Lay down these words before your mind like rocks placed solid by hands in choice of place, set before the body of the mind in space and time. Solidity of bark, leaf or or wall…riprap of things. Gary Snyder
If you’re a scribbler, you tend to record your experiences, your encounters, your thoughts and impressions on whatever scrap of paper you have handy. Then you stuff it in a file, in a pile of stuff on your desk, in a drawer or between the pages of a notebook, which when full, gets shelved and, no doubt, forgotten. I was searching through such things the other day when I found this folded up scribble on a torn-out page of a diary. Such discoveries always spark memories. This one takes me years back to a time when summer always meant two weeks on a small island in Lake Anima Nipissing. We left the world behind when we were there. There was very little to do…so we did very little. Each day set its own pace. Here’s what I wrote back then.
A Sunday in August – 1987
My daughter and I search for crayfish along the rock-strewn shoreline.
As we wade in the water we come across random piles of slate, granite and limestone lying on the bed of the slim, shallow channel that stretches some twenty feet between our cottage and its diminutive island neighbour. Haphazardly piled one on top of the other, the stones look like a crude underwater foundation for a rock bridge. But, their span doesn’t make it all the way across.
“Looks like someone tried to fill in this channel a while back,” I said.
“How can you tell?”
“From the riprap, there, just under the water’s surface.”
She turned to me with that child’s stop-talking-to-me-like-a-grown-up look on her face. “Riprap? What’s that mean?”
“It’s the loose rocks that they lay down as a foundation,” I explain, trying not to sound too pedantic. “Riprap…”
“But islands are never supposed to be joined, are they,” she says trying to show me that she has a fundamental grasp of geography. “They wouldn’t be islands then, would they?”
“Not necessarily,” I answer as she wades in carefully. “But maybe these stones were meant to be built up so they, natives I guess, could walk across. They chose this spot because the water is shallow and easier to build a path across. Which is good for us.”
“But, not for the crayfish, I hope.”
I was glad she came back to our reason for being here. “Do you see any?”
“No,” she says shading her eyes with her hands as she peers into the clear shallows.
“Then it is good for them because they think they’re safe.”
Intent on finding her first crayfish, she pays me no attention.
“They hide underneath…in the tiny spaces between the rocks, safe from your evil, clutching, human hands.” That makes her laugh.
She continues staring into the water, straining for a glimpse of her prey. The day is slightly overcast. There is still enough light filtering through the clouds to keep the surface transparent and free of cloud shadows.
“Their colour and markings are rock-like…perfect camouflage under water. That’s what makes them so difficult to spot. You have to concentrate.”
Gingerly lifting a stone she finds her quarry. But it is quicker than her young reflexes can manage. The crayfish propels itself backwards skittering under another piece of slate. She moves its new hideout aside but the elusive creature is gone again before she can grab it. There follows a flurry of splashing from stones yanked and thrown helter skelter, muddying the water and taking away any advantage we have.
“Easy,” I said. “You’re not thinking about what you’re doing.”
“I am. I’m gonna’ keep looking under the stones.”
“You won’t find crayfish if you stomp around like that. You’re driving them deeper under the stones. We need to stop and let things settle.”
We move on shore to wait for the water to clear. I look at her sitting there innocently hugging her legs, resting her chin on her knees, eyes straight ahead. I sense her frustration with me in every loud breath she takes.
“You have to be patient.” I say softly, “Crayfish are kind of like people. They back away when they feel threatened. They look for someplace safe…something to hide behind”
“People don’t hide under rocks.”
I can’t argue with her logic. She is testing me. My analogy is obviously too obtuse for her to understand. I can see she has no idea of what I’m talking about. In trying to get through to her I just dig myself a deeper hole.
“Looking for crayfish is a lot like trying to understand people,” I say. “You have to let them know you’re not going to harm them so they’ll show themselves to you. And just like you peel away people’s defenses to find their real selves you must gently lift away the rocks without disturbing the water to find the crayfish.”
With a deep sigh she reaches down and carefully picks up a small piece of flat slate. A crayfish sits there not moving. I am surprised at the speed with which she grabs it.
“He had no other place to hide,” she says happily dropping the helpless crayfish into her sand pail.
Pleased with herself she takes a bigger pail, fills it with water and throws in a few small rocks. “I’m making him his own riprap,” she says with that mocking tone of voice all kids have.
When she pours the crayfish in she looks at me mischievously “Do you think it feels safe now?”
Travel is a ‘connect-the-dots-game’. You move, from one point to another at varying speeds, by various modes of transportation until you end up full circle – home. Along the way you experience degrees of discomfort. Airport hotels – small, noisy, uncomfortable, stale one night stands before moving on to the next dot. Airport boarding lounges full of sleep-deprived fellow travelers desperately seeking coffee. One or two night stands in strange places you previously believed would satisfy your ‘inner traveller’. In the days ahead, no matter how hard you try, your sleep clock will remain indelibly set to ‘home time’. Time zones play havoc with your head. Your biorhythms are constantly trying to correct themselves, searching for some inner landmark to anchor your spirit.
Our sleep clocks are set to ship’s time now and the ‘connect-the dots-game begins. We are cruising the Lesser Antilles, island hopping.
First light slips through a slit in the drapes. A barely audible rushing sound like water lapping the shore of a Northern Ontario Lake lulls us awake. Opening the sliding glass doors we are slapped with heavy humidity rushing in to take advantage of a new opening. It drives us back into our equally heavily air-conditioned cabin to catch our breath.
The sea is calm. Dawn clouds dot the horizon. The ship’s wake is twisting, swirling white-foamed water rushing away from the white steel hull – dissipating then disappearing – losing its forced form – becoming waves in the softly rolling sea swells.
Boobies skim the sea’s surface. They glide between the troughs, rise up then dive deep into the wake with wings folded tight to their bodies, disappear then bob back up to the surface, sit briefly, then take flight. They repeat their kamikaze attacks again and again creating a rhythm that has dictated their lives for eons.
Towering dark cumulus clouds dominate the horizon. We can see the rain lines falling from its gunmetal grey edge. As the ship moves steadily towards it like some jousting knight meeting a challenge, the cloud lifts itself above the horizon revealing a steadily growing gap of burning orange…a haze-fire in the luminous morning mist. Into this opening a red ball slips up from the sea line growing relentlessly. Its light reaches up piercing the cloud’s darkness etching its shape. In an effort to challenge the rising sun, the white-rimmed cloud contorts itself into multiple moguls and towering columns. But the challenge is well met. The now heated rays of the rising sun burn through the cloud’s base forcing the horizon gap to widen and claim the birth of a new day.
And then they appear – rocks in the sea born of fire. Oceanic crust and coral thrust upward by colliding sub sea plates moulded by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, green thick-wet verdant hills running up from sea to sky, cloud shrouded peaks and lush valleys…islands. Cruise islands…more dots to connect. The pilot boat comes rushing towards us.
Island to island there isn’t much difference. The port towns are unbearably hot and heavy with humidity. Tight streets and lanes, sidewalks of alternating degrees of narrow, crowded with bewildered tourists looking for bargains in the markets and street side stores. Frigid air blasting from shop doorways (a moment of relief) is quickly sucked up by the humidity.
Each island’s hills are laced with roads twisting and turning their way up to somewhere. There is room only for one vehicle at a time. Passing is precarious because the culverts on either side are wide and deep to carry water downhill. If you slide over to quickly to make room for an oncoming car you could be lost, swallowed up to the axel. Towns, villas, shanties, shacks, abandoned half finished homes and churches, all perched on the hillsides, jut out from the greenery.
A rainbow rises from the sea. Rain, fog and mist hang over the deep green hills that run layer after layer into the dark clouds that blanket the mountaintops and slide between the peaks. It is a damp, dreary day. Our guide is driving us deep into the rainforest. Switchbacks, fallen roadside rocks, chewed up asphalt, potholes and washed out roads with cars parked on either side, mean nothing to him. Compared to the claustrophobic congested warren of market stalls on the harbor streets, although treacherous, at least these are open roads. There is beauty in the lush verdant hills even though rain clouds rule their peaks.
And as we drive deeper into the rainforest I wonder if we will ever find a clearing that would give us a view of the surrounding sea.
We climb Mount Sage the highest peak in the British Virgin Islands for a change of perspective. But clouds shroud the land beneath us. There is no sea. There is no island. No dots can be see. There is no connection to landmarks of place or spirit to settle you.
And it is still raining.
She gathers her mother’s dress up over her ankles so she can move without tripping or ripping the hem as she shuffles over to the record player. Gingerly she guides the arm to the surface of the 78 until the needle catches a grove. The sweet sound of Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade fills the room. She admires herself in the mirror. She imagines an enchanted night in a ballroom filled with pinpoints of light sparkling down on her from a revolving, mirrored ball. Then the little girl dances in her mother’s shoes, toes stuffed with Kleenex so they won’t fall off.
Jennie felt like Cinderella.
Though it wasn’t a wicked stepmother that made her feel that way. No. Her problem was her stepfather. This man, with his suffocating, old country ways, never accepted her and her older brother as his children. To him, they were an obligation reluctantly agreed to. To him they were outsiders. And everyday he found ways to remind them.
Her natural father died while Jennie was still in her mother’s womb. They had just immigrated to Canada. Out of desperation the family arranged a hasty marriage for their newly widowed daughter. Her soon-to-be stepfather, tired of being alone, simply wanted someone to take care of him. He came with a good job and a home that needed a wife. A pregnant widow was a less expensive and more convenient alternative than a trip to his village in Italy to bring back a bride. To the still grieving widow the hasty marriage meant security for her young son and unborn child. Or so she thought.
In the years that followed, the match evolved into one of provider and housekeeper. Both believed they had taken advantage of the other. It was not a union of love. It was a union of mutual necessity.
When Jennie turned five the reality of her position in the family became obvious soon after the birth of her first half-brother. The stepfather expected her to care for the child while her mother took care of the house, cooked his meals and eventually, had more babies.
Growing up as the oldest girl in a large Italian family, it was her lot in life to be surrogate mother and nanny to her younger siblings. And it wasn’t as though they were overly demanding or mean spirited like their father. They loved her. She was their big sister. By the time Jennie was eighteen she almost single handedly raised three half-sisters and four half-brothers…all while going to school…all without a life of her own.
The absence of love, the absence of a father she never knew, plus a stepfather who ignored her, taught Jennie how to live within herself. As for her brother, she was jealous of the love her mother showered on him. She took some comfort in the fact that he was unhappy enough to stay away from home as long as he could after school. When the stepfather bullied him, her mother fiercely defended him. During these arguments Jennie would turn away, withdrawing into her make-believe world.
Their mother tried to restore the intimacy of a true family when her husband wasn’t around. She kept a faded, wedding photo hidden at the bottom of a battered old steamer trunk beneath her wedding gown and all the christening dresses. When the stepfather worked nights, she would lock the bedroom door, open the trunk and bring it out.
“This is my Salvatore,” she would whisper, almost to herself. “This is your father.” She would gaze at her son; hold the fading black and white picture up to his face and say, “You have your father’s eyes. I look at you and I see him. See, your smile is just like his.” Then, she would press the picture to her breast and moan, “Oh Salvatore, why did you leave me? Why did you leave your babies?”
At first, Jennie and her brother would giggle and mimic their mother rocking back and forth lost in her memories. As they grew older they began to understand her sadness was theirs as well. Jennie was always uncomfortable when the photograph was taken from its secret place. It wasn’t long before she grew tired of the attention it always brought to her brother.
Behind a locked door so no one can see, the little girl dances in her mother’s shoes.These are the moments when she is free. When music carries her soul to a forbidden world.
As her half brothers and sisters grew older and more independent, she began thinking about breaking the grip the stepfather had on her. When he told her it would help the family if she found part-time work she quickly realized, and he didn’t, that this was a small gift of freedom.
Gina was her best friend. Her parents had a small grocery store. They offered her work behind the counter. The job was liberating. She was accepted, without question, by a small family who shared their love for each other with her. In another unexpected turn, the stepfather allowed Jennie to keep a small portion of her earnings. It was, she thought, a grudging reward for all her years of servitude. Purposely, she neglected to thank him.
Jennie bought records with the money she saved. The first one she brought home was, “In the Mood,” by Glenn Miller. When the stepfather discovered what she had done he gave her a stinging lecture about wasting money on jitterbug music. Worst of all, she was forbidden use of the record player. So every 78 she bought stayed at Gina’s for safekeeping. Away from the critical eyes of her stepfather, she could dance to the music of the popular bands, just her and Gina in the spare room with no one bothering them. Like her brother, she stayed away from home as much as propriety would allow.
Little girl dances in her mother’s shoes, alone in her bedroom ballroom. Shadows and sunlight paint patterns on the floor. Stepping between them, concentration frozen on her face, she tries to be graceful in heels far too high for her small body.
On Saturday nights when everyone was out, Jennie would turn on the large Marconi radio and search the dial for the live broadcast from the Palais Royale Ballroom.
When Glenn Miller’s trombone sweetly sang the first bars of Getting Sentimental Over You, her body began to sway slowly. Raising her arms to embrace her make believe partner she danced across the carpet, eyes half closed, head held slightly back and chin coyly tilted ever so slightly to one side. Imagining the feel of his hand firmly in the small of her back, gently leading her in small circles forward and back, she willed herself deeper into a dream world of soft lights, magic nights and escape.
The music and its promise was all she had. Everything she heard on records and from the Palais Royale broadcasts spun in her head. When she felt her life caving in, she came back to the music. Humming to herself she would dance small graceful steps pretending that some handsome young man was leading her away from the life she wished to forget. That was all she wanted, that and to go dancing at the Palais Royale.
Living in her stepfather’s house she was not allowed to date, let alone go dancing. It made no difference to him that her brothers regularly went to the Palais on Saturday night, or that her sisters went to Saturday matinees just to meet boys. After all these years, after everything she sacrificed for his family, she believed she had earned the right to be treated as an equal. So she asked.
“No daughter of mine will offer herself like some cheap dancehall tramp.” His tone of voice was belligerent. “That’s not how I raised you.”
She had expected to be turned down, but she didn’t expect to feel his anger flip a switch inside of her.
“You didn’t raise me,” she heard herself yell. “I raised myself and your children. And what has that left me with?”
She could not believe the words came from her. Never in her life had she been defiant, had she talked back, had she disobeyed the stepfather in any way. Years of fear and silence fell away in an instant. “I’m going,” she heard herself say.
The man stood stiffly in front of her. His cheeks flushed red. Silence filled the space between them. Her eyes fixed on his and she saw how her firmness had unnerved him.
“If you go, don’t come back to this house.”
The threat took her by surprise. Leaving this house, this servitude that he had forced on her because she was not his child, was something she desperately wanted. The uncertainty of leaving her mother always held her back. In that moment though, she realized that the others would still be there. She saw the opportunity floating in front of her and she embraced it with a firmness that shocked him.
“Fine!” She flung the word in his face. “Gina’s family has a spare room. I can stay there. I’ll work in their store for room and board and go to dances whenever I feel like it.”
“You would leave you mother, your home, your family just to go to a
“Yes,” was all she said knowing that the dancehall was the beginning she longed for.
Little girl dances in her mother’s shoes unaware of footsteps on the stairs. A key slides silently into the lock. Through half-closed eyes she sees the silhouette of a man framed in the doorway. “Come. Dance with me,” she says to the figure walking over to the record player.
She left home without incident. In their silent embrace Jennie knew she had her mother’s blessing. The confrontation with the stepfather was behind her now. Everything she had was packed into two old suitcases her mother used when she came from Italy. She was leaving for a room of her own, a bed she didn’t have to share and a life without boundaries.
The stepfather was at work when she left. He came home expecting to see her in the kitchen, setting the table, as always. When he realized she wasn’t there, he never said a word. There seemed to be a tacit understanding among her brothers and sisters. It was as though they were proud of her, each privately respectful of her act of defiance. Even her mother smiled. She was happy for her daughter.
The streetcar stops where King Street, Queen and Roncesvalles converge in front of the Bus Terminal. From there the girls walk down a long flight of concrete steps, cross over to the boardwalk and follow the crowds towards the muted music floating out on the early evening air. To Jennie the sound is a promise not yet defined.
Sunnyside Amusement Park runs from the mouth of the Humber River to the CNE. Just up from the beach the boardwalk stretches along the shoreline shaded here and there by arching willows, large oaks and maples. At the foot of Roncasvales Avenue stands the Palais Royale. Large windows and doors punctuate all sides of its stuccoed exterior. On its distinctive barrel vaulted roof rows of clerestory windows run north and south. With all this glass, the setting sun pours light into the vast ballroom flooding the cantilevered, sprung hardwood dance floor in front of the elevated stage. Off the main ballroom the Terrace Royale runs the length of the building overlooking the beach. Couples are already dancing in the open air hoping to catch a cooling Lake Ontario breeze.
Arm in arm, Gina and Jennie walk quickly past the small crowds mingling outside. Some single men stand around smoking and cautiously sipping from silver flasks which they quickly return to the inside pocket of their suit jackets. The unattached women gather close by sizing them up. Each man memorizes the faces of those they want to ask to dance and each woman those they will say no to. Jennie is too excited to be bothered with the flirting going on around her. She wants to be inside, she wants to be close to the music.
At a table by a large window she sits, nervously waiting, fiddling with the straw in her glass of Coke. What is left of the sunset rims her dark hair with a thin line of light. Wide eyed she watches the couples on the dance floor, studying their moves so she will be ready. The music she had heard on records and the radio spills from the stage, fills the dancehall and settles all around her. The last light of the sun leaves the ballroom. Couples on the crowded floor become a mass of clinging, shuffling shadows. Above, the mirrored ball begins its slow turning, sending multi-coloured stars orbiting the universe of the room. A look of expectation settles on her face. A small, self-satisfied smile crosses her lips. Being here tells her she has won.
She knows she must be patient. Someone will come. He will be tentative at first, putting out his cigarette before he reaches the table, smoothing back his hair with his hands. Speaking in a low voice to hide his nervousness he will ask her to dance. Her smile will tell him, ‘yes.’ And as she takes his hand and follows him to the dance floor, he will not notice the hope dancing in her eyes.
The record lies in pieces on the floor, but the music still plays in her mind. The man leaves, his anger hanging heavy in the room. Silently the little girl dances to the music in her mind…tears in her eyes…dreams still alive in her soul.
I walked the Cemetery Road the other morning. It leads to the remains of Southampton’s original cemetery that lies, long since abandoned on a high, crumbling cliff overlooking the Saugeen River. This road is always at winter’s mercy, as the Town doesn’t maintain it except in late spring.
A cold east wind soughed through the trees. There was a chill in the air even though the sun did its best to pierce the battlement-like tall cedars that lined each side of the road. The shade from these trees is the reason for the slow melt on the forest floor. Even so, water runs freely in the ditches that hug the shoulders of the damp, rutted, pot-holed road. Overhead a Bald Eagle inscribes lazy circles in an unbelievably blue sky. A sentinel Crow sounds the alarm as I round a turn out of sunshine into shade.
On the road, a short distance ahead of me, I see a man, slightly stooped, slowly walking with the aid of a cane, his gait steady, measured, deliberate. It isn’t long before I’m beside him, my pace now moderated to match his.
“Good morning.” I say. “Great day for a walk.”
He stopped. Smiled. Nodded. “Indeed it is.”
We walked, side by side for a ways, talking of nothing in particular and everything in general. His eyes were bright blue. His smile suggested gentleness. He wore a greying mustache that gave him the rakish look of someone who flew Lancaster Bombers in World War Two. His leather Bomber Jacket with a fur collar fit perfectly with the mental picture I was drawing of my new companion.
“That’s quite a camera you have there. You must be a photographer.”
“No.” I said. “I play at photography. Just a hobby.”
“I had a Mamiya 6. Got it after the war. Fine camera…a lot different than what you’ve got there.”
“Times change,” I said politely.
At that moment I felt myself becoming impatient with the slowness of our walk. That if I wanted to keep chatting, I was compelled to move at his pace. I wondered if he was aware that because of our chance meeting, he had slowed me down…forcing me, however subtly, into his world.
Don’t be ridiculous, I thought. Then again, don’t we all do that every day of our lives…gently steer people to meet us on our terms…to agree with our outlook on life…our thinking…our opinions…to move at our pace? And more often than not, our resistance is a source of conflict in our lives.
“I think I’ll head home now” His words broke through my silly train of thought. “I’ve gone far enough.”
He had no thoughts other than a pleasant walk with a stranger. On this quiet country road this elderly gentleman had reached his limit. I watched him retrace his path leaning on his cane more than before; shoulders hunched…his step a little slower now. “Cemetery Road,” I muttered to myself.
I picked up my usual pace and moved on…not sure of when I would turn back. Before I rounded a corner I glanced over my shoulder, but he was nowhere in sight.
Regrettably, I never asked him his name.
Vivian was an Art Director that worked for me back in the 90’s during my Ogilvy & Mather days.
She was good. Imaginative. More than willing to present concepts that challenged clients. Her layouts and comps were brilliantly rendered. (InDesign and Photoshop weren’t in wide use back then).
The reality that she was a fine artist was suspected, but remained hidden from us until the day she walked into the Creative Lounge with a battered old art bag full of her watercolours. She had finally decided to show her work and she wanted our opinion…and one of us to write artsy descriptions of each painting.
What we saw were wonderful representations of Toronto, evocative street scenes, finely detailed, bursting with vivid colour. We were impressed, full of praise. Viv was humble. She had stepped outside the confines of advertising and shown us another, creatively different, side of her. She did leave one piece in her bag, though. I pulled it out and she quickly took it from me. “This isn’t worth showing,” she said. “Its too slap-dash.”
It looked like she had ripped it out of her sketchbook; the edges were rough and unevenly torn. But, I liked its simplicity. There was a richness to the varying shades of green that edged up to a slightly out of perspective white Muskoka Chair with three gray shadow stripes across its back.starkness. The chair stood solitary as if waiting for someone.
I was taken by it. This was the garden and the chair I pictured myself one day relaxing in on a quiet summer’s afternoon…not caring about much. At rest. Done with the storms and stresses of ambitions and competitions I depended on for a living were over. It was a picture of a promise I would make to myself.
I told Vivian what I saw in her “slap-dash” work and she smiled. “Ha. Ed’s Chair,” she said. “OK, it’s yours.”
I did pay her. Can’t remember how much. After I retired I had it framed. It hangs in my bedroom.
Today, I have the garden. I have the chair. And I have the quiet summer afternoons to sit and pass the time any way I wish.
There isn’t much that’s important about the loneliness of an inanimate object.
The idea of whether or not the object in question even feels loneliness or anything else for that matter is, some would say, meaningless; not worth thinking about. To the eye of the beholder, though, this appearance of loneliness can radiate certain feelings, illusions that translate into a need to ask questions.
Like this place. It has always intrigued me. Why was the farm abandoned? When? Is the land still farmed? Where is the family now? Do they even care?
All of these thoughts have been with me since I first saw this crumbling abandoned farmhouse ten years ago just off Bruce Road 3. I ask myself these same questions each time I drive by. Year after year it stands like a sentinel, naked, at the whim of weather and time, on a small hill overlooking its fields.
There is a rough, rutted, snow buried, single lane road that runs uphill to the crumbling house. The fields slope down, running away from it. A fence runs parallel to nowhere. I’ve often been tempted to drive up, to explore, to see if any clues to the house’s history might be lying about.
But I always held back. It would be wrong to trespass. The words ‘leave me alone’ always drifted down to me. ‘Respect my solitude’.
Endurance, not loneliness, is what is in this house. It will stand against time for as long as time will allow. As we all will. One day it will succumb.
Until that day and after, I will have this photograph to remind me of what we must endure.
Under the street lamps that pool their light on the now white road wind whips the flurries into individual cyclones whirling about helter skelter. Cedars on the roadside go dark, lost in the shadows, lost in the black of night. In the cone of the streetlights the snow takes on highlights that accentuate its movement. It dances with the wind, blurring in flight, never, it seems, touching down, hovering around and inside the beam’s pool bringing new life to the light. Night Snow is different than snow falling at daybreak…more menacing. You are unsure of what it leaves behind until dawn crawls up the dark trailing early morning light to show you its night work. Night Snow is like a secret gathering, an army, a relentless force building for an attack at daybreak when the world wakes and is forced to face the consequences of all that Night Snow has left behind.