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.”