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.”