Tag Archives: Remembery

When a Body

David Henry, Reg, Norm, and Percival, 1909
David Henry, Reg, Norm, and Percival

My granddad is in this photo. He’s the kid perched on the plough. It’s his father driving the car. David Henry. My granddad ended up looking just like him. Uncle Reg is beside David Henry, and their neighbours are standing beside the vehicle. This photo was taken in their hometown of Napinka.

This has been a difficult winter, and I don’t know why, exactly, except that there are so many ghosts around. The ghosts won’t leave me be. They won’t let me focus on the people I can still hear, and see, and touch. They hang around the periphery of my conscious mind and say nothing; they’re just there. Taking up space. Making me remember, and remember, and remember.

I am the keeper of many stories in my family. I am the last who will remember them, after my father and my aunt and uncle. My children never knew these people’s laughter, the light in their eyes. They never knew the huge Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter dinners around the tables in that tiny kitchen with the south and east facing windows. My cousin only saw two.

1929
1929

My grandfather and his four brothers, in the halcyon days after the first world war, before the Great Depression, and before the second world war. All four would survive. They had a sixth brother who died as a toddler. Their mother (Aggie May) was a teacher, and she was a musician. Their father (David Henry), who was born in North Dakota to Irish immigrants, was a farmer and a mechanic. Robert, Maxwell, Reginald, Percival, Gilman, and Clare. Those were the six boys.

In WWI, Uncle Bob was overseas when he heard that Uncle Max had lied about his age to enlist. Bob told his CO, who got this information back to Max’s CO, who sent Max home. Max was, at 16, understandably livid. He wanted to fight. He wanted to serve his country. Two weeks after Max was sent home, most of his entire company was mowed down by enemy fire. None of the soldiers Max would have been with survived.

Who will tell these stories when I’m gone? Will they be important to anyone? I have forgotten so many stories – my uncle Gil was the story keeper of those boys, and there were many days I sat at his knee and listened. It was just him and me, his booming voice, his upside-down smile and percolating laugh. I didn’t know any of the people he talked about; only knew them as names and as faces peeking from faded photographs. I would meet some of them eventually; they were old men by then, but their wits were sharp and their eyes bright and they never shied away from a sniff of whiskey and a story.

I asked where Grandpa had been born, and without missing a beat, Uncle Gil said, “oh, out in the yard, you know. He was the fourth, so mother just kind of squatted down and out he came, and it was so damned dry he tried to get right back in, like one of those rolling window shades, you know, but mother scooped him up out of the dust and let the cat wash him off.” So maybe some of the stories aren’t exactly true the way they may have actually happened, but you know me – there’s a good chance that they did happen that way.

WebbKitchen My grandmother was in labour for over 40 hours with my mother. Grandpa had to drive her 100 miles to the next biggest city because the hospital in Swift Current couldn’t deal with whatever was happening with my grandmother’s uterus. My grandmother was just a wee thing, not even five feet tall. She was a nurse, and had worked as a private nurse for a wealthy American woman in Detroit during the war. Grampa wanted to marry her before he left, but he refused to leave a war bride, so she waited for him.

When my grandmother was pregnant with my aunt, my mother went to live with her aunt and uncle – there were complications with the pregnancy and my grandmother was supposed to be on bed rest. My aunt refused to wear shoes for most of her childhood. She would bury them in the gravel pile out behind the house when it was time for church. She was in to everything and was always dirty. She had imaginary friends who I wanted to adopt. Kanina and the Waaa-man, in particular. She once broke a huge bottle of bleach and blamed it on a giant grasshopper. She used to bite faces out of pieces of bread and then leave the bread faces in secret places, to be found, dried out and gaping, by my grandmother.

I did the same thing when I was little, which is how I learned my aunt had done it first. My grandmother screeched at my aunt for leaving bread faces, and Jesus Murphy, wasn’t she too old for that sort of thing? And my aunt said it wasn’t her and I said, I did that, Nama. I made a face out of my bread! Only I forgot where I put it. (It was under the chesterfield.) They both stared at me, then at each other, and then my grandmother asked why I’d done it and I said, I like to make little bread balls and then eat them and when I’d made two, it looked like eyes…and then my aunt interrupted and said, so you ate a mouth into the bread and made it a face. I said, yes, that’s what I did. Then they laughed so hard they cried because I was only four and no one had ever mentioned bread faces; in fact they’d forgotten about bread faces until Nama found one under the couch. So I ask you, how did I know about bread faces?

PercKateEthelRayIn with a bunch of things at my mum’s house this Christmas, I found a box labelled to her from my great uncle. There are photo albums inside. My uncle worked for the CPR, and in his retirement years, rebuilt steam engines, old vehicles, and tractors. If you go to the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, you’ll see some of sorts of machines he worked on. In his younger years, he played in a band. He played saxophone and toured the country during WWII playing concerts all over Canada and the northern US. He played baseball and rumour has it is mentioned in the provincial baseball hall of fame. He was a writer, and could turn a phrase better than most of us turn a corner. He had in one of the albums a ticket for passage on a boat that ended up being sunk by a German U-Boat. I don’t know why he wasn’t on the boat, nor do I know how he came by the ticket. I don’t know enough of his stories.

My uncle’s photo album is partly a collection of the pictures of the people in his family and the things he loved to do, and it’s partly a collection of obituaries and notes about when all of his friends and family died and left him behind. He was the last of the story-collectors and keepers of his generation. There are videos he made of himself telling some of his stories. Many of them have damaged audio tracks, and I don’t know how to fix them. In them, he sits in front of his camera, with bright southern Saskatchewan sunlight streaming in to his little bachelor pad, and he talks. He knows I am his audience. It is still just him and me, and I still listen raptly to the one about the time he and his buddy hit a rifle shell with a hammer in the shed out back and ended up shooting their neighbour – which is a story they promised never to tell anyone as long as they lived but since everyone else was long dead, it was probably okay.

It’s more than just keeping the stories. I have pieces of them with me. Pieces of these icons, the larger-than-life characters on whose shoulders my tiny family was built. The paragons of the prairies in the early 20s; the men and women who had nothing but who gave everything. It seems like their memory is not enough somehow, that they can’t be *gone*. They can’t just be gone just because they’ve died. A hundred years is nothing. My grandfather and my uncle lived nearly 100 years, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly long enough.

My mother lived almost half of that; her mother nearly 70 years. And it wasn’t enough. We always tell people, “but they will live on in your memory forever”, and that, my friend, is simply untrue. They will not live on. Because memory and stories last only as long as the story-keepers. Every one of us has stories to tell. Every one of us is important because we are here, sharing the same place and the same experiences as everyone else. What we need to do is tell those stories. And never, *never* pass up the opportunity to tell someone you love them.

Because 100 years is just too goddamned short.

I am never forget the time…

The Long-Suffering Sarah and I decided to make the best of a class in high school with which neither of us was particularly enamoured. It wasn’t even so much that we didn’t like French class. It was that we didn’t really appreciate the exercises we had to do. Our teacher one year insisted on having the students create les diologues using the vocabulary and declensions we were learning at the time. This, educationally, is a brilliant strategy. But it was boring.

I mean, there we were, two students who did fairly well academically, having to fill out (at times) preformatted paragraphs with sentence endings left blank. Things like: Je n’ai pas fait mes devoirs parce que… (we finished that one with “mes mains ont été agrafés au plafond”, and Je n’aime pas faire la vaisselle parce que… “je suis hydrophobe”. Granted, we learned a LOT more French this way, and our escapades usually resulted in our teacher trying desperately not to bust a gut while the rest of the class screamed for a translation.

So one of our “diologues” was to make a presentation to the class for Christmas. The Long-Suffering Sarah and I decided we would do a cooking show. We baked cupcakes and cookies the night before our “show”, and then made sure we had an inflatable santa with forks taped to its head (because we were making “les petits gâteaux aux reindeer”. And we couldn’t find an inflatable reindeer so we had to dress Santa up.

The inflatable part is important because étape 1 is the étape in which we murdered the reindeer. Can’t make les petits gâteaux aux reindeer without tuer les rennes. Right? Right. So we had this inflatable Santa-cum-reindeer all inflated at the front of the class, and, in very meticulous French, we listed all of the ingredients you’d need (beurre, sucre, farine, les oeufs, un renne), and then we began to outline the process.

We stabbed the ever-loving shite out of that reindeer, then jumped about on its corpse and shoved the whole thing into le four for a set amount of time. Whence we had previously stashed the cupcakes and cookies.

That was the second-best French presentation we ever made. (The first was the one in which I played an American tourist in a restaurant in Portugal. I was ordering in broken French, and the Long-Suffering Sarah was answering in Portugese. We got good marks in spite of not using very much French, because we’d demonstrated we could conjugage the verbs properly in three languages.)

Lord Love a Duck

Gram and cenobyte selling lemonade in front of Mum's first car.
Gram and cenobyte selling lemonade in front of Mum’s first car.

Did I ever tell you about the time my Gram and her neighbour took me for a drive in their small town in the 80s, and we saw a Young Man wearing Very Tight Trousers, and my Gram, who was usually so proper and reserved, said “Gol, if he passed wind, he’d split those trousers right in half!”? I thought I was going to die.

Or the time NOBODY believed me about the litany of foodstuffs Gram would offer if you even thought about considering a visit, until we had a game event and Gram drove into the middle of the yard and leapt out of the car offering fried chicken to everyone? Or perhaps a tomato sandwich?

Then there was the time my Gram bought my father a dildo from Consumers Distributing?

Probably.

While I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with my Gram, she did some pretty amazing stuff. Her family was a family of means until the Great Depression, when my great Grandfather lost everything by offering farmers credit on the bills they owed him. They survived the dust bowl, and my Gram, rather than doing what was expected of her (getting married and turning out as many kids as possible in hopes that some would survive), she instead found whatever work she could, taking in laundry and working at shops to earn an income. When she did marry a just-starting-out farmer, she had my father, and returned to work. She had a 30 year career working at the bank in her town. She did what most women in the 40s and 50s would not do.

She survived the Depression, the war years, small town gossip, two husbands, one daughter-in-law, three of five siblings, and the madness of the 20th century.

There’s no denying that she’s a bit of an odd old bird, my Gram.

My mother treated her terribly, which is something I’m ashamed of.

She had the most amazing laugh – when Gram got going, no one within earshot could help themselves; we all dissolved into fits of belly laughs, until there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

There are times I will miss her. Most of her 87 years were good ones, she told me a few weeks ago. “When I go,” she said, “I won’t have any regrets. I’ll know I lived a blessed life.”

You did at that, Gram. You lived a blessed life. Ain’t nobody in the hereafter going hungry with you there.

But sometimes, good things happen

I have been pooping an awful lot on and around social media lately. The truth of the matter is that I haven’t missed effbook at all since we broke up. We still see each other now and then in the grocery store, and while we may not make eye contact, we at least can say a brisk “hello” to one another across the citrus fruit stack.

G+ is all right (and I dearly love the new G+ communities), but I’m most frequently on Twitter and chat. Because that’s one-on-one. And I like that. I like it a lot.

Something magical happened on Twitter today. One of my Tweeps mentioned that he had lost a parent a number of years ago, and that sometimes the passage of time hits him when he isn’t expecting it. He said, “I feel old”.

I answered him, and said it’s been a decade since Mum died, and I don’t feel old, I just feel very, very lonely.

Then another friend wrote and said he’d lost his parent within the last two years. And then someone else mentioned that his wee daughter is really missing his own father, who passed away earlier this year.

And I thought, this is wonderful. Not because we’re all talking about shitty things, but because we’re all talking about shared experiences. I probably wouldn’t have got to meet any of these people without social media, and truth be told, I haven’t met most of them in person (yet). But what happened today just pushed home that we have more in common with one another than we have differences.

The winter festive season is especially tough for me because Mum went a little batshit. Well, okay, she went MORE batshit. And I understand now. I get why. I didn’t, for a very long time, but I think it was the second or third Christmas morning without her that I really really understood. I felt close to her. And she must have felt close to her own mum also.

She would sit back in her chair and watch as we opened our gifts, the serious ones and the silly ones, and she would be surrounded by people who love her and she would be surrounded by their laughter and all the noise of gathering together and being joyful. And we weren’t joyful because we got loot. We were joyful because we were together. And because Mum and Nama were wicked good cooks.

This has been an incredibly difficult year for me. I don’t know why, but I have missed my mum so much this year. I can’t believe it’s a whole decade since I last heard her laugh. I can’t believe it’s ten years since we spoke on the phone. I don’t know what the last thing was that she said to me, but I’m positive it was wacky and made no sense.

I have, so many times in the past few months, picked up the phone and then stood there staring at it in my hand and asking myself, What were you going to do with that, kid? Just phone up the dead? Those long distance charges would be pretty steep. So many times I’ve thought of how she would be so proud of The Captain and The Nipper (she never got to meet The Nipper, who has her name). I have desperately wished to turn back the clock, just for one day, for one afternoon. Just for five minutes to fold myself into her arms.

I am lost; I am alone, drifting without an anchor. I have lost who I am, parts of my identity. Who am I? Who am I without Mum? Who am I without the woman who would always listen, even when she was horribly cross with me. Who am I without my number one fan? Even when she didn’t agree with what I was doing. Who am I without Mum, who understood me so well, no matter how much I dreaded admitting that.

Something we did when Mum died was to write letters to her and then toss them in the fire so that the smoke of our words would reach her. I haven’t done that in a very long time. So I think I am going to ask my kids to help me write a letter to Mum at Christmas. We’re going to tell her everything we think we’d like her to know, and we’re going to burn it all up outside in the glittering, new-fallen snow.

I don’t feel old without Mum. I feel far, far too young.

And thank you to my Tweeps for reminding me of this. And of why it’s important to embrace things that are difficult. Because these are the important things; the things that matter. You have reminded me of a valuable lesson today.

Sometimes, everything works out

There is nothing quite like the feeling of painstakingly hand-knitting a sweater for someone who dies partway through the process, then having to repurpose the sweater for someone else whose arms are longer. I say this only because it’s a shame to let that hard work and good yarn go to waste. And it’s not like you need to TELL your mother-in-law that the sweater you made her was intended for your own mother, but your own mother bit the biscuit, leaving you a textile-challenged half-orphan. And really, how were you supposed to know when you were in your thirties that women in their fifties don’t like crop tops? It wasn’t a crop top when you first started making it, because your mother was only five-foot-nothing and so it would have come at LEAST to her waist. Possibly to her knees.

It’s not like you’ll have hard feelings knowing your mother-in-law will never wear the sweater. It’s the thought that counts, right? It would be better, in fact, if she donated it to someone who would like it, but you know she won’t because she’s too goddamned nice for that and she doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. And that right there is the thing that’s going to make you feel the most ashamed for the rest of your natural life – that your mother-in-law is too goddamned nice to donate a dead woman’s sweater because she doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.

Sometimes, everything works out, and you knit a sweater for a boy and things don’t work out so you keep the sweater even though it’s way too frigging big for you and for everyone else you know, because you didn’t know anything about test swatches and gauge so you just chose to keep the sweater because damnit, there’s six months of your life in that thing and the majority of your pregnancy. And then you meet some dude who’s like, seven feet tall and the sweater fits him like a glove and you give it to him and he’s really sweet about it but then the next time he comes to your house he’s a total dick and you don’t ever want to talk to him again, but still, at least someone gets to enjoy the gargantuan sweater you made for a boy you desperately wanted to please.

Maybe the moral here really is “don’t knit sweaters for people”. But then you see it work out *really well* for other people, and for babies, because when you knit sweaters for your wee one and they just look so goddamned good, you start thinking, “Man, I should knit sweaters more”, and you make one for your husband but something went weird in between the cuffs and the shoulders and even though he has really really long arms, NOBODY has arms THAT long and the sweater never gets worn because who wants to look like he’s wearing a sweater that looks like a mentally awkward person knit for a particularly docile orangutan. Even though sometimes your husband does wear it, particularly in the winter when you refuse to turn on the heat and he kind of likes it because he can double the sleeves up and pin them around his neck and still get full coverage of his arms. So that kind of worked out too, but only because your husband is pretty much the sweetest person on earth; he’s the kind of man who agrees to wear the horrible sweater you made with stilt-arms because he wants you to know that he appreciates the *gesture* and how much time and effort went in to it even if you’re not particularly good at gauging real people arms.

It’s like this time TUO was really nervous about telling me when I was pregnant the joke about a pregnant woman taking thalidomide because she can’t knit sleeves and I laughed and laughed and laughed  until there were too many tears in my eyes to see and she was so relieved because she knows how emotional and sensitive women can get when they’re pregnant but I was just so goddamned relieved that someone out there understands about how bloody impossible sleeves are. If all of the sweaters in the world just had no sleeves, the world would be a better place. Things would work out much more often.

Doing away with sleeves entirely is a good compromise, but it takes a very special sort of person to agree to wear a sweater vest. And chunky yarn only works when your aunt is so tiny that if she sneezes, she might just disappear. Luckily, I have such an aunt. And a sister-in-law who is gracious enough to tell me she wears the silk camisole I knit her in cerulean blue.

Anyway, I didn’t actually give my mother-in-law a sweater that I’d begun for my mother only to have her die on me. I bought the yarn for a sweater I was going to knit for my mother, but I ended up making my mother a different sweater out of different yarn and she loved it. Well, she said she loved it but she had a brain tumour and tried lighting markers thinking they were cigarettes and then she laughed and laughed. I choose to believe she did love that sweater, and the arms totally fit her, but the rest of the sweater was way too big because she’d lost so much weight. She said it was good because it was so warm and for the next sweater, could I make it in blue.

I said I could make it in blue, but I knew I wouldn’t, because she was dying and I didn’t want to start another sweater and have to leave it partially made for the rest of time or else unravel it and use the yarn for something else. Sometimes I think that makes me a bad person, and the part of my brain that still doesn’t accept that I myself am not still ten years old thinks that maybe if I’d have started that sweater for her, she wouldn’t have died. Maybe as long as I kept adding one stitch, or one row, she’d live another day. Or another year.

And can our lives be measured in terms of stitches, counted row upon row, building from a simple ribbed pattern to something very much more complex, narrowing at last back to a ribbed pattern and then ending, finally, in a long and twisting single string? If I had started that blue sweater, would I have sat unravelling it, undoing my mother with each frogged inch?

It’s been a while

I don’t remember exactly when it was he told me how he felt, but after I knew, I couldn’t stop looking at him. I stole glances whenever I could. He lived further from me than many of my other friends, but I saw him regularly.  I could feel him watching me, too, or so I imagined. I thought about what it would be like to kiss him.

Those thoughts filled my days.

Across the room, those times when I would see him, I would stare and stare and blush when his eyes met mine. He would always smile then, and his cheeks would colour too. Most times, I didn’t know what to say to him, so I let him start most of our conversations, although there weren’t nearly enough of them. And I couldn’t fathom the passing of time when he was near. He was all I could see.

He was one of the only people to comfort me in losses, and one of the first to congratulate successes. That was both unexpected and discomfiting, because I didn’t know the proper responses. I never knew what to say, how to hold my arms, where to look. I suppose I didn’t really know who I was when he saw me.

He invited me to his house. It was a warm afternoon, and I went on my own. It took me a while to find it. We watched movies and he made me brunch – fried hashed brown potatoes with green onions and a tall, cold glass of chocolate milk. He told me how much he loved my smile.

I thought I’d never be able to stop smiling.

But at the same time, there was an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. There was a shuddering in my mind’s eye. Why is he really saying this? What am I supposed to say? Should I compliment him? Should I thank him? How can I change the subject?

I needn’t have worried.

“Do you want to know what I heard on the news?” He asked.

“Yes, I do.”

“I heard there was this man in New York or Chicago or something, and he was a frequent flyer, and so one day, he tried to get on the plane with his pickle wrapped in aluminum foil.”

I stared at him, and watched his eyes sparkle as he laughed.

“Can you imagine having to explain that to the people at the metal detectors?”

I sat back and thought about it. I could, indeed, imagine that. But where would he keep the pickle? I wondered. “I would totally do that,” I heard myself saying.

He stopped laughing. “What?” He asked incredulously.

“I would do that. I would totally wrap my pickle in foil and try to get through the metal detectors.”

He was staring at me, and he had the strangest look on his face. It was the sort of look that said ‘I am confused’. “But cenobyte,” he said tenderly, his voice full of concern. “You’re a girl.”

It was my turn to stare. “Yes,” I agreed. “I am.”

We stared at one another over cooling plates of hashbrowns. “…do you mean…” he began slowly, deliberately. “That is something…you would do…if…”

“If I had a pickle at the airport. Yes, yes.” I was impatient with him.

Something was wrong. He kept glancing at me sidelong.

It wasn’t until I went home later that afternoon that I realised he had used the word pickle synonymously with penis. This was an idiom I had not previously encountered. The entire conversation of that morning unfurled in the nascent folds of my memory.

I wondered if my preteen self ought to pick up the phone and explain to my first serious boyfriend that I thought he’d meant some fellow had wrapped an actual *pickle* in foil, and that I had thought that would be a ridiculous amount of fun to not be willing to explain to airport security, and that I’d had no idea that he actually meant that the fellow had wrapped his own johnson in foil, but then I thought better of calling him to explain all of this to him, not because I didn’t want to admit that I’d been confused, but because it was more than a little embarassing to not catch on to an entire conversation for HOURS. I never did explain it to him. I did, however, wonder why anyone would wrap their wang in foil at an airport.

But then I thought about how much fun it really would be to take various random objects wrapped in foil through security and figured that the fellow who’d done it couldn’t really be that dissimilar from me in the end. Not *really*.

Little did I know that that conversation would be one of the cornerstones for my reputation for years to come.

Six of Thirteen

The spring of 1997 I moved in with Drang, and one of his best friends used to spend a lot of time at the house. His friend was drop-dead sexy, rather shy, with a biting wit and a soft-spoken nature. He didn’t smile often, but when he did, the whole world stopped moving. That summer, Drang and I would have these raucous parties when he was home from the mine, and often, his friend would come.

I’d known Drang’s friend from LARP of course, but it seemed like he’d never really been interested in talking to me, so I just watched him from across the room.

Then, at one of our summer parties, Drang’s friend agreed to let me dye his hair pink. So I was in the bathroom, rinsing the dye out of his hair, and he looked at me. Right in my eyes, which he didn’t usually do. My heart stopped, and my legs started to shake. I couldn’t meet his eyes for very long. Finally, I asked him, while looking at my feet, if it would be okay if I kissed him.

He said he thought that would be okay.

And, as they say, “since the invention of the kiss, there have been only five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.”

He had never had a lover before, and I had never been so scared. We dated for about seven months, and then I broke up with him because I was so broken and I knew I would hurt him. And I knew breaking up with him would hurt him. But I knew that I would destroy him, and his tender, beautiful soul, if I stayed. So I broke his heart.

Then I had a mad love affair or two, and the whole time, I wanted Drang’s friend. And then I had The Captain. The Captain was born in October, and Drang’s friend was one of the first people there. We had been talking to each other, trying to rebuild our friendship during my pregnancy, and I had realized far too late that I was still, and always would be, in love with him. He had moved on, had found another woman (that’s a long story in and of itself), and we were doing okay as friends.

But then when I was in hospital and The Captain was dying, Drang’s friend was there. I remember standing at the end of the hallway; I’d been on the phone with my father, sobbing. And I turned around after I hung up the phone, and Drang’s friend was walking toward me down the hall, which was dimly lit because the babies were sleeping in the nursery.

And I knew then that I would always love him, that I’d made the biggest mistake in hurting him and in breaking up with him, and that I’d never be able to make up for it, and I’d missed my chance. I’d REALLY missed my chance. It was the worst, most hollow, sinking feeling I’d ever had. He held me for a long time that day, and with everything that was going through my head and my heart…with my baby dying, and having to go back to work in a month and being alone…I *seriously* lost my shit. But I didn’t tell Drang’s friend how I felt about him.

I did my best to be his friend, and he came over almost every day to see me. We watched movies together, and I made him lunch, and we went for walks with The Captain, and Drang’s friend was still playing in the Vampire game, and every time I saw him, my heart grew bigger, and every time he left, it broke a little because I couldn’t tell him how I felt. I’d already beached that ship.

Just before Christmas, we were watching a movie at my house, and The Captain was sleeping in a laundry basket at the foot of my bed, and Drang’s friend and I were sitting next to each other and I couldn’t not touch him. I had been doing really well for two months, but this feeling just overwhelmed me and I put my head on his shoulder and I put my hand over his.

He turned to me and kissed me, and I started to cry. And he asked what was wrong and I told him how much I loved him and how I always had and how I’d made the biggest mistake of my life when I broke up with him but that I really thought I was doing the right thing by him and that I understood if he didn’t feel the same way anymore but that it was killing me not to tell him and that he was the only man I ever wanted to fall in love with ever again.

And he told me he still loved me. That he always had. That he’d never stopped.

That was December 20th, 1999.

And that’s why His Nibs and I got married on a Tuesday in December.

(His Nibs is Drang’s friend, you see. And although this is how I remember this going, His Nibs probably has a completely different memory of the event.)

It’s Been 21 Years, One Month, Three Weeks, and One Day

Roughly, or thereabouts, I figure, since I last saw you.

Of course, I am forgetting the time I saw you in passing at the top of the escalators in Place Riel when you told me you were studying education and science and were thinking of becoming a teacher. You asked me to tell my mother that before you walked away through the heavy doors to catch your bus. I did tell her, and she was inordinately pleased to hear both that and that you wanted to teach. “He will make a *wonderful* teacher,” she said. That was high praise. I didn’t tell her how my throat had hitched watching you walk away.

You looked the same when I saw you last night in the food court. The same as you had the last time I saw you, with a few wrinkles around the eyes. You recognised me first, which is, I think, a miracle in itself. Probably I should apologise for the reaction you got. You were, quite literally, the very last person I expected to see. Anywhere. I introduced you to His Nibs, and, much in the same way you always did, you started up a conversation immediately that was only a very little bit uncomfortable for both of you.

I, on the other hand, was at a complete and total loss of words.

His Nibs headed back to work after his lunch break, but you and I sat together. You reminded me of that time I’d sent you all over our high school on some kind of crazy combination scavenger hunt/telephone game. It was not something I’d have remembered.

Here’s what I did remember: standing in the field across from my house. You put your hands on my shoulders and I saw the necklace I’d given you in your breast pocket. I started to run. You caught up with me. Of course you caught up with me. It felt like our entire relationship had been me running away and you catching up with me. You held my heart, which is as raw now as it was that day more than 20 years ago.

I don’t remember much of what you said to me that day. I don’t remember what words of comfort you might have whispered, what you might have said to try to get me to smile. I know that you were the only anchor I had, and that was too much…far too much for you to be, and for me to have expected you to be. We were *sixteen*, for God’s sake. I sure as hell didn’t know any better than to fall in love. I did it all wrong, and you bore the brunt of that.

And in the food court at the mall, I couldn’t even look at you. I was back in that field and the only thing I could see through a thick veil of tears was that goddamned necklace tangling in your fingers. All I wanted to do was to tell you how sorry I was, and how much you’d meant to me, and how you’d given me so much strength and confidence at a time in my life when I needed so much of both. I wanted to tell you so many of the maudlin things you’re supposed to tell your first true love, but I couldn’t because my heart was in my throat.

You made all that time disappear.

There is a very good chance that the impression I gave you all these years later is that I am either an emotionally unstable, simpering twit, or a cold and frigid bitch. Either way, when you said, “Well, it’s been good to see you,” and rose to leave, every inch of my body and soul were screaming out to beg you not to go. But you’d taken my words. “Maybe sometime we can have lunch together,” you said. I don’t know if that’s what you’re supposed to say to your high school sweetheart after 20+ years when you see them by chance at a food court in a mall hundreds of kilometres away from your home town, but that’s what you said.

I nodded and managed to croack out, “Yeah. That would be really nice.”

I wanted you to hug me, to wrap your arms around me. I wanted you not to whisper “goodbye” in my ear before you got into your bright yellow car and drove away. I wanted never to have been standing in the middle of the sidewalk, unable to walk away, on a warm summer evening, with the heavy thud of my heartbeat the only thing I could hear. I wanted to tell you I was sorry. And that I’d never forgotten you. And that I’ve kept every letter you ever wrote me. And that you taught me what *could* be. And that I was grateful for everything you’d tried to do for me, and for everything you’d tried to be for me. And that sometimes, more than twenty years after I last saw you, I’d dream of you and wake with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes.

I woke before I had to watch you leave one more time.

Tent-caterpillar

He’s just a baby now, you said, holding the fuzzy blue-and-black caterpillar on your hand. When he touches me it’s like little tickles, his baby feet and fingers are soft. But he will grow and change, you know. Soon he’ll be a butterfly or a moth or something and he’ll forget I ever held him in our yard. He won’t remember that I let him walk over my knuckles like an endless staircase going up and up and up into the sky.

Maybe someday, your brother replied, he will open his wings high up in the sky and look down below where he is flying and he will say, ‘oh! That is the yard where a boy once let me crawl on his hand’!

Maybe, you agreed, but I don’t think their brains can hold that many memories or thoughts. When you think about it, he can’t really be thinking much of anything.

Like the cat? Your brother asked, grinning the grin that lights up his face and makes his eyes sparkle.

Oh, this caterpillar is dumber even than the cat. But he does everything by instinct, so that’s kind of a different kind of smart. He does what evolution has taught him to do: he crawls on the ground, climbs into trees, eats leaves, weaves a cocoon, transforms into a butterfly or a moth, then he flies away and mates and dies. That’s all he knows how to do, but that’s really all he needs to know how to do.

(You spoke so eloquently and so assuredly, and I stood in the garden and watched you and your brother, crouched down on the deck like I’d seen you do together since your brother could crouch without tumbling forward onto his nose. The images of the two of you from a year ago, two years ago, five years ago crowded together, superimposed one over the other. At once, you had chubby hands and short legs; your face was still round. Your brother’s starfish hands, reaching for you, for the crawling thing you held. But there you both were another five years from now; lanky, awkward, your voices changing…becoming the men you shall be.)

Do you want to hold him? You asked.

No thanks, your brother answered, and the moment was broken; the magic disintigrated like sand on the wind.

Sometimes dipping your toes is a full immersion

The smell of the sea and tears-tasting salt water still cling to me as I dress/undress for bed. My skin is red where the sun kissed it a little too long, and my hair is whipped to a frenzy by the ocean breeze. There, on a promontory at St. Andrews-by-the-sea, I saw a monument. Rising up from the bank along the high-tide mark, it was a celtic cross, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean in Passamaquoddy Bay on the Bay of Fundy. I stopped the car on a whim and got out to read what was printed on the base of the cross.

My grandmother wanted her whole life to see the Bay of Fundy. She wanted her ashes tossed into the ocean at high tide, so she could ride through the brine back to Ireland. I tried, but couldn’t quite get her there, so I emptied her urn and Grandpa’s urn on a rocky shore in Nova Scotia. She’d still get to Ireland.

Earlier today, I’d dipped my feet in the Bay of Fundy at Saint John and thought of my grandmother. I thought of her laughing, of the wind lifting her uneven curls, of the cold water splashing up over her weird bent-together toes. I pictured her holding my hand there on the end of a dock, staring out into the bay whose waters rise and fall, rise and fall on a grander scale than any tides, anywhere in the world.

Standing in front of the cross, the tides were lapping away, leaving tiny runnels of receding tidewater. This place at St. Andrews-by-the-sea is called Katie’s Cove. That was her name.

And this is what was written on the cross:

In memory of those men, women, and children who died of hunger and disease while fleeing the potato famine in Ireland and lie buried on Hospital Island lovingly remembered by their descendants who persevered and helped build this great nation.

So I couldn’t take you to the Bay of Fundy then, Nama. But I think maybe today, we walked together on that beach.