-1930, with Art Deco carvings and plasterwork and a Mayan effect in its upper stories; at 21 floors, it was the signature skyscraper of its time. You might not notice it if you’re walking along Hastings or Pender, listening to your ITunes, but if you look up, there it is. Unforgettable.

marine building

we’re #28

I love the series of Literary Landmarks featured in B.C. BookWorld online. (http://bcbooklook.com/2015/12/02/john-pass-theresa-kishkan/) John and I are #28; our landmark is the corner of May Street and Memorial Crescent in Victoria, the locus for my novel The Age of Water Lilies and a place very dear to both of us. As new lovers we walked those enchanted streets and into the Ross Bay Cemetery which was where I played as a child, riding my bike up and down its quiet lanes and listening to the buried streams flowing under it to the Strait of Juan of Fuca.

And I love this photo of us, taken by my brother in early summer, 1980. What shows: our youth, our happiness. What doesn’t show: I was newly pregnant with our son Forrest, though I didn’t know it would be him. (I had the option of knowing the gender after an ultrasound but I thought I’d like to be surprised.)


A weekend in Victoria

It’s impossible to say which season is loveliest in Victoria where flowers bloom at Christmas and salmon spawn nearby in fall and cool breezes off the Strait of Juan de Fuca make walks along Dallas Road a pleasure in high summer. And May! The streets of the Rockland neighbourhood are leafy, tables are out on the sidewalks on Cook Street, the English daisies are a thick Botticelli carpet in Ross Bay Cemetery. And if you’re lucky enough to be at the Beacon Hill Park petting zoo at 5 on a Friday afternoon, you can see the running of the goats, the mothers and their babies (including a black rabble-rouser called Forrest) racing from their pen to their barn for the night while peacocks languish in high trees and the surrounding meadows are blue with camas.

The running of the goats

We went to Victoria this past weekend for the Lieutenant Governor’s B.C. Book Prizes Gala at Government House. It was a gracious event, more formal than the galas I’ve been to in the past. It was fun to see some old friends and to make a few new ones too. The last time I was at Government House was in grade two when my Brownie pack went for a garden party and where George Pearkes made us feel very welcome. Our current L-G, Judith Guichon from the Nicola Valley, has the same gift.

We stayed across the road from Government House at Abbeymoore Manor B&B. We’ve stayed there before and this time we had the iris roomIris Room looking out over Rockland Avenue. We had our own deck up in the trees where hummingbirds paused and the scent of wisteria drifted up from the vines around the lower porch. Ian, Anne, and Michelle take good care of their guests. The beds are dressed with fine linens, the towels are big, and the breakfasts are spectacular. We love the breakfast room which has wonderful old tiles on the floor

breakfast room

and a view of the garden but most guests on Saturday morning were eating on the sunny porch. That first morning – fruit platter with banana bread, followed by a perfectly poached egg on a cheese scone with hollandaise sauce, crisp bacon, and a pretty salad of greens, tiny white asparagus, pickled beets, and feta cheese. The coffee is dark and rich. Second morning we had the luxury of breakfast on our own deck where we feasted on Caribbean bananas with a ginger scone followed by an omelette stuffed with chicken, cheese, peppers, and topped with a spicy salsa and slices of avocado. A small salad of baby greens. Mimosas in tall glasses. That coffee…

We came home the long way, up Island to Comox and across Georgia Strait to Powell River, then down to Saltery Bay for the final ferry down Jervis Inlet to Earls Cove. We drove up our driveway around 6:30 to see that the lilacs had come into blossom while we were away and the tomato plants have grown to small trees.


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.”