(Photo by WDValgardson)
Birth and death come to all of us. Leaving home comes to nearly all of us. It wasn’t always this way. My father was born on 3rdA Ave. in Gimli, Manitoba. When he married, he moved three blocks down the street. Later, after my brother’s death in an industrial accident, living in a house with too many memories, he and my mother built a house a block north on 3rd Ave.
I guess you might say that he’d left home but in the off-seasons when he wasn’t commercial fishing, he barbered. The barber shop, built by his carpenter father, was just a few steps from his father and step-mother’s house. He often put a sign in the window of the shop saying “Gone for coffee.” and went to visit in his parent’s kitchen.
He knew every person in town by name. He knew the morning smell of the bakery with its fresh bread and cinnamon buns. He knew the sound and smell of the blacksmith’s shop as John Chudd hammered together some anchors for him. He knew the cool, long Greenberg store with its soda fountain and its candy counter.
Every day he walked the same sidewalk from the house to the shop and back. He walked that path twice a day for these were more leisurely times and he came home for lunch. In the summer, when he first started fishing, he pulled a wagon with his nets down to the dock, then rowed off-shore. He always tried to be on his nets at dawn. He’d lift, haul his fish home, pack it in ice, get cleaned up, go to the shop, cut hair, then, at the end of the day, clean and repack the fish.
On Sundays, he’d visit relatives. His mother had twelve brothers and sisters and they’d mostly stayed in town. They’d married and had children so there was a lot of visiting to do, a lot of coffee to drink.
The changes were seasonal. The hot Manitoba days with crystal blue skies and small floating clouds turned to fall with wind and storms and looming masses of grey cloud. Then one day there would be snow flying past the window and, in a while, the ground would be white. The snow would come more frequently, the drifts would begin. Finally, sometime in March as the days grew longer, the air warmer, the sun brighter, puddles would form. There would be water in the ruts during the day. Then the harbinger of spring, the pussy willows would appear, grey and white.
There were births and deaths and these were celebrated and mourned communily for the newly born and dead were all known. There were weddings, Christmas gatherings, New Year’s dances, Halloween and, in the summer, a rush of relatives who came for Islindingadagurinn, the Icelandic Celebration. Winnipeg was a distant city. It was rumoured that there were cities beyond it, cities where some people had gone. They left a hole in the fabric of life. They no longer were at the garage for a gossip. They weren’t at the hockey rink to cheer the local team. They had voluntarily chosen a type of death.
But times change and that which was not possible, or did not seem possible, became possible. A fisherman’s son was offered the chance of going to university even though he didn’t really understand what university was. He stumbled through his courses, while every day Plato and Locke and Rousseau led him further and further from home, changing his language, turning him little by little, into a stranger. People told him this was success. The graduation, the job, the guaranteed salary, the promotions, the raises, but then one day when he was busy riding high on his new life, and his new life was marked by airplane terminals and airplane flights and distant cities and hotel rooms…
Frigid and clear, the air condenses on wings
And fuselage. Riding twenty-seven thousand feet high
On success, the land below faded to insignificance,
I sit, detached. But then, the pilot
Shifts our route. Below me lies Lake Winnipeg.
Amazed, I try to name my childhood places.
“There, there,” I want to shout, “there’s Riverton,
And Beaver Creek,” and then, with surprise, I mark
And mark and mark, a tiny side road, a clearing
In the trees, some buildings set a familiar way
And know, since this is Sunday noon, my parents
Are having tea. Plank table, chairs, the heavy mugs,
My mother standing at the stove, my father taking off
His boots, my orphaned brother’s son, his hair in disarray,
Reaching for the lemon pie. If I could, I’d shout, “I’m here,”
Or better still, drop softly down, drift,
My parachute unfurled, into the yard,
Then nonchalantly wander in, embrace them all,
Take down my cup form off its peg, then ease
Into their conversation. In middle-aged despair, I sit,
A helpless product of decisions made
In adolescence. The steward passes with the food,
I hardly hear him for the throbbing of my blood.
(Poem from The Carpenter of Dreams, Skaldhus Press)