Where are you from and how has it shaped you?

Where are you from and what do you know?

After the Blue Mountains launch of my memoir, The Erratics, a lady stood in line to buy a book and asked me this: do you feel your mother gave you anything? I answered without thinking, one word: no.

But as I opened the book to sign it, I reconsidered. My mother’s insistence that I excel in the wide variety of tasks she set - school exams, music exams, language classes, art classes, ski school, figure skating – meant that I got a wide education, a breadth of cultural exposure and understanding I would not have benefited from, had she not been living vicariously through me.

As I pondered my exchange with the book launch lady at leisure, I remembered something my father had said when I told him of the birth of my daughter’s daughter. He said: ah, another child to educate and guide. I held my tongue, but I wondered if it was possible he saw his role as a father that way. Looking back, could he possibly be seeing himself as an educator, a guide?

I longed to air an old hurt, to say: you were possibly a man of principles, but what those principles were I have no idea. Your legacy to me was absence. You were not there – you were on a trip, at the office, in the field, on the phone – or, if present, you were short-tempered or lying in a dark room with a migraine.

My mother’s legacy, aside from her single-minded pursuit of a demonstrable excellence she could claim as her own, was chaos: the very definition of unreliability, unpredictability, ominous disorder.

So, I ask myself, who raised me?

I realise it’s the wrong question. It’s not ‘who’, it’s ‘what’.

When the cover for my book was decided upon, I requested one thing. The Rocky Mountains and their surrounding foothills were practically a character in the book – they needed to be on the cover.

On my trips to Canada to help my father, once back in that Southern Alberta landscape I had absorbed as a small child, I felt a jolt of familiarity, like changing gears. Even though it was half a century since I had lived there, I slotted back in. I was home.

More than that - I was in the presence of the closest thing to family I had: the reliable, unchanging mountain peaks on the horizon, the immutable rolling hills at their base. In late autumn, this was a landscape that taught you resilience, as the leaves fell, the fields turned dun, and the light failed dramatically at four in the afternoon.

You learned about fragility and individuality from the falling snowflakes, each one different from all the others, every one exquisite; you learned about beauty as you lay on the pure white surface of the snow to move your arms and legs and create snow angels. You tried not to leave footprints when you got up, but you did – it looked like the angels had decided to depart on foot.

In spring, tiny anemones pierced the snow that took its time melting on the foothills: fragile lime-green shoots, luminous mauve flowers, the Alberta crocus. Life returned with the thaw; nothing was irretrievably lost. And summer brought long hours of golden light, as the evening sun slipped down behind the Rockies, gilding the intricate dance of clouds of tiny gnats.

Bright, brave things bloomed, standing tall on stalks and stems in the brief, hot, continental summer, colouring the hills and the lower slopes of the mountains: goldenrod and fireweed, blood-red Indian paintbrush, tiger lilies, saffron-yellow and freckled.

Sweet clover flourished between the pebbles of mountain streams. The wild Alberta rose, growing on prairie roadsides and in ditches, five fragile pale-pink petals, perfumed the short season of beauty and warmth before the first cold snap shocked the leaves to crimson and amber, completing the cycle. A last burst of beauty against the backdrop of peaks and perpetual snow. The world turns, what is here will be lost but will return.

Mary Oliver, in her poem Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness said something about living in the landscape that is yours, and learning from it:

 

So let us go on, cheerfully enough,

                     this and every crisping day,

 

                     though the sun be swinging east,

                     and the ponds be cold and black,

                     and the sweets of the year be doomed.

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