“Live in the layers/not on the litter.”

the layers

The other afternoon, as we were driving on Highway 10X from Rosedale to Wayne, Alberta, anticipating lunch at the Last Chance Saloon, where we stayed (memorably) in April, 2016, I was commenting on the hills on either side of the Rosebud River, the striations so beautiful in sunlight, and my husband (a poet) recited two lines of Stanley Kunitz:

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

I aspire to the layers. I aspire to finding out where I fit in the silt and rock and dry paper records of land purchase and settlement, in the names on the 1926 census where I found my father’s parents (before his birth a few months later) on Midland Road, Michichi (which I first thought must mean the small village of Michichi but then realized was Michichi Creek, in Drumheller on the north side of the Red Deer River). In the mud along the river where I walked yesterday morning, finding other footprints made before my own, on the dry wide main street on Drumheller where I explored with two of my grandchildren yesterday and the day before. I felt porous in that landscape, every bit of light and scent of sage and mineral tang of water entering my body. In the cemetery where we went to pay respects to the two babies who would have been my aunts (Julia and Myrtle), my grandson Henry, age 2, told his mum that he loved his grandparents. You should tell them, she said, and he turned to me, said, I love my grandparents. He is the age Julia was when she died. He is as alive as any child I’ve ever known. When I showed him the bear skin on the ceiling of the Last Chance Saloon, just above our table as we ate grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers, he said delightedly, A star bear! A star bear! (It was, in a way — its skin spreadeagled against the low ceiling…)

Yes, I felt porous, the generations coming to rest in my cheekbones, the small ache in my knees as I unfolded myself from the seat of the rental car in front of the renovated miners cottage where we stayed just a block from the river, its kitchen lit by Benjamin nonexplosive lamps that might once have lit the entrance to a shaft, maybe even the shaft of a coalmine where my grandfather earned a small living for his 10 dependents on a farm near Michichi Creek. My granddaughter Kelly wanted the old story of the mermaid at bedtime, not the Disney version but the heartbreaking story written by Hans Christian Andersen in the book I bought for her in Edmonton and which we read over several days, her questions so sensible: Why does the mermaid have to give up her tail? It’s so beautiful. And her voice? Why couldn’t she keep half her voice?

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Did the little girls buried in the Drumheller Cemetery love stories? Did anyone have time to read to them or hold them and sing, as we sang, the old songs, the ones John remembered, the ones I recalled? It was a hundred years ago that Myrtle died of diphtheria, 95 since Julia died of the same disease.I want nothing more right now than to live in the layers, folded into the place and the remnant lives of those who lived before me, lit by the soft light of those old lamps.

the lamp

“my tribe is scattered”

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feasts of losses?
–Stanley Kunitz, from “The Layers”

I’ve begun an essay I’m calling “Ballast”. It’s a companion-piece to “Euclid’s Orchard”, a long rambling meditation on mathematics, family history, genetics, quilting, and, oh, love; “Ballast” will explore the notions of what was carried to the New World by those leaving not just a country but a whole tangled netting of community, horticultural knowledge, embedded memory of landscape, history (family history as well as the extended histories of place). I’m in the process of accumulating and thinking about materials. It’s a little like quilt-making, or at least my version of it: the fabrics collect, wait, and I look at them daily. Then for whatever reason they suggest a pattern. They speak out of their colours and textures and I begin to listen to what they have to say.

Recently I’ve learned, through the magic of online genealogical lists, that my paternal grandmother had two younger sisters. My father didn’t know this. Two very kind women in the Czech Republic have been sending me information about how my grandmother might be related to others in Horni Lomna, the village where she was born. The little run of names I have — her family name, her mother’s family name — are connected now to others and I realize that the futility I’ve felt about finding out what happened to those who stayed in Moravia when my grandmother emigrated to Canada might just lift.

In a way, “Ballast” began in March, in the National Archaeological Museum in Belem, Portugal. We went to see a wonderful exhibit, “Time Salvaged from the Sea”, focussing on underwater archaeology in Portugal over the past thirty years. There were displays of artefacts ranging from pre-Roman materials to fairly contemporary finds, all well-catalogued and with such intelligent descriptions. And it turned my mind to the trip my grandmother took from Antwerp to Saint John in 1913 with her five children. What did she take with her? What did she consider to be indispensable for a new life? To my knowledge (which is admittedly scant), she didn’t send for anything after she’d settled in Drumheller. Even letters were rare. A phrase in the catalogue of “Time Salvaged from the Sea” has haunted me ever since I read it and I know it is at the heart of this writing I’m about to embark on. “During the crossing, for hundreds of men and, in this case, some women and children, stern and bow,deck, poop deck, topsail or hold, became opposite poles of a small world saturated with divisions between social classes and geographical loneliness.”

belem

into the morning

Yesterday the nestling stood in the safety of its woven basket and looked to the world as though it was something foreign and too far away for any effort it might make.

yesterday

And this morning, it was still there, standing on the edge of its nest, while the parents called — as they did yesterday — insistently from trees not too far from the house. It’ll fly today, I said, knowing that it was thirteen days old.

Ten minutes later, we were drinking coffee in the kitchen, when we saw a clumsy bird kind of careening by the big windows. And of course the nest was empty. All day it’s been fluttering around, with the parents scolding and encouraging — well, I have to imagine this is what they’re doing. At one point, Angie saw it on the driveway, pecking at something on the ground. Going over, she found a tiny snake, dead, and who knows whether the parents brought it for their gangly offspring or whether said offspring caught it on its own.

At my desk, I reached for poetry. Stanley Kunitz. There is so much of the world in his work — gardens, the textures of summer, the small and large deaths, and the rich language of the human heart. The book opened, not surprisingly as I’ve read it so many times, at my favourite Kunitz poem, “The Layers”:

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feasts of losses?

In the meantime, Brendan is here for two nights and I listen to him and his sister laugh in another part of the house while I sit and think about a single surviving nestling and how it hovered in our lives for the past two weeks. Our table is set for dinner guests, our roses finally deadheaded — we hadn’t wanted to do it for fear of disturbing the small family living in their tangle — and summer accumulates in every hour of sunlight.