First Thoughts… Toward a New Beginning for an Old Novel

The memories I have of my grandparents’ townhouse are among my most valuable intangible possessions. Full of colour, sound, flavour and texture, these memories have kept me company ever since my grandmother moved out of the place in the winter of 1984 when my grandfather died suddenly. The townhouse was a humble abode, ultimately destined to be bulldozed in order to make room for the luxurious condos that now peer down at a small tributary of the Bow River on Calgary’s Northeast side. I make a pilgrimage to the spot every time I go back home.

There was a pool table in the basement, so that’s where the men and the children spent most of their time. My grandfather had taken up the game in his retirement: he preferred eight ball to snooker, and was impossible to beat. I remember well my uncle’s frustration as his father beat him game after game. I was too small to play. The cues were off limits to me and the other kids, so I resigned myself to playing with cubes of chalk instead; my fingertips were blue within minutes of descending those stairs.

I spent most of my time underneath the pool table. I watched the legs of my father, various uncles and grandfather frantically circle around me, only stopping momentarily to line up a shot. I would try to guess, based on the position of any given pair of legs, which of the pockets would quiver under the weight and velocity of polished ivory. In time, my predictions became startlingly accurate.

These games were often cut short, however, by the aroma of sausage and fried potatoes which would waft down the wooden stairs, my grandmother’s unspoken call to dinner. Ours is a family which loves to eat. We were organic way before it became trendy to be organic; the men of the family were comprised of avid hunters, fisherman and farmers.

In the summer, our menu consisted mostly of fish and rice. My grandfather left me an inheritance of rusty spoons, betraying his longstanding love for a sport, most solitary. His legacy, a legacy of five-o-diamonds, jigs and plugs was given to me, the youngest of his massive brood of grandchildren at the time of his death; I look at those lures often. He loved to fish. The bow of his tin boat bounced upon the waves of every Albertan lake. He ran his small outboard into the water. Most of his lures were built with pike in mind, he called those fish “little sharks”.

Winter promised the smell of a different, and less noxious form of flesh. From late October to Christmas day, a large sheet of plywood sat atop my grandfather’s pool table. The plywood, in turn, was covered with brown, waxed butcher paper, and used as a makeshift butcher’s block. That table bore the tremendous weight of Winter’s spoils. That table transformed a multitude of deer, elk, moose and sometimes even bear into roasts, steaks and sausage as the men loudly celebrated by singing hymns in German and English.

I remained underneath that table. I collected the odd piece of flesh that fell to the floor. I rolled the scraps between my thumb and index finger, breathing deeply the heady, wild fragrance. I remember marveling at how the grinders, which were bolted to the edge of that table, would process all that meat: spices were added and, combined with pork and fat, eaten raw to test the mix. I was not allowed to partake of this feast, for fear of sickness. My stomach wasn’t strong enough yet.

There’s more. For instance, my grandparents took massage very seriously. An assortment of massage tools occupied every room of their small home. Some of these tools looked prehistoric. Dowels conjoined disparate beads on which one leaned aching muscle, instantly relieving one’s strain or stiffness. Other tools were more elaborate, and needed to be plugged into the wall to come alive. One of these, in particular comes to mind.

The device was deceptively heavy. It was small enough to be easily handled by an adult hand, but it was insanely dense; it probably weighed five pounds. The machinery inside the massager heated up quickly and smelled like burning hair. Its chord was wrapped in fabric instead of plastic. The noise which emanated from the machine, both ominous and oddly soothing, put me to sleep every night I slept over at grandma and grandpa’s.

My grandparents had a large brood of children: six in all– five girls and a boy. Every one of my grandparents’ kids had children of their own well before they reached the age of thirty. The townhouse was swarmed with grandchildren and the mongrel sounds that come with wee ones. My grandparents couldn’t have been happier.

There are pictures of us all, lined up on the floral patterned chesterfield. If one looks closely at these pictures, the pecking order of the grandchildren will be as plain as day. Lisa is and was the oldest. While her age was a great asset then, I’m sure she feels much differently about things now. Her parents were missionaries; their second child, Josh, was born in Sri Lanka only a week after the eldest male cousin, Adam, arrived on the scene. There was always a rivalry between them, which was caused by the proximity of their age.

I am the youngest child in those pictures. My hair was blonde then, and incredibly curly. I’m picking my nose in most of the shots, evidence of how far back my embarrassing habit goes. Even then, I seemed to provoke nurturing in the hearts of women. Cousin Lisa would mother me, save me from the bullying of older boy cousins, who made fun of my curls, my clothes and my middle name. I felt safe when Lisa was around.

There was a park at the center of the townhouses. In the summertime, I was allowed to go to the park so long as I was accompanied by an older cousin. I remember a slide for sure, and a merry-go-round, I think. Below the lower mouth of the slide, there was a deep rut, which was inevitably filled with muddy rain water. We often came back to my grandparents’ house completely covered in mud and were harshly scolded for tracking it into the house.

I remember lying on my back in that park, letting the ants crawl all over me. I wanted to keep them as pets, even though they started to bite when they grew tired of their forced domestication on my forearm. I lay on my back and looked straight up. I watched intently as the clouds slowly moved against a massive sky blue sky. All this was before I knew about death; I think blue was bluer back then.

Death came in November; my mom still reserves a special hatred for the eleventh month on the calendar. My grandfather was only sixty nine years old when he died. He’d had scarlet fever as a child. His body got so hot it damaged his internal organs, his heart especially. He’d had open heart surgery the week before the wedding of his only son, and according to those who attended the wedding, he looked like death as he performed the ceremony.

Grandpa died on a hunting trip. He loved to go hunting, though as he got older he no longer went for the kill; he made coffee instead, and kept the fire burning. He, my uncle Dale, and an old German friend of his were on their way out of the bush in a cream coloured Dodge Ram. They were singing hymns loudly in German, celebrating a good day out in the sticks, when my grandfather grabbed his chest and slumped over onto the shoulder of his son. He died minutes later.

We were at my father’s parents’ house when we got the call. I remember my mother bawling, though I wasn’t sure why. It was the first time I’d ever seen her cry. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t understand what they were saying as I sat in the back of the Volvo and we drove back home. She was too far away to console. The cracked, upholstered seat was incredibly cold. It was a pretty sad night.

I have no memory of the funeral. I imagine flowers, a very plain casket, and children running everywhere, intuitively doing their best to lightennthe mood. My grandfather was a preacher; actually, both of my grandfathers were preachers. I bet the bishop flew into town to attend his funeral.

My grandfather’s death was the first in a long procession of deaths that soon invaded our church like an invisible plague. The next to go was Nap Sneed. Nap was the first black man I ever met. He and his wife had faithfully attended the church for years, she passed away in 2012 at the age of ninety eight, having outlived her husband by several decades.

Her name was Willa. She smelled like baby powder. Her house was full of gold records as her son was the drummer for Three Dog Night. Hers was a home than obviously breathed music. Sometimes in church, when the congregation had finished singing a hymn she particularly liked, she would continue on, leading us to do the same by singing the chorus again in her thin, mercurial voice. It was a haunting voice: a beautiful voice. She was one of my favorites. I liked to touch her hair.

I was a dyed-in-the-wool believer from birth. Singing was my favourite thing to do. I would mimic the exaggerated expressions of our preacher as I stood on a piano stool and sang “Praise the Nord”. My childhood was filled with song; I sang and I listened to a lot of music.

I remember well the tiny little record player I got for my fifth birthday. A hand-me-down from my second oldest cousin who never used it. I instantly fell in love with the ritual of dropping the needle on wax. I would hide away in my small bedroom closet with the record player and listen to records over and over. I wore the thing out and the records too.

All of the memories I’ve recorded thus far are conventional remembrances, but there are also visions poking around in the back of my mind which are cut from a completely different fabric. These memories, detached from tangible reality, occupy fixed, groundless vantage points which lie somewhere between memory and dream. These too, are precious to me– even more precious, perhaps.

If one were to ascribe numerical primacy to one of these fleeting nymphs of memory, hierarchy’s heavy crown would surely come to rest upon the disproportionally large head of my two year old self. The memory, a vivid image of a small living room, cascading sunlight, my mom, and me, recalls the tender moments between mother and son which happened just before the water broke and my sister screamed her way into this world.

My memory stops there. That moment, frozen in denim. I am clad in brand new over-alls, the kind with the metallic clasps. My mother hooks the right clip into its clasp. And though the moment is frozen, my first words move forward: narrative voices beckon this snapshot into imagined film. Can two year olds speak in complete sentences? Do they know what a question is? I don’t know, and I guess it doesn’t matter. But I know this conversation well. I listen in whenever I close my eyes and summon those still spirits.

“Mama, when is the baby coming?”

“Soon.”

“Is she a me or is she a you?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“….”

Forever, still, that snapshot. I can see my mother, so young, expecting her next, her last. She smiles. My curls capture the sun; it’s August. I’m young and malleable and no longer will I be alone. No longer will that sun shine on me alone. My un-buckled buckles will go unnoticed until the baby is fed. I am no longer alone; a blessing and a curse, at once with a scream.

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One Response to First Thoughts… Toward a New Beginning for an Old Novel

  1. Merlette says:

    This takes me into another realm, to things I’ve forgotten and things I never knew. You write about these things we should remember and in a way that we should treasure. Thanks!

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