“It was a tale I entered…”

In the darkest days of winter, we eat our supper on chairs in front of the woodstove, plates balanced on our knees. Looking into fire is preferable to looking out to darkness through the large uncurtained window in our little dining area. But last night the sky was more like a February sky, a deepening blue after the sun set, with the pinky-gold of its setting still glowing beyond the horizon; so we cleared off the long pine table and sat there, candles lit, and the first stars appearing.

The day before yesterday I pruned two unruly roses and heard tree frogs somewhere in the garden. It’s too soon, I called to them, and was surprised at how quickly they went silent! But the garlic is growing well, crowns of columbine are emerging from the clutter of their dead stems, and a few broadbeans (which must have self-sown) are showing every sign of continuing to flourish.

Inside today (because of rain), I’ve been working on finishing up some essays. I think I have a book’s worth. A few still need a fair bit of revising but there’s a body of work there, always a surprise to see even though it’s what I am — was– working towards. Here’s a little passage from a piece about the ballast, known and unknown, carried by those who came before us — my own grandparents, neighbours, the early residents of the neighbourhood where I spent my teenaged years.

In small communities or the old neighbourhoods of larger ones – towns, cities, even the places where rural areas have been absorbed by suburban sprawl — it’s not uncommon to find sturdy plantings which have survived many decades. Lilacs in cold climates often bloom exuberantly without any care at all. Delphiniums send up their tall spires, blue as the sky, though in well-tended gardens they are routinely eaten by slugs. And roses – well, you can tell where homestead gardens were located by the profuse canes of old species ramblers and rugosas – Dr. Van Fleet, Blanc Double de Coubert. Unpruned, unwatered, they cascade over whatever supports might be nearby: a wire fence, a tree (sometimes even a lilac), the remains of a staircase leading nowhere.

I’ve taken my share of cuttings. My 3 New Dawn roses come from the garden of my parents’ neighbour. When she was in her 80s, she told me how her mother had started the roses from a slip given her by the Ferry sisters, a duo who lived nearby in one of the oldest houses in Saanich. The New Dawns, the palest pink (the colour of my baby daughter’s shoulders when Daisy Harknett gave me cuttings), tangled themselves in the limbs of an equally ancient pear. When the property was subdivided and the back part sold, with an old stable, the pear tree with its cargo of roses, and other perennials I never thought to ask for, a man pulled out the rose with a backhoe. I don’t know where he took it.

Some old wood, some new wood, said Daisy Harknett. So I cut pieces with both. I dipped the lower part of the wood in rooting hormone (though I could have used a tea of willow bark) and stuck them into little pots of soil. And now my New Dawns tumble over (respectively) a beam, a pergola, the front door of my house.

In the woods between Elk Lake and Beaver Lake, there was an abandoned house (sometimes I think I dreamed this because no one else I’ve spoken to remembers it) completed knitted into place by honeysuckle and roses. Knitted into memory by roses of a kind I’ve never seen since, apple-scented, white, and humming with bees. On my black horse, I approached with the sense that here was an ancient fairy tale hidden in the woods. Which were not wild exactly but remnant – a few forgotten apple trees, pruned by deer, beaked hazelnut, even laburnum. It was a tale I entered, as a girl will, with a sense of wonder and expectation. I tied my horse to a tree and tried to peer in the windows laced every which way with canes. And though there might have been a prince sleeping within, he didn’t wake.

blanc double de coubert

Searching for Mann Avenue

It’s so different now, the road where my parents bought their first house in 1969 – they were in their forties but hadn’t been able to settle anywhere until then because of father’s military transfers. You got to our side of Mann Avenue by turning off Glanford. Then, the road ended at a small clearing by Colquitz Creek, a place where lovers parked on weekend nights and where I rode my horse when school finished on winter afternoons. There was another short section of Mann Avenue leading off Wilkinson Road. Now the two sections have been connected and the fields have been filled with townhouses and a subdivision and only those of us who were young in the 1960s remember the remnant orchard where the Mahon family had grown apples for cider and where the remaining son Bill, who was probably in his sixties, lived in the beautiful old house with his bulldog Winnie. Where a man who lived on Christmas Hill rented some of the orchard for his young cattle. Where I’d retreat sometimes when our house got too noisy and where I’d read under apple trees and where once a calf grazed around me as though I didn’t exist, so still was I in the soft grass.


 Some weekends, young men came to visit and when the garbage men collected on Monday morning, there was always the sound of crashing glass as they emptied Bill’s can into the trunk. Gin bottles, my mother would say as she pulled the curtain aside to watch. Thereafter, I always associated gin with young men coming for the weekend. I was only in the house once, when I knocked on the door to sell Christmas cards or some other (forgotten) item for a school fund-raiser. The house smelled old. Old in itself, inhabited by old residents: Bill and Winnie. I waited inside the vestibule, by the front door, while Bill searched for his wallet. He wore slippers, I remember, and he shuffled. When the young men came, you never saw a sign of life for the entire weekend. The blinds were pulled and Winnie was put out to pee in the yard by herself. She whined at the door but for the length of a weekend she was not primary in her owner’s mind.

Behind the Mahon house, but still on its property, was another even older house. Our neighbour Daisy Harknett said it was the oldest house in Saanich. Her son Carl rented it for a time, with his wife and young child. Occasionally I babysat for them, walking down the rough lane behind Bill’s grand house to the shabby wooden building behind while Winnie barked from the window. It was a little scary to be in the house, alone, or at least the only one awake, while a small child slept upstairs and the trees creaked outside in the wind. Walking back to my house past midnight was like walking into another century, the one I knew.


 These photographs came from an online archive and show the houses at the turn of the 20th century. In the past I’ve asked archivists for information on the street where I lived as a teenager. Specifically I had questions about two houses which I thought had historical value – this was long after the Mahon houses had been torn down and tract houses erected in their lost orchard – but one archivist insisted the road hadn’t existed prior to the 1950s so the houses I was remembering as “old” couldn’t possibly have existed either. Yet my mother learned things from the Ferrie sisters who’d lived on the corner of Glanford and Vanalman. That they’d attended dances with other farm families from the area before WW2 and that they’d walked to dances at the Community Hall on West Saanich Road, built by the Quicks. They wore their rubber boots and carried their dancing shoes in a bag along the dark road to the bright hall and sometimes they took a shortcut through the Mahon’s orchard. Neither of them married but my mother said they had been beauties. I wish I’d paid more attention. My mother had a rose rooted for her by the older of the Ferrie sisters, a bright pink climber, and I wish I’d dug it up when my parents sold their house.

Everyone I knew on that street is gone now. My parents. Bill Mahon. The Footners – Mr. and Mrs. and their grown daughter Molly. Daisy Harknett, who grew wonderful pears and who gave me cuttings from her New Dawn rose, telling me her mother had always said that you needed some old wood and new wood to make a cutting take. Mine took, both of them, and I have large tangly New Dawn roses to thank her for all these years later.The neighbours on the other side died too and I was visiting my parents when the husband passed away. From my open window I heard his grown children cry as they stood in the back yard and planned what to do next.