The Ecology of Identity:Memoir and the construction of narrativebyLUANNE AILEEN ARMSTRONGBFA, University of Victoria, 1981MFA, University of British Columbia, 2001A THESIS SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTFOR THE DEGREE OFDOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHYinTHE FACULTY OF GRADUATE STUDIES(Curriculum and Instruction)THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIAOctober 2006 Luanne Aileen Armstrong 2006iiAbstractMy dissertation is an inquiry into issues of life-writing, narrative, and, inparticular, into the genre of memoir, and into the theory, complexities and strategies ofmemoir as a particular space within the larger genre of autobiographical writing. Writinga personal narrative and then examining the process of that writing raises questions andchallenges about such issues as ethics, identity, experience, memory, subjectivity,storytelling, and the interpretation, meaning and place of stories within our currentculture. This dissertation is a discursive, dialogic conversation between my process andmy understanding as an active, practicing literary writer, and as a researcher inquiringinto that process and into the knowledge and new awareness that can be generated by theprocess of inquiry into life writing, autobiography and memoir. It is also anautoethnographic and experiential inquiry in which I explore my own experience fromthe multiple positions of rural working class woman, single parent mother, politicalactivist, writer and researcher. However, the pronoun “I” is also a position from which Ican articulate some of the experiential, collaborative, and collusive positionality that hasshaped my personal notion of selfhood. My research and writing is about (re)cognition,about memoir in particular, and narrative and storytelling as the construction andreconstruction of various texts and the various interpretations that can result from such ananalytic and critical study of this process. Within this narrative, autobiographical andtheoretical inquiry, my dissertation intends to add to new knowledge of autobiographicalwriting and its theoretical and ethical dimensions.iiiTable of contentsAbstract…………………………………………………………………………………iiTable of contents……………………………………………………………………….iiiPreface: notes on methodology………………………………………………………..ivAcknowledgements …………………………………………………………………...viiDedication ……………………………………………………………………………..viiiBook One: Blue valley, stories of a place: an ecological memoir……………………1Book Two: The weight of a story: ethics and autobiography……………………..223References……………………………………………………………………………...359Appendix: Photograph album………………………………………………………..367ivPreface: Notes on MethodologyThe methodology of this thesis is the creation of a full-length creative work, inthis case, a memoir, and along with it, an exegesis that examines the theoretical andcritical dimensions of this kind of writing. According to the New Oxford Dictionary forWriters and Editors (2005) the word ‘exegesis’, means a “critical explanation orinterpretation of a text.”The exegesis is a related and complementary articulation of the writing process. Itoutlines why I chose the project I did, and it elaborates, clarifies and places the work intocontext. It offers a full explanation of the ideas informing the written artifact, as well theprocess of producing it. It explains why and how I proceeded with the work and whatelements of thought, creativity, research, intuition, and introspection have influenced thedevelopment of the work. It also demonstrates research into both the theoretical andpractical aspects of my writing and research.The exegesis is structured along two lines of inquiry – first, to look at issues,ideas and critical theory to do with the actual creation, structure and writing strategiesinvolved in the memoir, and second, to look at the issues and ideas that were generatedwithin the writing. These subject areas include: examining writing as research; looking atthe structure of memoir and how it differs from other autobiographical writing and whythat difference is important to writers and educators; the cultural and historical contextfor memoir; how a sense of place and setting is important to certain aspects of memoir;the role of memory; the creation of a sense of self and identity through personalvrepresentation in writing; and finally, the contradictory and complex ethics ofautobiographical writing.The creative work and the exegesis are meant to be complementary and mutuallyreinforcing parts of a single project and my goal is that the relationship between the twoparts will contribute to the originality and creativity of the whole. The commentary on thememoir places that genre of writing, as part of the larger field of autobiographicalwriting, within an artistic, historical, intellectual and cultural context.Although the creative thesis is most common within the disciplines of English andCreative Writing, it also has a powerful application within interdisciplinary studies andeducation, since it allows for the examination of overlapping and complimentary researchareas. My methodological process is emergent, heuristic, hermeneutic, and based upon aprocess of critical reflection as I engaged with the creation of a book-length memoir andthen reflected upon that engagement. Thus, the design of this dissertation has beenshaped by an ongoing reflection and critical gaze, both with my own process as a writer,and through research into the broader field of autobiographical writing, through extensivebackground reading of memoirs and autobiographies as well research into the historical,cultural and contextual issues surrounding memoir. This interwoven inquiry has meantthat the creative process and the results of this work are in a constant dialogue. In thatsense, my process is then also my methodology. The theory and practice of my researchare linked and mutually dependent. One of my goals is to bring the practical production,understanding and knowledge of writing into the domain of scholarship. Thus, within thiswork, neither the creative work, nor the research, are subordinated to each other. viThe field of autobiographical inquiry is vast and complex, and I have chosen toinvite those voices that have resonated with my work and that have specific relevance toit. In light of the growing interest and application of autobiographical writing, bothwithin the academy and in popular discourse and popular culture, I believe that I havemanaged to highlight pertinent issues for other researchers, as well as to lay thegroundwork for further research work for the future.viiAcknowledgments:I would like to acknowledge the invaluable, brilliant and endlessly supportiveassistance of Dr. Carl Leggo, Dr.Lynn Fels and George McWhirter in the preparation ofthe manuscript.In addition, many people have been of incredible assistance in other ways, aboveall, my children, Avril Woodend, Dorothy Woodend, Nat Morris and Geronimo Morris;and my family, in particular my brothers, Philip Armstrong and Bill Armstrong; TheWomen Writing Women group provided valuable feedback and advice. Dr. ClairWoodbury and Mary Woodbury provided a writing haven along with support and adviceand Evelyn and George Armstrong welcomed me to another writing haven, my ‘otherhome’ on Nicola Lake. Many others, including Dr. Stephen Duguid at Simon Fraser University, alongwith Jane Hamilton, Jean Rystaad, Zoe Landale, and Dorothy Woodend were all bothexcellent readers and critics. I owe a special debt to K. Linda Kivi, for conversation aboutshared ideas and concerns; and of course there were many others who have helped insmall but important ways.viiiDedication:This work is dedicated to two special people whose love and care has sustainedmy life, my dear friend, Alan James Wilson, whose life was cut short by cancer in 2002,and my mother, Dorothy Anne Klingensmith Armstrong.1Book One: Blue valley: stories of a place: an ecological memoirIt’s late afternoon when my border collie, Kin, and I set out for a walk. Beside theroad, fireweed and tansy blaze chartreuse and gold in the tangled brown brush of latesummer. This end of August, the farm dozes under a grey sky. We’ve had a lot of rain butnow it is drying out again. Ripe peaches drag the boughs of the peach trees to the ground.The new neighbours have left for the rest of the summer so I can walk through their placeagain. Our beach is a lot quieter without their boat. They spent over an hour one day intheir powerboat circling around just off our beach pulling their kids behind them on atube. I know this is fun–I did try it once–but the noise was wearing and after a while I gottired of them and waved at them to indicate that they could please, please go out into themiddle of the lake or perhaps to perdition, I really didn’t care.I haven’t met them yet. There seems to be a time-honoured tradition in ruralCanada that summer people and the locals don’t mix. But if I get a chance, I’d like to tellthem that where they have recently plunked their cabins, their trailers, their kid’s swingset, their tubes and boats and folding plastic chairs and barbecues, the place where theyhave cleared and graveled roads and dug waterlines, we have always called Sawdust Bay.Once, about sixty years ago, there was a cabin there where Mabel and DickO’Neil and all their kids lived. Pierre Longueval, the man who first homesteaded whatbecame our farm also lived here. The old cedar picket fence (that I see now someone hasknocked down and driven over), is the remains of the original fence that Pierre built; thepile of sawdust on which they have placed a trailer is where Pete had his original gas2sawmill and which he used to cut the lumber for the eighty-year old farmhouse in which Iam now living.Or maybe – but I’m not sure how they would hear it – I could tell them about thecoyote den on the hill just above their cabins. One day, just a few years ago, I waswalking there with the dogs, and the coyote bitch came out of the hole she had dug undera rock. She talked to us in an odd voice, a combination of barking and yipping. I hadthree big male dogs with me and they put their heads down and slunk away as if they hadbeen smacked. I knew the dogs and the coyotes knew each other. Late on winter moonlitnights, I had seen them play along the pasture edge; the coyotes would come out of thetrees, the dogs would rush and chase them back, disappearing into that black edge only tocome charging back out again, while the coyotes stayed within the tree line and yipped atthem.I had never seen three dogs look so abashed and I wondered what the coyote hadsaid. All I could say was “Sorry, sorry,” back away as politely as I could, and go the longway around.Sometimes going for a walk is a very long journey.. Leo Williams, a Ktunaxa elder that I visit once or twice a year, now into his lateeighties, told me this summer that he kept dreaming about driving along Highway 3,between Creston and Cranbrook, along the route he used to travel with his parents byhorse and buggy. He wanted, he said, to stop at the old campsites and think about hismother and father and the people he used to know and tell their stories.3I am dreaming a similar dream but my journey is much shorter. What I am doingtoday is what I have been doing most of my life, walking this land, around and around,only now I walk through fifty years of history, through stories. This land is layered withmemories and changes and things that have grown or died and left their remainssomewhere here. How many dogs have we buried on this land? And horses. How manygenerations of cows and pigs and chickens have grown and died and been eaten?Trees have also grown and fruited and died or been cut down–roads, paths, trailshave been worn into the ground or dug up. There’s an African saying about how, when anelderly person dies, a library burns. I feel a bit like a library some days, my shelvessagging with sepia manuscripts of long ago stories.Like many families, especially rural families, mine tells stories. Our stories arebound up with four generations now lived in this place. We re-live our history in storiesthat we tell over and over, with variations each time. We never get tired of them. Andover time, they become, if not exactly true to the facts, more true to the story. They aretuned and refined. Each time an old story is re-told, there are new variations, additions,and arguments over whose version is right. Each telling sparks the next story, until theroom is a conflagration, an exploding cacophony of rising voices and laughter, whichdrifts and mingles like smoke and carries us out the door and back to work or chores orwhatever other need is calling.I spent last weekend at a wilderness retreat centre on Kootenay Lake, listening topeople tell stories of what a sense of place means to them. The Friday evening after Iclimbed out of the boat and onto the stony beach, I sat on the new tipi platform on the4west side of the camp, listening to the lake going lip-lap at the sharp basalt black rocksjust below. There were yellow flowers growing in the rocks; I watched an iridescent bluedragonfly struggling in a spider’s web, until, and recognizing my own interference andhuman sentimentality, I climbed down to free it. The web was strung across a small gullyin the rocks, so thick and strong I was glad I didn’t see the spider that built it. I let thedragonfly go. It sat on a rock and cleaned the rest of the web off its belly and flew away. I climbed back up to the deck and watched the snouts of the mountains dip into the lake–sleeping dragons, my friend Susan calls them–and there they were, snoozing, their nosesburied in the lake, their humped spiked backs reaching up the sky. Smoke from Americanfarmers burning stubble on their fields crept north in a blue line along the lake, makingthe mountains into flat blue icons from a Chinese painting.The next morning, about thirty people gathered to talk about how we feel aboutwhere we live. We sat on cushions or chairs inside a large canvas tent with the sidesrolled up so we could see the beach and the lake. There were two people from theKtunaxa nation, Leo Williams and a young woman with two small children. Beside them,there were neighbours from the east shore, a couple of people from Creston, somenewcomers to the area and some long time residents.As we went around the circle, talking about what living in the Kootenays meansto us, people were thoughtful, strong in their sense of love and connection, but morehesitant in trying to say what that meant. Then in the afternoon, the tone shifted and wedeferred to the expertise of people who have studied various aspects of the Kootenayecology–geology, birds, and fire. Gradually, the words grew more technical and our eyesglazed. The room divided into experts and audience.5We were hungry for this information; all of us wanted to know more about thisplace where we live. I have lived here all my life and yet there is so much I don’t know. Ineed to know more about the ecology, about the interplay of plants and animals that Ihave watched for so long.Marlene Machmer, a tall beautiful blond woman, told us about her amazing work,studying osprey-mating habits and nesting, about how the osprey population hasmiraculously rebounded. I interrupted her.“I know this sounds anthropomorphic,” I said, “but I used to live near an ospreynest and I swear, every morning, they who would fly over my house and call me out toadmire their fish.”She didn’t answer, only shook her head slightly and went on with the facts andfigures and observations she had made. After dinner, as I was leaving for my lovelysolitude in the tipi, she caught up with me.”You know, ospreys do have a display activity, in which they fly up to a mate orsometimes other ospreys or people and show off their fish,” she said. “We don’tunderstand it, they seem to really like people.”We know too little about this land we all share. Many people have been studying it now,for a while, but the technicians and biologists and academics keep a lot of the informationto themselves. Those of us who live here have our stories and observations–what weneeded in the afternoon was some way to become more than an audience, to become co-observers, co-technicians, to mesh our stories and anecdotes and knowledge with thatbelonging to those which the world has labeled experts.By the next morning at the camp, the weather had changed. Huge rollers were6smacking into the rocky beach so we sat under a tarp drinking coffee and enjoying notbeing able to go anywhere, at least for a while. The camp is situated on a peninsula sothere is no sound or sight of other people, no background hum of electricity, cars, nophones ringing. We were all slightly disappointed when the weather cleared and it waspossible to go home.On the way home, I began thinking about a remark that Kootenay archeologistWayne Choquette had made. “I’ve been thinking about a sense of home and place forthirty years and I’ve come to define it more by what it isn’t than what it is.”Wayne has been studying the history, the geology and the archeology of theKootenays for thirty years. He has a deep understanding of the interplay between theseareas. He also has a close working relationship with the Ktunaxa people. But after all thattime, he says, what he mostly has are a lot of questions about what a sense of placeactually means.Now, a week later, I’m still thinking about some of my own endless questionsabout what living here means. Walking for me is a way of thinking. Today, I am walkingthrough layers of time. There are so many kinds of time here. There is present time, thelife I live now, split between the city and here. There is a lifetime of memories of myselfgrowing up here, then my kids growing up here, and then there is the comforting sense ofeternity or near eternity, that I can step into in the mountains. One of the reasons I likemountains is they are so present, so huge, and so enduring. It’s hard to change amountain. Hard to build on a mountain, hard work to log it, to climb it, to do much ofanything to it, although now apparently in Appalachia, they have figured out to level7mountains to get at the coal underneath them. Mountains are full of secrets and surprises. People come to them for as manyreasons as there are people; mountains make both walls and shelters—it’s very hard tolive here and not feel the rest of the world receding into dim blue distance, to not bereminded that there is another sense of time besides our speedy human perspective. I lovemountains because I can hide in them, because they make me feel small and unimportant,and they make the rest of the world go away.I walk past the new neighbour’s new-lumber smelling cabins and up the hill, pastthe house which we still call Shelackie’ s cabin. We first lived there when our parentsmoved to my grandfather’s farm. Then the cabin was bought by the Blackburns, thenBeincourts, now it belongs to someone I don’t know. It looks almost abandoned; wildroses and buckbrush have sprung up around the front door. I pause at the old workshop,the door sags open and the interior reeks of packrat. Kin snuffles at the walls and digshalf-heartedly at the piles of junk.Then out of their yard, the back way, under the power line. Past Haley’s cabins. Ilike to check on Haley’s cabins now and again–no one seems to know who Haley was orwhy he made these four log cabins–the only story I know is that about a hundred yearsago, he trailed a herd of goats over the mountains to this place–there are still remnants ofrock walls and strings of rusty barbed wire. The cabins are almost invisible, crumblingback into soil under a canopy of brush and small trees. One huge Grand Fir has survivedfires and clearing and goats. Perhaps it was big enough that Haley left it to grow over hiscabin. The fir trees around it are scrawny and haven’t grown much over the years–what8has grown are the maples and alders, so that the cabins are almost invisible.Below the cabins is a flattened place in the trees we always called Haley’smeadow, a place I go once a year for the sweetest of wild blackberries. The blackberryvine has been struggling along for years, almost dead but never quite, covered with grass,under the shade of the alders.Finally, I walk home again along the highway, past the granite cliffs, the placeswhere the highway department has blasted and blasted away at the mountainside tostraighten out the curves made by the early road builders, past the corner piece of land onwhich someone years ago built a plastic and aluminum sided house then stuck a for salesign on it and disappeared. No one has been here for a long time.Dogs get old too fast; Kin is panting behind me on the way home instead ofscaring me by charging across the road and up the hill and back again, dodging car loadsof tourists with screeching brakes and impatient fright on their faces.Finally we step off the highway back onto the farm, into the yard, past the house,under the Transparent apple tree. Kin lopes ahead of me to take a drink from the bucketby the back door. But I stop. I notice, as I have noticed before, the feeling of beingtransformed by being home, being private, being safe. A little greedy animal voice insideme goes “mine, ours” and another self that has been walking through the blue shadowedglory of eternity and mountains and outside of present time says “liar, liar” but I have noquarrel with either of them and go on my way, under the walnut tree.My brother and father lopped the top off it a few years ago but it has now grown itback and is busy drying the grass and very slowly and steadily killing the Queen Anniecherry tree.9My life here has always strung on two parallel lines, like the wires my fatherstrung to hold up the long lines of raspberry bushes. There is the land itself, working andliving on it, and then there are stories, the many fantasylands I lived in as a child and thenlater books, other people’s and finally, my own.When I was a child, this farm where we lived, and the mountains above it werefull of places that were in some way magic, which isn’t a term I used for them, then. Butwhat they were, were places that in some way lent themselves to my imagination. Theywere places that pulled me inside them for a while.There was a clearing under an enormous pine tree, which was encircled by brush,so that inside the clearing and under the tree was a room, a round clear pine-needlesspace littered with enormous intricately jewel-like pine cones. The best part was edgingup, with our toes hanging over the edge, along the narrow ledge that ran along a cliff andthen parting the brush at the top of the cliff edge to get into the room.We picked up bags of the pine cones and took them home to our mother, wherethey somehow lost their magic until she spray painted them with silver paint and usedthem for Christmas tree ornaments.Once my younger brother and I found tiny crystals inside a quartz ledge in therocks beside the beach. We spent days chipping the crystals out of the ledge with ahammer and chisel and crowbar, convinced we had found diamonds, until our fatherrudely informed us that we were wasting our time.And above all, there was the irresistible lure of the beach; in the spring the levelof water in Kootenay Lake receded and left a whole new edges to explore, but best of all,10was the mud flat at the mouth of the small creek, a place to build endlessly complex damsand roads and canals.These places were like rooms in my mind–rooms in some enormous andmythological world that had no limits. Beside the farm was the lake, and above the farm,the blue-green Purcell Mountains, fringed with endless trees. And beyond the mountains,the endless wilderness, full of rooms and possibilities, and full of new stories.Walking here now, I walk through time and stories. The stories dwell in me as Iam made from them. The stories and I dwell within layers of time. Human beings arecreated by the stories they tell. As soon as we learn to speak, we start to tell stories and assoon as we start to tell stories, we dwell in the identity those stories make for us.Stories live both outside and inside time; they live in us and in the land. Theyconnect us together and split us apart. They tie me, body and soul, to this place.Richard Flanagan, the Tasmanian writer, has said that the movement of writers inthe last century was away from home but that the movement of writers in this centurywill be towards home, towards understanding the meaning of home, place. I hope he’sright.Stories of home live both outside and inside time; they live in us and in the land.We write our stories on land–in codings of houses, roads, fences, landscaping–as much asour stories are written within our bodies and minds, they are also written within land.After fifty years of living in the same place, a place that holds my whole life the way aglass bowl holds water, each corner of the road, each tree and bush and mountaintop has11a story to tell me, a story I experienced there, that I now re/member there. And I ammade by these stories, as much as these stories are mine to make, or mine to tell.Chapter One:The piece of land on which I grew up and have lived most of my life was once acreek delta, a cedar swamp, an almost flat place at the bottom of the Purcell Mountains,before it was cleared by Pierre Longueval, the young Frenchman who, in 1920, bought160 acres of raw land beside Kootenay Lake and set out to create a farm. Kootenay Lakeis a long, broad deep expanse of clear green-blue water, threaded between the SelkirkMountains on the west and the Purcells on the east. Human inhabitants perch uneasilyhere, on bits of flat land on the toes of the mountain next to the lake. There are fewbeaches. The rocks are granite. The forest is dark, mixed fir, larch, pine and hemlock.When my parents, my two brothers and baby sister arrived at the farm, it wasearly spring in 1955. Our parents were excited. The farm was a place of promise andhope. I was five. We had been living in Riondel, a mining camp toward the northernend of Kootenay Lake. My parents had moved there from their other farm, five milessouth of this one, in 1952. Riondel was a disheveled place mostly made up of people whohad migrated to Canada after World War Two, referred to then, by everyone, simply asDP’s. Most of them didn't speak English and they lived in a haphazard collection ofshacks, tents, and bunkhouses built by Consolidated Mining and Smelting, called CM&S,or more simply, the Company. Riondel was a tiny place at the end of six miles of rutted12twisty dirt road that led from the main road. Besides the houses, and tents, there wasgaping hole in the rocks beside the lake that was simply called “the mine.” Everyday, myfather disappeared into that hole and then came home again at night, dirty and tired,carrying his black lunch bucket.Before Riondel, we had lived on another small farm called the Mannerino place,after its first owners, just above the very south end of the lake. This farm was a clearedpiece of steep mountainside, beside a creek. The Wilsons, who lived a mile down the dirtroad, were our nearest neighbours. I played sometimes with their son Alan, who wasthree months younger than me. But in Riondel, my mother promised me, there would belots of children to play with. I was three, my older brother was six and just startingschool, my younger brother was only a year old and my mother was pregnant again. Theidea of other children was exciting.When we first moved to Riondel, we lived in a company bunkhouse on theoutside of town, but the next spring, we moved to the unfinished basement of the newhouse our father was building for us. The basement was damp, the walls and floor wereconcrete; the only heat was the wood cook stove. This house was right in the middle of alot of other half-finished houses. Outside the basement door was a dirt yard, and beyondthat, an expanse that my father had enclosed in a picket fence that he said would be ourgarden.I stayed inside a lot, at first, underfoot and unsure of myself in such a newenvironment. One day my exasperated and exhausted mother said, “Go outside, there’slots of children out there. Go make some friends.” Reluctantly, I slumped outside bymyself, loitering by the back door, shuffling my feet in the muddy dirt. Finally, I saw a13boy coming down the dirt street and I went towards him. The next thing I saw was a rockspiraling towards my head. I saw it clearly but I didn’t have time to duck, in fact, I wastoo astonished to duck–then the rock hit me and shattered my faith in making friends andI ran wailing back into the house.My mother found out who the boy was, and told me to stay away from him.Gradually, my older brother and I began to find out who the other kids were and to makefriends. The Italian family next to us had several children, and we did play with themsometimes but more often, we threw rocks at them over the back fence. The kids in thecamp formed shifting gangs that formed and dissolved, fought and played together, and Ilearned to wait until my brother came home from school so I had an ally and a protector.Eventually, my mother found me another friend, a girl who lived up the hill aboveour house. She was the daughter of the mine supervisor but I didn’t know that– I didknow I had to climb to her house through the trees and up a long flight of stairs. I wasentranced both by these trees, by the grey piped stems of young alders, as well as by thelong moss covered flight of stairs in front of her house. Whenever I went to her house, Iwould climb slowly up and down the stairs, loving the feeling it gave me with no abilityto understand why. I had no words for beauty – and since I was alone there was no one toask. But something about that place, something about the slender lines of trees next to thegrey wooden stairs, the broad yellow flowers of skunk cabbage among the trees, thebrilliant multi-shades of green, called me and I responded.I also learned to fight in Riondel, a skill that stood me in good stead in laterschool years. One spring morning, I stood outside on the road, with my dad and a bunch14of other men – the mine was on strike and the men had nothing much to do. Junie Munrowas there with her dad, Hughie, who was big and red faced and English. Soon the menegged Junie and me into fighting. Junie was older than me; I was four and she was five,little kids, – but it remains in my mind like a fight between giants. I knew that my momand dad didn’t like Hughie, so even though Junie was older and heavier, I fought for myfamily and my dad. As we yelled and tore at each other and rolled around on the gravelroad, I felt her give in, and I rolled over on top of her and began pounding her head intothe gravel. One of the men, maybe Junie's dad, pulled me off and made us apologize toeach other, but I knew my triumph. I knew from that moment on, that I could win a fightif I had to.There were a few other bright moments; in the summer, some days my fatherwould come home, stooped and dirty from the mine and we would take our supper to thebeach north of town and play in the shallow water while the sun bent the light over themountains on the other side of the lake.But the winters were long and dark and damp. My mother was unhappy. Shecouldn’t make friends since most of the women in Riondel didn’t speak much English.She didn’t want this new baby. She had three small children and we seemed to alwayshave colds from living in the damp basement. We sat inside and stared out the windowwhile rain dripped off the lumber scaffolding on the makeshift roof and leaked in underthe front door.Winters in the Kootenays are always dark. The long narrow north-south valleyssock in with clouds in November, a ceiling that doesn’t lift until March and the snow thatcomes is usually wet slush.15But occasionally, it would snow, a deep rug of powdery snow and usually afterthat, the sun would come out. On one occasion, this happened on a Sunday and the wholetown turned out with cardboard boxes, toboggans and sleighs. Everyone spent anafternoon sliding down one of the hilly streets. Someone made a fire and someone elsedonated hot chocolate.When evening came, I didn’t want to quit. My mother grabbed my hand andtowed me reluctantly home but while she was making dinner, I slipped out, took mysmall red sleigh and went back to the hill. In the darkness, I slid and swooped until myfather came to find me.My father occasionally used to take me with him when we went to the farm tovisit his father, my grandfather and my step-grandmother. Their house was old andsmelled funny. The only light in the evening came from coal-oil lamps. There wasnowhere for me to sleep but curled up on an ancient couch under a blanket. I didn’t likemy grandfather. He seemed very old and crabby to me. He had rough whiskers and hissweater strained to meet over his belly. When night came, I leaned against my father’sknee, missing my mother and wishing we could go home.“Homesick, eh?” said my grandfather. “Like a baby.”I glared at him with tears in my eyes.“Look, she’s a crybaby.” I looked from him to my father. Both of them were grinning. Even at four I wasembarrassed. I had broken some kind of rule I didn’t understand. The tears dried intostones. I turned my head away. I decided to never cry in front of my father again.16One Sunday afternoon, the tent on the lot next door to us burned. The people gotout and the neighbours came running but a canvas tent only takes a few minutes to burn.The ruins of the tent smoked for days while the camp kids, including my brother and I,raked through the warm ashes for the pennies that we heard had been in a jar in the tent.But the fire upset my mother. The family of several children had barely made it of thetent alive. My mother began to hate Riondel. She could never get warm. She stuffed woodin the cook stove that was our only heat and shivered anyway. She was still in her earlytwenties and pregnant with her fourth child. When my father came home she would rageat him and he would rage back. They had moved to Riondel to try to make enough tomoney to build up a stake so they could go back to farming. But now they were tooyoung and exhausted and the mine didn't pay enough to get them out of the trap ofpoverty and endless work into which they had fallen.When my sister was born, the cord was twisted around her neck and she was bluefrom lack of oxygen. When my mother came home, my small sister cried and cried. Onenight my mother began crying and crying as well and couldn't stop–finally some mencame and she went away with them. A few days later my grandmother, my mother’smother, came to look after us. My grandmother and my father were never friends – Idon't think they ever even liked each other, but there were four small children to be caredfor, including my baby sister, Robin who was only a few months old.Then my father got ill as well. At that time, both of my parents chain-smoked, asdid almost everyone they knew. My father had managed to get himself out of the black17depths of the mine, work which he hated and for which he was too tall, and reassigned toloading cyanide laced mine slag on the dock; he hand-rolled his own cigarettes andsmoked a toxic combination of lead, cyanide and tobacco. My mother had come homeagain, but she was still far from well. My grandfather decided to retire from farming andmove into Creston. He offered to sell the farm to my parents. They were both homesickfor farming, for land, and for distance from other people and so, finally, we left Riondelbehind. We arrived, late one night with all our stuff crammed into our green Dodgepickup, at a cabin on the edge of the farm, that was called Shelackie’s cabin after the manwho had built it. It had been sitting empty for years. It smelled of damp plywood from thealways-leaking toilet, of creosote from the bridge timbers that Louis Shelackie had usedto build it, and pack rats.In Riondel, I had gotten used to being on my own. I liked to wander and no onehad the time or energy to worry about it much. The farm invited wandering; I didn’tknow where anything was and now my father disappeared each day across the pasturetowards my grandfather’s house. One morning, I set out to follow him but it was hardgoing, the grass was tall, there was a wide brown creek which meandered between humpsof mud, and beyond that, a jungle of thistles and ferns with thin trails winding throughinto darkness. I could see my grandparent’s house, but not how to get there. I started intothe thistle jungle, where the paths were so narrow the thistles reached out to catch andscratch my bare arms. It was dark in the thistle path and I could no longer see the house. Iheard crashing behind me; it was, Tiny the Jersey cow, who my Dad called a muley cowbecause she had no horns, and the other cow, Bossy, the black and white Holstein,following me through the thistles. I’d met them before, my father had taken us out to the18barn and squirted milk in our faces out of their glistening huge bags and thick teats, butmy father was far away and the cows were close. I ran as fast as I could, twisting andturning down the many tangled aisles of this enormous jungle, until I spotted the pagewire fence, sagging under its burden of brush. I made it over the fence, and into the yard.My father had seen me coming. He was standing there, laughing at someone sofoolish as to be afraid of a couple of cows.“Cows won’t hurt you,” he said, “Turn around, stand up to them. Yell at them.”I believed whatever my father said. I stared back at the cows, triumphant now onthe right side of the fence and beside my powerful father.Since I was around, my father did what was most natural to him and found somework for me to do. He said from now on I would have to feed the chickens. If I forgot, hesaid, the chickens would go hungry and it would be my fault. Bantam chickens dustedthemselves and scratched and squatted under every bush. He showed me where the grainwas and threw some on the ground. The chickens came running.From then on, when I went to the shed and got a bucket of grain, chickens camerunning from all over the yard. They crowded around me, ate what I gave them. I lovedtheir colours, their magnificent glowing iridescent feather, their red combs, and theirgolden-wise eyes. But mostly I was proud of how they came running, that they followedme, and trusted me to feed them. One evening, I stood with my small tin can of wheat atthe edge of the yard, staring across the pasture, where the evening sunlight was slantingover the emerald grass, and I fell into belonging. My feet sank into the grass, my headswam in the warm air while the chickens pecked and scratched at my feet. I was homenow, and I knew it, knew that wherever I roamed, from now on, on this land, it would19belong to me and me to it.My grandfather and his wife, who we called Grantie because she was the sister ofour real grandmother who had died, were still living in the old green farmhouse.Every day, my mother made lunch for all of us and loaded it into my older brother’swagon and we all trudged down the dirt road to the farmhouse, where my grandfather andhis second wife were slowly packing and getting read to move. One day my brother triedto tow the wagon with his tricycle and going down the hill, he went too fast and the pot ofstew that was in the wagon turned over and spilled. My mother raged at him. It had takenher all morning to make the stew and she had no other food.That spring, my father began plowing ground and setting out tomato seedlings,thousands of them. My baby sister was now a year old; my brother was two. When mymother wasn’t cleaning or cooking, or washing the milk things, or doing laundry with thewringer washer, she went to help. I was alone with a whole new universe to explore onmy own.In Riondel, I'd been on my own a lot as well, but there were other kids, otherhouses, other adults always around. In Riondel, my oldest brother and I usually playedtogether. But at the farm, I was often alone. My older brother, Phil had to work with mydad; my younger brother Bill and my sister Robin were in the house with my mother.I got into the habit of following my father around. The farm work fascinated me.There was a lot to learn. That first summer, I stood beside my father on top of the haywagon as the labouring horses pulled the wagon up the hill towards the barn. He shoutedand slapped the horses; even I could see it was too hard for them. They puffed blasts of20air out of their red nostrils; sweat ran in dark streams down their necks and legs. Theywent slow, slow, their heads down, heaving the wagon in little jerks, until it was belowthe square hole in the back of the top of the log barn. From there, my father had to hoistthe hay up a forkful at a time and stuff it in that hole, where it piled up and up until thewhole top of the barn was bulging with hay. My job was to stomp on the hay as it cameup in scratchy flying forkfuls into the barn. My father stood below us, his shirt off, thelong muscles in his back working and bulging as he lifted and bent again for anotherload.And after the work was done, our reward was that we got to go to the beach, agolden curving crescent of sand surrounded by water worn granite on the south edge ofthe farm. To get to the beach, we followed a rutted grassy road that went out of the yard,past the end of the chicken shed where a mysterious black pool of water hid in a fringe ofelderberry bushes. Here the creek that trickled through the yard made a wide sandy spotin the road that we splashed through in our bare feet. Then we had to run under the darkcedar trees where clouds of mosquitoes waited to attack and down the long hill to thenarrow path above the beach.Because we had to go to the beach by ourselves, my mother wanted to make surewe knew how to swim. She didn’t have time to come with us every day although sheloved the beach and tried to come when she could. At least she knew if we could swim,we wouldn’t drown. But I had a yellow inflated duck that I loved to float on, staringdown at my peculiar angular feet in the green water, or drifting from place to place,21paddling my feet and pretending to be a boat.One afternoon, when I put on my pink bathing suit, and grabbed the duck, mymother took the duck away. “You have to learn to swim,” she said.I stared at her. I knew perfectly well I could swim. I’d already figured it out.Swimming was simple. It wasn’t something anyone had to learn; all you had to do wasrun into the water and kick hard. Dog paddling, we all called it. Except our small blackdog Willy wouldn’t go in the water at all unless our father picked him up, carried himinto the water and threw him in. Then he swam frantically for shore, his head high andhis front feet splashing in his desperation.“I can swim already,” I told her but she held my yellow duck over my head.Disgusted, I left the house, and went down the long path to the beach. No one else wasthere. I waded into the water, swam a few strokes and went back up to the house.“I can so swim,” I said. Defeated, my mother handed me the yellow duck and Iwent back to the beach. I spent the next few weeks paddling around on the duck but myfather found out and made fun of me. Toy ducks were for little kids, for babies. I knewmy father must be right, and reluctantly, I left it behind on the next trip to the beach.We had to run to the beach through the clouds of mosquitoes that hovered underthe trees. We learned to whip towels around our ears and shoulders to keep them away.But there were no mosquitoes at the beach. Instead there was the hot sun smoldering ontothe layered folds of granite. The same stream that ran through our yard ran here over therocks and then gullied the sand into layers, smoothing it into long sandbars at the edge ofthe water. There were sun and water-worn giant tree stumps that could be turned intopirate ships, or elephants, or spaceships and piles of driftwood left from high water. We22leapt and raced on the long ropes of logs, surefooted as mountain goats.In the forest above the beach were small surprising secret rooms, carpeted withmoss, in the middle of huge leaning fir trees. One day, excited and guilty, I went into oneof these rooms and took off all my clothes. I lay on the moss, looking up through thetrees. Coming into such a place always made me catch my breath and hesitate; I knew itwas beautiful, although I had no words for it and magical, although I had no concept ofmagic. I just knew that such places drew me in; when I was inside them I fell inside akind of dream. Such places went somewhere inside me, made me wonder, made mehappy. When I lay down in the middle of the moss, I found myself in the middle of aperfect room, a room of silent green happiness. It was a kind of worship, an amazementthat there could be such a place and that I could be in it, rolling on the moss and pryingthe moss apart to watch a tiny miniature world of bugs and ants and dust.The first summer flew by; I made friends with the cows. My father’s solution ofturning around to yell at them worked. I followed them around and let them lick myhands and face with their long gooey sloppy tongues. I followed my father around aswell, out to the barn to milk, into the house, stride, stride; if I tried, I could stretch out mylegs to match his steps. When I marched behind him, from place to place around thefarm, everything obeyed him, everything was ours, except inside the house, where mymother was always working.Until we moved to the farm, my father had been a distant figure–someone whowent to work and came home and caused trouble. On weekends, or occasionally in thesummer, he had taken us to the beach or sometime we played outside beside him while he23worked in the garden he had made or on the tall picket fence he built to enclose it. Butmy mother was the center of the house, the center of our lives.Now, at the farm, everything interesting, joyous, unexpected, magical ormysterious belonged to my father–the chickens, the enormous horses, the cows, theendless trees, the tall grass and thistle fields were my father’s and the rules were myfather’s as well. My mother seemed as trapped as a flightless bird; her children came andwent from the house but she stayed in it. I tried to bring her gifts from my new world bytelling her stories, or bringing in flowers, or gifts from the gardens, or the fruit trees. Butmore and more I ran after my father, who didn’t care what I did as long as I didn’t get inthe way. And when he was busy or gone, I ran by myself.Initially, my mother tried to make me responsible for my small brother and sister.One day she ordered me to take my sister outside. I stood around for a bit, watching myyear and a half old sister tottering around the muddy yard. I didn’t like my small sisterwho cried a lot and so was annoying. My father was lying on his back under a tractor,taking it apart. I thought Robin would go back inside to our mother if I ignored her, so assoon as no one was looking, I trotted off to find something more interesting to do. Anhour or so later, a car stopped. A neighbour had found my sister heading down the gravelroad.I lied. “I thought Dad was watching her,” I said. My mother knew I was lying butshe didn’t ask me again to look after Robin. My brother and sister were my mother’s problem and none of mine. Mine wasthis new kingdom of fields and green glowing rooms under trees and golden water where24fish swam and clams full of pearls waited to be opened. Mine was the garden, the newpeas and carrots, the apple and cherry trees that could be climbed to the top. My mothertried to catch me, comb my hair, wash my face, but more and more each morning Iescaped her, out to the barn or the garden or the beach.For that first summer, the farm was a place of hope, sunshine, a place where mymother sang at her endless work. That August, my father took us out to the tomato fieldhanded us enormous tomatoes to eat, full and dripping with juice.And finally, late that first summer, we moved out of Shelackie’s cabin, and intothe farmhouse, Pete had been building the house when he died and my grandfather haddone little to finish it. Pete had built it one room at a time, so each of the rooms had adoor. And I, finally, for the first time, had a room of my own. Now every night, I climbedthe long stairs in the dark to my room, with its two small windows facing north, where Icould look out over the cow pasture. I had a big double bed, and a rug on the floor of myroom, a hairy rug backed with green felt, which my mother told me had once been thehide of my grandfather’s favourite horse. I wasn’t sure how I felt having a dead horse onmy floor but I both loved and was terrified of my room. Each night I undressed in themiddle of the dead horse rug and then leapt for the bed, where I tucked in the blankets tokeep myself safe.The house was dark and spooky. We didn’t yet have electricity so our light camefrom kerosene lanterns that my father lit every evening. But I had to find my way to myroom in the dark. My mother and father both joked about Pete’s ghost and indeed doorsopened and shut at odd moments. At night, after we all went to bed, the house creakedand snapped as it settled into itself. The tin chimney in the corner of my room that went25down to the wood cookstove whispered and rattled as it cooled, or as the wind outside hitit. I could hear my brother and sister breathing in the next room. I could hear the cowslowing in the pasture. And when the windows were open, I could hear the wind comingover the fir trees; I could hear the night birds trilling as they went after mosquitoes andthe creek eternally murmuring in its muddy ditch.But the brief space of peace and hope didn’t last. Something happened to thetomato crop that was going to make us so much money. My parents slept downstairs andat night, lying awake, that fall, I could hear them arguing, arguing, arguing, their voicesrising, and falling through the floor as I lay very still the blankets tucked around my legs,in my dark cold room.I began to dread sitting down for supper. Every evening, when we sat down to eatat a table laden with rich farm food, my parents started in at each other, their voices bitterand deadly. One night my father got so angry he stood up, grabbed the edge of the tableladen with food that my mother had just set down, turned it over and stomped out into thenight, slamming the door behind him. I stood horrified at the sight of our dinner spreadacross the floor. Finally, I began to mop with a towel at the terrible waste of a wholegallon of milk flooding across the worn linoleum but my mother, furiously weeping,yelled at me told me to leave it, go away, go upstairs and leave her alone to clean up..26Chapter Two:Our farm is on the eastern shore of Kootenay Lake, which is part of the Kootenay-Columbia River system. The Kootenay-Columbia basin, in the southeastern corner ofBritish Columbia is, in effect, an island, bounded and circled by rivers. The Columbiaand Kootenay Rivers both flow out of adjoining valleys in the Rocky Mountains, into theRocky Mountain Trench. They almost meet at Columbia Flats, but then the ColumbiaRiver flows north and the Kootenay River flows south, only to both circle around andmeet again just north of Castlegar. It is an island that encompasses desert, tundra, alpine,boreal forest, dry pine prairie, alpine lakes and rivers, and many small and variedcommunities of humans spotted along the valley bottoms.Archeologist Wayne Choquette, who had been studying the archeology andhistory of the Kootenay area for thirty years, says he thinks of it as a hybrid crossoverarea where over the millennia, geographies, people, species, ecological systems have metand crossed and crossed again. Not once, but three times, tectonic plates have collidedhere, overlapped, creating three different mountain ranges, the ancient Purcells, the newerSelkirks, and the still newer and still growing Rockies. One of the edges of these platesruns down the middle of Kootenay Lake, so that the Purcell Mountains on the east are alower and softer mountain range than the more rugged Selkirks to the west.The first people probably arrived here about 15,000 years ago, after the enormouslakes created by glaciation had a chance to recede. The area had to re-vegetate, andgradually it became a steppe-tundra of sage, grass, and scattered spruce and fir.Eventually, it became a place of ecological abundance. Salmon ran from the ocean, all27the way up the Columbia River into the lakes, and steelhead and char were abundant inthe lakes as well. The people who lived there moved seasonally from valley bottoms andlakeside winter camps to summer hunting terrain in the mountains.Archeological evidence indicates that the Ktunaxa people, the Shushwap people,and the Sinixt people all shared the resources of Kootenay Lake, but for some reason,didn’t settle there.The Ktunaxa were the first human beings to establish a permanent settlement inthe Northern Purcells and explore the rugged backcountry up the major drainages. Theirfirst settlement was probably at the Columbia River in shallow wetlands where the LakeWindermere empties into the river, and just south of the confluence of Toby Creek andthe Columbia. This site was called "Koalanuk" (The Salmon Beds) as salmon spawned inthe shallow waters and the catches were plentiful.The benchlands above the Columbia River wetlands were mostly grasslands thatwere home to vast herds of ungulates and bison. Pacific salmon concluded legendaryspawning trips home to the headwaters of the 1,200 mile-long Columbia River and theirpresence meant bears, especially grizzly bears, were abundant.The Ktunaxa people, who still live from the Flathead area in Montana to Crestonto the upper Columbia Valley, believe they have always been here. Their creation mythcentres in Columbia Lake. An enormous monster lived there and traveled the waterwaysaround in a circle, which he could do then because there was no land between KootenayRiver and Columbia Lake. There were three woodpecker brothers living around there atthat time, and the monster ate the youngest one. Naturally enough this made them angry28and they called a council of all the animal beings, which was headed by a giant of somekind, so tall that if he stood up, his head would hit the ceiling of the sky. They decided topursue the monster so a war party of animal beings gave chase. The monster took offnorth up the Columbia River, then south into what is now the US, then he escaped intothe Kootenay River, into Kootenay Lake, and north again back into Columbia Lake.Around and around they went, unable to catch the monster because they couldn’t cornerhim. At that time, the various areas of the Kootenays were known by the names Land ofthe Eagle, Land of the Woodtick, and Land of the Coyote.A wise creature, a sort of early human, who was watching all this, said to thegiant, “Use your arm to block the river.” The giant blocked the river between theKootenay and Columbia Rivers so the monster couldn’t escape from Columbia Lake andthe war party could kill it. After the woodpecker brothers killed the monster, they cut himup and passed out the meat as food for everyone. All that was left were the entrails, sothey took the bladder, crumbled it up and spread it to the four corners of the world wherethe different races were created from different parts of the monster. The Ktunaxa peoplewere created from the blood of the monster. Everyone rejoiced at the death of the monsterbut the giant was so happy, he jumped up and hit his head on the sky and was killed.When he fell over, his body formed the Rocky Mountains, his head formed theYellowhead area and his feet formed Yellowstone.The Ktunaxa people have been traditionally reluctant to talk to researchers, withgood reason; their history of contacts with white people has been the usual litany ofmisunderstanding and betrayal. The first white person the Ktunaxa encountered in anymajor way was David Thompson, the explorer whose name is most associated with the29Kootenay Region, although other white fur traders had passed through the area. David Thompson established a trading post on Windermere Lake in 1806, and in 1811he was the first European to travel the full length of the Columbia River from its origin atCanal Flats to Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River and back again.At this time a race was on between the British and the Americans to discover thesource of the mighty river that blasted into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Ore. As theColumbia headed north, Thompson logically assumed it was not the river in question.The more southerly Kootenay seemed a more likely candidate.So in the following spring of 1808, David Thompson left his wife Charlotte andthe children, who followed him on most of his travels at Kootenae House. His plan was toexplore the Kootenay River as well as find the Flathead Indians. He followed theKootenay River south into Montana, Idaho, and kept going when it looped north intoCanada. He arrived at the south end of Kootenay Lake on May 14, 1808, and met up witha group of Kootenay Lake inhabitants, or, as he named them, Marsh or Swamp People,which was not their name for themselves. They called themselves Yaquan Nukiy, whichtranslates as “the place where the rock is standing”. He and his men paddled, accompanied by swarms of mosquitoes, through the reedbeds and marshes at the south end of Kootenay Lake. He asked the locals what lay to thenorth, and instead of telling him there was a lake, they warned him of a series ofwaterfalls and five portages, one of them twenty miles long. It was a decisive momentand cost Thompson another two years in actually finding the route of the Columbia. Hismen were out of food, so, tired and discouraged, Thompson turned back.Because all the rivers were in flood, he decided to go overland by horseback. He30hired a young Kootenay man for a guide, who stayed with them for a couple of days andthen left. It’s interesting to speculate what the exact route was that he used in getting backto Tobacco Plains, but it was most probably along the Moyie River, which flows southfrom Moyie Lake west and south of present day Cranbrook. At any rate, according to Thompson’s diary, they had a terrible time, crossing theflooded river in several places by making log bridges. After twelve days of living mostlyon bread made from roasted moss and the occasional antelope or deer, they came out intothe valley near Columbia Lake. In May of 1812, David Thompson left the Kootenay area forever. He never didsee the great blue stretch of Kootenay Lake. At that time, before the dams, the south endof the lake where he arrived would have been a length maze of bulrushes, swamps, mudand mosquitoes. Maybe that's why he turned south. Or perhaps the locals warned him offbecause they were afraid of what he would do to the magic – or the magic would do tothem. Or maybe they were afraid he'd stick around and never leave.Growing up, I didn’t know anything about First Nations people or First Nationshistory. Our mother told us various stories in which Indians figured as mysterious peoplewho showed up occasionally. One of her stories was about a horse she and her friendLouise bought from the Indians who lived near Creston. The two girls wanted a horsemore than anything; they saved the bits of money they made doing chores for theirparents and bought a half-starved colt that they kept in Louise’s parent’s woodshed. Thehorse got into a bag of oats and almost died but they walked it around for hours until itrecovered. Once the horse got some strength, it turned out to be both wild and untamable31so reluctantly, they sold it back to the Indians.Indians ran through other tales my mother told, and sometimes when we went intotown, we passed a wagon drawn by a team of horses, the adults sitting hunched on thefront seat, a bundle of children in the back. I always stared – anything to do with horsescaught my interest. Or I would see the teams tied up in a vacant lot on the edge of town,the same dark people standing around, sometimes with a fire going.Indians always seemed to be far outside the rest of the world, and since I felt Ilived there as well, I thought I should know more about them. But it was hard to connectthe stories my mother told with the people I saw on the edge of town. I never saw themanywhere else–they weren’t in school or in the stores or even on the streets of town. Theywere just at the edge of things, a glimpse that caught my attention and stayed theresimmering.I knew one of our closest neighbours, Mabel O’Neil, was an Indian because mymother said she was but I also knew her as a warm comfortable presence, a purveyor ofwarm bread fresh out of the oven and slathered with wild strawberry jam, a woman whosaid little but was at the center of her family’s life.And very occasionally, on the way with my father to buy hay or other supplies,we would pass the small cluster of houses, a white church, and a few cars a mile south oftown. My father jerked his thumb towards it. “There’s The Mission,” he said. I didn’tknow what that meant, but there were those people again. They seemed so distant – theyseemed to have lives about which no one knew anything. So Indians went on being a mystery and a fascination for me. Gradually, I foundbits and pieces about Indians in books, but the books didn’t help much. Indians in books32lived far away, hunted buffalo, lived in tipis, not like the Indians I had seen, huddled atthe edge of the white people’s new settlement. And yet Indians were clearly somethinglike me; they lived outside, in the woods, with animals, all the things that were importantto me, that bounded my new life, that gave it shape and meaning and importance.By the 1880's, the Kootenay Lake area began to be frequented by Europeans andAmericans – mostly prospectors and miners drawn by the lure of silver and gold.Eventually, enormously rich silver strikes brought waves of men seeking fortune,followed by the railways and paddle-wheel steamers.When the mining boom died down, it was orchardists who formed the next waveof immigration. The first orchards were planted in 1890, and from 1910 to 1930 manyfarms took root around the shores of Kootenay Lake. The east shore was and is aparticularly good growing area for cherries, peaches, pears and apples, although almostno one has an orchard these days. Markets are far away, and orchards are hard work.Lake shore is for recreation, for retirement, for scenery, not for farming.The mining ‘camp’ of Riondel was settled because of a silver, lead, and zincmine, that, when my dad worked there, was known as the Bluebell Mine. In1882, anAmerican named Robert Sproule staked four claims along the peninsula, including theBlue Bell. When he left to register his claims, an Englishman, Thomas Hammill, restakedthe claims. This led to a dispute that ended with Sproule shooting Hammill dead andgoing to the gallows for his crime.In 1905, The Canadian Metal Company purchased the mine, and in 1907 the33settlement was named Riondel after Count Edouard Riondel, the president of thecompany.The mine closed in 1943 and the town was soon empty but in 1950, the mine re-opened, and the population soared to almost 300 within three years. My father andmother moved there in 1952, desperate for a job and money.Pierre Longueval, the young Frenchman who took up a 160 acre land grant on theedge of this huge cold lake, showed up in 1918, young, ambitious, and energetic. I knowvery little of Pierre, or Pete as he ended up being called. Stories of early beginnings getlost too fast–by the time I thought of writing this book and had the skills to do it, toomany of the elders in our community had already died. So the little I do know of Pierrehas come down through anecdotes, bits of stories sifting down like dust over the years.I know he came from France with a group of other settlers; he went first toSaskatchewan, then Alberta, and then somehow he came to BC, found the lake and tookup 160 acres of land. He had money–he was a French remittance man – so that one of thestories with which my siblings and I grew up was that of Pete’s hidden gold.The story in our family was that when my grandfather first came to theKootenays, he sold Pete some hay, and Pete went outside and came back in with a jar ofgold coins, and paid my grandfather in gold. After my younger brother and I heard thisstory, we crawled under the barn and chicken shed, we dug and explored but we neverfound the gold.Pete died in Kootenay Lake, which even now has a reputation for catching peopleunawares. Kootenay Lake is not a friendly lake – it is deep and cold, so cold that the34bodies of drowned people are not recovered. Squalls can sweep unexpectedly down itslong narrow length. And because the wind hits with particular ferocity in the middle,away from the sheltering bays, boats with naïve drivers often leave shore thinking thewaves aren’t too tall, only to be swamped by the big rollers farther out being driven bythe wind. So we know he drowned but we don’t know the whole story. We do know thathe was tall and good-looking, that he was well-educated, interested in socialism, and thathe had a girlfriend. He also had a housekeeper, Leontyne Duperron, who had come outfrom the prairies to get away from the prairie winter and so most of what I know of thestory comes from her daughter. I went to see Marguerite Duperron one hot summer dayand she told me this story.Marguerite was born in Unity, Saskatchewan. Pierre was a relative of hergrandmother’s, who had re-married after her first husband, a man called Louis Vasseur,who had come to Canada from France with several of his brothers, died. Pierre’s parentshad died when he was young and so he came to live with the Vasseurs as a young man. In1922, Marguerite, her family and Pete all moved to the Kootenays. They spent one winterin a log cabin five miles north of the booming railway town of Sirdar. Marguerite wasseven, and every morning, she and her sister got up and trudged three miles along therutted dirt road, through knee-deep snow to go to school. They left home in the dark andarrived back again in the afternoon in the dark. But the train engineers got to know them,and the train would wait at a lonely railroad siding, called Atbara, a mile from the school,where they could climb gratefully into the warm caboose and ride the last mile.The next year, Pete bought the property on the lake. He was both progressive and35ambitious. He left behind in the house a number of pamphlets on modern agriculture.And he must have already had the idea that someday, lakeside property might bevaluable, so before he built his house, he built two cabins above the shining gold sandbeach below the farm. Pete and Marguerite’s dad bought a small gasoline-driven sawmillTogether, they cut the massive cedars off what is now our pasture, and milled out woodfor the cabins, the house, a barn, a woodshed, and a long elaborate chicken house.In the seventeen years Pete lived there, from 1922 to 1937, he accomplished anastounding amount. Besides the buildings, he fenced and cross-fenced the property withsplit-rail fences made of cedar logs. The cedar logs are charred on the outside. My fathertold me once that Pete would haul the logs to the beach, pile them up, light them on fireand then throw sand on them to put the fire out, a process akin to making charcoal. Thecharring seems to make them impervious to rot so that some of these fences are stillstanding and still solid. We know he kept goats and chickens; he planted an enormousorchard of apples, pears, cherries, plums; he built his house beside the path that wouldbecome the road, out of sight of the lake, and my grandfather said that Pete was planningon opening a store when there was more population along the lake.Pete altered the landscape in other ways; an old rockslide, still barely visibleabove the highway, just south of the farm, was caused by Pete diverting water from onecreek into another.There was no actual road to the farm then, just a track known as the tote road. Theroad went north from Creston to Kuskanook, where the sternwheelers docked, and then itwas a three-mile hike or wagon-ride to the farm. Kuskanook had already boomed anddied. Very briefly, Kuskanook had served as the terminus of a branch of the Bedlington36Northern Railway. There the cargo and passengers were loaded onto a sternwheeler, butafter the railway was finished on the western side the lake, the railbed to Kuskanook wastorn up and turned into a dirt road. But people still kept cabins in Kuskanook, at the endof the road, for fishing or boating.One late fall, Pete had a house party. His girlfriend apparently decided she wantedto go fishing. Pete had a canoe and he and the girlfriend went down to the lake. She cameback a couple of hours later with a story that the canoe had overturned, that Pete hadcalled to her to swim for shore, he would be right behind, she was on top of the canoe andhe was kicking behind but he never made it. She climbed up the steep rocks and cameback through the trees.After Pete died, things quickly disappeared from the farm. People came andclaimed tools, animals, farm implements, and then eventually the farm was sold for taxes.Pete had died in 1937, and in 1938, my grandfather bought the whole 160 acres for$2525. Someone else had bid $2500. In 1995, we tore down the chicken shed. The huge one-foot by one foot solidsquared off beams under the floor had finally rotted through. We saved the wide-grain,old growth cedar lumber from the walls, and the sheet metal roofing and burned the rest.Pete’s dreams still haunt the land; whether his ghost does or not is unknown.When I wander there now, I wonder if he would be pleased or angry at what we’ve done,– or haven’t done.There are other farms in our family history.37When my parents were first married, as a wedding present, my grandfather boughtthem a farm, five miles south of his farm. It was known then, and still, in our family, asthe Mannarino place.The Mannarino place, like most farms along the lake, was a couple of clearedbenches of land on the side of the mountain. The farm was located there because of astream tumbling through it. This farm was at the south end of the lake, above a vast areaof swamp, cottonwood trees and thick willow bush. From a few places on the farm, therewas a view to the north of the long sweep of water continuing northward out of sight. Justbelow the farm, cutting through a swath of thick willow and cottonwood, a channel of theKootenay River ran northward into the lake. A long five mile stretch of railroad trackcrossed the swamp at the south end of the lake and directed the railway onto the west sideof the lake where it ran northwards to where the river flows again out of Kootenay Lake,south past Nelson and then into the Columbia River just north of Castlegar.Both my parents wanted to be farmers.My mother, Dorothy Klingensmith, and my father, Robert Armstrong, met afterthe war. My mother had just returned from working at the Boeing aircraft factory inVancouver. My father hadn’t gone to war; his father wangled an exemption for him as anessential farm worker.My mother’s grandfather was one of the first settlers into the valley. Her paternalgrandfather, my great grandfather, had moved to Creston from Pennsylvania. Althoughhis family was settled and fairly wealthy in Pennsylvania, with a feed mill and a sawmill,he began searching for oil in the early 1800’s. Eventually he wound up working for the38CPR as a sawmill superintendent; finally, he settled on 10 acres in Erickson. There hebuilt a three-story southern-style house, with a wide verandah and shaded windows andan enormous kitchen and dining room. The verandah wrapped around three sides of thehouse; the huge dining room and living room were lined with books and gloomy blackand white photographs of people. Upstairs there was secret room behind the walk-incloset between the master bedroom and the second bedroom. My grandfather, Fred Klingensmith, grew up with a strict stepmother who,according to my mother, beat him with a strap. Whatever the reason, he was a man whowas not much interested in family and much more interested in finding the elusive goldmine for which he searched his whole life. He met my grandmother in a mining town innorthern Ontario.My maternal grandmother, Lucy Rhinehart, had come to Canada on her ownwhen she was eighteen. She was a woman of independent spirit who had first run awayfrom her family in Liverpool to an aunt in Sweden when she was only twelve. In Canada,she took a job cooking in the small northern mining town of Temiskaming, where shemet Fred Klingensmith, who was working in the sawmill. They moved to Port Huronwhere their first child, my aunt Aileen, was born, then back to Creston, where Fred’sparents were. He got a job as a filer in the local sawmill.My grandparents had five children and my mother was the second youngest. Mygrandfather wasn’t much of a provider or a father. His real love was prospecting andwhen he wasn’t working, he was roaming the mountains looking for gold.One story my mother often told us was about a time he took a job in Nakusp, a town at39the northern end of the Kootenays. My grandmother would take her brood of children andthey would travel there on the sternwheeler, setting off from Creston, traveling the lengthof Kootenay Lake to Nelson, then getting on the train to Castlegar and off and ontoanother sternwheeler, and then travelling the Arrow Lakes to Nakusp.Along the way, they would eat in the dining room where the tables were set withwhite linen and silver tableware and tall black stewards in white coats with white gloveswaited on them with grave courtesy and then showed them to their cabins to sleep. But once they had been longer between visits than usual. When they arrived at Nakusp,the children ran to meet their father, who turned to the man he was walking with andasked in bewilderment, “Who are those children?”My mother grew up in a large white house, in the middle of Creston, a half ablock from Canyon Street, the main thoroughfare that runs through the centre of thetown. Creston was a new town. It sits on a slope above where Kootenay Lake used to be.Creston is at the centre of a large flat and fertile area suitable for orchards, cattle, orgrowing hay. As soon as settlers arrived, they began changing the landscape as fast asthey could, clearing land, planting orchards and strawberry fields. But what really drewtheir eye was the vast expanse of swamp below the town. It was gradually dyked off andturned into farmland.Creston also acquired the nickname of Little Chicago. It was a rough brawlingtown, close to the US border, divided by the railway track that ran below Canyon Street.The better class of people lived up the hill, while the bars and the poor people wereliterally below the tracks.Then my grandfather lost his job during the depression and my grandmother40opened a boarding house. And then my grandmother got sick. She developed bowelcancer. My mother was only twelve but she quit school to help with the cleaning andcooking. My grandmother went to Vancouver for a risky operation but survived and camehome.When the war broke out, my mother went to Vancouver and lived with her AuntDiz. Her real name was Daisy but her family called her Dizzy. She lived up to the name.She and her husband, Murdoch McLeod, an optometrist who travelled to all the littletowns in the Kootenays to fit people with glasses, had nine kids. The house was chaosmost of the time because Aunt Diz really wanted to be a concert pianist and wouldpractice the piano all night, especially, according to my mother, whenever Murdoch camehome. During the war, my mother got a job at the Boeing Aircraft Factory carrying rivetsaround. For the first time in her life, she could indulge herself in her real passion, whichwas music, and she began taking singing lessons on weekends along with her brotherCharlie. Her singing teacher told her she had a fantastic soprano and she could become anopera star. He asked her to move to Toronto to study at the Toronto Conservatory.When the war ended, she desperately wanted to go on with her singing career butshe had no money once her job at Boeing ended. She went home to Creston to ask herfamily for money and they refused her. My grandmother told her she was being foolish toeven dream of such a thing.Instead, she got a job in the Mercantile store, and met my father. By now, myfather had moved to the farm on the lake. After chores were done, he began bicycling thetwenty miles to town to see my mother and then back home in time to feed the pigs andmilk the cows in the morning.41My paternal grandfather Armstrong was descended from the Armstrongs who hadlived along the border between Scotland and England. The Armstrongs were one of themost famous of the so-called “riding” clans, the Reivers or thieves, who fought with boththe English, the Scots, their neighbours, and when they ran out of people to fight with andsteal from, each other. The Armstrongs were the most feared riding clan on the frontier.In 1528, they could put 3000 men into the saddle. Great importance was placed on aReiver's small tough black horses, chosen for agility and stamina.Their land was hilly with wooded valleys, barren ridges, salt marshes, peat bogs,and broad rivers. The Armstrongs knew the hills and twisting passes. They knew whereto hide in the wastes and where to hide their stolen cattle. Reivers were very tough andvery insular. Government was far away and they resolved disputes themselves. A legendof the Borders is when the women of the household felt that supplies were running low,they would place a covered plate before the men. When the top was taken off, therewould be a pair of spurs on the plate. The message, to ride or to starve.Religion didn’t keep people from fighting. Even the priests carried weapons.Bishop Leslie, a historian, wrote in 1572 that "their [Borderers] devotion to their rosarieswas never greater than before setting out on a raid, and on the Scottish Border it was thecustom of christening to leave unblest the child’s master hand in order that unhallowedblows could be struck upon the enemy." When the Bishop of Liddesdale found nochurches on the Borders, he demanded: "Are there no Christians here?”"Na, we's be a' Elliots and Armstrangs,” was the answer.42Reiving tended to happen from autumn to the spring. Summers were for farming.Some of the raids would consist of a large group of men and could last for days. Smallerraids might be a quick moonlight ride, a quick plunder and disappear back to their homes.Whether the raid was a full-scale invasion for political reasons or a raid against a singlefarmhouse, reiving was risky. The towns were secure and well-defended, local watcheswere formed, and the cattle and livestock were brought in at night. Roads and passeswere patrolled by troopers helped by local countrymen who knew where the bogs were.A Reiver's choice of weapons, clothing and horses allowed him to move with speed. Theelements of surprise, boldness, cunning and speed, were necessary for a successful raid.The first Armstrong of my family to come to Canada was William Armstrong. In1817, William left his village of Hirsthead, in Cumberland, and came initially to NewYork with his cousin, James Elliot. In 1825, he bought 195 acres of land in Markham,Ontario. His father, Thomas, his mother Elizabeth, and six other siblings, one brother andfive sisters, also came to Canada. Thomas didn’t live long but Elizabeth lived to the thenastonishing age of 89. William married Esther Reesor in 1833, and they produced eightchildren. Their son, Robert Goodfellow Armstrong was my great great-grandfather,The Reesors were a clan of devout Mennonites who had come to North Americain 1739, after being persecuted in Europe. Initially, they settled in Pennsylvania, but n1786, Peter Reesor settled on six hundred acres of land in Upper Canada. In 1804, therest of his extended family made the journey northwards in five Conestoga wagons. Thesix families bought land in Markham and became prosperous farmers.My grandfather, William Armstrong married a sensitive, artistic young woman in43Markham named Winifreth Browne, whose nickname was Queenie. She agreed againstall sense and counsel to go out west with him to try and make their fortune in wheatfarming. She had four children in quick succession, one of whom died in infancy. Sheand my grandfather were relatively prosperous as farmers went, until two thingshappened; she got cancer and the dirty thirties hit Saskatchewan. These two blowsdiscouraged my grandfather utterly. After Queenie died, he went east to Markham withhis three bewildered bedraggled grief stricken children. My grandfather sold his land inSaskatchewan and then drove all the way back across Canada, and came to theKootenays, came from the prairies to this place of mountains and rocks and trees. Hecame by accident, the way most people come to places; he knew the bank manager, whowould lend him money to buy land and get started again.My father grew up motherless. He had an older sister and a younger sister. Theyhad a housekeeper, Helen Nelson, who my grandfather hired when Helen was only 18.She cooked and cleaned and mothered this trio of lost and bewildered children. She left toget married when my father was sixteen but kept in touch for the rest of her life.In their wedding picture, my parents look extraordinarily young, beautiful andhopeful. My father is tall and handsome, with black hair and dark brown eyes set backunder strong brows. His jaw juts out; his eyes are intense. He is a big man, six feet andfour inches tall, with huge broad shoulders, and enormous spatulate hands. My mother istiny beside him, a foot shorter, her soft brown hair curled on her shoulders, her eyes wideand serious. They married on the long weekend in May 1945, and for their honeymoon,44they went to Alberta, to a ranch then owned by my grandfather’s brother, a huge ranch inthe Cypress Hills called the East and West Ranch.My parents were both used to hard work. My mother, as a teenager, was in chargeof cooking and cleaning for five or six men while her mother was ill. My father’s firstpaid job was at twelve, running a combine, but he had been working for his father andliving more or less on his own since he was eight.When they married, my father was 21 and my mother was 23. They wereintensely in love. They had the farm, plus a team of horses and a few tools. My fatherwanted to be a farmer; it was what he knew and I don’t know if he ever considered anyother choice. Plus he and my mother wanted to be alone; they were both shy, and notterribly social. Most of their lives they avoided society, didn’t join groups or go tochurch, partly because they didn’t have time and partly because they weren’t any good atit. They seemed to have no social ambitions although they got on well with all theirneighbours and gave away endlessly generous and bountiful amounts of food. At first, my father adored my mother. After a hellishly lonely life, finally, he hadsomeone to love and someone who loved him. Sexuality was an amazing discovery forboth of them; my mother told me later, when I was old enough to understand, that sexwas the thing that kept them together.Neither of my parents had ever gone out with anyone before. My father wasn’t atall interested in sharing this new love with someone else, certainly not with a baby. Butof course my mother became pregnant almost immediately and she very much wanted45children.The Mannarino place was three miles north of the small railroad town of Sirdar. Ithad first been cleared and settled by Jimmy and Victoria Mannarino, hence the name.Jimmy had built a white clapboard house with a broad verandah; across the yard was acorral, two log barns, and just below the house, he had planted an orchard with grapevines and prune trees. The nearest neighbours were James and Lillian Wilson to the southwho lived along the old tote road that ran above the highway. James and Lillian’s son,Charles and his new wife, Muriel, lived in a cabin about half a mile away. Dorothy andGene Haines farmed about a mile to the north along with their son, Mike, who was thesame age as my dad. Muriel and Mom had children at about the same time; Charlie andMuriel’s son, Clive, was a bit older than my brother Phil; their second son, Alan, wasborn three months after me. One of the first pictures I have of myself is of Alan and Isitting together in a crib on the screened porch of the house on the Mannarino farm. The Wilsons had a granite quarry. The Wilsons from Scotland had always beenstonemasons and they carried on with this tradition. The Haines had come here from theYukon and gone into fruit farming. They built a log house that still stands up on the hillbut which has now been empty for years.Three miles away, at Sirdar, there was a clan of people who had come here fromthe village of Petilia Policastro in Italy. These were the Pascuzzos, the Lombardos, theCherbos and Jimmy Mannarino, who settled away from the others. My parents had never known the Mannarinos but they had heard stories, lots of46stories. Jimmy was apparently more than a little hard to get along with. He was not verytall, only about 4ft. 10 in., but he fought with people. Jimmie had a silver mine up on themountain above his farm; he also had a mining partner named Pedro Cherbo. Just a fewyears ago, Mike Haynes told me the story of Jimmie and Pedro’s gunfight. He said theygot along well until Pedro got the idea that maybe the mine should be all his and heshould get rid of Jimmy.This was in the late 1920s, when the CPR was building the railway across thelake. Pedro told Jimmy he had gotten someone from the railway crew to stash a few casesof dynamite in the brush beside the tracks. As they were going down the hill single filealong the path to the railway, Pedro pulled his pistol and shot Jimmy in the back. Thepistol apparently had a terrific pull to the right, so Pedro missed Jimmy's heart and gothim in the shoulder. Jimmy fell to the ground and Pedro tried to shoot him in the head butmissed. Jimmy played dead and Pedro ran away. When he was gone, Jimmy got up andstaggered off along the railway tracks to Sirdar, to get help.Pedro holed up in the log shed up by the house and when a posse of men showedup led by Constable Bill Crawford from Creston, they proceeded to shoot it out. Pedrohad his pistol and a 25-35 Winchester rifle. But eventually he ran out of ammunition andhad to give up.Jimmie died in of old age and Victoria Mannarino, who was much younger thanher husband, sold the farm to my grandfather. My mother and father moved into thebeautiful old house. They were determined to make a go of it as farmers. There were twoenormous log barns north of the house, one of which still had the bullet holes in it. Myparents planted a huge garden and began bringing back the orchard, pruning the trees,47deer fencing and cross fencing the pasture. There were a lot of varieties of what would becalled heritage trees now, such as Black Republican cherries and Northwest Greeningapples. There were even two mulberry trees and a huge garden, all ditch irrigated out ofthe stream that ran down the gully in front of the house from a big concrete tank up in thetrees. This too was terraced with beautifully built rock walls. They had a team of horses and every summer, my father cut marsh grass for hayacross the river, floated it across the river on a raft, and hauled it up the long steep hillwith the labouring team. The mosquitoes were hellish, but the work had to be done. Thegarden had to be watered, the fruit picked, wood cut for winter. My mother canned fruitand vegetables and venison to get them through the winter. But after my oldest brotherwas born, they realized they could no longer live on grouse and venison. They tried tomake money from the orchard and the garden but it wasn’t enough. The next spring, myfather got a job working on the dikes that were built on the Creston flats.Because it was a long drive home over bad roads, my father often stayed over inCreston during the week and came home on weekends. My mother was left alone in anisolated farmhouse with a new baby. The farm was a small clearing in a vast, mostlyuntouched wilderness. Below the farm was hundred of acres of swamp and above thefarm was mountains and forest. The bears came regularly to raid the orchard and the deerwandered through what had always been, to them, home.One night as she went to bed by herself, something woke her in the night. She satup and was terrified to see a white shape in the doorway of her bedroom. Fortunately, shehad the baby in bed with her, but she sat up all night in terror wondering what this thingwas she was seeing. The next day my father came home and she told him what had48happened. So that night when they went to bed they waited and sure enough, the samewhite shape, the shape of a little bent over old man with a cane, appeared. In the daysbefore he died, Jimmy had gotten very bent by rheumatism and used to walk with the aidof two canes. Apparently, even with the canes, he used to hoof it the three miles toKuskanook just to watch the girls go swimming.They saw this white shape many times after that. They had no idea what, or who itwas. After a while, they just called it Jimmy. At first it frightened them and they tried tofind some kind of explanation for it, but as time passed and they saw it often, on bothmoonlit and dark nights, in various parts of the house, they got used to it. One night myfather walked right through it. He says it was kind of cold and the shape wavered apartand came back together again. Nevertheless, he still maintains that he does not believe inghosts and he has no explanation for the shape that they saw in the house..Eventually, my parents got tired of starving on the Mannarino place and theymoved away to Riondel because the mine had re-opened and my father could get work.My parents had no intention of permanently leaving this farm and my father made thelong thirty-five mile drive as often as he could to look after the trees. They had to leavethe horses behind as well. Before they left, he somehow got the money together to buyenough trees to plant a new orchard. Then he made a desperate final effort to fence thenewly planted orchard with a fence with six strands of barbed wire to keep out the deer inthe upper field above the house. But leaving a house and land alone in those days wasn’ta good idea. Tools and other things disappeared and someone left the deer fence gateopen and deer destroyed the new orchard despite my father’s efforts. It was the first time49that the land broke their hearts, but it wasn’t the last.Chapter Three:Our land beside Kootenay Lake had a lot more going for it as a farm than theMannarino place. It was mostly flat, at least below the highway, and the mosquitoes inthe summer, though bad, weren’t as mind-numbingly terrible as they were at theMannarino place. There was an orchard just above the lake with about thirty cherry trees,along with many apple, plum and pear trees. On the north of the house, there was aswampy pasture, a log barn and a hayshed, and on the south, the huge chicken shed andmore fruit trees. My grandfather had kept pigs and soon after we moved to the farm, myfather acquired two milk cows and a Farmall tractor.After we moved into the huge dark green farmhouse, mornings at the farm wereannounced by the rattle of the stove lids on the wood cookstove in the kitchen downstairs,as my father rose at five to build a fire, and then go out to milk. I'd hear the rattle of thebucket as he went across the yard, then fall back to sleep. It wasn't a reassuring sound. Itmeant that when he came back in, he'd pound on the stairs and if we didn't get up, he'dcome up stairs, drag the covers off, and haul our lazy useless asses out of bed.For, as we were now discovering, the name of the farm was work, and we were itsservants. And whatever was to be done, we children were part of its doing. We pickedfruit, gathered eggs, pitched hay, fed the chickens, carried in wood. Inside the house, ourmother was washing, cooking, cleaning, canning, and sterilizing the milk coolers that satin the fridge on the back porch. Once a week, she got out the wringer washer, filled it full50of hot water from the tap, ran load after load of clothes through the wringer into agalvanized tub, carried them outside and hung them on the clothesline then mopped thepuddles that ran all over the floor. On laundry days, the windows misted over and thehouse smelled damp and sad and grey.Outside our father was milking, feeding cows, pruning trees, picking fruit, cutting,turning, raking, hauling hay into the barn, hoeing the weeds out of the garden, haulingirrigation hoses from place to place, cutting wood, splitting, stacking wood. The workwas seasonal but always endless. Spring was for pruning, raking, burning, plowing thefields and the garden, picking rocks out of the fields; summer was an orgy of picking,canning, freezing fruits and vegetables; fall was killing time, when the pigs, the steers,and the chickens, went into the freezer, when trees fell to the chain saw, and the deadcorn stalks rattled, desolate, in the garden. Winter was a brief pause in the frenzy but thecows and chickens still had to be fed and cared for, wood carried into the house and ashescarried out, and three meals a day prepared, eaten and cleaned up after. Once when Imanaged to get up the nerve to ask why we all had to work so hard, my father looked atme. “You work or you starve,” he said.But for me the farm had two names; if one was work, then the other was freedomand I escaped from one into the other as often as I could. I was crafty at this, as allchildren are. For example, I loved fishing, and I soon learned that fishing looked likework but was really a matter of lying on a rock for an afternoon staring into the depths ofthe water, watching the golden bodies of squawfish arrow from one nook and cranny toanother. Hauled into the light, they were a disappointment, grey, gasping and slimy.51Sometimes, I managed to catch a trout instead, for which I was inordinately praised bymy mother, trout being a change from our diet of chicken, beef and pork. But when Icame home, I snuck from the sunshine and cool mystery of the lake into a house chargedwith anger and despair. For there was still no money, no money, no money. I lay in bed atnight in my white bedroom over the kitchen, the only kid with my own room, andlistened to my parents’ voices vibrate through the floor. Sometimes I'd hear the door slamas my father stormed out of the house. So I escaped whenever I could and the place towhich I escaped was the O’Neils.It was late afternoon on a spring day just after we moved to the farm. I heard acrashing wave of noise, looked up and saw horses running through our yard. Inretrospect, there were probably only four or five horses plus a couple of cows, but at thetime it seemed like a whole lot more. My father was waving his arms in fury.There were two girls with the horses. The girls were older than me. They wavedback at my furious father; one of them waved at me, and then they were gone. I ran intothe house to find out who they were. My mother never answered my question. Instead,she and my father launched into some tedious story about the O'Neils and all their kidsand how Dick drank and beat his horses and his boys, and all those kids, and how didMabel stand it. In a lowered voice, my father said something about Dick being a"squawman," which I didn't understand but remembered. But none of this mattered. Iwanted to know about the horses.The next day I walked barefoot over the mile of graveled road between our placeand theirs. The gravel was burning hot. When I got there, the whole family was out52weeding the corn patch. They didn't seem surprised to see me.After the corn was done, the two girls, Nora and Shirley, took me down to thebarn. Even at five, I knew this was a wonderful place. They had a barrel with a saddle onit tied between two rafters. We played on that for a while but I wanted more.We went into the pen where the horses were. There was a big white workhorsenamed King who stepped on my bare foot. I didn't say anything although my foot felt likeit had been hammered flat. I thought if I complained or cried they might make me leave.There was a brown mare named Lady, a small black mare named Gypsy and a shaggypony named Billy. They put me on Billy and led me around for a while then left me onmy own. Billy immediately put his head down and began eating grass. Nora handed me athick stick and said, " Here, hit him with this."I did – which got his attention. It was my first riding lesson.I spent the rest of that summer on horseback. I now know that no parent in his orher right mind would have let us ride those horses. They bit, kicked, bucked and ranaway. But I didn't know enough to be afraid, and Nora and Shirley had learned to betough. My parents were far too busy to notice what we were doing. My mother had mybaby sister and brother and all the housework plus gardening, canning, cooking, andlooking after the milk things. My father was putting up hay, picking fruit, and working atthe sawmill to make money to support the farm.Nora and Shirley were the youngest kids of the large O'Neil family. When I metthem, Nora was nine and Shirley was eight. Nora was the leader; she had short curly hair,and sparkling dark eyes. My mother always said, “That girl is sly, I don’t trust her.”So, of course, I believed everything she said. Shirley was beautiful, with long53black hair and my brother Phil developed an immediate crush on her. I never did meetthem all. There were two older brothers, Art and Jack, who still lived at home and whologged the mountains with their dad. There were three older sisters who came homeoccasionally, and at least one brother or perhaps two who had drowned in Kootenay Lakein a canoeing accident. At the time, none of this mattered to me. What mattered were thehorses, the smell of sun on shiny horsehide, the gripping on to the neck as we slid down agraveled hillside, took the horses down to the beach and made them swim, or trottedhome behind the O'Neil's milk cow, which had to be rounded up every night.I eventually found out more about the O'Neils because they remained a topic ofconversation in our family for years. I found out that the old Man, Dick, was a cruelbastard, who used to beat King, the big kindly white workhorse, with a chain. I found outthat Dick and the boys, Art and Jack, used to get their horses by rounding up what wasleft of a wild herd up north in the Columbia Valley somewhere. They'd bring them homein a truck, tie them in the corral, bring them water and feed and when they werereasonably quiet, then Jack or Art would get on, whack them with a stick until they werebroke and give them to us kids to ride.They bit and kicked sometimes, but they never bit and kicked me. After a while, Igot to ride Gypsy, who was little and black, with a white blaze. She bucked everyone offexcept me. We had no saddles and only a collection of old and tattered bridles orsometimes ropes tied onto the side rings of a halter.During our second year at the farm, I begged and pleaded and Dad let me keep abrown mare named Lady at our place. He complained about it but my father complainedabout everything. 54"Horse'll starve a cow," he growled, "and a sheep will starve them both."I had no idea what he meant. I was just deliriously happy to have a horse. Ladywas hard to catch but I'd learned from the O'Neils to hide the bridle behind my back,bring some oats, get her in a corner, get a hand on her side, watch that she didn't kick, geta hand on her mane and slide a bridle rein around her neck. I'd have to find a rock tostand on so I could slip the bit into her mouth and the bridle over her ears. Then I'd haveto find a bigger rock and lead her up beside it. She'd sidle away while I made a flyingleap for her back. After a while, I learned to fling myself up from the ground onto herback with a kind of scissors kick, hauling desperately on her black thick mane while sheran off. Then I sat up straight, picked up the reins and away we went. Together, we wentup the mountain or down to the beach or along the road or up the logging track to theO'Neils.I spent hours with Lady tied to a tree in the yard, cleaning and brushing her. I fedher apples and oats stolen from our chickens. When she was out in the pasture, stretchedout in the sun, I curled between her legs, my head on her belly.I had the O'Neils in my life for two brief years but those years were enough toestablish many of the inclinations that have stayed with me through the rest of my life. Iliked being at the O'Neil’s so I spent more and more time there. I liked how they lived.No one there seemed to care what I did. At home my mother was always busy. There were always chores to do. Therewere chores at the O'Neil’s too, but they didn't feel like chores. One day, while we werewandering the mountainside in search of wild strawberries, Nora suggested I move inwith them. It made sense to me.55We got on the horses and rode to my parent's house. As I remember it, and as mymother retells it, my parents were in town together, a rare occurrence, and the house wasempty. My brothers and sister must have gone with them.I was only in first grade and couldn't write properly, so I printed out the letters asNora dictated them, telling my mother I had left home.We fled on the horses, giggling with daring, giddy with escape, high and free andfull of ourselves. That night there was a party of sorts in the O'Neill's log cabin under thegiant cedar trees beside the waterfall where Twin Bays Creek crashed down themountainside, ran through the birch and poplar behind the cabin. I lay between them onthe mattress in the little room off the kitchen with Nora and Shirley telling me dirty jokesthat I laughed at without having a clue what they were about. God knows where everyoneelse slept. I had never spent much time in the house. This was the first time I'd stayedover or even had dinner there. Dinner had consisted of slices of homemade bread withwild strawberry jam.My parents came to get me late that night. My mother was crying. I didn't reallywant to go home and I couldn't figure out why she was so upset.After that, I wasn't allowed the same freedom, although I still went ridingwhenever I could. But I couldn't go home with Nora and Shirley when they came by withthe herd of horses and cows. I had to stay in and do the dishes. I hated doing the dishes. Ihated being in the house. Everything I did with the O’Neils had an air of daring andwildness, like the afternoon, Nora had beckoned to me. “Come on,” she had saidimpatiently. I followed her down the leafy path to the outhouse. She pulled a pack ofcigarettes and some matches from her pocket. We all lit up and puffed away. It seemed a56bit silly to me but it was important to them, and we giggled hysterically at our daring.My English grandmother – my mother's mother, often came to stay with us. I hadbeen her favourite when I was a baby – I was named after her, Lucy Anne shortened toLuanne — but now nothing about me pleased her. I never combed or washed my hair if Icould avoid it. I had no manners. I was like a "wild Indian" she said. This of course wasa term that pleased me immensely, though I still wasn’t sure what Indians were. But I wasconvinced by now that free and wild were the best things to be.I have few photos of myself as a child; in one, taken soon after we moved to thefarm, I am standing on the front lawn under the walnut tree wearing a dress and eventhough the photo is black and white, whenever I look at the photo, I remember that thedress was pink and the satin ribbon tied around my waist was also pink. In the photo, Iam standing self-consciously, my chin pressed down to my chest. My hair is long, blond,combed into ringlets and tied with a pink ribbon, shining in the sun. I am self-conscious,because this is my first new fancy dress. It is for my seventh birthday. My grandmotherhas bought it for me, for the occasion. My mother has made a big fuss over this dress, myfirst party dress. I remember standing as stiffly and carefully as I could, trying to live up to thatdress. It was the first time in my life I remember feeling the terrible gravity and falsenessthat came from wearing special clothes and being told I looked pretty; it was frighteningand pleasing at the same time. I pushed my chin into my chest in an effort to do as I wastold, to stand up straight and stop fidgeting, to live up to the importance of the dress. ButI hated it. All I wanted to do at that moment was run away.57In all other pictures I have of myself as a child, I am in jeans, sometimes onhorseback, once sitting on the ground in the orchard in spring with my arms wrappedaround the neck of the O’Neil heifer, called that because we bought her as a calf from theO’Neil’s. My hair is either in braids or flying away in tangles.When I was born, my grandmother made me her pet, to the exclusion of the otherchildren, and she bought me special presents. She wanted me, she said, to be a lady.But by the time I was photographed in that dress I had already had most of theexperiences that would shape me, met the land, met the forest and the mountains, met theO’Neil kids and their horses. I had learned much from them, had climbed cliffs, hadclung on to Nora’s waist while the horses slid down the rotten pea shaped granite gravelon the mountain north of the farm, had jumped out of the hay loft in the barn becauseNora told me I could. I had gone wild and there was no saving me, though mygrandmother tried.My grandmother had been a bit of a wild girl herself. She liked to tell us how shehad made it all the way to Sweden on her own when she was only sixteen, how she hadcome to Canada and survived by getting jobs as a cook in mining and logging camps. Butas my grandmother got older, she became more proudly English. She always calledEngland, the mother country. The longer she lived in Canada, the more genteel shebecame, until she had made herself over into a middle-class English gentlewoman, thesame fate she had picked out for me.My grandmother had disapproved of my mother’s marriage. She took one look atmy father and his father and realized they were beneath her, they had no class, they wererough farmers and uncouth.58But she didn’t know what she was up against in the struggle to keep me like her.She knew nothing of farming or horses or half-wild half-native girls who could curse andstay out as late as they wanted – although she was a hard worker herself, she didn’tunderstand my father’s and his father’s ways, rough men, men who worked insanelyhard, who matched their strength against the land, determined to best it, men who belchedas they settled in their chairs for a nap after lunch, men who swore, men who had no timeor patience for manners or prettiness.I never understood until much later in my life why my grandmother was so angrywith me, why I went from being her favourite to being someone she barely noticed andoften wouldn’t even look at. I missed her and I missed being her pet. I loved mygrandmother and as a child, I expected her to go on loving me, to even share in mydelight at my new life and adventures. It was the first time in my life that someone openlydisapproved of who I felt I had to be, that someone disparaged and made fun of what Iloved with my whole being.My grandmother lost me to a place and a way of life she considered despicable,she had lost me to Canada, to the wood, to the Kootenays, to forests and trees and bantiechickens and the rough harsh ways of my father. But it wasn’t until I became agrandmother myself that I understood the nature of her hurt– she had given me what giftsshe could, the gifts she knew, that meant everything to her and I had scorned them. Shehad tried to tell me the wisdom she had learned in her life and it meant nothing to me. Wehad loved each other and never understood each other; our different histories, my newculture, her old culture, and my seduction into this new land, made us strangers.I don’t know what happened to the dress. I never wore it again. We were so poor.59It must have gotten used again. But on the other hand, it was utterly impractical, too frillyfor school, too pink and fluffy to withstand much wearing. But I think it hung in mycloset for a long time, unworn, reproachful, and unloved.My grandfather had only sold us half of the original 160 acres of the farm. Therest he kept and subdivided for summer cottages. One day when I went to one of myfavourite moss rooms, it was gone. The trees were cut down and the moss had shriveledin the sun. I went away and said nothing. I knew no one would care or understand. Afterthat, I avoided even going past the new cabin, rising from lumber and sawdust and theshrieks of saws.People from Creston, a lawyer, a doctor, a pharmacist and other people withmoney, bought the lots in the subdivision next to our farm and began putting up cabins.Now we had to share the beach with their kids, the summer kids, or as we called them,the beach kids. We tried to play with them and make friends but their rules were differentthan ours or rather, they actually had rules and we didn’t. They weren’t allowed to swimout into the deep water or dive off the rocks or go in the water until an hour after lunch.When we came to the beach, we would march past them into the water, swim outas far as we could go, and stay out well over our heads, lolling around and spouting likeplaying whales. Or we’d swim around the rocky point and hide in the rocks deliberatelyout of sight. Sometimes they sent someone in a boat to check up on us. Then one day adelegation of mothers came up the hill to the farmhouse to complain to my mother thatwe shouldn’t be allowed to come to the beach by ourselves. It was burden on them, thesewomen said, to have to worry about us.60My mother was polite. She would speak to us, she said. But when she told us thisstory, we all laughed at them together, those timid town people, who were afraid for us.My mother was a wonderful mimic and she made them ridiculous, those mincing prissywomen, who had the nerve to criticize her wonderful children. She was proud, she toldus, of how independent we were, and we in turn were proud of our toughness, and ourfreedom..The year I turned eight, the O'Neils moved away. I couldn’t believe they weregoing. I went up to their place after they'd left. I went through the empty barn and the lineof sheds that stood between the barn and the house. I looked in the windows of the house.Then I walked the trail home through the woods where we had so often ridden, an oldskid trail that went up and over the powerline and down through a secret mossy gullybetween two humpy rocks, through the trees, then down the hill, across the highway,through Sawdust Bay, along the lakeshore and finally home.I begged and begged and one day my father drove me to where the O'Neils hadmoved and left me there for a whole weekend. But I didn't understand anything that wasgoing on. Mabel had a new baby and was busy. Jack and Art were still living at the housebut working in town. Nora and Shirley didn't want to go riding. They still had horses butthey had lost interest in them. We didn't even go down to the barn, just wandered aroundthe fields, and went down to the river, played along the logs and sandbars.That night, as I lay next to Shirley and Nora in the loft of the log house, I couldhear cars coming and going, voices downstairs, laughter, loud laughter. I heard a womanscreaming.61"Shhh," Nora said. " Don't let them know you're here." I had no idea what shemeant. We all lay there pretending to sleep.The next morning, finally, we did go riding. We went down the road to someneighbours where a group of kids were practicing to ride in the local parade. Nora lookedat me critically and said, " Can't you do something about your hair?" I sat miserablybehind her as we trotted down the road, trying to comb my hair with my fingers.That afternoon my father came to get me and I ran to meet him. For the lastcouple of hours, I had been sitting on the corral fence, sulking and kicking my feet.I didn't see Shirley and Nora for years after that. Their betrayal hurt hugely but it didn'treally matter. They had given me a greater gift. Every night I put myself to sleepdreaming of horses, wild horses. Whenever I had something difficult to do, I imaginedmyself on horseback. When I needed to push myself, when I needed strength, endurance,when I needed to be both strong and yet careful, I imagined myself free, powerful, incontrol, riding.Chapter Four:Fortunately, I found another place to escape to. I found books, reading andwriting. After the first summer at the farm, I started school at the small one room school-house in Sirdar, seven miles south of the farm. Sirdar is one of the many small places inthe Kootenays that had a few brief bright days when it looked as if it might becomesomething, an important place, a town or even a city. Once it had several hotels and atrain station, a railway turntable and a water tower. Most of those things were still there62when we were kids but deserted; the railway station, with its rows of seats, its woodenplatform, its carefully lettered sign, its window for the ticket agent, was closed andlocked. Even though we pressed our noses to the glass of the waiting room, we neverbroke in. There was something forbidding about the place.That first school day in September, my older brother and I stood outside the gatebeside the road. I wore a new dress and new white and black saddle-shoes. I had a yellowlunch bucket with a peanut butter sandwich and a thermos of milk. When the bus came,the driver opened the folding yellow door and we clomped up the steps to where theO’Neil kids were already waiting for us. The rattly yellow school bus groaned intomotion. It stopped again three miles later and waited for Alan Wilson and his brotherClive to get on – Clive was always late –and five miles further on, it stopped again andwe all got off at the Sirdar store. We crossed the highway, went down a narrow weedypath cut into the steep road bank, across the railway crossing between long lines ofparked boxcars, past the empty station house, along the coal-dust laden road, and into theschool house.Mrs. Hare was new that year as well. She had a school with seven grades, fewresources, and a motley mixture of students. In my grade one class, there were three ofus, Alan, myself, and red-headed Santo Wood, whose mother was Dominic Pascuzzo’ssister but who had married out of the clan to a red-headed Irishman. We started the dayby singing The Lord’s Prayer and Oh Canada. A picture of the Queen hung at the front ofthe classroom, over the two blackboards and a row of geraniums with bright red flowerslined the windows.63Mrs. Hare came at 9 am and left at 3 pm. She always brought her small Spanieldog with her. He lay in a basket all day beside her desk at the front of the room until itwas time to leave.The school bus arrived at the school at 8:15am and came back from town to pickus up at 4:15 pm. We had forty-five minutes in the morning and evenings, fifteen minutesat recess and an hour at noon to do what we wanted.Inside the classroom, Mrs. Hare kept strict discipline that she enforced with ayardstick. Outside was different; the biggest and oldest kid in Grade Seven gave theorders and decided what we would play. The rest of us followed along.I was deeply excited by school. I organized my new pencils and my fountain pen,my bottle of ink, and my wide-lined notebooks inside my desk at the front of the first rowby the windows. We got workbooks in which to trace letters and readers with absurdstories about Dick and Jane and Sally and their dog Spot. Mrs. Hare believed firmly inphonics, which meant that we could learn words on our own by sounding them out. OnceI figured this out, I worked at learning words. I discovered that learning a word was likeopening a box within a box, only to find they were all connected together. Eventually, Igot very bored with Dick and Jane and their lives and discovered there was another shelfof books on the far wall by the Grade Sevens. I connected enough boxes to read a wholebook–The Little Red Hen–that I laboriously sounded out, word by word until withdelight, I realized I understood the whole thing at once. I told my mother. I read it outloud to her. I felt like an explorer at the edge of a new land. There were books and booksand more books and I could read them.I don’t remember what led me to believe from this that I could be a writer. But I64do know I decided at six to be a writer and I never went back on the idea. It was alwayswhat I was going to do. In fact, I announced it to my family one night after dinner. What Idon’t understand is where the idea came from. As far as I know, no one in our family hadever met a writer or had any idea how anyone went about being such a thing. We werefarmers, or at least, my father was and his father and his father before that; generationupon generation of Armstrongs who had been farmers and outlaws in Scotland and whenthey came to Canada, married above themselves to women of gentleness and refinementand learning and then went on being farmers.As school wore on that year, I made other discoveries. We had a piano in theschool, and every day we would gather around the piano that no one ever played and Mrs.Hare would play songs to us on her creaky violin. We learned a lot of songs and thatChristmas, we had a concert. We had learned Christmas songs and the older kids hadprepared a full three-act play about Robin Hood. My brother needed to be dressed inarmour and my mother, in some puzzlement, wrapped tin foil around some old clothes,only to discover, to her deep and everlasting chagrin and fury, that Robin Cherbo’smother had made him a complete set of armour out of links of silver painted cardboard.When it was time for the Christmas concert, my parents, predictably, had a fight.Every event in our lives seemed to be occasion for a war. But finally, after everyone hada bath in the giant cast iron bathtub, we got dressed in our best clothes, got in the greenDodge pickup, and drove to the school, where the playground that no one ever drove on,was full of cars. The schoolhouse was jammed; people had driven from all over to cometo our concert. Our program was an hour long, with two choirs, a play, some skits, and a65solo by Mrs. Hare on her violin. Finally Santa Claus arrived through the back door, whichwas never normally opened, and handed out candy canes to all of us and then there was atable laden with the assortment of cookies, cakes, candy and other food brought by themothers. My mother always brought shortbread Christmas trees that were much soughtafter.We also produced a newspaper full of stories, poems and essays that we ran off onan old Gestetner machine Mrs. Hare carted out from town. Everyone had to contribute astory or a poem. Most of the kids hated this chore but I dove into it and took the task ofwriting essays seriously. In Grade Four, I produced an essay on the balance of nature thatwas essentially a long argument with Wally Johnson, our trapper neighbour, who insistedthat any animals beside birds and fish ought to be killed. My mother both liked anddisliked him and from her I got the phrase, “the balance of nature.” The rest I figured outfor myself. I gave a copy of it to Wally, who took it very seriously and argued with meabout it after that whenever he saw me.Mrs. Hare and my mother ran together in my head and merged into one person. Igot their names mixed up and routinely called each one by the other’s name. Mrs. Harelet me stay in and read at recess and lunch hour; once she discovered my passion forbooks, she usually gave into my request that I be the one to go to the elementary schoolin Creston and pick out a new batch of library books. And when I read my way throughall the readers we had, she let me sit with the older Grades and read theirs until I finishedthem and then she left me to read on my own. Adam Robertson, the principal from theelementary school in town, would come once or twice a year on a nominal inspection andeach time, he would call me up to stand beside the desk and read to him. Then he would66go back to Creston and report back to the kids there that I was smarter than them. Theyhated me long before they ever met me.Outside the long row of windows on the south side of the school was the flagpole,then a high mounded granite rock, surrounded by lilac bushes gone wild, which wasvariously a spaceship, a base for hide and seek, a police station or a ranch for thecowboys during cowboys and Indians.In class, we stared longingly out the windows, waiting for our real life, the lifewhere we could become part of those things, to resume. There were also swings and ateeter-totter but those were dull compared to the games we could imagine. We lived ourreal lives, the intense and endless melodramas of cops or space or cowboys in and amongand on top of the rocks, in the hollows beside the two enormous pine trees on the slopesouth of the school above the lake or in the tangles of brush, lilac bushes and wild appletrees around the school grounds. There were two broken down old fruit trees and a crabapple growing over the cutbank to the north of the school. We hollowed out the dirt under the crabapple and madeseats and from then on, when it got hot in May or June, Mrs. Hare let us move the schoolout under the crabapple tree.The one place we were never supposed to go was the lake. No one seemed tomind or care about the water tower but over and over again Mrs. Hare warned us aboutthe lake. In the winter, gas under the ice made hidden holes through which we could allfall through and then we would disappear forever under the ice.At home, our lake was the place where I spent all my spare time. It didn't seem67right to be going to a school on another lake and not go to it. One day I talked everyoneinto sneaking down through the thick willow and buckbrush, though the small meadowthat marked the boundary of the allowable school territory, onto the skinny trail under thehuge pines and then past the quaky aspens onto the long stretch of sand and rocks.Duck Lake was different than Kootenay Lake. It was shallow and reedy, full of insectsand fish and ducks. Fascinated, I stared into the brown water in which things swam andscuttled and disappeared out of sight. Someone told on us, and since it had been my idea, for once I got in trouble withMrs. Hare. I was her smart girl, her star pupil and for her to be angry with me was farmore devastating than for my mother to be angry. The only other time Mrs. Hare gotangry at me was when I figured out that the two times table and adding the same twonumbers together got the same result. I wrote it out on the blackboard to show her but shesent me outside and told me I couldn't know that yet.Life outside the school at Sirdar school was a rigid form of anarchy. The toughestbig kids gave the orders and the rest of us followed along. When we tired of Let’sPretend, we played endless fiercely democratic games of Scrub baseball, or we playedPrisoner's Base, which involved drawing a line in the sand and daring each other to crossit. Sometimes we tied each other up and once we played a game of torture that gave meshivery weird feelings when I thought about it at night. Once I had started thinking aboutit, I couldn't stop and I wanted to ask my mother about it but I thought she would beangry.The brush around the school was a thick tangle of red willow, buckbrush andsyringa. Only very determined small children, crawling on their hands and knees,68molding the brush into tunnels, walls and rooms could get through it. We made rooms inthe brush and nests out of long dried grass in the rooms. We piled up ammunition madefrom the tiny green crab apples and then we went to war with the apples that we whippedat each other with the long shoots broken off the apple trees. Alliances shifted, weremade in an instant, and then broken almost as fast. Life in the school was organized andin its own way, interesting, but life outside the school was what called us to be fierce,dramatic, and as brave as we could be.One noon hour, we gathered around the base of the wooden water tower. Some ofthe older boys had pried the boards off the wall and made a space into which we couldcrawl. Inside it was cool and damp and smelled of earth.“Climb the ladder,” someone hissed in my ear. “Double dare you.”I couldn’t see anything in the dark. I inched my way forward until I held the rungsof the ladder in each hand. I began to climb, and then I stopped. I clung to the ladder withboth hands. I was afraid to move. I imagined the ladder rungs breaking underneath me,imagined myself falling away into the darkness. But I had to move. There were voices farbelow hissing at me but I had no idea what they were saying; there was light above me towhich I climbed with the abandon of desperation until I could crawl out on the smallledge.I could hear wings in the blackness; something brushed by my head. Swallowsand disturbed bats wheeled and circled in the small fragments of light sifting between thebroken boards on the roof. I sat there until I felt myself come back from the terrible placefear had taken me, and then I had to slide back down the long blackness, hanging on and69feeling with my feet.When I made it back outside into the bright prayer of the spring sun, they were allstaring at me. “Don’t tell,” hissed the older kids. “Don’t tell or you’ll be in so muchtrouble.”On another afternoon, we gathered around the ancient rusted railway turntable.The turntable weighed nine tons, according to my father. Someone had broken the lockoff. We began to push. Someone got a pole and we levered and pushed and sweated untilwe actually got it moving. On other days, we got up on top of the long lines of rankedboxcars and ran along them, jumping from boxcar to boxcar.When Mrs. Hare came outside and rang the bell, we came dutifully in the whitedoor, past the pink tiles inside the girls washroom and the brown tiles inside the boys,hung our coats on the row of coat hangers, and sat in our assigned seats, ranked by class,one row for each class. At the front of the class were two blackboards and Mrs. Hare’sdesk, under which her dog slept its days away. Alan, Santo and I started at the windowsin grade one and by grade seven, we had have moved all the way over to the far wall.One class at a time, Mrs. Hare would call us to sit at the reddish-brown skinny table to doreading or arithmetic. The black upright piano stood in the corner on far wall, and pastthat, the sink and the hot plate.Every day, one student was delegated to leave the school early, walk across thetracks and up the hill to Charlie Nelson’s store to get a can of soup. Charlie Nelson wasan old white haired man. He always wore a worn grey sweater that bulged over his hugebelly and he had a sickly wife who we never saw, who lived upstairs over the store.One day it was my turn. The store was one of my favourite places. Every day, after70school, we would play until Charlie Nelson rang the bell and then we ran back to thestore because the school bus was coming. On Fridays, our mother would give each of usten cents. For ten cents, I could buy a bag of potato chips, or chocolate bar, or an icecream, or ten round bubblegum which we got one a time from the bubblegum machine onthe counter, or a lollipop. The choice was agonizing.At the back of the store, was a huge pile of ancient Star Weeklys, which I wasdetermined to read my way through. There were wooden shelves piled with dusty clothesthat no one ever looked at and glass cases full of ancient fishing lures.This day, when I came in the store, I asked politely for the canned soup, handedover my twenty-five cents and turned to go. Charlie Nelson grabbed me from behind andpulled me onto his knee. “Give me a kiss,” he said. He fumbled towards me with hisblubbery lips, his whiskery-white cheeks.I pushed him away as hard as I could and ran out of the store and all the way backto the school. I didn’t say anything to anyone. I hadn’t understood what had justhappened. It stayed in my head like a weird nightmare until gradually, it wore away. Butafter that, I was also careful to never be alone with him.Now that I could read, I discovered books in our house, an odd and weirdly variedassortment of leftovers from previous generations which I found on rainy afternoons byscrounging through the boxes that had been left in the dusty crawl space over the stairs,There was a set of stories of Norse mythology, which I loved, and a Girl’s Own annualfrom England which had somehow migrated to our attic. I didn’t understand a lot of what71the girls in the story were saying or doing, but that didn’t matter. I think I was in myforties before I realized that a jumper was a sweater and not a pullover kind of dress.My parents spent money on books, at least my mother did. My father once boughtus a set of Science Made Simple books which none of us read despite his complaining. Itried but they were dull. I read my way steadily through everything else the house had tooffer, through all the Reader’s Digest condensed books which my parents subscribed to,through the few books on our pathetic bookshelf at the school, through our assignedreaders and then through anything else I could find that had print.For me, books were as addicting as cocaine. I read on my bed when I was sentupstairs to clean my room. I sat on the edge of the bed and thumped my feet on the flooruntil my mother crept up the stairs and caught me. I read under the covers with aflashlight. I read sitting upstairs, shivering in my cold room when I was supposed to bedoing homework.I made a number of notable discoveries. My mother bought me Black Beauty forChristmas when I was seven. The book was written from the point of view of a horse,which made sense to me. After all I understood horses better than people and I’d spentmore time with them. From then on, I read every horse and dog story I could find,although I was happy to read about almost any animal. I loved, for example the RudyardKipling story about Rikki Tikki Tavi, the mongoose who kills a cobra, and read it over andover.I was hooked immediately – after all, I knew far more about animals than I didabout people. I lived with animals more intensely; I spent more time with them. I threwmyself into the challenge of reading every dog and horse story I could find; after Black72Beauty there was Lassie Come Home, and one of my all time favourite books, TheYearling, which I still read and which is still unbearably, sweetly and powerfully good.At school, I made sure I was the one picked to go to town every few months to getbooks for our tiny library, and so all of us at Sirdar read our way through Lad, A Dog, andthe rest of the collie books by Albert Payson Terhune, which we all loved, and then theendless series of The Black Stallion books.In the animal stories I read, the animals were always smart, powerful and good,while human beings, most of them, were treacherous, or cruel or stupid. This onlyconfirmed what I already understood about the adult world.Somehow, the books I needed and wanted to read showed up, although I still can’tfigure out how or from where. I suspect my mother had a hand in it without sayinganything, but there were small miracles, one after another: Robin Hood, Treasure Island,Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, Tarzan, Robinson Crusoe. Robin Hood inparticular became an iconic book for me. Robin Hood lived in the woods, he was free ofrestrictions and duties; not only that but he was heroic and tough. And then I discoveredanother hero. Annie Oakley was the heroine of a television series at the time but wedidn’t have television. Someone gave me a copy of one of the Annie Oakley series ofbooks. Annie was also young and single and free, she had a horse and a dog and a gun,which to me, seemed to be all any girl would ever need.My mother must have blessed the day she discovered something called the OpenShelf Library. This was a brilliant but short-lived idea where kids could order books from73the Open Shelf Library in Victoria, for free, through the Post Office. Of course, it was ahell of a chore, first, ordering the catalogues, then mailing the lists, then finally receivingthe books and then remembering to pack them up and ship them off again. But it was allworth it when after school, I’d go to the Post Office and there would be one of thosebrown paper wrapped packages.But it still wasn’t enough.We had a neighbour named Mrs. Arnold. She had been the teacher at the oneroom school in Sirdar. She had retired the year before I started school, so I never knewher as a teacher, only as my mother’s friend.My mother usually had one friend that she could talk to, but seldom more thanone, and because of the farm and the endless work, she didn’t visit anyone often. Therewasn’t an organized social life on the Eastshore, and even if there had been, my fatherwouldn’t have wasted the time and gas money to go to it. So my mother made do withvisits from relatives, usually my father’s sisters who she didn’t like, or her mother, whocame once a year and fought with my father; and when we went to town we had to visitmy grandfather who lived alone in a dusty small house that stank of must and mold.We also visited often with the Wilsons and them with us. We went to their housefor Christmas dinner and they came to our house on occasional evenings when the adultsplayed cards and on those evenings, no matter what the weather, the kids all playedoutside, played our favourite game, hide and seek. Occasionally, we played softball andone year we invented an odd sort of golf, played with sticks and a torn softball over therumpled garden and in and out of the piles of rusting machinery. And one of the greatestattractions, for me, was Alan’s immense collection of comic books that he kept in a box74under his bed.My mother talked to Marg Arnold about many things and she mentioned my needfor books. Mrs. Arnold had belonged to the Book of the Month Club since it had started.Every month, she bought whatever book was offered and put it on her shelf. One of thewalls in her small grey house by the lake was lined with books. I don’t know if she readthem. Their dust covers were undisturbed and each one still had a bookmark from Bookof the Month club describing the contents.My mother suggested I go for tea on Sunday afternoon and bring back somebooks. One Sunday, I walked the mile of gravel highway between our houses, along thetwisting S curve up toward the O’Neil’s house, past the place where Twin Bays creekmuttered over its collection of sand and logs, and down Twin Bays road, over the littlelog bridge and up the thin lane past the blackberry bushes, to her house.When I came, she always made tea. She had obviously baked for my coming andbrought out plates of cookies which I impolitely devoured while we made politeconversation about the weather and my mother. We must have talked about other things,perhaps the neighbours, or the scenery, but she told me nothing about her life and I neverasked. I waited patiently for the moment when she suggested perhaps I would like to pickout some books and then I went into the chilly dusty living room, where it was obviousno one ever went anymore, turned on the single dim light and perused the shelves withthe avidity of an addict being offered more than enough of the right drug. I picked out astack of books and she never questioned my selection or suggested any choices. Even Iknew some of the books were beyond me but it didn’t matter, they were words andtherefore worth something.75Once I had the books I was eager to go but she was less eager to let me. I stood inher kitchen, shifting from foot to foot, while she kept making eager desperateconversation, and I made little lunges for the door until at last I managed to say good-bye,managed to point out that it was getting dark and my mother would be worried, (what didI care if my mother worried) and then I hurried back across the bridge, up the hill, anddown the highway through the close wintry dusk hugging my parcel of books to myself.When Marg Arnold died, I was in high school. I had long since ceased my visits.Many things had changed.Marg had begun to phone my mother; we had phones now, black boxes that hungon the wall, that had party lines with individual rings for each house, but when youanswered the phone, you heard click, click, click down the line as other people picked upand listened in. That was one of the things that had changed. Marg didn’t drive muchanymore and Mom and Dad had taken to buying her groceries, or taking her to town withthem on town days which they didn’t like doing because she was so slow. One day shephoned to complain that someone was on her roof, trying to get in her house. My fatherwent up but of course, there was no one there. These phone calls went on for severalweeks, and finally, my father got fed up. When he went to see her, she was weak and sickand he persuaded her to go to the hospital. He and my mother had talked about it– it wasobvious she couldn’t go on living by herself–she had no family.Now for the first time, my mother told me the little of Marg’s story that she knew;she had a little girl, my mother told me, who died of pneumonia when she was four. Marghad never gotten over her child’s death, and had come here to bury her hurt and her76sorrow. She lived in our small isolated community as a housekeeper to a dreadful crankyman named Jim Purcell, and eked out a living as a schoolteacher, until she retired. Jimfinally died and left her alone to live in a house that didn’t belong to her. After she died,it would go to Jim’s son in the US.She lived for a few days in the hospital. All she wanted to do was go home again,and my father, none too gently, told her she couldn’t. But my mother told me all Margwanted was to die and see her daughter again.After she died, the dreadful son came from Texas, driving a new Cadillac car. Heclearly was irritated and uninterested in this chore of dealing with his father’s stuff. Heroared about complaining, told us Canada was full of Communists, put the place up forsale, sold everything and disappeared again. But the books came to me, and also a pictureI still have, of Marg Arnold, young and beautiful and smiling, with her small daughtersitting in her lap. And every time I look at it, I feel both guilty and grateful..Chapter Five:As I grew older, my life began to fragment into rigid divisions: work versusfreedom; loyalty to my father versus protection for my mother; my grandmother versusthe O'Neils; inside and outside; books and the forest. But I also had the land telling me Ibelonged to this place. This sense of belonging was my key to survival but I didn't knowthat as a child. All I could do was follow my heart, my gut, to the places where I couldn'tbe hurt. I sat on the school bus in the morning, pressed my cheek against the cold glassand watched wild horses flow past through the trees.77After we moved into the old farmhouse, it reeked of smoke and dust and ghosts.My mother cleaned and painted and wallpapered but still Pete’s ghost snuck through thehouse at night, slamming doors or opening them again. The house was painted dark greenand two Douglas Firs towered over the front of the house. When the wind blew, the treesswung and roared and I would go out into the overgrown front garden and listen. Thefront garden was enclosed by an unpainted picket fence. In early summer, a row ofdelphiniums in the deepest shade of royal blue towered over the lawn. They made atunnel into which I could crawl, looking out through a fringe of blue upon the shadowedworld.Beyond the delphiniums to the north, through the fence, was a swampy piece ofground covered in ancient currant and gooseberry bushes, intertwined and overgrownwith thistles and sweet clover. My brother Bill and I made tunnels here as well, andponds in the stream we could enlarge and dam up so we could sail wooden boats aroundthem.In the front, under the walnut tree, the gate opened onto the dirt road – the firstsummer, my mother set out a table and a chair and my oldest brother and I sold bags ofcherries to the few tourists who stopped and paid us ten cents a pound for a paper bag ofcherries. My father got us out of bed at 5 am to pick cherries. He set the twelve-footladders under the tall branches and we scrambled up, into the centre of the trees, twentyfeet high, with buckets hooked to our belts and scrambled back down with the bucketsthat weighed twenty pounds each when they were full of cherries. We ate cherriessteadily all day and then had no appetite for dinner.78In the back yard was an old log woodshed, full of strange bits of harness andtools, and beyond that, the log barn where every afternoon, Tiny the Jersey cow stood andbellowed at her calf, locked in the barn, until my father came out to let her in for milkingand to let the calf have a chance to suck.When I went out in the late afternoon to the gate by the barn, with my tin can ofwheat, chickens came running from all over the farm. We had baby chicks now and theywere my care as well. It was my favourite time of the day, standing by the barn gate,staring out over fields, emerald in the evening light.There was so much to see and explore, so many places that became whatever Iwished them to be. In the pasture was a huge stone that turned into an elephant when I saton its head. I had just read Rudyard Kipling’s stories and I desperately wanted anelephant but the stone would have to do. Ranks of imaginary wild horses ranged the hills above me; at the beach the rockssang to me in the exhausted afternoons after climbing down off the stinking headachemaking school bus, and among the rocks, golden-eyed fish that lived in their ownkingdom sailed with majestic slowness through green-shadowed water.In the summers, almost every evening I escaped to the lake. As evening fell, Iwould sit on the Fishing Rock, watching the sun gracefully sinking down, over the top ofMcGregor peak, gold light catching the forestry watchtower on its bald peak. Adowndraft would start, I could hear it coming, sighing down the mountainside throughthe fir and pine branches.Above me in the fields, the dark was growing and the curlews were crying andcrying through the shadows.79They're gone now. They've disappeared and I don't know why. My father says theravens drove them away. But when I was a child, lying awake on hot nights, they criedand ran over the fields and I loved their cries more than any other sound.I stayed at the beach until there was only a lingering rim of light behind theopaque blue mountains. The fish made circles on the water; the water slurped and lippedat the sand's edge like feet splashing, like something coming out of the black depths tovisit. After it got dark, the noises of the lake changed and became menacing.There is a monster in the lake. Many people have seen it. On very hot summerevenings, our father sometimes took us out in the boat into the middle of the lake toswim. He would swim under the boat and grab our legs. He and our mother would talkabout all the bodies that had been lost in the lake, the bodies that never came to thesurface, the black endless depths of the lake.But still I wouldn't want to go home. The fields were full of dark. The hay stubblewould bite my bare feet. My mother might be calling. Mosquitoes began to haunt the air;light still glimmered in dim layers on the mountains. But I didn't want to go, not yet, notquite yet. The wind would come stronger now, enough to rock the trees, wake ripples onthe water, which splashed with greater urgency – ghosts in the water.The mountains were black now. Under the trees, up the path from the beach, I hadto feel my way. The noise behind me from the water was menacing. I had escaped but itwanted me back. All day I had hovered by the water, staring into the green depths,looking for fish, caught in a dream of water and air, the sun tasting my skin, turning meto brown salt and leather. My skin would glow all night.Floating back through the hay fields, half fish, half bird, blind across the bird-80crying fields, with the wind and the black sighing trees and my mother waiting, callingme, singing, to come in, come in, come back inside.The next spring after we moved to the farm, when I was about to turn seven, Icame home one day from school and the two giant fir trees lay prone across the yard,across the fence, crushing the delphiniums. Dick O’Neil was there, sawing the trees intoblocks with his chainsaw. The tree stumps were three feet through. I stopped in shock as Icame through the gate. Then I did something horrifying. I began to cry. Those trees hadbeen mysterious, enormous, giant friends that guarded the house. Something about theirhelplessness, their giant lengths across the ground, tree limbs severed and already piledfor burning so the trunks looked naked, and helpless. I flung my lunch case to the groundand ran to my mother, who would understand.“They had to come down,” she said. “They weren’t safe.”I flung myself out of the house, out of the back door, across the pasture, to theelephant rock where I sat with my head on my knees, staring at the mountains, until it gotdark.When I finally came in the house, dinner was almost done. The light from thekitchen shot into my sore eyes. Everyone stared at me, my two brothers and my sister,sitting at the dinner table, and my parents. I slid into my chair, and my mother dished mepotatoes and fried chicken and peas. I ate my food without raising my eyes.“Don’t know what the hell you’re so upset about,” my father said. “Just a coupleof trees.”“They had to go,” my mother said, more gently.81Words slogged in hopeless circles in my head. They were beautiful. I liked them.Nothing made sense. I knew for the first time that my father and mother were bothwrong. I did the only thing I could. I finished my supper in silence and went up to myroom.One afternoon, after lunch, before I could escape, my mother said, “Come andhelp me.”My parents had been arguing all though lunch. My mother wanted to order newlinoleum from the Sears catalogue, and father said no, it was a waste of money.After lunch, she left the dishes sitting and went into the living room. Then she wentdownstairs to the basement and then came back up with a claw hammer. She shoved theold worn couch away from the wall and attacked the linoleum with the claw hammer,pulling it up in chunks and fragments.“Come and help me,” she screamed. Her voice went up and up like a machinerevving up. Her hair was hanging in her eyes and her and face was red. I stood in thedoorway.“Hurry up,” she said. “You have to help.” This was not my mother, this harsh screaming stranger. Who was it that had letthe dishes stand and was now screaming and pounding at the linoleum? I rather liked theblue linoleum. It had a border of flowers around the edge but now it was coming up inlong ragged strips.I grabbed hold of a strip and pulled. It came away with a satisfying tear, leavingpatches of glue and grey underlay on the floor. There were rough boards under the82linoleum. I knelt beside my mother and pried at the edges of the linoleum with myfingernails. My mother leaned back on her heels, and wiped her hair out of her eyes.“Should I leave your father?” she said.I stared at her.“Where could we go?” she said. “I used to be a hairdresser. I could do that again.Or I could work in a store.”I thought hard and fast. I knew my mother was always unhappy but the thought ofher actually leaving was inconceivable. I thought about the farm, my parent’s fighting,and the endless angry voices at night until I fell asleep. I thought about being away frommy father. I thought about leaving the farm and going away into a world I knew nothingabout.“No,” I said finally. “I don’t think you should go.”“I could manage,” she said. “I used to work in a store. Or I could get a job as ahairdresser.” She was crying now. “We never have any money. I haven’t bought any newclothes since we got married.”“But we have the farm. And the animals. And our house.” What would happen to the chickens, I thought, without me to feed them?“It will get better,” I said earnestly. “I’ll help you.”We went back to tearing up the linoleum and carrying it out onto the front lawn.When my father came in at four for tea, the linoleum was gone, lying in a pile of stripsoutside on the lawn, and the dishes were done. For once my father was speechless.I never heard anything more about the linoleum. A few weeks later I came home fromschool and my father was running a rented sander up the down the rough boards in the83living room. He painted them with varnish after they were sanded.My mother ordered a rug from Sears catalogue and every few weeks, she wouldroll up the rug, coat the boards with hard wax, put the opera, Aida, on the stereo, and giveus pairs of our father’s work socks to pull on over our shoes. Then we would slide up anddown the wax until it was smoothed and buffed and shiny and slick as ice.For a few brief years during the war, my mother had her own job and her ownmoney. She worked at the Boeing Aircraft Factory and she spent her money on singinglessons. Now, somehow, she kept music in her life. She saved small bits of money andsubscribed to the Metropolitan Opera Record Club; whenever she could afford it, shebought a new opera. The first few records she ordered were simple operas that we couldall listen to and understand. I sat with the lyrics to The Tales of Hoffman on my lap andlearned the melody and the lyrics. After my mother played an opera, she and I would bothsing it together. When Mrs. Hare asked us to memorize a song and sing it at school, Isang an aria from Tales of Hoffman. Mrs. Hare was astonished enough to phone mymother.On rainy afternoons, she would put on Aida or Carmen so we could all marcharound the living room and play at bullfights, and then she got La Bohéme and soon after,Madame Butterfly. I couldn’t understand the words but my mother told me the story andthe music itself was so desperately beautiful it was right at the farthest edge ofunbearable. But still, it was irresistibly, endlessly singable. Whenever she played music,my mother would tell stories to go with it, about her days in Vancouver taking singinglessons, about her handsome singing teacher who had wanted to take her to Toronto,84about how she had quit singing to marry our father, about how different her life couldhave been. She sang at her work, sang to call us inside, pure operatic soprano notes floatingover the orchard and down the hill to the water, where we were hiding, escaping theendless work. My mother sang in her toil, from morning to night, the endless effort ofrunning a farm and feeding everyone on it and producing everything from scratch–all ourfood came from the farm – meat, fruit, vegetables, milk and butter. Every fall, 300 jars offruit and vegetables lined the shelves in the cellar.My mother had small hands. There were always sores breaking open on herhands; burns from the oven or cuts from a knife. Her hands were always so busy; even inthose rare moments when she sat down, she was knitting something, usually a sweater forone of us. The skin on the back of her hands was thin and delicate and the blue veinsshowed through. She kept her nails carefully filed but she seldom used nail polish.“You stay in and help with supper,” my mother said one afternoon. I barelyglanced at her. I was watching out the window. Nora and Shirley would be by soon.Every afternoon they went to fetch their cows and horses home from the pasture south ofour house. I went with them, either riding double bareback, if they were riding, orskipping beside them if they were on foot.“You stay here,” my mother said. “You’re always running off with those girls.Stay home and help your own family.”“But I have to go,” I said. “They’re expecting me.” I stared at her. I couldn’tfigure out why she was being so horrible. Stay in and cook? Instead of running throughthe woods, rounding up the cows, and loping the mile or so behind them back to the log85corral at the O’Neil’s, along stick in my hand? It was no contest.“You stay inside,” my mother said. “It’s time you learned something aboutcooking. It’s time you started to help out around here.” Her voice rose and her facetwisted. She grabbed a stick of kindling from the box beside the stove and smacked mewith it. It stung but what stung even more was my mother’s betrayal. She had been proudof my independence, my freedom.Besides, she was being unfair and we both knew it. I worked hard; it was just thatwhatever I did was outside with my father. I loved farm work. I hated housework.“I’m going with the O’Neil’s,” I said. “I hate this house. I hate being inside.”We faced each other. “Do what you’re told,” she said. She was yelling now,screeching, about the work and how tired she was. My mother was almost always warmand kind and understanding. She was the person I came to for defense against my father;she always understood and backed me up.Snuffling and furious, not from the beating, but from her inexplicable betrayal, Ihelped set the table and mash the potatoes, turned everything into bowls and called myfather for dinner from the basement where he usually had several things that needed somekind of fixing.I sat through dinner with my head down. I ate my food because if I hadn’t myfather would have made me sit there all evening until it was gone, then excused myselfand slid out the back door, through the pasture gate and into the field to one of myfavourite hiding places, the hollow behind the juniper trees next to the orchard fence. I satthere through the gathering dark, planning how to run away and determined to stay out allnight. But when the dark was fully descended, thoughts of bears and cougars intruded and86I snuck back to the house, in through the back door and up to my room.My mother was never really strong or really well. She was made for an easierlife–and yet she had four children and a farm. My father was impatient with illness orweakness, and in fact, simply got frantic whenever my mother, or any of us, got sick. Asick cow he could shoot, a broken tractor he could fix, but a sick person had to be goadedand ranted at so we would get back to work.“Work it off,” he would bellow at his sick children. “Get outside and work up asweat. That’ll cure you.”When my oldest brother developed hayfever and came in from the barn coughingand wheezing, our father told us all how he had been allergic to pollen and dust but hadcured himself by working on a haying crew where most of the hay consisted of ragweed.A day spent coughing and sneezing in a haze of yellow ragweed pollen had cured him.The same treatment never worked for my brother but my father never excused him fromhaying work.I came home once from rounding up cows on horseback with the O’Neil kids withmy scalp torn open from a low-hanging branch. My mother demanded we drive thetwenty miles to the hospital. My father was furious at the idea of wasting gas and timeover something so trivial. But my mother won, for once, and a doctor used nine stitchesto close the cut.But my mother couldn’t always work it off. She developed rheumatic fever soonafter we moved to the farm but went on working, against the advice of her doctor,dragging herself through the days. It affected her heart and she took medication for it the87rest of her life. But I didn’t know this. I didn’t know about her weakness, her exhaustion,or her swollen and painful hands. I only wanted to be outside, in the blue twilight,running alongside the O’Neil’s.After the O’Neil’s left, the woods were lonely. I trudged up the trails on footwhere we had ridden together. I dreamed about riding, I woke in the morning, frustrated,from dreams of riding horses, so vivid I couldn’t believe they hadn’t been, in some way,real. So I began dreaming awake. I rode imaginary horses over the pasture and throughthe orchard to the beach, talking out loud to them. In old machine shop at the back of ourhouse, I lined up a series of sticks with twine tied around them. I printed out their names,the most beautiful names I could think of, and stuck them on the wall with tacks: PrincessBeauty, Steeldust, Coaly-black. I had a horse of every colour. In a schoolbook, I made upelaborate family connections for them. By this time I was reading every horse book Icould get my hands on, so I had some idea how horses were named, that they hadmothers and fathers and histories. I lay awake, dreaming of their names and their colours.They were so real to me that sometimes, when I ran to the machine shop in the morning, Istopped, surprised by the row of sticks tied to the wall by bits of twine. It required a trickof the imagination to get myself back into the world where these sticks were transformedback into proud horses, and myself into the princess/warrior riding them into variousvague battles.My parents didn’t have the time or money to pay a lot of attention to theirchildren’s obsessions. But I was so obsessed by the idea of getting my own horse, theyactually got worried. My father complained that horses were useless and ate too much. I88didn’t listen. I didn’t care what he said. I ate and slept and dreamed horses and over andover again, I begged for a horse of my own.So, they bought me a horse for my ninth birthday. My father took me to see herbefore he bought her. He asked me what I thought. I had no idea what I thought. I onlyknew she was a horse, a brown horse, a horse that if I said yes, would be my horse. So Isaid yes.What he bought, for the enormous sum of $150, was a barely broken untrained,muddy-brown three-year old mare. When my father hauled her home in the back of theDodge pickup, and turned her loose in the pasture, she headed for the farthest corner andrefused to have anything to do with any of us.What we didn’t know, and found out much later, is that she had been “broken” asthe term went, when someone had stuck a halter on her head, beaten her half senseless,stuck a bridle and bit on her, ridden her around a bit, and pronounced her ready to sell.I followed her around for weeks, with bits of apple and oats pilfered from thecows and chickens. I asked my father for advice and he grunted that she was my horseand if I didn’t want her, she could go back where she came from. After a while, she letme scratch her neck and shoulders and one day when she was lying in the sun, I lay downwith my head on her round warm belly and we dozed together.Even horses get lonely. One day, Lady (which was the name she had come with)came to me when I crossed the pasture. She put her head in my arms and sighed the deepsigh horses make when they relax. I went back to the barn and lifted the heavy old leather halter off the nail in thecorner above the manger. I went back out. Lady was still standing where I had left her. I89lifted the halter up and she stuck her nose in it. I did up the heavy metal buckle.Then I tied a rope to the ring at the bottom and led her through the gate. I tied her to atree and went and got a brush. I spent much of the rest of the afternoon brushing her andfeeding her apples while she stood with her head down, half asleep. Finally I got theancient bridle that had come with her and stuck the cold bit in her mouth and wrestled theearpiece over her ears. Then I slid on her back and rode around the house, down the lane,through the orchard, and back up to the house. Before I turned her loose, I rubbed my hairall over her hair so I could sleep all night smelling that wonderful salty sweaty horsesmell.That night at dinner, I announced that I had taken Lady for a ride. No one seemedto think this was remarkable. What to me had been a miracle was passed over betweenthe potatoes and the creamed corn. That night I took my horse-stinky hair to bed and layall night in a stupour of happiness, dreaming of the places that Lady and I would go. Andwe did go, up and down the mountain, over the trails that the O’Neil girls had shown me.My father had given me a twenty-two rifle. He handed it to me one day, showed me howto load it, showed me where the shells were kept, and said, “ Learn to shoot it.”I had an Annie Oakley cowboy hat and a red vest. In the summer, I gallopedthrough the cluster of cabins full of gaping town kids. I rode up and down the highway,proud and tall, on my horse. I had a horse and a gun, just like Annie.But Lady soon showed a genius for getting herself, and me, into trouble. Shebegan to figure out how to untie gates ropes, latches, and barn doors. She got into thefeed bin and ate herself sick; she tore down a whole line full of white sheets that my90mother had hung on the line and trampled them into the mud.When I woke in the morning, Lady would be tied to a tree in the yard. So I knewshe had done something. It was always bad. It always cost something. One night sheruined a whole wagon-load of apples by leisurely chewing small bites of out of a fewapples in each box. One night, the Greyhound bus driver knocked on our door. At the lastmoment, he had seen a black shadow on the road and screeched to a halt. Lady wasstretched out on the warm pavement, sound asleep.I began to tie her in the barn with the door closed. To get out, she had to untie arope that I had knotted and double knotted, undo the latch on the barn door and then undothe gate. Somehow she managed it. Finally, my father looped a heavy chain over thebarnyard gate and wired it shut. This seemed to work.My father thought that everything on the farm should have a job, should be put towork. Lady had no job, no use that he could see, except to starve the cows by eating alltheir grass; finally he hit on the idea that we might be useful driving the cows on theirannual spring trip across the river, where they were left for the summer to graze. Webrought them back again every year just before Christmas.To get the cows to the river, we drove them five miles south along the highway tothe railway bridge. My father went ahead in the truck and my brothers and I ran behind.The cows hated this trip and broke away at every opportunity, into the neighbour’s yards,up old logging roads onto the mountains. They stopped traffic and stood stupidly in themiddle of the road staring at the cars, while equally stupid furious drivers honked andwaved their arms.We ran and ran, while our father banged on the door of the truck and yelled91instructions. Occasionally, when there was nowhere for the cows to go, we caught a briefbreath on the running boards of the truck. When we got to the river, we banged on therumps of the cows with sticks and rocks until reluctantly, they crawled into the river andswam across. Then we could pile in the warm cab of the truck and go home.Every year, we brought them back again just before Christmas. But first we had tofind them. They were scattered through the brush and marsh and willow thickets at thesouth end of the lake.We walked across the railway trestle, stepping over the black, creosoted ties,looking down at the black-green water below. The wind always blew through the trestlegirders, viciously trying to snatch us off and throw us into the water. Then it was a three-mile march out to the other end of the dike, to Kootenay Landing, where oncesternwheeler boats had tied up and received passengers before the railway track was built.The cows were always hiding somewhere, reluctant to get moving, wary of peopleafter seven or eight months on their own. We had to run through the swamp, throughmurky black water and mud, leaping from clump to clump of tall peppermint-smellingswamp grass, while the cows sloshed ahead of us.After we got them across the river again, we ran behind them, all the way home. Ionce figured out that we had run, almost with pausing, for over eight miles.My father thought Lady should be able to help with this, but Lady had figured outpretty quickly that she didn’t have to do much of anything she didn’t want to do. Onething she didn’t want to do was be ordered around by me. Slopping around the farm wasone thing. That was okay. She let me ride her; she stumbled and dragged her feet andslouched along and stopped whenever she saw something that might be good to eat. I92tried riding her with a stick, the way the O’Neil’s had taught me, but that made her shakeand sweat and shy at everything so I fell off as much as I rode her. But running along thehighway after a bunch of cows wasn’t her idea of fun. She shied at every car and becauseI didn’t have a saddle, I usually fell off. We weren’t much good as cowboys.My father began turning Lady loose to run with the cows. I had to go and get hermyself. After that, when winter came, I went and found her and rode her home alonethrough the snow, clinging to her back over five miles of snowy road, keeping my handsfrom freezing by letting go the reins and putting my hands up under the heavy hair of hermane on her warm neck.The dream and my determination wore out. I rode her less and less. There weren’tmany places to go really and there were more and more cars on the road that had nowbeen paved. And my father now used her as a kind of generic threat. Whenever hethought I had done something wrong, he threatened to sell her. He went on and on abouther being an expense, a nuisance, a greedy useless waste of time and money.There was only one way out. One day I said, “Fine, sell her then.”He did. Some people came, a nice enough couple and then my father told me toride Lady to Wynndel, where the couple would meet me with a truck.Wynndel was twelve miles away. We had never gone on such a long ride. Werode there on a June morning and for once Lady behaved and didn’t shy. We rode pastthe wild roses and the swamp full of red and yellow-winged blackbirds, past Sirdar whereI went to school, up the long hill and eventually to Wynndel. I slid off Lady’s sweatybrown-dappled back and handed the reins to the couple. I didn’t look at her. I didn’t saygoodbye. I slumped into the seat of my father’s truck and we rode home in silence. I93never went out to the pasture if I could avoid it and I tried to stop dreaming at night aboutriding wild horses and escaping. But I never could. Night after night, I woke fromdreams, in which I had almost gotten on a horse, almost gone riding, and then I woke up,bereft and lonely, in my white room with the rug made from my grandfather’s favouritesorrel mare on the floor.Chapter Six:For three seasons at the farm, school, chores, and weekends bound our lives. Butsummers were different; in summer, we belonged entirely to the farm and in fact, rarelyleft it. Time in summer wove in and out of contradiction; to our father, it was a desperaterace to get all the work done. To us, summers were full of frantic work but they were alsofull of timeless hours at the beach, especially the long evenings on the rocky point wherewe headed each evening as soon as supper was done.My father had organized the farm into an amazing place of subsistence whereeverything worked together. None of it made much money but it fed us and our animalsand bits of money trickled in from here and there. A subsistence farm is an amazingclosed system that works extremely well if there enough people around to do the work.Most of our food came from the farm: meat, milk butter, cheese, vegetables, and fruit.About the only thing we didn’t grow was wheat for flour, although for a while, my fatherbought wheat in bulk and ground it. What we never had was enough money. My fatherusually worked out at some part-time job, such as hauling lumber for the sawmill, and insummer, money came from selling cherries and raspberries to tourists from our fruit stand94beside the road.We had a small herd of cows, a milk cow, and usually a couple of pigs, as well aschickens and sometimes geese and ducks. Our Jersey cow, Tiny, gave astonishingamounts of milk and cream. No matter how inventive our mother was, it was hard to getrid of three gallons of milk and two gallons of cream a day and most if it went to the pigs.We started eating out of the garden in June, when the strawberries and rhubarb and earlyspinach and peas were ready. Then we went on stuffing ourselves through the summerand into the fall; an endless abundance that we took for granted. We had a half acres ofgarden where we grew peas, carrots, corn, potatoes, and squash, plus strawberries,raspberries, apples, plums pears, peaches, grapes, gooseberries, currants. My mother alsomade beer and wine.One of our biggest chores was putting up hay to feed the cows through the winter.My father cut the hay with a cutter-bar mower he had adapted to pull with the tractorinstead of with horses; all of the machinery on our farm was ancient and my father kept itrunning with a combination of ingenuity and adaptation. There was never money for partsso he made do or traded and scrounged for second-hand bits of machinery that could beadapted to fit. We had a Gibson tractor that was steered with a handle, a Farmall tractorthat was a combination of several other Farmall tractors, and a Rumbley tractor that wehardly ever used. It had enormous steel cogs on its steel wheels; it could pull anything butit was huge and hard to start.After the hay was cut, it dried in the sun for a day or so and then it had to bewindrowed with a rake pulled behind the Farmall and then coiled into piles by hand. Thisall took a week or so and during this time, we all watched the sky. Rain would ruin the95hay and turn it into moldy compost fit only for dumping. When the hay was finally dry,we hoisted it into the hay wagon with pitchforks, drove it into the hay barn, and thenlifted it out of the hay wagon with pitchforks into the barn where it had to be stackedagain, and stomped down to fit under the roof. To build a proper pile of hay on the wagonrequired technique and care; I learned to stab the pitchfork straight down into the coil ofhay, hoist it over my back straight into the air and bring it down flat onto the growing pileof hay on the wagon. When the stack was towering into the air and too high for us toreach anymore, we threw the last few forkfuls into the middle to tie it together. Bill and Iclimbed up and rode on the towering jiggling pile of hay while Phil ran ahead to open thegates. Once we got to the hay barn, my father heaved the hay up into the barn, forkful byforkful, while my brothers and I stabbed it with our pitchforks and tried to place it evenlyinto the corners of the barn. The first cut of hay in early July usually coincided with theworst of the mosquito season so we did all this in the middle of clouds of mosquitoes. Wealso did it in our bare feet. One day I was running behind the hay wagon on my way outto the orchard; I was behind because I had stopped to sneak a drink of lemonade in thehouse. I grabbed my pitchfork and started to run and then stopped. I stared down at myfoot in astonishment. Somehow I had managed to stab the pitchfork right through my footinto the ground. All I could think of was how angry my father would be. I yanked it outand limped as fast as I could go back out to the field.The hay was cut twice each summer. We also cut hay in marshy meadows to thenorth of the farm at Twin Bays and in another meadow to the south of the farm.Our other job was picking the cherries and raspberries. We had about thirty cherrytrees that we picked from twelve-foot ladders or by climbing to the very top of the trees,96balancing on slender brittle limbs, and stretching our hands to strip off every cherry. Ifwe left any, our father made us climb back up and get them. We dumped the cherriesfrom our buckets into wooden apple boxes, hauled them on the cart behind the tractorinto the fruit stand, where whoever had been detailed for fruit stand duty weighed themout in five and ten and twenty pound bags and cardboard cartons.Then there were the raspberries, seven long rows of them, which had to be pickedevery day or the raspberries would get overripe and fall on the ground. We got up at fiveto pick enough cherries to sell for the day, and then after breakfast we started in on theraspberries that we tried to finish by noon so we could go swimming. Every afternoonwas a fierce and bitter negotiation over who got to go swimming and who had to stay andsell fruit to the tourists. We hated the tourists; there was no limit to the stupidity of theirquestions. They would ask things like, “Is this your farm? Are these your cherries? Canwe pick a few ourselves?” Or they would quibble over paying ten cents a pound anddemand to get a deal for buying a few more pounds.By the time I was ten, I was as strong as my older brother; I gloried in my ownstrength, in my ability to lift more hay, to climb higher, work faster, to pick more cherriesthan anyone else. It was the only arena I had in which to excel, and I competed fiercely tobe as good as I could be.My father’s hands were huge, the skin thick as leather mitts. His hands werealways littered with nicks and cuts, the lines embedded with grease and dirt. No matterhow much he washed, they always had those black lines; they reeked of grease andmotors.97 I followed him everywhere. I had to stretch my legs to awkward lengths to matchhis strides. When he walked in the soft dirt of the newly plowed garden, I stretched hardto put my feet exactly in his footsteps, I stuck my hands in my pockets, grunted whensomeone asked me a question."You're just like your father," my mother would snap when she was really angrywith me. It was true; I was my father's henchman, and his enemies were my enemies. Ibelieved in his raging endless despair about work and money, I followed behind him,snarling at my brothers and sister who wouldn't, or couldn’t, work as hard, as fast, aswell, as I could.Once we were walking out to the hayfield in the spring. Wind came beating in offthe lake. We were supposed to spend the morning picking up rocks, shards of granitefrom the outcrop that my father had blown up with dynamite. He liked to blow things up.I did too. I loved to help him. It's a miracle he never blew any of us up. He used to handus sticks of dynamite, the paper damp from age and leaking nitroglycerine."Don't shake your fingers," he said. We put the dynamite down the holes he'ddrilled with his ancient compressor, covered them with dirt and rocks and tamped thewhole thing down with crowbars. He fixed the blasting caps, ran out the fuse, said, "Getdown. Open your mouths."That was to protect our ears. We all got headaches from the blast fumes and ourcrazy dog Willy ran in and began pawing at the blast holes even before all the rocks hadstopped raining down from the sky. Maybe he figured the world's biggest gopher wasdown there somewhere.On the way out to the hayfield, my father began cursing my little brother who was98lagging behind. I was eight, so my brother would have been five. My father was ranting,about how we all had to work, when there was work to be done, you goddamn well did it,that it was work or starve, and by God, we were going to work.I saw it. I got it clear. It was one of those moments when life suddenly madesense. We were all in this together. We had this thing to do, called survival. I felt a clearand religious hatred. I hated my brother, who didn't get it and was whining behind,scuffling his feet in the dirt and doing everything to get out of working.Very occasionally, our father stopped cursing the weather, the fruit trees, thecontrary cows breaking through fences and getting out on the road. Sometimes heplayed, went fishing, or took us all hiking up a remote creek across the lake to look forthe rare and tender brook trout in the high rushing pools of Next Creek. In the summers,we'd go on picnics and winters we went skating on the marshy spaces of Rat Sloughwhere he chased us with bulrushes breaking open in a foam of seeds.One wintry day, frozen sleet coated the hayfield and he took us out there in theold Dodge pickup and spun it in circles until we were dizzy with screaming.I always felt safe with him, even reaching under the shrieking buzz saw to pullaway lengths of wood or the time he knocked a tree over the power line. When the wireslay snaked and sparking in the grass he said, "Don't touch those," so my brother and Ijumped over them instead.And although I never told anyone, I knew it was my fault the tree had taken outthe power lines. He'd told us to push on it as he cut through with the power saw becauseit was leaning and the wind was blowing, but when I felt the tree lean its awful weight99towards me I weakened and let go. It bent over to squash me but I was too fast and ranout and away.The farm belonged entirely to my father. He extended his fury at us, his lazychildren, to his disobedient and wayward land. The rain rotted the cherries, lodged thehay so it couldn't be cut; weeds over ran the pasture grass and the garden. One year, thechickens got coccidiosis and died, all six hundred of them, and every day for a solid yearwe ate chicken, which my mother did her best to disguise as something else but nevercould.I was terrified of my father and I worshipped him as well. He made the smallkingdom that was the farm run; there was nothing he couldn’t do, nothing he couldn’t fix,nothing that, cursing and wearing, he couldn’t manage, somehow, to deal with. Wheneverhe left, to go to work or to town, the farm felt different, as though a huge pressure hadbeen relieved, for just a while. But we also knew that no matter how hard we had workedor what we had done, when he came home he would find something wrong, something tocomplain about.But a war I didn’t understand and couldn’t win began between my father and mewhen I turned into a girl. Turning into a girl was a confusing process. For one thing, Iloathed the whole idea of being a girl. Real girls had no fun; they stayed in the house anddid housework. The few ordinary girls I knew from school were mostly silly. Theyweren't like me. They didn't know anything about the things I loved, farming, the woods,and horses. They weren’t tough. They cried instead of fighting.100I wanted to be a farmer and how could I be that if I was a girl?But as I grew older, became more visibly female, more and more often, my fathersent me in the house to help my mother. I was supposed to be cooking and cleaning,doing laundry with the wringer washer, washing the milk cans, making butter and jamand canning things and baking, the work my mother did with barely a pause in her swiftpace from morning to night.When I was inside, I was the one to whom my mother complained. “How am Isupposed to buy shoes for you kids?” she would worry out loud. Or, “How am I supposedto get you Christmas presents?”When my mother got a worry, she would chew on it, and then spit it at my fatheruntil both she and my father were exhausted. Most of the things she wanted, my fatherthought were silly, and a waste of money. I would go back and forth between them,trying to make peace. They sent me to each other with messages. Foolishly, I repeatedthese messages, trying to explain to each what the other one really meant. I always failed.My father would respond, “You damn women, you all think alike.”And my mother said, “Oh, you’re just like your father. You’re always on hisside.”I used to wonder which of them I could do without. I lay awake at night, upstairsin our creaking house and imagined soldiers coming, giving me the choice. Whicheverone stayed, the other would die a peculiar horrible death. I lay awake, imagining onechoice or another night after night. But I never did decide.But now, as I spent more time with her, I was forced to begin to understand mymother. For the first time, as my mother and I talked, as we peeled fruit or mixed dough, I101began to see her side.I was the only ally she had. She didn't have women friends, didn't drive, rarelywent anywhere without my father except occasional long bus rides to Vancouver to visither own mother.My mother was always there, in the house, in the kitchen. Every morning, workstopped at 11 and everyone came in the house for tea or hot chocolate in the winter, orlemonade and cookies in the summer. And then at four, the work stopped again, and therewas my mother, with fresh baking or a bowl of popcorn. She boiled the kettle, made tea,while we ate and drank and then ran out again while she got started on supper. She wasjust there, at the centre, and if the life of the farm had a soul, she was that soul, endlesslygenerating food, meals, and comfort. And when we came in complaining about ourfather, or about each other, she took the side of whoever was doing the complaining, sothat each one of us, smugly, jealously, assumed that our mother loved us the best.I began to realize how much my mother wanted, not so much a different life, asmore, so much more, of things she simply couldn’t have: clothes and furniture and othersmall things for the house, for her kids. She wanted fun and joy and music and laughter. Ipromised my mother when I grew up and became a rich and famous writer, I would takeher to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It was the best thing I could think of.Though we now sometimes sang together through the work, the work neverstopped. She baked every day, at first on the wood stove, and then on the electric stovethat my father reluctantly bought, sometimes twice a day, cakes and bread and cookies.102She made three full meals a day, porridge, eggs, toast and ham or bacon every morning,and lunch for my father.Every day, my brothers and sister and I climbed down off the school bus to ahouse redolent with gingerbread or oatmeal cookies, with popcorn and hot chocolate.Then we scattered to do our chores while she made dinner. When all the pots and panswere on the stove, simmering and bubbling, she would sit in the old green rocking chair,under the lamp in the living room, put on her glasses and read something, usually theReader’s Digest, for fifteen or twenty minutes, until it was time to hoist herself up againand dish up the food.The summer I turned twelve, Dad got a job in Nelson, which meant he would begone for the whole summer. All the work would fall on our shoulders. Somehow, we didit; one night Phil and I worked until midnight getting in hay because we thought a stormwas coming. The next day, we were out raking the orchard hayfield to get in the last bitsof hay; I was driving the Farmall tractor but I was half asleep. I saw that the tractor washeading for a tree but somehow I couldn’t turn the wheel fast enough to stop it. I hit thetree and the front axle broke. This was a disaster and my father had to hurry home andspend the whole weekend, cursing and frantic, to get it fixed.The next summer, it was my mother’s turn to be away. This meant that I had to dothe farm work as well as the cooking and dishes. She was only gone a week but this wasthe week that my father decided to build a haystack in the Twin Bays field. All throughthe hot and shiny day the two of us threw hay onto the wagon, hauled it to the side of the103field and built a mound of hay. The idea was that it should be square. I caught eachbundle of hay my father threw up to me and tried to place it to grow a square stack. Istumbled and floundered through the growing pile of hay; the next day and the day afterthat we did it again until all the hay was piled in some kind of conical stack. My fathercovered it with a tarp and we left it. Just before we left he stood back, studied the pile.“Looks like a damn corkscrew,” he said. But I didn’t care. I knew that I had keptup with him through three days of insanely hard work; I was almost as strong as he was, Ithought. I could do almost anything he could.But that fall, I began to panic. Although we started at Sirdar school as usual,within a month the school was closed and we were all moved into a larger school inWynndel. Mrs. Hare was sick, we were told. And the year after that I would have to go tohigh school in Creston.It finally dawned on me that I was going to grow up and become an adult like theones I saw around me. And that meant by then I'd have to understand the world awayfrom the farm well enough to function in it. It seemed an impossible task.By now I had knobbly sore breasts growing on the front of me that I hated andtried to cover with bulky shirts. I’d begun to menstruate which I also hated. I had to wearpads that I kept in a drawer in my dresser. Everything about being a girl seemed stifling,or messy or embarrassing.I didn't know who to ask for advice. I couldn't ask my mother because she was theone who always asked me what she should do. Or, on the rare occasions when I did askher what to do, she'd tell me some story about her life that had nothing at all to do withmy life. When I was finally old enough to start resenting this, I decided she had got stuck104somewhere in her own past, like a needle stuck on a record. Her stories were all aboutwhen she was a girl, that long ago and unimaginable time my siblings and I called "theolden days."Of course the olden days weren't real. They were stories our mother told ussometimes after dinner to make us laugh, stories she had honed to a high art which left usshaking and helpless with laughter, stories which that couldn't possibly be true – how sheand her best friend Louise stole a bunch of Indian horses one night and headed for theborder and nearly made it, or how my mother's brother wouldn't go to the outhouse atnight so he started peeing down the knothole in the back of his closet, and his mothercouldn't figure out where the stain was coming from that spread in a great yellow blotchacross the living room ceiling. She told us these stories over and over and we never gottired of them, because she continually invented new details which that made them evenfunnier, and more ludicrous and impossible than they had been the last time we heardthem.So, the summer I turned thirteen, I should have known better than to listen whenmy mother began telling me stories about the wonderful times she used to have with herfriends and saying how much I needed a friend. The next thing I knew, she had invitedsomeone named Janet to come and stay for the summer. I sort of knew Janet. Her parentshad a summer cabin next to our farm, and I saw her when we all went swimmingtogether. A couple of times she had invited me back to her parent’s cabin, which waslined with flattened beer cartons. Her father worked at the brewery in town and enjoyed aspecial status among the men because of his endless supply of beer.105Janet was as foreign to me as a Martian. She was from town, for one thing. Townwas only twenty miles away, but I only went there four or five times a year. When I did, Igawked like a tourist at some foreign land. Most of the time, my father drove to town byhimself, bought what he thought we needed and came home again.Town was a place of exotica. Town was a place where once or twice a year they'dshow a Walt Disney movie and my mother would decide that we should go. She and mydad would fight about it for days before my two brothers, my little sister and I werefinally bathed, dressed in our best clothes, and loaded, four kids and two adults into thefront seat of the Dodge pickup, for the long ride to town. When we got there, we ranahead of them all the way to the movie theatre, which smelled of popcorn andexcitement. Then of course, they argued about whether we could have any treats, anargument which my mother eventually won, and finally, hands dripping with ice creamand popcorn, we got to go into inside the theatre. The movie was always an anticlimaxafter that.My mother's idea was that not only would Janet and I have "fun" together, wecould also get even more work done. She would pay us all some money this summer, shetold us, for our usual summer chore of picking raspberries and cherries and selling themto roadside tourists. But this didn't work out so well because Janet, who was fifteen,wasn't remotely interested in working. She had only two interests, boys and smoking,about which I knew nothing. The boys came first but the smoking was important. It wasan integral part of her preoccupation with her clothes, her blonde hair, and who she wasgoing to marry.One afternoon she insisted we cut pictures of our future homes out of old106magazines and paste them in a scrapbook. I probably pasted two pictures before I lostinterest and began reading my father's old True Magazines. These were full of stories ofhunting and fishing, about which I actually knew something. But Janet filled up thewhole scrapbook.The problem was, there weren't any boys. There was my older brother, who wastoo shy and out of it to count, and there was the occasional boy from the summer cabinsnext to our place. Maybe Janet had envisioned hordes of teenagers driving out from townto visit us. But she did what she could to liven things up. Occasionally, when she did findboys, we walked along the highway and smoked. Or we hid at the end of the raspberryrows and smoked. Or we all met in a cave near the beach and smoked.Janet had this idea that we should fix up the cave as a cozy little place withcushions and a fireplace and God knows what else, so that we could meet more boys andsmoke more cigarettes. I was half sick and dizzy all the time from the cigarettes. I agreedto everything.By now she had actually found a boy, a totally forgettable monosyllabic maleperson who had some dim connection with my brother. But she had visions of a romanticmeeting spot and though it looked like a damp miserable cave to me, I went on noddingand smiling.In fact, I did whatever Janet did. In no time at all, I was her idiot twin, droolingand tittering in the background. I stretched my lips and giggled. Whoever I had beenseemed to have disappeared, without a struggle. Actually, that person was still there, faraway, hating Janet and waiting desperately for her to leave. Which I knew she would,eventually. But in the meantime, the only thing that mattered was that Janet must have no107idea of what an ignorant, untowny, nauseated-by-smoking person I really was.This beach was a place where I had spent most of my time for many years, but thebeach as I had known it vanished the second Janet set foot on it. None of the things Iknew were of any use any more–how to build a fire from dry grass and wood shavings, orhow my brothers and I used to race over the rocks and the long, thin tangles of driftwoodlogs laid between them. Or how I had once swum all the way to Red Man's Point acrossthe bay, and jumped off a rock twenty feet above the water–none of this counted ormattered. My world had fallen away. While she was there, I had to live in this new worldthat Janet had brought with her..Janet went away at the end of the summer and never spoke to me again. The nextyear I started at the high school in town where she completely ignored me. There I wenton pretending I knew what was going on and trying to behave like the other kids. It wasthe only way to survive. The trick, I soon decided, was to get better at it but that wasmuch easier thought about than done.My mother said, "Oh, you'll have so much fun, there will be so many new kids foryou to get to know."My mother had never gone to high school. She imagined it as an idyllic placewhere we would all be girlfriends together, giggling and talking about clothes. Sheimagined and hoped that her lonely daughter would now be surrounded by friends, wouldfinally be a girl among girls. What she and I didn't know is that the principal from the elementary school in108town had been using me as a threat for years, telling the kids there that I was smarter thanthem. It was true; I got my picture in the paper every year for topping the localachievement exams. But my mother always said, “Oh, Mrs. Hare coaches you for thoseexams.” Since neither my parents nor Mrs. Hare had ever made a fuss over this, to me itdidn't seem important.Our high school was carefully ranked along hierarchies of intelligence and class. Iwas in 8-A, a class full of girls who were the daughters of the town, the dentist'sdaughter, the newspaper publisher's daughter, the daughter of the owner of the localsawmill. They had known each other all their lives. They knew how to dress and what tosay and what was permissible. They knew the rules. They knew that they were the smartand fashionable girls and that they deserved this. I knew nothing.I was too tall. I stooped over in a futile effort to look shorter. I was taller thananyone else, especially the boys. I didn't know anything about those girly essentials, hair,makeup, and clothes. I had just gotten new glasses. I wore hand me down clothes frommy mother. I wore the wrong shoes. Everything about me was wrong.There is no worse experience on earth than being alone at noon hour in highschool where everyone else is in a clump, a gaggle, where looks and giggles follow youdown the hall, and where loneliness is a yellow poisonous fog, a panic in which you areforced to dwell.At first I hid in the library where I could pretend to be studying and where no oneelse ever went voluntarily. There were a lot of books in the library, more than I'd everseen before. I began to pull them down off the shelves almost at random, take them back109to a table, and read. Then I began to take them out. I read books that no one had evertaken out of the library.I read travel books and books by strange philosophers and novels and stories. Ididn’t pay much attention to the writers. As far as I knew, writers were people who hadonce lived far away, usually in England and were now long dead.As I cowered in the library, I made another discovery. There was a whole shelf ofpoetry books that some well-intentioned librarian had bought years before. I began tolook at them and then I began to read. Then I took several of them home.From then on, in all my classes, I sat at the back of the room with a book on mylap. My teachers, either out of charity or incompetence rarely bothered me. Algebra madesuch little sense to me I might as well have been looking at Egyptian hieroglyphics.Instead, I was reading Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg. In Mathand Science, I was deaf to the teacher, thrilling instead with the discovery that wordscould make such amazing music. Poetry ran into my veins like wine. It resounded in myhead like drums and bugles. I went around with “Fern Hill” banging in my head forweeks, thinking I was crazy, thinking I was the only one who had ever felt this way. The librarian at the front of the room behind the desk never looked at me. Theonly other kids in the library were boys serving detentions. They blew spitballs and wrotenotes to each other.But even discovering poetry and travel books about places I'd always wonderedabout didn't make up for the tramp of feet and shrieks of girlish laughter in the hallwaysthat I could hear from beyond the library, where usually, at lunch hour, there was just me110and the librarian. Even going to pee was an ordeal since because all the other girls wentto the bathroom in clumps. Once inside the bathroom, they backcombed each other's hair,used up endless cans of hairspray, and rolled the waistbands of their skirts so that thehems were just below their crotches.It was the miniskirt, puffed hair, blackened raccoon-eyes era. Every night I sleptuneasily on huge spiked rollers trying to get my hair to puff, and every morning, by thetime the groaning orange bus had lumbered through town to the doors of the school, myhair had fallen again into limp dullness. I hiked up my skirt and braved the washroom,and then went to the library.Every day on the long way home on the school bus, from the high school in town,the big boys in the back yelled and farted and threw left over lunches and hit each other.Johnny Fajnor, our driver, kept his head down, his eyes on the road, no matter thecraziness going on behind him. For the last five miles, the bus was mercifully emptyexcept for my brothers and sister and me. We never talked to each other on the bus or atschool. The hierarchy of seating on the bus was rigid and we never challenged it. Thefront was for little kids, the middle for older girls and the back for the big boys. Cominghome, we sat as usual, my sister up front, myself in the middle, my brothers at the back.When we stopped–our house was the last stop–I went in the house, drank several cups ofscalding tea and then I changed my clothes, and went outside, first to the lake, and thenup into the trees on the mountain above the house.The journey into the trees was a miraculous passage. At the borderline, betweenthe trees and the pasture, I hesitated, waited, and then tentatively stepped into the silence.111The farther I went into the blanket of trees, the more invisible I became.Inside was the opposite of school, empty of noise or movement except for thesquirrels announcing, call upon call echoing, announcing that I was there, a stranger inthe woods. Sometimes the ravens followed me, silent except for the faint hiss of theirwings, from treetop to treetop. Some days, I found a place that seemed to be a roominside this castle of endless rooms. There, I sat on the ground like some miraculousfungus and tried not to think. I wasn't doing anything as fancy as meditating which I hadnever heard of. Sometimes I asked myself what I was doing there but I had no answer. Iwas doing what I had to, being nothing. Doing nothing, being nothing, barely breathing.Entering in the forest was entering in another world – a door closed behind meand an infinity of doors opened. The forest was all possibility – room after room ofmystery and discovery, but what I wanted most was to be hidden and alone, coming intosome other dwelling, with other hidden residents all around me, leaving deer tracks, birdcalls, chewed cone remnants at the base of a huge yellow pine, scuff marks by a holeunder a stump.One day I got off the stinking yellow bus and drank my tea and then went throughSawdust Bay and up the hill, over the rocks, down through the mossy ravine, to the placewhere seepage gathered into a round pond in the forest. The water was black and thepoplar trees around it were bright gold. I sat on the ground. A muskrat made a thin line inthe water pointing at me. It came out of the water, patted itself dry with its hands, thenwalked toward me and crawled up on my shoe. It sat there on my shoe and lookedaround. It was round and brown with gold tints in its fir. It picked up a poplar leaf andstuffed it in its mouth bit by bit, chewing along the edges of the leaf until it was done. I112could feel the thin warmth, the weight of it through my muddy sneaker. I tried not tobreathe. Then very leisurely, it fussed at its fur and thoughtfully scratched an itch withone foot and waddled back into the water.Coming home another evening, I stopped beside a porcupine who very nicely letme stroke its quills. I found there was one sandy hump above the lake where the coyotedens was and if I went quietly enough, the coyotes would sit there and watch me go by.Sitting still, the only time markers were the wind breathing the trees, the littlehumming in my throat as I breathed.In winter, I watched the rose-purple light fade to the faintest hint of blue along theedge of the mountains. I would wait until there was just enough light to see my way homeand then I would get up, stiff from the cold and half see, half feel my way down themountain.Once I was in the yard, I would stand outside, watching through the yellow-lighted window at my distant near family, saying things I couldn’t hear, moving around.Oblivious of me. I would think of the deer and ravens and the squirrels in their darksafety, in their bitterly sweet cold world and finally, I would go inside. No one asked mewhere I went. I had no idea what my brother and sister did after school. I didn't want toknow. I didn't want to know they existed. I only wanted to spend enough time in thesilence; I needed to soak in enough to get me through the next day.The only other bright spot in my life was our Grade Eight homeroom teacher whowas young and new and energetic. She was also our English teacher. She was the first113person I had ever met who was interested in writing. She asked us to write stories and Idid, a long story that went on and on for pages. Once I got started writing, I couldn't seemto stop. When I brought it to school, my teacher asked me to read it. I read it out loudwhile the other kids stared at me, rolled their hair on their fingers, looked out thewindow. Or passed notes to each other.And then one day, my lovely young English teacher decided to start a drama club.The first meeting as held in a small room, fortunately, at noon, which meant I could go.All the other school activities seemed to happen after school, and since I had no way toget home other than the school bus, I couldn’t go.The teacher handed out scripts for a play and asked us to read. Finally, somethingI knew how to do. I found myself cast for a lead part, and club began meeting almostevery lunch hour to rehearse. The few other kids who also joined the Drama Club beganto talk to me. I no longer had to hide in the library at noon. I found a new home, even somenew friends, and some new poetry. She asked us all to try out for parts in the first aschool play, so I did.My talent for mimicry and pretending finally had an outlet. With huge relief, Idisappeared into the characters I played on stage as well into the role of the school dramaqueen. I still didn't have a clump of sisterly bodies to hide in but I had a role, and that wassomething.In Grade Nine we performed Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. I was so excitedby the idea of Shakespeare that I went home and memorized the entire play in less than aweek. I loved Shakespeare. My mother had bought me a complete sent of Shakespeare's114plays the Christmas I turned twelve and I had read my way through all of them, no matterthat I only understood a quarter of what I read.I turned myself into Katherine, the lead character. I became loud andquarrelsome. I fought with everyone at home. One night, I dyed my long hair bright redand that night, I didn't bother to sleep on huge lumpy uncomfortable curlers. The nextday, I went to school with bright, red, straight hair hanging down my back. All day, girlswith puffy bee-hived sprayed hair snuck up to me and said, “I love your hair,” but theysaid it with lowered voices, looking around to make sure no one else was listening."I love your hair," one girl who I had until then only admired from a distance saidwistfully but with some pride, "I wish I could wear my hair like yours but my boyfriendwould kill me."The play was a huge success. After the play was finished, I began secretly,carefully, writing poetry in my diary. I knew it wasn't very good poetry but I publishedsome in our high school newspaper. I went on reading, trying to figure out what I wasdoing wrong and why my poetry didn't sound like that of Dylan Thomas or CarlSandburg. One day our English teacher invited a local poet to talk to our class. He was agentleman farmer, from England who lived on a ranch a few miles from town and raisedcattle. I didn't really understand his poetry but to me he was a revelation. He was a writer,and he was alive and he lived in our community. We were invited to ask questions andmy hand shot into the air and stayed there. No one else seemed very interested.But I had learned something. There was poetry. There was the sound of drumsand bugles. There was the sound of words marching on their way to accomplish somegreat thing, to bring new truth and beauty into a plain grey world.115Poetry was many things to me, but it was most like music, a stark music, musicmade only with words and images, that sang over and over to me again while I skulked,miserable and hunched, down the corridors of the high school.By now, I was not only reading poetry. In Grade Nine, I discovered philosophy. Ihad already asked my mother for a copy of the Bible, which she bought me one year forChristmas. I read my way through it and decided, regretfully, that Christianity wasn’t forme. It didn’t make enough sense although it was interesting enough. And I was quitetaken with Jesus and much of what he said. But I also discovered Nietzsche, and Thoreau.I sat in Math class, which was as understandable to me as Arabic, and read Walden Pond.I caught my breath at its magic and stared out the window at the maple trees on the lawnof the school; here was someone, finally, who thought knew about some of the things Iknew. I decided on the spot that not only was I going to be a writer but also aphilosopher. I read now incessantly – I read on the bus all the way home so I alwaysarrived at the farm dizzy and sick. I read late into the night and over the breakfast table inthe morning. Sometimes, on the bus, I would lift my head out of my book and think ashard as I could about the universe. Someday, when I got time and I had read every book,I would figure it all out. It was hard to find philosophy books in the library. None of myteachers asked what I was reading. But the philosophy books I did manage to find filledme with such longing and excitement about a world I might someday belong to, thatoften I had to stop reading just to breathe and think.But what I really knew about the outside world was almost nothing. We didn’thave a television and my parents always diligently and dutifully listened to CBC news at116noon and during supper. So what I knew came from the radio and from books. Since mostof what I read was nineteenth Century English poetry, novels, and philosophy, my viewof life was somewhat skewed.One day our English teacher said, in the course of some discussion, that shewould never take that new drug, what was it called, LSD, because she was sure shewould see snakes. She had a phobia about snakes, she said. I had no idea what she wastalking about.On Saturday mornings, CBC radio played, for half an hour, something called rockand roll. My mother was scornful about rock and roll. She said it was nonsense; it wasn'treal music. Real music was classical music. She particularly hated Elvis Presley. But shelet me listen to this CBC program.One morning, John Drainie, the host, said he was going to make an exception tohis general rule to not play songs longer than three minutes. This was a song, he said, thathe thought was going to be important, that was going to change the music scene. Andthen he played all twelve minutes of Bob Dylan singing "Like a Rolling Stone." It's oddto listen to things that you know are important but you don't know why. It's like listeningto echoes of a distant explosion. I listened to the whole song and I knew there wasanother world that I had to find out about. I began to listen more closely to the news. Ibegan to think there was another world I could belong to besides the farm. I nagged mymother into buying me a guitar, let my hair keep growing, began to wear black andpractice folk songs in the privacy of my room. I took a little bit of summer fruit-pickingmoney and ordered a transistor radio from the Sears catalogue. And from then on, Iwould lie in bed at night and listen to bits and snatches of music, like messages from a far117away and unimaginably distant world.But high school went on being miserable. I began to win prizes – I entered essaycontests, public speaking contests. I won provincial awards for acting. But nothing I didmade my classmates like me. Standing out was not the idea. Everything I won only madethings worse.The annual local beauty pageant was coming up. I looked at the rules. They gaveeach contestant money for clothes. I didn’t hesitate and I didn’t think about it. I needednew clothes to go off to university next fall. I entered the contest. We had a coach, a localwoman who was supposed to show us how to dress, how to walk, how to turn. We weresupposed to wear flower patterned suits, all the same with hideous pillbox hats. My suitwas too small and the hat kept falling off. Every practice, every meeting, became anexercise in humiliation. Then I figured out that the contest was rigged; it wasn’t abouttalent or looks, it was actually about selling lottery tickets. The girl who sold the mosttickets, we were told, would win.The evening of the contest, the woman who was supposed to do my hair andmakeup ignored me. One of the other women took pity on me. I got through the contestand the next day, I sat on the float in the annual parade in my new pink long frilly dress,and waved and waved, sick with nausea at how embarrassing the whole thing was.118Chapter Seven:In the fall of 1967, I went off to Vancouver for the second time in my life, thistime to go to the University of British Columbia. The first time had been when I waseight and had gone, briefly, to stay with my grandmother. All I had been interested in onthat visit was getting a good supply of comic books. The city hadn’t made any impressionon me then. Now I looked at Vancouver and thought it was ugly – all straight lines andconcrete walls. But it was a place I knew I had to try and understand. I walked around UBC and went to my classes like a child who had found agolden castle in the sky and knew she could never belong. I hid in the library, where atleast the books were friendly.I was an odd and confused mixture of things. I knew I was smart, I could wincontests, I could write and I knew that what I wanted most in life was to be a writer, and Iknew that none of that really mattered. I wore my new clothes like a disguise, a mini-skirted polka dotted green suit with an emerald green raincoat. But even in disguise, Iknew I didn’t, couldn’t ever really, belong at UBC.And every time the bus went down Fourth Avenue, I stared out the window at thepeople living there, the people in beads and feather and bright clothes, who spoke alanguage I wanted desperately to understand. They seemed like bright angel people whohad fallen from the sky. They would never speak to someone as ordinary as me. But theywere free, I thought, the way I had once been free, in secret, in the woods.I had also acquired a boyfriend because that seemed to be a necessary part of119growing up and fitting in. Now he and I moved in together and soon after that I gotpregnant and then we got married. I went through the pregnancy and marriage, numb,terrified, and in despair. I finished my first year at the university and turned in my essays. I had dived intophilosophy like a starving person and now I sat, staring out the window of our smallapartment at the Vancouver rain and reading the existentialists. I read and read. I plowedmy way through Sartre and Camus and Simone DeBeauvoir and then I turned to AldousHuxley and Erich Fromm. Some days when I stopped reading, it was hard to think of anyreason to do anything.Pretending came so easily by now. After all, I had practiced all through highschool. Now I pretended as hard as I could be to be married and normal. And on mynineteenth birthday, I gave birth to twin daughters. Immediately after they were born, astarched looking nurse whisked them away to the nursery. I lay in the narrow whitehospital bed, with my stomach, that so recent ballooned with babies, now caved in. Icurled up on my side, under the bright fluorescent lights, on scratchy white sheets, mybrain a puddle of incoherence and finally, I fell asleep. I dreamed I was under a grey sky,on grey sand, beside a grey ocean. I was carrying my new twin daughters in my arms andI was desperately running away. I began to sink into the sand. I realized I had run intoquicksand. I held the babies up as high as I could and then, as the sand began to cover myface, I threw my children, hard, at the people who had been following me, from whom Ihad been so frantically running away, my mother, and my husband. I threw my childrento them and then I sank into the sand and died. I woke up almost immediately, gaspingfor air, panic-stricken.120At some point, when I was a teenager, I decided I would never have childrenbecause I was going to be a writer. It seemed obvious to me that having children wouldnot go with that ambition.Besides, I knew nothing about children. My mother, stuck in the house, wastrapped by work and poverty and caring for four children. I was determined not toreplicate her life. A couple of days after the birth, my husband and I brought our daughters homeand I put them in the cribs that he had prepared for them. I wrapped them up the way thenurses had showed me and then I stared at them. I was afraid of them. They weremysterious with their gasping gaping mouths, their random hands, blindly seeking, andtheir eyes that looked everywhere and nowhere, that looked right through my pretensionsand into my private heart“All right,” I said. “You can have me, all of me.” I meant it.And the next day I started back to university while a kindly neighbour womanbabysat.A few days later, my mother and my grandmother came to visit. They seemedsomewhat bewildered by my desire to keep going to school.“Your life is over now,” my grandmother said sternly. “You must live for yourchildren.”But instead I went on being a student, and a mother, and I hoped, eventually awriter. Most of the time, these roles seemed to me to be irreconcilable. Nor was it121possible to give either of them up. Persistence, however difficult, seemed the only option.But such persistence made my life tense, frustrated and fraught with tension. Despite myvow, I was an inattentive and exasperated mother.I practiced writing in the bits and pieces and cracks and fractures of my life; Ilearned to live there as well. I read there; books piled beside the bathtub and beside mybed. My husband slept beside me as I read. I took English and history and philosophy andI read and read– poetry and novels –Canadian poetry, Canadian novels. Leonard Cohenhas just started publishing and I fell in love with his work. I began, again, writing poetryin secret.In 1968, UBC was a colourful and amazing place. Protests against the Vietnamwar were an almost weekly occurrence. Jerry Rubin showed up to speak and the studentstook over the Faculty Club. Other students occupied the Dean’s office or overran theStudent Union building.Whenever I went for lunch in the basement of the Old Auditorium, I stared infascination and secret envy at the people in beads and feathers, in leather and Indiancotton. I tried smoking marijuana and that whole night, I lay awake beside my husband,watching optical miracles of colour and patterns dance across my inner sight.However, a couple of years into this experience of marriage and parenthood, Irealized that the situation with my husband was more than a bad friendship I couldsomehow slip away from.Finally I told this very nice and kindly man that I was leaving. I sat up in bed onenight and said, "I want a divorce." He had no idea why, and neither did I really. It was an122act of pure desperation – and even I couldn't believe those words were coming out of mymouth when I said them.He looked at me. He was a teacher, hard working and respectable. The establishedrealities in our marriage were that he was older and I was younger, he had a job and Istayed home, he was sensible and I was an idiot. I wanted to take back the words mostly because I couldn't figure out who hadsaid them. They just hung there, shimmering and vibrating like some kind of evil spell,like that green globe in the Sleeping Beauty movie, one of those long ago Disney movies.I'd been waiting in some kind of terror for years for that green glowing green globe toshow up, hypnotize me, lead me up the stairs to the witch who would finally, gently, putme to sleep.But now I wasn't going to sleep. I was waking up, into a place where I didn'tknow what to do next, although the situation clearly called for some action. All of asudden I was a single parent, going to school and taking care myself and my twodaughters.The kids and I got by on our own for a while but it was hard work. I was hungryand lonely. After a while, various people started to come came by to visit, and I smoked alot of drugs and had sex like everyone else because those two things were at least easilyavailable.One day I had a great revelation while sitting around being stoned and waiting forit to wear off so that I could figure out what to make for dinner. I was staring out thewindow of my house and I saw someone walk by dressed as a cowboy, complete withleather jacket, white hat, and toy guns. I got it finally. Everyone was dressed up and123pretending to be someone. That meant there wasn't any truth anywhere, not in humanbeings, anyway. I just had to pretend better.By now I was dressing in long skirts and had let my hair grow. I found anotherhusband, who confirmed all my suspicions about people. He was a consummate charmingliar, a person who had made up his life and thought that saw no reason why a made-uplife couldn't be quite satisfactory, and even more fun than a real one. Mostly, in order todo this, he stayed drunk. Booze made living a pretend life a lot of fun.But staying drunk made life ugly, mean and confusing as well. Booze could makea kind man cruel, could arm two people with words that cracked and shattered like glass.Booze had levels and layers to it. It kept whispering that there really was truthsomewhere, but that I would never find it. Booze made it confusing as well. Some days Ilost track of who I was pretending to be. I had decided to try playing the role of wife andmother for all it was worth. I cooked and cleaned. I had two more children, beautifulsons.A long while later, I was sitting in the dark in a small white house in a hot andugly city in the Southern United States. One of my small sons was only a year old and theother was two. After a loud and terrible fight with my drunken husband, I had slammedthe door behind him and all the glass had fallen out in pieces on the floor. We had nomoney. The fight had been about him getting fired for being drunk.But something was changing in me. My children ran and played while solitudewrapped its fragile wily tendrils around me. I sat wrapped in a blanket on the couch andwatched the pattern of leaf-shadows on the ceiling. I read more and more books and piled124them in bridges and walls around the couch. In the evening I sat on the porch alone whilethe children ran through the dusk. At night I sat in a rocking chair, nursing the baby anddreaming.The South was to me a place utterly foreign and peculiar, where people seemed tomostly go to church, drink a lot of Coke, and hate people of a different colour. In the longhot afternoons, I lay on the bed in the ramshackle white house where there were six of uswere living–, me, four children, and my unemployed husband–, I discovered that if I heldvery still with my eyes closed and remembered every detail, every smell, the colour andtexture of each rock, the feel of the sand, the blue silky water, the sough of wind, thedamp, fishy green damp smell under the shadow of the cliffs, I could almost get back tothe beach. The beach lit up in my head like a searchlight.I hid some money in the lining of my coat. I made friends with one of theneighbours and because I didn't know her and might never see her again, I didn't mindtelling her the truth of what my life had become.After a while, and after a long, bedraggled grueling bus ride, I was back at thefarm, back home, with four kids hanging on to my long skirt. We slept upstairs in my oldbedroom for a couple of weeks, and then I slumped reluctantly into the welfare office,surrounded by kids.Welfare is an interesting system. It's there to catch you if you fall, as long as youhave fallen long and hard so you have nothing left, and you must crawl in there suitablybedraggled and skinny and repentant.When I came into her office, the social worker looked at me with suspicion."What did you do with your husband?" she asked, as if he were a piece of luggage125I had misplaced.I tried to bite down the various flippant answers that rose to mind. I hadn't eatenor slept much for weeks. In fact, friends told me later that I looked like a refugee, from acamp somewhere, skinny, exhausted and dressed in clothes that I had worn to rags overthe last couple of weeks. But I was proud of the cheque she finally, begrudgingly handedover. It was at least a version of standing on my own. For the first time, I felt that Iowned my life.I bought a 28-foot trailer from a neighbour with money I borrowed from myparents, and the neighbour brought it down on a flat bed truck and placed it across theyard and around a bend in the driveway from my parent’s house. The first night after we moved into the trailer, I sat alone in the dark. I'd boughtgroceries and clothes and shoes for the kids with the welfare cheque. The kids were allasleep in their bunks. I put on some music I'd borrowed from Mom, Tchaikovsky'sWinter Nights. I curled up alone in the close and holy, music-washed dark. I was homeagain. I could finally stop pretending. It was 1974. I had been away from home for sixyears. Now two husbands, and four kids later, I was back, utterly bewildered by it all andtotally ashamed of my new status as a welfare mother. I had been the smart one, the onemy mother depended on, the one who was going to save her and take her away to NewYork, to the Metropolitan Opera.Alan Wilson and I got the highest marks in our graduating class in the Provincialentrance exams. I came first and he came second. He had also dropped out of his firstyear of university, gone to Europe and now he was back home, working in his father’sbusiness. He had married someone I had known in high school and they also had a child,126Jess, the same age as my youngest son Nat.My mother soon found her consolation in her grandchildren. They adored her andspent more time at her house than they did in the trailer. She said to me, “Don’t think I’mgoing to be your baby sitter.”And she never was. She never had to be. The kids were always at her houseanyway. We all went back and forth from the trailer to Mom’s kitchen many times a day.When he was two, Nat used to get out of bed first thing in the morning, pull on a hat andrun across the yard, barefooted and bare-bummed, to Grandma's house, where she wouldfeed him hot chocolate and toast fingers with strawberry jam. When I would arrive insearch of him, he'd be sitting up in her bed, propped on several pillows, grinningtriumphantly at me.At night, I would sit in the trailer and stare glumly out the window, watching forgrizzly bears, UFO's, or my drunken ex-husband who had phoned with threats to comeand kidnap the kids and kill me. I sat with the poker on my lap and listened to sad LindaRonstadt songs, unwilling, unable to lie down and go to sleep. I went back to reading andwriting, I started a book of poems, and I started writing a novel and short stories. I hadleft University a few months short of my BA. Now I wondered desperately if I wouldever get back to that impossible golden city and find a way to fit in and prove I belonged.And then my ex-husband, a man I thought I had safely left behind in the southernUS, did show up. During the three years we were together, I was never sure just which ofthe stories he told me were true. They were many and they changed all the time.When I had first met him, I was working on my own, with my twin daughters,127who were then three. He was American, handsome with lots of money and a flashy newtruck. His stories were fantastic but alluring; he claimed to know everyone, to havefought in South America, to be part of an organized guerilla resistance movement in theUS. With him around, I wouldn’t have to worry about money, or how to survive on myown. We had rented a farm north of my parent’s farm and three months afterGeronimo, my first son and third child was born, I got pregnant again with Nat. Myhusband was drinking a lot and stealing from everyone up and down the lake. He and myfather had a fight; they went at each other with pitchforks while my mother screamed andcried. He came home and ordered me to load everything in the truck. We had left in themiddle of the night, while I balanced one baby on top of my swollen belly and the girlssqueezed in between us.We had spent the next year in the southern US city where his family lived andthen I had fled. Now here he was, with a car full of presents, swearing he had quitdrinking, swearing he had straightened out his life. All he wanted, he said, was to visit theboys, to be supportive, to give us money and buy the boys new clothes. I let him drive outof the yard with them and a couple of hours later I knew he wasn’t coming back. I calledthe police, I called lawyers, and then I borrowed some more money from my father andgot on the Greyhound bus for a three-day trip to the southern US city where his motherlived.I sat on the bus in ancient fur coat that my grandmother had given me. I stared outthe window as the land rolled past. My sense of myself as a person with a home, a past, afuture, dwindled and disappeared. I didn’t eat or sleep, but sat and stared and waited and128tried to plan for the unknowable.Staring out the window in the middle of the night, I thought I heard the landbeyond the windows speaking. “You’re still at home here,” it said. “You can be homeanywhere on the earth. You will be all right anywhere. Your home always goes withyou.”I held on to that.I made it to the city and phoned and they came to get me, his mother and herhusband. They took me to her house where my children and my ex-husband were staying.I gathered the boys in my arms and wept and promised to be a good wife and mother. Ipulled out every dramatic trick I had; I begged to be allowed to stay, I had changed mymind, I said. I said I would become a Christian, if that’s what they wanted.They didn’t believe me. They arranged for members of the family to watch me.They searched my clothes and purse but they didn’t find the wad of money I had stashedin the lining of the fur coat.Finally, someone made a mistake and left me alone with the boys. I grabbed mycoat and purse, put one boy on each hip and ran to the corner where there was a city busstop. I took the bus downtown to a motel, and then the next morning I took a taxi to theairport and got on the first plane that was leaving town. It flew to Chicago. I got off theplane in Chicago and took a cab to the bus station. I had enough money left to buy aticket to Butte, Montana. I called my parents collect and they agreed to meet me there.The trip would take two days. I had $10 left for food.I sat in the roped off section of the bus station that was marked for women andchildren only and I prayed to whatever powers I could think of that might listen. Tall129black men prowled the walkways and corridors beyond this section. The boys wouldn’tstay put. Finally they fell asleep and then there was a bomb scare and the bus station wasevacuated. I tried to pick up both sleeping boys at once and a woman I didn’t knowintervened and offered to help.“Where are you from?” she said, and I made up a name and a story that she didn’tbelieve. But it didn’t matter. She gave me some money and I thanked her and thoughtperhaps I could make the money last by just feeding the boys. We made it to Butte, myparents picked me up and we drove back to the farm and I thought perhaps now, my lifecould finally begin again.But not quite. I was pregnant again. A month later I left my children with mymother yet again and got on a bus and went to Vancouver. It took a week. First I had togo before a three-man board of doctors and swear that having another child wouldendanger my mental health. Then I had the abortion. I wanted this child. I wanted all mychildren. But I had run into a wall I couldn’t get past. I had so little left in me, so littlestrength, energy and what I had, I wanted for my other children. And so, I let thisunknown person go.I took the bus home. I sat up, wide-awake for the twelve-hour trip. The sun wascoming up as we came over the Selkirk Mountains, over the Kootenay Pass, and downinto the valley. The sun stained the snowy mountains orange and pink and salmon. Thetrees were black beside the road. I leaned my head against the cold window. All I wantedwas to be home, taking care my children and keeping them safe, but I knew I had to domore than that. I had to somehow, make a new life, both for myself and for them.130Chapter Eight:The seventies were a colourful, intense and interesting time in the Kootenays. Anew movement of strange but determined pioneers had arrived. They came in groups,usually, and they came with dreams although most of them didn't come for long. But theycompletely changed the small sleepy backwoods communities of the Kootenays by theirpresence.There has always been waves of people wandering into the Kootenays, lookingaround, maybe finding something to exploit, maybe not, and then that wave has alwaysreceded, leaving behind a detritus of mine tailings, stumps, dams, or log houses andrusting machinery slowly being swallowed by thimbleberry and alder saplings.These new people were following a long line of people who had headed into thesesame hills, looking for some kind of mystical metaphysical freedom and found it, only tofind that they too had to live with neighbours who often didn't share their idealism, theirideals, or their approach to the land around them. There were the Quakers in Argenta, theDoukhobours in Castlegar and the Slocan, and the Mormon polygamists in Creston.Although every place attracted its share of dreamers, the Kootenays has alwaysattracted more than others. People have always perceived it as a place of cheap land,clean water, forests, empty blue valleys. Freedom, these new people told each other overand over, following their vision. Freedom to be anyone, to live how we want. Theyfollowed a pattern set by the first white settlers, finding a patch of available landsomewhere on the mountainside, cutting down trees, building a house, making a patch of131garden.Now in the early seventies, everyone suddenly seemed to have the same idea.People went back to the land in droves, and one of the main places they came was theKootenays. They left the cities of both Canada and the United States in Volkswagen vansand old milk trucks and ancient school buses and trucks with painted campers. Theycame and for a brief while the country was a colourful place. People talked in wonderabout chickens, about log houses, about yurts and teepees and solar heated greenhouses.Everyone was reading the new magazines that had sprung to serve this trend–such as theMother Earth News out of the United States. Dire warnings were repeated at every partyabout the imminent crash of the outside world, of the economic system, the environment,and the social order that did seem to be collapsing in a great noise of wailing from themedia about the nuclear family and hullabaloo about the younger generation going tohell.But if there is one thing rural living is, it certainly isn't free. Everything costs,either in money or labour or time and it certainly isn't free socially either, as peoplediscovered sometimes to their horror, sometimes to their relief, that their neighbours andin fact the whole community were watching every step they made and commentinggleefully to each other about each new hippie folly.The new people were often draft dodgers, or deserters. They had visions and ideasand many of them had money with which to buy land, build their houses, and try out their132dreams of community. At one point there were five communal settlements in the SlocanValley and who knows how many more up and down the roads of this previouslysecluded place. In theory, it all looked possible, and the one question no one seems tohave stopped to ask was how they were going to support their ideas.There is only one way to make money out of raw land and that's to exploit what ithas to offer: trees, water for power, land for growing crops, minerals, fur, fish and meat.The newcomers of the seventies were coming to a land that they perceived as wilderness,but it took a while for them to perceive that it was in fact already under siege from peoplewho wanted something from it, and that something was generally meant to serve theneeds of the booming metropolis on the west coast.The rivers had dams on them – the mountains had been logged once and werebeing logged again, huge clear cuts and roads spreading up every mountain valley.Although the era of mining and railroads had gone, the era of roads up every valley andalong every stream had just begun. People kept finding little patches of soil to grow cropson – but the good soil, what there was of it, had long since turned into orchards or grainfields or hay fields or cattle pasture.It was a land that looked wild but wasn't. Still people held on to the idea that thiswas a kind of wild utopia, where you could live out your ideas and be who you wanted tobe, even if it was never as easy or mystical as it first appeared.As new neighbours moved in, many different people came and went at the farm.My father was running a backhoe business and he kept coming home with stories of thestrange people he had been asked to work for. That first spring, after the kids and I133arrived at the farm, I had planted an enormous garden to make extra money. I alsodecided to supplement the welfare cheque by picking and selling cherries, as I had doneall those years as a kid. I got to meet most of the new neighbours this way. I startedgrowing vegetables to sell to the neighbours to make a bit of money to supplementwelfare.One day, an ancient black Ford pickup rattled into the yard. Everyone in the truckspoke French or German except for one little girl who informed me gravely that it washer birthday, and that her family needed some vegetables. They came every few daysafter that.My parents did their best to cope with this onslaught of new neighbours. No onewho came to the farm ever left without something, a gift of apples, fresh vegetables, abottle of homemade wine. Patti, my brother's ex-girlfriend, lived just to the north of us in Marg Arnold's oldhouse. She would pull into the yard every morning, on her way to work, usually out ofgas or in some kind of jam.Patti was tall, with red hair and lots of energy. She couldn’t stay put. She told meshe usually moved every couple of months but she managed to settle down at MargArnold’s old white house on the beach in Twin Bays for a couple of years. She worked asa waitress in Creston, and drove a succession of ancient cars. When I was with her, andwe pulled up to the gas station, she would call out to the attendant, “Give me a gallon ofgas and a quart of the heaviest oil you got.” She chain-smoked and my father always gaveher hell for it. Her daughter, Tammy, and my two daughters quickly becameinseparable.134“Guess what happened,” she'd start, whenever she showed up. “Just guess whathappened now.” We never could. Her stories were always wonderfully on the edge ofunbelievable. One winter morning she got up and in turning around, backed her car overthe blackberry bushes and into Twin Bays Creek. Her horse ran away and was hiding onthe mountain somewhere. Or her dog had attacked someone’s sheep or chickens again,and she was hiding it from her wrathful neighbours.Summers in the Kootenays often include a lot of rain. On rainy July days, whenthe garden was too soggy to weed, the cherry crop splitting and rotting in the rain, thelake too cold for swimming, mosquitoes hiding sullenly under the trees and brush, wewould all drift into Mom’s kitchen. Inevitably, Patti’s huge red fish-tailed Pontiac wouldsqueal into the yard, spitting gravel as she swerved to avoid kids, bikes, dogs, cats.Mom would bring out her latest batch of wine, “to taste,” she said, just a taste,fussing and nervous, saying she really ought to let it age a little longer, but we could havea glass, or maybe two. She made wine from dandelions, or from birch sap that my fathertapped in the early spring. She made wine from strawberries and raspberries and cherriesand plums. There was always a new vat brewing behind the wood stove.The kids got to try out the new batch of homemade root beer, bringing the brownbottles up from the dusty basement, where they mixed them with dollops of homemadevanilla ice-cream.Sometimes other neighbours would arrive, drawn by the idleness the rain created.The talk would be slow at first. Patti usually had a story about the latest man she’d picked135up and moved into the house to do mannish things like chop wood and change lightbulbs, and how he had then disappeared into the bar for a week without telling her wherehe was.Dad would start to talk and Mom would interrupt and their voices would rambleinto familiar rhythms. The dogs always snuck into the house with each new visitor, andDad would pause to snap, “Mick, get outside,” and Mick would ignore him because hewas Mom’s dog. Instead, he’d sneak under the table where she fed him gingersnaps.The rest of us would all talk at once, stories weaving in and out of the noise,several stories going at once, people joining in or dropping out. The kids would besomewhere, and then someone would notice it had stopped raining and suddenly, therewas too much to do again, things to weed, transplant, pick, freeze, can, clean, mend,cook.The sun usually came out by late afternoon. I'd drift out to the orchard to stare atthe soggy trees, and the musty drip-smelling earth, heat lightning grumbling away behindCastle Mountain, and a purple thunder haze hanging sullenly in the crevice above CanyonCreek. I’d go back to work in the garden for a couple of hours and then I’d go down tothe lake and wander along the rocks, beside the rain-glazed grey water. As the day fadedinto the long summer twilight, the mountains looked like a Japanese print, ranged onebehind the other in dimming opaque shades of cobalt blue.Finally, I’d come back home to the trailer, where the kids were watching our tinyblack and white TV, their bodies mesmerized and still in front of it, and try to decidewhat to make for dinner.136I also bought my first car the summer we came home, a grey car called simplyThe Chevy. Dad had bought it from a neighbour who had a bunch of kids and a sad wifeand needed to leave town. He paid $35 for a ‘62 Chevy station wagon, which had a newre-built motor but not much else that worked.I had been desperate for a car. The farm was twenty miles from town and Icouldn't depend on the neighbours or Mom and Dad to haul around me and four kids. Acar was freedom and independence. A car was one more step on the road to being myown person.So now I had a car. Dad and my brother said reassuring things about themotor–slant six, they said, damn thing will never wear out. But I soon discovered themotor was about the only thing that worked. That, and the headlights. The back seat wasgone and the floor under the driver’s seat had a hole in it that was great for cherry pitsand peanut shells. It was freezing in the winter; there was no heater and the back windowwouldn’t stay up. But with enough pillows and blankets and foamies and dogs, wesurvived.One day I drove the Chevy up an almost vertical driveway to visit a woman myDad had told me about. Some new people to the south of us next to the old Mannarinoplace were living in a tiny geodesic dome along with a couple of goats, next to twoenormous geodesic domes they were building as a future home.“You should get up there,” my father growled at me one day. “That little womanneeds some help. Damn shame to see a woman living like that. She’s got a kid, too.” Iasked my kids about her son, and they said, yes, he got on the school bus but they hadn’t137talked to him yet. He was a year older than them.The woman, Carol, was living in a small, leaky dome beside two almost new,huge domes that her partner was building. But they couldn’t move in, he had ordered,until the new domes were completely finished. No one in the Kootenays in those daysfinished their house. They got the frame up, or the dome or the logs, or whatever it mightbe that they were building, and then they moved in. Everyone was living with pinkinsulation plastic-covered walls, no running water, and wood stoves. I stayed for tea and we wandered over to look at the new domes. “Why don’t youmove?” I said.“Carl won’t let us,” she said. Carol always wore a scarf over her hair and she hidher beautiful blue eyes behind thick glasses. She looked down at the ground.“Carl’s having an affair,” she whispered. “Oh, I knew that, “ I said. “Everyone knows. Everyone thinks he’s a total jerk.Carol stared at me. I wished the words back. Now she would think I was the jerk,interfering in her life and spreading gossip.But instead, she smiled. “ I didn’t know what to say or who to ask for help.” “I’ll help you move,” I added. “Let’s do it this weekend.”After that, Carol’s son Adrian started getting off the bus at my place and hangingout with the girls, and Carol, Patti and I got into the habit of spending most of our timetogether. Somehow the kids were easier to manage in a pack and if we pooled our money,our time and our resources, we felt less sorry for ourselves. When winter came, the water in the trailer always froze. Carol didn't have running138water either. Once a week all winter long, we'd gather our kids along with a few otherpeople’s kids we’d somehow collected for the weekend; we would all bundle up andmake the forty mile drive to Ainsworth Hot Springs. It meant we could all get clean whenour water was frozen.The drive always turned into a three-hour marathon because we had to wait forthe Kootenay Lake ferry. We loved the ferry ride. The kids ran wild, round and round, inand out the doors while we drank coffee and gossiped with people we didn’t see veryoften from that end of the lake. The ferry was always littered with lots of other kids,running and screaming; we tried to pretend we didn’t know them while the ferry guysrolled their eyes and disappeared into their own little room.We always had just enough money to get to the Hot Springs and pay our way in.On the way home, everyone was always starving from the hours in the hot water. Wepooled our pennies to buy the kids some soup and French fries at the restaurant by theferry. Once we thought we had the problem whipped because we brought along Patti’slatest man, a rich boy from town with a white Corvette. God knows how she found himor what he thought of the Chevy. He didn’t say. When we got to the restaurant, hewatched us pooling pennies and counting change to buy each kid a bowl of mushroomsoup, and then he ordered a double deluxe cheeseburger and fries for himself. None of ussaid a word. We watched him eat the whole thing. The kids watched each French frydisappear. It was too bad, I thought, that he never got to hear our sarcasm and hoots oflaughter at his expense after he got in his Corvette to go home.The kids and I would probably have gone hungry anywhere else, but we had thefarm and my mother. In the summer, food literally dripped off the trees and bushes,139raspberries squishing in the mud at the end of the rows where the irrigation ditches leftpuddles, the leftover cherries being hollowed out by wasps and ants, the plums andpeaches and pears and apples and grapes we hadn’t managed to sell or give away or turninto juice or freeze or can being squabbled over by ravens and robins and wasps. I grewan acre of vegetables every summer as well, and all summer long I carried boxes andbuckets of produce to the farmer’s market in town every week and stood in the blazingsun for half a day and came home twenty-five dollars or so richer.The kids ran into my mother’s kitchen after school for cookies, popcorn, and hotchocolate. They stopped in there on their way to catch the school bus in the morning fortreats for their lunches. Every Sunday, Mom made dinner for the whole family; mybrother came with his partner, and often my sister and her children, and we all cartedhome the leftovers.I gradually got to know most of the new people. There was a sense of fellowshipand community among people who were, in a sense, a new wave of pioneers. Most ofthem had managed to buy land and were involved in building a house, raising childrengrowing gardens and coping with trying to have time for all this, make some money, andstill have time to create this new ‘counterculture.’The counterculture was real and deeply felt; it meant being independent, self-sufficient, and building a life centred around family, community, animals, gardening, andnature. Drugs and alcohol were part of it but they were a means to an end, a way ofadding to the sense of freedom. Sharing a joint was a ritual; dropping acid was a path todeeper understanding.140 After a while, on Sundays, people would start driving into my yard around noon,unloading food, dogs, and kids. A soccer game or a baseball game would start up; the lastdregs of the party would finish sometime around midnight.When I was not working on the farm or visiting with people, I was reading. I hadgone back to my habit of collecting books despite my acute and usually desperatepoverty. I’d first read about feminism when I was trapped in the southern US. I saw an adfor a women’s collective who were helping abused women and I’d thought about phoningthem but I hadn’t.Now feminism was in the news; one day I bought a book called, When God Was aWoman, by Merlin Stone. I read it all in one afternoon. I woke up from reading andthought, I’ve been lied to. It was like a cold clean wind blowing through my head,blowing out the humiliation and the embarrassment. For the first time, I realized thatwhat had happened to me, the abusive marriage, the children, the fear of university,hadn’t all been my fault. My life was part of a larger pattern. It was an astonishingrevelation. I hadn’t just been ignorant and stupid. Although clearly I had made a lot ofmistakes, perhaps if I began learning about what had happened to me and why, I couldprevent it ever happening again. I began reading every feminist book I could find, which, in our little ruralcommunity, wasn’t many. But there was a new bookstore in Nelson that I could get tooccasionally and it had a shelf of books about women.After I had read a few more of these books – after Merlin Stone there was RobinMorgan and Ms. Magazine and Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, a141book whose revelations and analysis ran like fire through my veins. I woke up from thatone needing desperately to talk to someone. It felt like my head was full of ideas, ofconversations I had yet to have, of thoughts I needed to share.Fortunately, I had Carol; she and I talked incessantly. Our lives had run in similarpaths, early pregnancy, early marriages that ended badly. Now we were single parentmothers and more than anything else, we wanted a way out, some kind of path out of thewelfare trap and into independence. Finally, we decided to form a women’s group. It wassomething I’d read about. After all, there were a lot of us up and down the lake, singlemoms on welfare. The countercultural tide that had washed into rural BC on a tide ofidealism and was already beginning to recede again, leaving a lot of wreckedrelationships and women with small children behind.We held our first women’s meeting at Yvette’s house. She was one of thosepeople in the black truck who only spoke French. Once I had them sorted out, I foundthat Fred was Swiss and Yvette was French. They lived high up on the mountainside onthe road that wound past the local dump. The house she and Fred had built together restedon posts set on a granite ridge, surrounded by huge cedar and fir. They couldn’t yet affordinsulation, so whenever I visited, we had to sit huddled around their woodstove.Our first meeting was on a soft March day. The road up the hill had turned to deepyellow mush. One by one, our cars slithered and roared and struggled up the driveway.Mud spurted onto my long skirt through the holes in the Chevy’s floor. The kids hung ongrimly as we lurched to a stop.We parked among the boards and stumps in the steep driveway. Then Patti, ofcourse, it was always Patti, managed to gun her way almost up the hill before the Buick142slithered to a halt, slid sideways, and wedged itself against a cedar tree.We gathered around and stared at the car. Someone suggested we send for help,for a man or two, who could slop around in the mud getting the car out while we dranktea and got on with our meeting. Then someone else pointed out the irony of us needingto be rescued by men while we were at a women’s meeting. We stared at the car somemore. We weren’t without resources, we decided. We got a jack and fitted it under thecar, then jacked it up, heaved it sideways, did it again, and then again. Just as we got thecar back on the road, a man, a neighbour arrived and took over although there wasnothing left for him to do. We let him back the car down the hill and park it, while wewent inside feeling satisfied with ourselves and drank tea and sat around the stove for therest of the afternoon until it was time to sort out our own kids from the screaming herdand take them home for supper.That night, as I made supper in the trailer, with music on the stereo, thewoodstove clucking and snapping, the kids gathered around the table, the light over theirheads keeping off the darkness from the outside, I began to feel, for the first time in avery long time, safe in my life. I was still terrified that the boys’ father would come afterthem again; I was conscious that I was probably guilty of kidnapping, a felony in the US,if he bothered to pursue me. I had made up my mind that whatever I had to do, he wouldnever find me and my children; we would hide, we would run, I would do whatever I hadto do to keep them safe. I was often an inattentive mother; I woke from reading Lord ofthe Rings one day to find the kids had piled all the chairs in the trailer around me and Ihadn’t noticed. But I was always a grizzly-bear mother, ready to defend my children fromany threat, real or perceived.143That was our first women’s meeting but we held many more over the next coupleof years. People in the community thought it was a great joke and the men, including myfather, made endless nasty references to hen parties and women sitting around gossipingwhen there was work to be done, but we didn’t care any more. Something had changed.We knew we made them nervous and we didn’t mind a bit. We were serious, or some ofus were, even though every week we had another argument about what it was we wereactually doing or why or how. But it was important. I was beginning to realize I had a lotto figure out. I began to realize there was a lot that no one had told me.Carol and Patti and I also did a lot of talking on our own. Patti used to tell usstories of her epic fights with her husband; once he shot up her car with a rifle and thatwas the last straw; she packed up her daughter, took his truck and left. After that, she keptmoving to stay away from him. She told us once she had moved sixteen times in oneyear.One night she relented after he phoned and begged to be allowed to see theirdaughter. This time, he got drunk and took an axe to her car. But it so happened that thenight he did this, all our kids were watching out the windows with mystified fascination.Carol and I talked her into calling the police, but they seemed more interested in thedamage to the car than any threat to her.I was hoping the boys’ father, that I had left behind and far away, would drinkhimself to death and leave us alone permanently. Carol said she was determined to stopfalling in love with men who looked interesting but were actually crazy; her last partner144had moved his new girlfriend, then his girlfriend’s brother, then his girlfriend’s mother,into the other half of the geodesic dome he shared with Carol. He said he was founding anew way of life. Carol just thought the whole thing was embarrassing.Despite our developing sense of feminism, we also all lived in hope that we’d allget smart enough and meet men wonderful enough that we’d be tempted to try having arelationship one more time. But we’d be careful, we told each other. Very careful. Wedreamed of nice men, fatherly men, men who would like our kids and want to hangaround with them and with us and provide them with toys and double cheeseburgers withfries and all the other things we couldn’t afford. We talked a lot about how we mightmeet these new kinds of men because there weren’t any around that we knew.Good fathers were important, we believed. Our kids needed a good father image,good role models, unlike their real fathers. And of course, men were good for otherthings, they fixed cars and stereos and washing machines. They could build houses. Andthere was sex, which we hardly ever talked about. But we all thought about it.The other, partnered-up men in the community were nice to us. Sometimes theyhelped out but they had enough to cope with. We made them uneasy. I think they thoughtI was doing fine; I was mostly an amusing spectacle with my Chevy full of kids and dogsand laundry and vegetables. Eventually, I parked the Chevy and with the money I hadscrounged from selling vegetables, I bought a Ford truck. The motor burned oil so myDad found someone to help me rebuild the motor. Every day for weeks, I fiddled aroundwith things called valves and rings. I never had a clue what I was doing. What terrifiedme was how many parts a motor had and how fragile the whole thing seemed to be. Butthen I put it all back together again and amazingly, it ran and ran well with a few minor145hitches.Once I arrived at my friend Joan’s house with a boiling-over radiator on mywonderful truck. She was married to my childhood buddy, Alan Wilson, our youngestsons were the same age, and they made the best coffee in the country. They were in theprocess of building their house. I went inside for help. Alan and three or four other men were drinking coffee anddiscussing the niceties and particularities of septic tank fields, a topic that all the men inthe community seemed to find endlessly engrossing. It was either that or the iniquities ofdifferent kinds of chainsaws that formed the bulk of their conversations. When I explained about the truck, they strode outside and stood around in the hotsun discussing what to do. Joan and I drank coffee and gossiped. When they had thingsall figured out and fixed, they all tromped back in. I had to listen to a lecture on checkingthe water level in the radiator and leaky hoses that should be replaced and not merelytaped up with duct tape but what the hell. The radiator always leaked. I’d just been toobusy that day to put water in it.Carol and I talked endlessly about what to do with our lives. She wanted a label,she said, any label that would stick, that would give her assurance and socialrespectability and a job.Maybe we could go back to school, we thought, but what could we study thatwould guarantee us a real job and a good living and how could we ever manage schoolwith our kids and all the schools were far away at the coast?And of course, I still desperately wanted to be a writer, which seemed as unlikelyas becoming an astronaut. The social worker who drove out from town once a year just146sighed when she saw the trailer and the kids and the chaos we lived in. She also turned ablind eye to the few hundred dollars I made in the summer from the garden. But whatwould happen when the kids were all in school. I’d have to get a job then, she saidreprovingly. The government wouldn’t pay for me to just sit around and raise my kids.But neither would they pay for university. They might, she said; pay for a one-yearcourse somewhere as long as it guaranteed me employment at the end.I didn’t want to sit around on welfare either. I wanted them to pay my waythrough university. I went for employment testing at the local government agency. Thebored man behind the desk asked me what I did. I described my life, gardening andpicking fruit.“Perhaps you could get a job mowing lawns or looking after gardens,” he said.But I wanted to give my kids someone, something, to live up to and mowing lawnswasn’t in my plans. I kept working as hard as I could. Every spring I ordered a box of seeds andstarted baby plants under grow lights in my parent’s basement. By the end of February,I’d start pruning the apple and peach trees, and by March it would be time to start thetomato and pepper seedlings for the garden. About the middle of April, I started plantinga market garden about a hectare in size. I usually finished planting by the end of May.Everything got planted in succession so that as one patch of lettuce or peas or spinachfinished, another would be ripening. I experimented with all kinds of crops, soybeans,peanuts, or Jerusalem artichokes.Then there were the usual summer chores of picking fruit and getting in the hay. Ibought a food drier and a freezer plus my mother and I canned fruit together. In my spare147moments, I swam and lay on the beach reading books on women’s issues, or hung outwith Carol and Joan and Patti, talking, talking, talking.Winters were difficult and never got any easier. I chopped wood and tried to keepthe house warm and clean and the kids clean and fed and onto the yellow school busevery morning at 8 am. I began to go to meetings, peace meetings, and environmentalmeetings. Nat still headed off for his grandmother’s every morning after the other kidscaught the bus and I had an hour alone.I tried to start writing a novel. I realized that I had no idea how to write despitethe fact that I had been writing poems and journals in secret for years.I knew the time was coming when I would have to make some decisions about therest of my life but I kept shoving it away. One warm spring morning, in early May, I puton Dvorak’s New World symphony and opened the doors and windows. I shook out therugs and took the ashes out of the stove and set the houseplants outside and rinsed thedust off them. I vacuumed the whole house, and as I danced with the vacuum and sangwith the music, I began to be happy. Daffodils and tulips were blooming at the front ofthe trailer; the alder and birch were haloed in electric green mist.It was a fine morning to be alive and to be dancing and singing here in this mistygreen sunshine. It was enough to be alive as the trees and flowers were alive, demandingnothing, simply alive and radiating joy in it. I danced outside and sang along to the trees.The universe unfolded around me radiant, a huge white flow, unfolding into a stupendousinfinity in which I still danced.After a while I came back to myself sitting on a rock in the sun, with antscrawling up my ankles. I went back in and finished the vacuuming.148The next morning, when I picked up the mail from the green box across the road,there were three things in it, a Sears catalogue, a gardening catalogue, and a universitycalendar sent by a friend. I looked through them all. The Sears one was full of stuff Icouldn’t afford and didn’t really want; the gardening catalogue was full of seeds andideas for bigger and better gardens. Just looking at it made me tired. The universitycalendar was from the University of Victoria. They offered a degree in Creative Writing.I didn’t know it was possible to study Creative Writing in University. I had beenconsidering going to college to take a course in forestry or welding, anything with whichto get a job. But now all those fine practical ideas went out the window.I was going to go. I had no money, I had four children, I would never make anymoney as a writer, I didn’t even know if I could write. I was going to go anyway.Chapter Nine:I met someone, a man who my children took to immediately, who fixed my truck,fixed things in the trailer that made his shake his head in horror, like the bare wires of thecord from the TV stuck into a socket. And he wasn’t a stranger; he was one of the beachkids, someone I had known vaguely but never paid any attention to, someone who lovedboats and the lake. He was building a house down the road, something I also knew butbecause he hadn’t come to any of the parties at my house, our paths hadn’t crossedpreviously.We met at Joan and Alan’s house; we talked and went for walks and finally, I toldhim about going back to university.149“That’s a crazy idea,” he said.“No, I have to go. I have to get off welfare. I have to at least try and be a writer.Otherwise I’ll never know if I can do it.”Finally, he agreed, very reluctantly, to come with me. He had been dreaming offinishing his house and living on his own land.Every month I picked up a cheque for $450 from the welfare office in Creston andput $200 of it in the bank. Previously, whenever it was cheque day, I bought two sets oftreats, art supplies for the kids and a book and some magazines for me. And I boughtfood treats that we only had once a month, like oranges and ice cream and chocolate. Now I only bought the barest necessities and not much of that. Most of our foodcame from the farm anyway, and now Len made up for the rest, taking the kids to moviesand out to dinner. I was astounded and endlessly grateful for the generousity of this warmkind man and my kids deserted me entirely and clung to him.Finally, one day in late August, we packed up my truck and his car and left thefarm for Victoria. The kids stared out the window for a last glimpse of the farm, and theirgrandma. The two cats and the dog huddled together in the back seat. We settled into abasement apartment in Victoria; I found a part time daycare for Nat, who was just startingkindergarten and finally, I set off for my first creative writing classes at the University ofVictoria. I had never been more terrified.I took my poetry that I had been writing in secret for years and submitted one ofmy poems to the first poetry class I took. We had been asked to submit themanonymously. The next class, I drove my ancient pick-up through two red lights on my150way to University. The cop who stopped me was laughing. He walked around the truck.“You’ve got bald tires and no brake lights,” he said.“I’m going to school,” I said. “I can’t be late. It’s my first class. We are talkingabout my poem this morning.”He shook his head. “Well, I’ll let you off with a warning, this time.”When I got to school, I got a cup of coffee and a donut. I had been writing foryears in fifteen-minute segments in the local bakery while my laundry went round andround in the dryers next door. When I got to class, the professor shuffled papers arounduntil we got started. Finally, he held up a poem that I recognized as my own.He sighed deeply. “This is just a really bad T.S. Eliot imitation,” he said. Mybreath stuck in my chest. The other people chimed in with their criticisms but I couldn’thear anything. There was a roaring in my ears, a red mist in front of my eyes. What didhe mean?Eventually, the red mist began to clear and I began to listen. He was going overmy terrible poem line by line, pointing out its strengths, pointing out its weaknesses. Ilooked at my own copy. He was right. There was a way of thinking here, a language thatI didn’t understand but I could learn. I would learn it, I thought. Somehow I would figureit out.When I went home, I picked up my youngest son from his new daycare. I carriedhim down the block to our new basement apartment. The sun was shining and anythingwas possible. And finally, I was going to learn how to be a writer.My two years at UVic were extraordinarily happy. The kids ended up lovingVictoria, after they discovered the swimming pool, the library, and the mall.151 And I loved UVic despite their (then) philosophy that if you were tough enoughto survive their program, you were tough enough to become a Canadian writer. They alsotold their mostly female students not to write that ‘women’s stuff,’ that touchy-feelystuff, that “confessional” writing, as it was then termed. It was 1979. UVic had juststarted a Women’s Studies program. I took Women’s Studies and Creative Writing andran happily through the halls of UVic on my way to my wonderful classes.After two years, I had a degree in Creative Writing and a sheaf of poems andstories. Len and I loaded up our ancient white van and drove back up the mountain passesto the Kootenays. We had spent two years in the city dreaming of going home. We werestill committed to the idea of land, of homesteading, independence and self-sufficiency.My friend and classmate, Julian Ross, who wanted to start a publishing company, offeredto publish my first book of poems. His company, he said, would be called PolestarBooks.We arrived at the house-site on a late evening with everything we owned packedinto the ancient white van that I had steered all the way from Victoria; driving the vanwas like driving a boat in heavy seas, turning the steering wheel almost all the wayaround before the tires responded.The house, which Len had been working on for a couple of years before wemoved away, had a floor, four walls, and a roof. That was it. We unpacked what we couldin the dark, put up our new tent bought cheaply the day before in Vancouver. Weunrolled sleeping bags and blankets, let the cats and the dog out of the van, and went tobed. In the sunny morning, the kids flitted like bright birds around the flat clearing below152the house, while I made breakfast over the fire, and tried to figure out where we weregoing to put everything. There was a small travel trailer parked in the clearing; Len hadused it to store his tools. It was musty and full of spiders and mildew but would do forstorage– for now. The boys would sleep with us in the tent.The sun shone hot while I set up a camp of sorts, banged nails into the trees,stacked some bricks and boards for shelves. Alan and Joan came and we sat on logs,around the fire, drinking smoky tea. Yes, we said, we were glad to be home, out of thecity back in the woods, back in our home community. The kids weren’t so sure. They’dgotten used to the swimming pool, the library, and the movies. They loved going to themall, or London Drugs for snacks after a movie. They loved our carpeted apartment, thecorner store, the streets down which they could ride bikes and skateboards. Only Len andI had hated it. Or so we thought.I knelt on the ground with my face in the smoke and cooked and in the morning, Ishook out our sleeping bags and tried to be glad I was home, to love our new place,which was only five miles from the farm and my parents. Len’s sister and brother-in-lawwere our nearest neighbours, we knew everyone; we knew every inch of the place. I washome, I told myself, so why was I so restless?Every day I went for a walk with the dogs, and looked around. However familiarit was, it was still a new place, a new mountainside, and new trails on which to walk. Andslowly the reality of what we were doing began to sink in. We had no jobs and only a bitof money that disappeared like magic in one visit to the building supply store. Len couldalways make money surveying, but jobs for women in our small town were specific.Women were still, in that small logging and farming-based town, even in the early153eighties, confined to being secretaries or cooks or nurses or teachers. We were almostimmediately trapped into the eternal dilemma of homesteading, or of people who wantedto be homesteaders, now or in the past. Homesteading, house building, acquiring toolsand animals, even planting a garden–all of them take immense amounts of time and someamount of money. However cheaply we tried to do it, the house was going to cost moneyas well. And however basically we tried to live, we had four growing, eating, demandingchildren who wanted more than anything else to live in a real house with normal parents.So we camped outside and the kids got up in the morning, got dressed out of packs andstruggled down the hill to catch the school bus. It was April but relatively warm and wecould take showers and baths at my parent’s house.Then two things happened–one day in early May, we watched a towering whitewall of dust moving north up the valley. Mt. St. Helens had blown up the day before andthe dust had taken a day to reach us. The dust left a sticky inch-thick layer of grit overeverything and then it began to rain.We moved into the house that evening. Len ran a line from the power pole andhooked up an electric heater. I hung a blanket over the table and we sat around itshivering in our coats with blankets and sleeping bags over our shoulders. That night weslept on the gritty sawdust laden plywood floor and began our new life in this house.Our land was mountainside, unsuitable for farming or gardening or anything otherthan growing trees or brush, but with four young children, we needed a yard and agarden. My father came with his backhoe and Len had an ancient Cat and for a week,they felled trees, pulled stumps, and went back and forth on their machines, tearing up the154ground.I was thrilled and excited about this–we needed a garden and even though Irecognized that we had moved into someone else's habitat, I figured our small piece ofland wasn't too intrusive. After all, the bears and coyotes and deer and elk had the rest ofthe mountainside above us, what wasn't logged or burnt over. I worked beside themachines all one day, piling branches against the stumps so we could have a good big firewhen everything dried out, picking rocks and sticks and clods of brush out of the graymountain soil.But the noise of the machines bothered me. The Cat made a high-pitched squealthat sound like a child crying far away. It kept surprising me, I'd be working away andthen I'd hear this baby crying and I'd look up but it was just the machines, snorting andpuffing away and belching blue smoke into the air. After a while, I went in the house butI could still hear it, over and above the machine noise, even through the thick log walls ofour house. I was relieved when the machines quit and I could get down to what I knewbest, planting, weeding, mulching, and harvesting.After we first moved in, bears and coyotes used to come by to see what we weredoing to the neighbourhood, but they soon found out we weren't such good neighbours –too many dogs and too much noise and smoke – and stayed away.But the ospreys came – there were at least four osprey nests close to the housebecause below the mountainside on which our place was perched was about 3000 acres ofswamp – a diked-off wildlife reserve at the south end of Kootenay Lake. Whenever wewent for a walk on the mountain or to the neighbouring farm, the ospreys followed us,winging in lazy circles over our heads unless one of us pointed a camera or binoculars at155them, and then they'd somehow disappear straight up into thin air until they were onlytiny black specks in the high atmosphere. As soon as the camera or binocularsdisappeared, they'd return, playing and sliding back and forth on invisible wind currents.They didn't mind us. All they needed was fish and wind and a tall tree in which to put anest. I often thought, however anthropomorphically, that they must feel sorry for us, soearth bound and slow.We had every right, we thought as well, to tear up the ground and the trees andmake a garden. We played at being pioneers, doing everything by hand, living with anouthouse, no running water, scrounging food from my parent's farm, and growing bits ofour own. Farming was what I knew and what I wanted– although I realized early on thatthis mountain clearing would never be a farm– but it could be a home.Eventually, we made a place for ourselves and our children that we loved dearly –a kind of fortress refuge place, a log house perched on the edge of a cliff, with a lawn andfruit trees and garden in a kind of hollow behind it, and then the mountain rising sharply,just past the edge of the lawn, where skinny fir trees leaned over our driveway. Ourneighbours were far enough away that we couldn't hear them. Even the noise from thehighway below was distant and muffled. The main noises were birds, ducks, swans andgeese in the swamp, and at night, the wind in the tall firs. Our driveway was actually theremains of the old tote road, which still ran along the mountainside for about five miles.The dilapidated but still intact log cabin on our nearest neighbour's piece of landhad belonged to Alan’s grandfather. The land we lived on was originally part of his landgrant, about 800 acres of mountainside and swamp. The highway below us had once beena railway bed. Vestiges of recent history were all around us. The trees on our land had156grown up past the tall still-standing stumps left by the first loggers.But there were very little signs of the life that aboriginal people had once lived inthis area. Along the shores of Kootenay Lake, on flat granite rock faces, are drawingsmade with red ochre. There was one by the beach where I had grown up. It was onRedman’s Point– a pictograph of a red man with a halo around his head that looked likesunrays. Just past the point, under a shelf of overhanging rocks was another set of fadedpictographs.Little is known about pictographs, which are hidden on rock faces and bouldersall up and down both sides of the lakes throughout the Kootenays. I once asked aKtunaxa elder about them and he laughed gently and said maybe they were places peoplewent to have visions or dreams or maybe they were just good places to hang out andcatch fish.One of the legends about Kootenay Lake is that the native people never livedthere – they went there to fish, to hunt, to catch sturgeon, but they didn't live therebecause the energy was too strong. The same legend floats around about other places –about Nelson, or New Denver – to explain why the Sinixt people who once lived thereleft and went south.My first poetry book came out. Julian made good on his promise. He organized abook launch and a party in Victoria and my friend Joan came with me. We drove backdown out of the hills, and across the ferry to Victoria. People congratulated both me andJulian. For the first time in my life, I felt the possibility of writing as an actual career, notjust a dream. But I was also terrified of the book, of the label writer, of the judgment of157real writers who I was sure were somewhere out there in the world, laughing at myefforts. And then we got back in our tiny red Ford Cortina that coughed as it trundled itsway back up the five mountain passes between the coast and the Kootenays. We cameover the Blueberry Polson pass in a blinding snowstorm late at night but finally, we madeit home and I went back to being a mother, a housewife, a gardener and a farmer.As always, the mountains called me out every day to walk. I had always been awalker, ever since I started running away when I was three in Riondel. There is apowerful pleasure in walking through country that is always familiar and always new. Allmy life, when I came home from school, after tea with my mother, I would go first to thelake. There was always a moment, every day, when I came out of the trees and onto thelakeshore, the sun bouncing off the water and rocks, hitting my eyes, waking me up. If Icouldn’t walk, I couldn’t breathe. Near our place, there was a little bump on the side of the mountain above thehighway called Mt. Pedro. From there, I could look north, could see the farm squattedbelow the spine of mountain that ended in Red Man's Point, could see west over the riverchannel below, into the swamp past the fringe of brittle cottonwoods where there was agolden eagle’s nest I could never find, though I was pretty sure I knew about where itought to be.A lot of animals came up to the bald and mossy top of Mt. Pedro. Perhaps theyliked the view. There was nothing else to tempt them up there. But in winter, there wasalways a line of deer tracks and coyote tracks coming up through the long slope of moss158on the north side. Mt. Pedro wasn’t actually on our land and at one point, it was boughtby someone who noised it about in the community that he was going to use it for visionquests or some such thing. When I went up there after we moved back from University,there was a round circle of rocks in the middle of the one grassy flat place.Now, my brother and I had gone to great effort when we were younger to makesure that every loose rock we could find had been rolled off the top of Mt. Pedro. In fact,at one point we’d even brought crowbars with us to make doubly sure. One side of themountain was sheer cliff, with a gully at the bottom that caught the rocks before they hitthe road. Our ambition was to somehow roll a rock big enough so it would go through thegully and hit the road but we never did.It took me most of the afternoon to roll those rocks off the cliff and into the gullyand some of them were huge. I was amazed that whoever it was had managed to get themup the hill and onto the top of Mt. Pedro. But I doubted he would try it again.I went there almost every day. After we had stared around for a while, the dogsand I would pick our way down the northern side of rocks, through the thick grey-greenmoss that layered its slick granite, down through the cedars, across the highway and intothe swamp as the south end of the lake.The swamp was a place of never-ending exploration for the dogs and me; the claybank by the river was full of holes where the beavers denned; the willow thicketssheltered herds of whitetail deer. We would wander past the Rat Slough full of rattlingcattails, across Boulder Creek, through the slim new forest of alder and cottonwood thathad grown up since the lake levels were changed by the building of the Libby Dam. Andthen out onto the long finger of sand and mud that stretched out from the mouth of the159river into the lake itself. There was always a wind blowing and the lake stretched awaylike an ocean.Once, when I was small and we were all out looking for the cows, my fatherbrought us to this riverbank in the boat. He landed us on this sandy bank and handed uspoles.“Don’t stand in one place,” he said, “or you’ll sink.”It was true, if I stood in one place long enough, water would seep through the thinskin of dried mud and I would begin to sink. I could make vast sinkholes of mud in thesandbar just by moving my feet every few minutes. When I jumped up and down, thewhole sandbar shook like jelly.I would always make it home from these expeditions by the time the kids got offthe school bus, and then after they had exploded into the house in a welter of lunch kitsand jackets, after the TV and the stereo had both gone on, and they eaten whatever snacksand food I had set out for them, I would go outside to work in the garden until it was timeto make dinner.For as much as I loved the house, the land, the garden, our fortress oasis, I wasrestless and I couldn’t make the restlessness go away. Words and stories and poems cameand just as quickly, went. Sometimes I wrote in the mornings after the kids left, but thehouse was such chaos, spilled milk and cereal dripping off the counters, at least two loadsof laundry to be done every day and hung out to dry, dishes piled in stacks on the stillunfinished counters, beds to be made, flies and dust and sawdust and piles of paper to begotten rid of, the woodstove to be filled, wood to be split and carried in, that I could onlysteal an hour or so before my conscience got the better of me. And outside there were the160chickens, the garden, the lawn, and the flowerbeds. My mother phoned every day to see ifI wanted to come for coffee. She was lonely but my mother had always been lonely.Sometimes I wrote at night, or I wrote in the bathtub. I put things in the mail,poems, and stories and sometimes they got published. Whenever I went to town forgroceries, I always went to the bakery. There was something about the irresistiblecombination of coffee and sugar and the hum of conversation that would let me write.But I could only steal half an hour away–there was always much to be done, and usuallysome kids needing to be picked up from somewhere.There is also something deadly and disheartening about sitting in a bakery in themiddle of a grey afternoon, with country music coming through the scratchy distantspeakers, with trucks grumbling by on the pavement, still dusty with leftover grit and saltfrom winter, with the usual tables full of retired elderly men who met there everyafternoon, or mothers with small fussing children stuffing their mouths with sugar, oroccasionally, people like me, sitting alone and staring out the window. But I was alwaysthe only one with a notebook, or even a book.I watched the trucks and the tourists race by, on their way to somewhere else.There was always somewhere else. There was still so much I didn’t know. I didn’t knowabout the world, or about how to be a writer, or about how to be a part of something.On every trip to town, I went to the library. I kept a list of books on order at thelibrary. The librarian usually disappeared into her office when I showed up, leaving avolunteer to deal with my endless requests. Fortunately, one of the library volunteers wasmy former high school English teacher who sympathized with my need for books. Thenearest bookstore was two hours away, and whenever I got a chance, I went there and161bought books and magazines I couldn’t afford. Books piled up beside the bed, spilledover onto the floor, climbed up the walls, threatened to become compost on the floor. Iread and read into the night, while my husband slept beside me.I read in the morning while I got the kids off to school and I read in the bathtub orin the car when I was waiting for someone to get out of soccer practice and I read while Iwas waiting anywhere for anything.There were no jobs in the town. Occasionally I got a few part-time jobs but theynever lasted. A job came up at one of the local papers and I sent in my resume. The editorcalled me to come and see her.I went in her office and sat down.“You know we can’t hire you,” she said. “I think you understand why.”No, I didn’t actually. I was the only person I knew in the area with an actualdegree in writing and journalism. Was that what she meant? I stared at her. She wouldn’tmeet my eyes. I left, knowing there was nothing to be said.The other newspaper in town was dying. I worked there for a while. I threw outall the whiskey bottles stashed in various drawers and stayed up all night writing theentire paper on the ancient phototypesetter that spit out long strips of paper that were thenwaxed and laid on the layout sheets. Eventually I added up the revenue from the few adsthat were still coming in and the cost of actually printing the paper. They were far apart inthe wrong direction.A new woman had come to town. She was working for the other newspaper. Shecalled me one day to ask if I wanted to help her organize a women’s conference. “We’llmake it about women and writers, like that women and words conference they had at the162coast” she said.“How do we do that?”“The government will give us money,” she said. I was amazed. I couldn’t imaginethe government doing such a thing.The new woman didn’t stay long. She was far too smart and far too ambitious.She went off and got a job at the Vancouver Sun. She left me with an unfinished grantapplication and a desperate desire to be part of a women writer’s community.I drove to Cranbrook to the women’s centre to see if any of this fantastic idea waseven possible.I spent the afternoon there and came home with an application asking thegovernment to send me $10,000 to organize a conference on women and words, part ofwhich would pay me to do such a thing. Apparently I had to have something called aboard so I asked various friends if they would call themselves board members. Since Iassured them it wouldn’t be any work, they all agreed.I had no idea how to organize a conference but I figured it out one step at a time. Ibooked all the rooms in a motel in downtown Creston, organized speakers, made abudget, hired caterers, advertised the thing and waited with some terror to see if anyonewould show up. Women did–they came from all over the Kootenays. They came to theworkshops, applauded the speakers, thronged to the dinner, ate the lunch, and went homeagain. I spent the whole weekend in a daze, appalled and delighted at what I had done.When the conference was done, I fled with relief back to the mountainside, to ourunfinished log house and back to walking, brooding, reading, and trying to bring order163into the chaos of six people living in a small unfinished log house with no running water.But the idea had caught on. A group of women wanted to do the whole thing all overagain in Nelson. I began going there two or three times a week, a long two-hour drivethere and back. Usually I caught the last ferry home and usually I was the only car on thelast ferry, driving the thirty miles home through untracked snow, crawling along,following my own lights through the blackness up the hill to the warmth and silence ofhome.I had a computer by now. And we finally had running water. The fall before wehad hand dug our way through a quarter mile of rotten granite and dirt, laid the blackplastic pipe in the trench, covered it with sawdust and filled it in. It was a miracle–nomore heating water on the stove in the mornings so the kids could wash their hair, nomore hauling water in plastic buckets, no more trips to the outhouse in the middle of thefreezing night.The second conference went well. I read some poetry. After I finished reading, theaudience all stood up and applauded. I fled the stage, the applause, the attention. I endedthe evening wandering through the empty rooms of the college where we had organizedthe conference, struggling in a drunken daze to remember how to lock everything up,going to my room and doubling over with anguish and nausea and fear. Who had thosepeople been applauding? One of the women at the conference was a well-knownwriter–she had congratulated me on my poetry, she had held my hand and looked into myeyes and said, “Send me some work. I’d like to read it.”When I went home this time, I tried to go back to walking and doing laundry and164making dinner but a new person was looking out of my eyes. A new person lay in bedevery night, reading, turning over, restless, sometimes getting up to go downstairs andread by the fire.Even when I went walking, shadows followed me. I tried to out-walk them butthey ran ahead of me. Some days the discontent lifted and I could breathe.I went back to what I had done in high school, wandering through the woodslooking for silence, trying to connect to the other inhabitants of the mountain we lived on.I had been practicing walking up to animals for most of my life, cows and horses andthen wild animals, porcupines, skunks and wasps.I had first discovered this ability from the hours spent in the orchard picking fruit.When the cherries or plums got over-ripe, every insect in the neighbourhood smelled thecall to food and when my father insisted we pick the stuff, we shared the tree with wasps,hornets, fat bumblebees, ants and many other types of flying crawling creatures. Underthese conditions, each piece of fruit became a negotiation; if I went slowly, asked bymoving my hand for permission, the wasps and hornets would amiably move over andgive me room. It was a tense process; I hated getting stung. I swelled up for weeks, mystung arm or hand turned bright red and fiery with itch. But after a while, I got blaséabout hornets and wasps. I used to sit still and let them crawl on my arms and hands, orput my head down on the table and watch them eat pieces of fruit, chewing methodicallyfrom side to side with their strong tiny jaws.When my husband and I began building our log house, it was a dry hot summer.There were yellow jacket nests everywhere; the kids got caught once crawling through165the brush below the house and my youngest son came home with dozens of stings.When I went for a walk, I listened carefully for the angry buzz that would let meknow there was a nest. There was pile of lumber near the house that needed to be moved,and as soon as I went close to it, I saw one or two black hornets flying lazy circles in thesummer sun. Soon I located the nest, hanging underneath the edge of a board, a papercastle, a domed retreat of shadow and myriad hidden passages. As I went closer, a fewmore hornets came out and flew in circles around me, a couple landed on my clothes andcrawled up hands and arms, smelling and testing this intruder. When I stepped back, theyleft. Their language was a precise etymology of space and distance. I began visiting thenest on a regular basis that summer, and on each visit, they allowed me to get a bit closer.I would sit on the ground, a couple of feet from the next, as they went out their privatehornet lives. When fall came, I didn’t go back for a while, and when I did, the nest was adry rattling empty husk.I began to realize that in building our house and clearing trees, we had profoundlyaffected the neighbourhood. Every fall, the abandoned orchard next door on theMannarino place attracted bears–they had been coming there since my parents abandonedthe place; now my children got off the school bus every day and walked up the long hillpast the orchard. One day they began telling about the twin bear cubs that met them everyday after school. They said the cubs seemed to want to play.The next day, I called the dogs and wandered down the long hill, under theyellowing alders and maples, past the orchard. The dogs took off, barking, and the motherbear streaked across the road in front of me. She paced beside me, just inside the trees,chopping her jaws, so I called the dogs back, grabbed them by their collars, and went on166down the hill, assuming she would leave.But when the kids piled down off the bus and we started up the hill, she was stillthere, pacing back and forth across the road. Since a gaggle of kids, two dogs, and agrown human are a lot for an angry black bear to withstand; I knew something else wasup. I sent the kids and the dogs back down the hill and looked around until I spotted thetwo small bundles of black fur high up in an enormous fir tree that leaned out over theroad.“Get your babies,” I called to her, with no faith that she understood the words,but, knowing she would understand a language of distance, I retreated slowly down thehill, still talking, and when I was far enough away, she went to the fir tree and bawled tothe babies, who skidded down the tree as fast as they could go. Then her familydisappeared into the trees and my family and I went home as well. We never saw heragain.Animals floated in and through our lives all the time. Dogs, cats, horses, chickens,came and stayed.The chickens, in particular, created their own strange ecosystem. We got a fewbantie chickens and stuck them into their newly prepared chicken house, from which theypromptly escaped. One by one, that spring, they disappeared and I assumed that a skunkor a weasel or a coyote had done away with them, and then one by one, they reappeared,followed by a dozen or so adorably fluffy and cute baby chicks. A bantie mother is aformidably dedicated creature with a lot of enemies. The hawks and owls and eagles fromthe swamp circled our small yard; ravens sat in the fir trees above the driveway and167yelled messages to each other about the free food. While the chicks were small, themothers kept them under brush and under cover. The dogs and I kept watch during theday, and at night I herded those chicks and mothers I could find into the chicken shed andlocked them up. But as the chicks grew, the mothers became more determined to teachthem how to roost properly, as bantie chicken should, in a tree.Nightly the owls came and nightly chickens disappeared but bantie mothers areboth persistent and prolific. And I was determined. I strung twine and nets over thebushes; grimly every night I tried to herd them back into their safe warm chicken shed.Despite the nightly owl raids, new bantie mothers kept appearing from under boards andbushes with new hoards of baby chicks. I came out of the house one afternoon and lookedinto the trees. Our silent yard was ringed by hawks, sitting in the tops of trees. Thechickens were all squatting under cover. As I stood in the middle of the yard, a smallhawk, obviously overwrought by the situation, launched itself at my head. It pulled up atthe last minute when it realized I wasn’t a chicken but its wings grazed my cheek. Itsounded like a small jet as it went by.I borrowed a 22 rifle from my father but I felt ridiculous, sitting out thereguarding my chickens. In fact, I couldn’t really decide whose side I was on, the hawks orthe chickens. I had created an ecological nightmare and it was just going to have to playitself out. Which it did, slowly. After a while, the chicken population dwindled to a fewdiscouraged individuals that I managed to keep penned in the shed. The hawks and owlswent away. I took the rifle back. I realized I didn’t have the heart to make a real farmhere in the woods. I was squatting here in someone else’s home.168 I had started another novel and it crawled on. Outside, the world was full offerment. I read more magazines, more books. I began to go to meetings, peace meetings,and environmental meetings. Every day I looked at the beauty of the world I walkedthrough–then I read images of terror and pain. Nuclear weapons, ecological devastation,women marching on Ottawa, meetings and letters and dead animals and visions ofmushroom clouds. One night, I found my son hiding under his bed.“Why are you sleeping under there?”“In case of the bomb,” he said.I promised him–it was all I could do–that I wouldn’t let the bombs fall.From our house perched on the cliff, looking out of the trees and the swamp, Icould look out over the blue Selkirk Mountains and imagine a world where people werebusy changing things. I kept going to meetings, lots of meetings. There had been a groupin the town that I used to go to when the kids and I were on our own, the Survival Groupit was called. It had several teachers in it that used to be my high school teachers andother people I had gone to school with as well as my friend Carol and me. It was my firstexperience of belonging to a political organization and it was the first time I found outthat if you volunteered for something, you could end up pretty fast being in charge of it.At that time, BC Hydro had a plan to build a diversionary canal between theKootenay River and the Columbia River where they flow down out of the RockyMountains within a mile of each other. On paper in Vancouver, the plan probably madesense. It would have sent a lot more water flowing through the dams on the Columbia169River, both in Canada and the US, and that would, of course generate more power. Itmade financial sense as well, as long as no one took into account the flooding of ahundred miles of productive wetland that fills the valley bottom from Canal Flats toGolden. Or what would happen to Kootenay Lake if it suddenly lost eighty percent of itswater flow. We began to write letters and hold meetings, driving hundreds of miles inwinter to meetings in Invermere or Cranbrook.One summer we organized a meeting in our tiny local community of Boswell, inthe ancient Quonset hut that served as the community hall. All the locals, young or old,came and made speeches. Even my father made a speech. And for no particular reasonthat we ever figured out, soon after that the project was cancelled. But I always liked tothink it had something to do with people like our neighbour, seventy year old, whitehaired Charlie Wilson, Alan’s dad, standing and declaring, “Well, I’ll lay down in frontof them bulldozers myself if I have to stop this thing.”Now I looked at the fear in my son’s eyes and I kept on reading and writing andtalking to my friends. The more I thought about, the more absurd nuclear weaponsbecame. I read Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth. I signed up for peace newslettersand the more I read, the more it seemed obvious that if enough people simply pointed outhow ridiculous the whole notion of nuclear war is, well, of course the government, whichafter all, was democratically elected, would listen, and then would change.In 1985, there was a series of women’s peace conferences leading up to aninternational conference in Nairobi organized by the United Nations. It seemed prettyimpossible, given the tiny amounts of money Len and I were living on, but I decided togo to the women’s conference in Halifax. I had no money at all for such a thing but in170those days, nothing much fazed me. I still had a lot of faith that if I wanted to dosomething badly enough, it was probably possible.I got bits of money here and there, and my friend Carol, now working as a dentalhygienist, always faithful and loving, chipped in with enough to buy the $800 round tripticket to Halifax. Len drove me to the airport and I walked away from my kids and myfamily and my house and flew away. I somehow made it through the airport in Torontoand got on the right plane to Halifax and got off the plane and there was a sign sayingHalifax Women’s Peace conference, which was great because I hadn’t realized theHalifax airport was twenty miles out in the woods and I had no idea where the conferencewas.When we went to get into the van, the other women there introduced themselvesand one who was blond and whose name I had heard on CBC radio looked at my ancientbackpack into which I had crammed my few good clothes and said, “Oh, goingcamping?”I couldn’t think of anything to say. I might as well have had hayseeds in my hair.The other women were from Toronto and had smart luggage and great haircuts andbeautiful suits.When we got to the university, we were shown to our rooms and then I unpackedand stood by the window for a while and wondered what I was doing so far from thewoods and so far from home.I thought of hiding in my room for the whole four days but then I got hungry andwent to find the cafeteria. It was full of women. I hesitated in the doorway, then171wandered towards the food table. As I was standing in line, the woman ahead of measked my name and where I was from. She was from Denman Island. She had read apiece I had written in some peace newsletter. When we sat down with our loaded plates, Iwas soon introduced to a whole group of women. Perhaps I wouldn’t have to hide in myroom after all.At some point in the conference, I found myself sitting with a group of womenwho had volunteered to write the statement from the conference that would be presentedto the United Nations. We argued for about three hours and then after everyone had goneto bed, I found a typewriter somewhere and wrote what I thought everyone had beensaying and left copies of it for the group to read.When I staggered into breakfast the next morning, everyone stood up and cheered.That afternoon, I stood and read the statement to the assembled group of five hundredwomen from around the world. The next morning, very early, I got back on a plane andflew home again, wondering just where I had been and what had been accomplished.I went back to what I had been doing; writing in bits and pieces of my life. Iplanted the garden and went for coffee and long walks with my mother and waited everyday for the kids to come home from school.There was a herd of elk living that winter on the other side of the river.Occasionally I could see them from the house, brown shadows moving slowly along thebank or disappearing into the wall of cottonwood and willow. One day, I went downthere to have a look. I went across the old railroad trestle and down the embankment tothe sand. I had left the dogs at home.172The wind was blowing hard down the river and the elk couldn’t smell mealthough they could see me coming. They watched me all the way down the bank until Iwas only a hundred feet from them. They trotted back and forth, sniffing the air andsnorting at it, while I stood. I stood still and stared out at the river.When they went back to grazing, I moved each foot, one at a time, as slowly as Icould, until I was about ten feet from them. By now they had decided I was probablynothing more interesting than a slow moving tree and went back to grazing on the dryyellow grass that grew out of the sandy mud, but they still weren’t sure. They keptputting their heads up to look at me, moving closer and away, trying to get a definitescent a sense of who or what I was. We danced slowly together, moving side by side. Istared at their delicate noses, their flickering ears, their round bright eyes. I was nearthem but not of them. I was also slightly terrified. I was conscious that they had largehoofs, long legs, that if they wanted to turn on me and stomp me into the ground, it wasentirely possible for them to do so. I didn’t think they would but finally, the sense oftrespass, of wrongness, was too much for me. I began to move backwards and away, andthey, who had been suspicious all along, now had their suspicions confirmed. Theysnorted indignantly at being fooled and trotted, hoofs clicking, into the trees and I wenthome.That autumn, I got a job in Edmonton, running a women's organization, and onceagain, I dragged my reluctant and unhappy family away with me.Chapter Ten:173Three years later, I got an offer to teach at a First Nations college. Len wasstudying nursing in Kamloops and I was working at the Women’s Centre there. The timein Edmonton had left scars. The women’s movement, from which I had learned so muchand in which I placed so much hope and trust, was fragmenting, disintegrating amidaccusations of racism, classism, and political incorrectness. I had sat in a room andwatched the organization for which I had worked pull itself apart, everyone demandingthat it go in a different direction.Len had left after the first year. He had decided he needed a new career directionas well, and had enrolled in the nursing program at Cariboo College in Kamloops. I leftEdmonton, took the boys, and went back to the log house. The girls had left for universityin Vancouver. The boys and I spent a long and lonesome fall while I tried to come toterms with my disintegrating life. The job in Kamloops seemed like a lifesaver but I wastired of the women’s movement, tired of feminism. Len was involved with school. Thejob at the First Nations college came as an exciting invitation to a new area of awareness.I tried to remember what I knew or what I understood about First Nations peopleMostly, I remembered Mabel's O’Neil’s warm round face and riding wild horses and thenight I ran away to live with the O'Neils. I had always identified with being somethinglike an Indian; through my childhood reading, I had cobbled together fragments ofidentity, the person I most wanted to be resembled a crazy quilt combination of RobinHood, Annie Oakley, Huckleberry Finn, and Crazy Horse. There were all those childhooddreams of running away, of hiding in the wood. There was the wandering around with ahatchet, a 22 rifle, and a can opener to heat my beans over the fire.174 But I didn't know much about real Indians, other than what I had read, thestandard Canadian and American history, sad stories of loss. I hadn't taught much before either. In Edmonton, I had taught writing in theUniversity extension program and I had read lots of books about teaching writing and Ithought I could invent the rest. After all, inventing and playing a role was still what Ithought I did best.So I really I wasn't sure what to expect when I started teaching at the First Nationscollege.During the first class that fall, I thought maybe we could go out in the bright sunand have a storytelling session, get to know each other, practice the concept ofstorytelling. When I suggested it, people were hesitant. But after a lot of fussing over thegrasshoppers and whether the women would get grass stains and pine needles on theirskirts, we settled down on a grassy knoll under a pine tree to tell stories about our lives.Three hours later, we were still there. We had used two boxes of Kleenex and I felt likemy skin had been burnt off. All my years of working in the women's movement hadn'tprepared me for these stories. When we finished, I went back to the campsite where I wasstaying until I could find a house. I wandered along the beach in the blazing sun, staring,stupefied, at the twisted fire varnished roots of ancient trees, the lava rocks. Finally Iwent and lay in the water and let it float me away. I felt like I had been given a load ofburning stones to carry. I let them sink to the bottom.Over the next two years, I tried to get used to horrific stories. Much as I loved thework and the people, I knew I wasn't going to be able to stay long. My uneasiness at175being a white person standing at the front of a classroom of native people grew. Idutifully went to sweats when I was invited. A women’s healing circle started meeting atmy house. I sat on the beach below the beautiful cabin I had rented on Nicola Lake,tended the fire, the only white face, while women I worked with talked about their livesand wept in the light of the flames.One day I went for lunch with my friend Sandra. She was a Tsimshian woman,who had grown up in Port Simpson, north of Prince Rupert but had gone away to schoolin Vancouver when she was twelve. She had started the healing circle that met at myhouse. We had banded together against the strange manipulations of the administration. Iadmired her immensely. She was beautiful, well educated, with an amazing instinct forfiguring out what was really going on around her. We usually had fairly raucous lunches,a group of us would grab a table and then other people from the college would show up,students, colleagues, and friends.But today was different. The cafe was quiet when we came in. We ordered ourfood and sat down and then someone handed Sandra and I that day's edition of theVancouver Sun. There had been a famous court case wending its way through the BCSupreme Court, and now the judge had handed down his ruling in case that has becomeknown as Delgamuuk.Judge McEachern's ruling was negative. He ruled that the Gistkaan Wetsuotenpeople didn’t have title to their traditional lands. Silence descended over the small cafe aswe all read the paper. Sandra began to cry. I sat there feeling stupid, wondering what tosay and unable to think of anything. But gradually, another feeling came wandering by,176unexpected and confusing. It was a feeling of being a trespasser, an intruder. Politically Iwas aware of and the issues involved but this was a feeling of something older, deeperand unbridgeable. It was the fact of our race, and our history.No matter how much I understood, and how much I sympathized, history stoodbetween us. We could be friends in spite of it, allies even, we could understand eachother but the facts of history are cold, implacable and unshakeable. We went back towork and continued our friendship but something had changed, something had awoken inme, questions I couldn’t answer. I had always been so sure of my place in the world, ofbelonging to a particular place, a particular piece of land. I had thought that would giveme commonality with First Nations people. So where did this sense of intrusion, of non-belonging come from? And what should I do with it?Sometime much later, I was walking along the beach by the lake with a group ofstudents. For some obscure scheduling reason, I was trying to teach an English class onFriday afternoons. Everyone else in the school packed up at noon and went home and Iwas desperate to try anything to keep people in class and keep their attention. But myinventiveness had limits. So today I had proposed we walk along the shore to the site ofan old pit house. It wasn't far and it might give us something new to write about.But it felt so odd, walking through the sun with people whose ancestors hadalways lived here. Always. Whose ancestors might have built the pit house we weregoing to see. It wasn't that they knew any more about the place than I did. I had studied it,written about it, talked about it. But they knew it differently than me. One woman remarked casually about having her grandmother's memories ofwhere to go on this particular hillside to pick berries. Dust piled in my mouth. I wanted to177lie down on the sand.No – more than that, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be at home, I wanted tofind my home and belong there; no more wandering. If she had her grandmother'smemories, what memories did I have? I had the O'Neils, and the farm. I had wild horsestearing through my dreams, my grandmother's fingers tearing at my hair, trying to get thesnarls out of it, her voice tearing at me, her condemnation of what I loved.I knew I had stumbled over a central crucial dilemma, not only in my life but inmany people’s lives. I had read what First Nations people had to say about the meaningand importance of the land in their lives. I had thought I understood it. Now I realizedthere were depths and layers of understanding that might not be accessible to me,however well-meaning and well behaved I was. I had sat in meetings with thoughtfulecologists and environmentalists and heard them use the term Mother Earth over and overwithout questioning. Now I began to wonder where this term had come from and if wereally knew, as white people, what it meant. I had tried to talk about my attachment to thefarm, to the Kootenays, to the lake to a few friends and had been met with politeincomprehension. When I said I didn’t want to live anywhere else, people often looked atme skeptically. After all, I wasn’t living there. So what was I talking about?When I first got the job in Merritt at the First Nations College, I tried commutingfrom Kamloops but it was too far. I rented a small cabin on the shores of Nicola Lake andspent the weekends with Len and the boys in Kamloops.After they brought my stuff to the cabin and drove away I walked in the door and178was met with silence. I had never lived alone. I went to the Safeway in Merritt to buygroceries and wandered the shelves, unable to think of what I might want to eat. Foralmost twenty years, I had cooked for other people and had eaten what I made for them. Ihad no idea what I actually liked to eat, apart from tea, popcorn, and donuts.In the evenings, the silence in the cabin was deafening. I was so used to voices,the fridge door opening and closing, the stereo fighting with the television, kidscomplaining, fighting, talking, singing. To fill the silence, I started a novel. I stared outthe window at Nicola Lake, which in the fall, was full of gold tints from the bright yellowof the poplars on the hills. In the morning, before I left for school, a family of beavercame by. A brilliant male loon lived in the bay. A pair of golden eagles lived in a pinetree up the hill. It wasn’t Kootenay Lake but it was familiar.Len graduated from nursing school and moved back to Creston. I didn’t go withhim. I sat by the window while my life crumbled and kept on writing.When I arrived at the college I had been away from the farm for over five years,moving and working and trying desperately to stay connected to my family and mymarriage. But I was still a patchwork person, full of dreams and ideas, still desperate aswell to be a writer, even though, by now, I had published a book of poems as well as lotsof stories and journalism, I still hesitated to name myself writer, still didn't feel part ofany kind of writing fellowship, and still didn't know what I was doing with my life.During my first day at the college, I met a woman who was just leaving. "Thisplace is a glorified residential school," she said. I had no idea what she meant but duringmy three years there, I began to get a glimpse of what she had meant.179I had spent my time at the college trying to figure out what was going on, tryingto analyze the politics and find a place within a racial and political complexity. I haddone what I knew how to do – I had read all the books I could get my hands on aboutFirst Nations people. I had read books about racism and the history of white and FirstNations encounters. And I had tried to figure out what to I was supposed to do.And I had listened and listened hard to the women who met at my cabin, who sataround the fire on the beach below the cabin, while the black lake water lipped at thesand and I realized for the first time that I knew almost nothing of who I was in terms ofbeing part of something, part of a family, part of a community, a tribe, a history, a people.I was amazed that I didn't know this. Where were the stories, I wondered, of the peoplewho had left wherever they had left and come to Canada? Why, in a family that livedinside stories, didn't I know the stories and the history, even about my greatgrandparents?After I left the college, I began looking for answers to the many questions abouthistory and memory that my time there had engendered.Eventually, I found the history of my father’s family, of the Borderers, ScottishReivers, outlaws, a people with a darkly romantic history.The Borderers were famous as riders, men and women whose lives, whoselivelihood, depended on their horses. I read that they lived by raiding their neighbours,riding their sturdy black horses. I remembered galloping Lady to the top of the hill in the orchard, waving mysword. We didn't have television so where I got my models for the games of chargingcavalry I played out in my head I'm not sure. They were like echoes of something far180away and long forgotten. Lady carried those echoes for me and then I carried them awayfrom the college, back to the farm, into the future, and across the ocean.I went with a friend to England and then to the border of Scotland. I felt like acombination of a foolish grinning tourist and an idiot child, journeying through England.I felt like was living through my childhood– it wasn't England or the English I was seeingbut stories and legends. I was living inside all those books.When I told my hosts in Carlisle, in Cumbria in northern England where I wantedto go, they laughed. "No one lives up there," they said. But that's where we went.We drove past stone walls and over arched stone bridges, into hills polka-dottedwith tree plantations. We went through villages with brick and stone houses, past farmsand sheep and hedges.It was May and the slopes and hills were layered with daffodils, bending in thewind and the rain."Damn flowers," said the young man who had been coerced into driving me."They're everywhere, bloody fools are always planting them, something to do with somepoet."We found the cemetery eventually, a rough patch of ground on a high hill,surrounded by rock walls and fields full of daffodils. There was barely a house in sight.The wind blew hard up the hill and rain fell in my face. I wandered from stone to stone,reading the inscriptions, so many Armstrongs about whom I knew nothing, except for bitsand pieces of stories and legends and songs.181The young man who had driven me there stomped his feet and swore at the rain."Let's get back to England,” he said, "back to civilization."But I was sitting on the ground in the rain, smiling to myself. The wind blew upthe hill towards me from the names of my reading, the names of the stories, from theLiddell Water, from Mangerton Farm, from Newcastleton, from the fells and dales andswamps of my history.I sat on the grass. I listened to the rooks as they wheeled and shook the sky withtheir announcement that a stranger was here. I sat and sat without moving, withoutthinking, I was nothing. I was happy. And I was thinking about those black horses andthe people who had ridden them. I knew a little more about belonging, I thought, but notyet, nearly enough.Chapter Eleven:Finally, I came home again. The job at the college was clearly over. I had gotteninto a war with the administration. I had gone to the principal at the college with some ofthe stories of racism that I had heard from other First Nations students and staff. Heannounced that there was no racism or sexism at the college because the college’sconstitution forbade it. But I asked permission to organize an anti-racism workshopanyway. Everyone hated it and everyone felt hurt at the end. My friends from thewomen’s circle had talked, had told their stories. The coordinators did the exercises theyhad developed to raise awareness. None of it worked. The workshop was summarized byone First Nations woman who was married to a white man. “We should just all try and be182friends,” she said.After that, the administration didn’t fire me, they just made my work lifeuntenable until I quit. I said goodbye to the beautiful cabin on Nicola Lake that had beenmy refuge for three years; I packed everything in my car and came home, once more, tothe farm. The week after I got there, my mother picked up a saucepan and walked acrossthe yard, and moved into the new log house which my father had been intermittentlybuilding since I was a child. None of us had ever expected him to finish it but one day,magically, it was done. It was new. My mother, for the first time in her life, had neweverything, a new stove, new fridge, new drapes, new dishwasher.The old farm house, the house in which I had grown up, and which my motherand father had once made homey and comfortable, was now mine but it sulked after theyleft. I sat at night beside my computer, afraid to go to bed.I loved the old house, but all our lives we had joked about it being haunted. WhenI first moved home, every evening the cat I had brought with me sat and stared down thehall, hissed and spat. I tiptoed down the hall and crawled into bed, tucked the blanketsaround me, hoping now to see any strange white shapes.My mother had always loved to tell ghost stories. My children used to gatheraround her at night while she told them about Jimmy’s ghost on the Mannarino place, orabout the ghost that tried to smother her. She sat up in bed the next night with her Bibleand it went away. One night, she said, she sat up in bed and saw an enormous cat withglowing green eyes sitting on the chair beside her. By the time she woke my father, thecat had flowed like smoke off the chair and away.183When my kids used to come home from Mom’s to the trailer, they had to go bythe place where my dad slaughtered chickens. They tiptoed by, then ran screaming,pursued by imaginary chicken ghosts.Now the old house refused to let me in. Well, I had been hanging out with FirstNations people. Had I learned anything? One night I lit sage and cedar and wanderedthrough the house, asking for peace and harmony. The cat stopped hissing and I begansleeping better. I had some money from the Canada Council. I had finished a novel andsent it to a publisher. To my amazement, they accepted it. I started another.Len lived down the road in our house; we had dinners and visits but there weretoo many shadows; we had managed to hurt each other too much by now to get past it allthough we kept on trying.At the First Nations college, there had been lots of talk about dysfunction,addiction, and general fuckedupedness. One day I went to the counseling office, clearedoff a shelf of self-help books and spent the weekend reading them, but nothing had reallymade much of an impression of me. Over the years, in the women’s movement and invarious other places, I had had a number of friends who talked about healing and otherkinds of conversation that often seemed to suggest unhappiness was all a result of wrongthinking or some kind of wrong attitude. But my unhappiness, such as it was, had alwaysseemed much more to me to be about being poor, about always having too much to do,about never having time to write, about being endlessly cold in the winter, and neverbeing able to live the life I thought I wanted to live even though it seemed to me I hadthrashed around in many directions trying to find it.Len and I were still friends, still co-parents of the kids, but we couldn’t talk to184each other anymore. I missed him endlessly but I had also spent a long time thinkingabout how incredibly bad I was at relationships. One afternoon, in my cabin at NicolaLake, I suddenly realized that I had never actually chosen to be in a relationship. I hadfallen into them for all the wrong reasons, because I was scared, or desperate, orconfused. But I had never, since High School, really lived on my own. During the fiveyear at the farm as a single mother, I leaned on my parents, my friends to survive. And Inever had five minutes to myself. Either I was working in the garden, or I was with thekids.Now I was still desperately poor but at least I had time to write. I made thediscovery that most emerging writers make; writing doesn’t pay much. After the CanadaCouncil money ran out, I tried various ways to make money and finally I began driving tothe college in Cranbrook, a round trip of 200 miles, once a week, to teach writing. Fromthis, I made $600 a month.I loved the drive. Every year, the long fall blended into winter; the gold tingedhills blended with the blue smoke from slash fires; I drove through a part of the countythat was too cold and too high to be much good for farming; there were a lot of smalldiscouraged looking places; beside the Moyie River, an abandoned trailer bled pinkfading to yellow insulation out of its guts. I drove the long distance with Mozart or PinkFloyd wailing from the stereo. At night I slid back through a black tunnel, with giantstrucks crashing through the slush, deer and elk peering from the frozen sidelines.When I got home, I'd build up the fire, crawl into bed, watch David Letterman forfive minutes, lay there listening to the snow hissing against the windows, and fallinstantly, gratefully, asleep, glad to be home, glad to be not driving anywhere for a while.185The old farmhouse had never had any insulation in the walls, and no matter howmuch wood I stuffed into the roaring furnace in the basement, it never really got warm.My father, by contrast, kept my mother, in the new house, in a state of near greenhousewarmth, and still she shivered at the slightest draft. Four or five times a day, when I waswriting, I ran went over there to get warm and drink some more coffee.A friend in Edmonton who had started a small publishing company, asked me towrite a children’s book, not a genre I had considered before but I liked it once I gotstarted. I wrote another novel, along with poems, essays. As often as I could, I threwbrown envelopes into the green mailbox across the road and then went on with my life. Ihad no income at all from April to September other than what I could make off the farmbut in summers the house filled up with people and there was always food and wine andtrips to the beach in the late afternoon. It was the life I once thought I wanted.But the dark periods, the restlessness, the itch to go somewhere else, the poverty,and the lack of recognition dragged at me. Winters were long. Some nights I stared intothe darkness and drafted suicide notes as a kind of poetry.After family dinners, I came home wrapped in loneliness. I missed my kids, Len,working, money. Depressions settled into my bones like a black core.I got up one muddy spring morning and squelched across the yard, as I did everymorning, to drink coffee with my mother. This particular morning, she looked at me andsaid, "You were such a happy child. What happened to you?" My mother always had agenius for poking a question into the most sensitive place she could find. I didn’t answer.186All I wanted was a cup of coffee and a chance to get warm.But after I went back to my house, the question burrowed its way inside like aparasite and refused to go away.I'd been writing all morning in scruffy clothes. I hadn't yet lit a fire in the ancientwoodstove, so my house was freezing. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t makeenough money as a writer to live without a constant undernote of desperation aboutthings like winter tires for my car or paying my always enormous phone bill.I’d also been noticing lately that my mother had started writing everything downin a notebook. She'd write things like "fold laundry" or "bring peaches up basement." Shenever talked about the notebook, just left it out on the table where she kept leafingthrough it. She wrote down all her grandchildren's birthdays, her sister and brother'sbirthdays. She wrote about music she liked and the names of programs on the radio butmostly she wrote down lists and lists of work.My mother’s sister had come to visit the summer before. She told us the samestories over and over. Then my mother had recently got word that she had been placed ina care home. Mom wouldn’t accept this. “They’ve locked her up because they wanted hermoney,” she said, over and over. I'd given up arguing and just nodded every time she toldme this. I drove into town that afternoon for a doctor's appointment. That spring, Icouldn't seem to shake off an endless state of pain, stiffness, and sore joints. Variousdoctors had looked at me, shaken their heads, shrugged their shoulders. I was pushinghard to finish a new book as well as keep up with the usual farm work. My niece was187living with me part of the time and I was trying to tutor her through home schooling.After the appointment, I parked in front of the restaurant where I usually hadlunch, and went in and ordered tea. My friend Nora saw me and came in to have tea withme. "Oh, look," she said. "They're towing your car away." I went back outside. The tow-truck guy was looking embarrassed. The parking ticket guy that everyone in town hated,said they were towing my truck because I had an unpaid parking ticket. Well, actually itwas my son's ticket, but that didn't matter. I never paid parking tickets. I never couldunderstand why should I pay to park on the side street of a town where there was never ashortage of parking. They didn’t need my quarter. Or, considering the number of boardedup storefronts in town that year, maybe they did.Small rural towns sometimes seem to me like spider webs spread on thelandscape. They look friendly and welcoming, set in the middle of pretty scenery, of treesand mountains and green grass. But they trap people. This town and I had never had aneasy relationship. It was a place where I had been refused jobs, a place where my kidshad hated their school. But it was also a place I was used to, that I understood. It's hard toleave a place where even the guy towing my car away calls me by name and mentionsthat he went to school with my brother.I pointed out to the parking ticket guy that I'd just come from my doctor and if Ihad to walk home and died it would be all his fault, but this made no impression on him.Finally, I wrote a bad cheque for $45 to the tow-truck driver to get him to unhitch hisshiny red tow-truck from my battered Honda, and then I went back in to finish my teawith Nora.“You know,” she said reflectively, “when we were in high school, we all hated188you. When you were stuck out in that little one-room school in Sirdar, our principal usedto go on and on about you, about how you were so smart. By the time you showed up inhigh school, we were determined to get you."I drank some more tea. Thirty years later, I thought, and the hell that had beenhigh school could still get me. But Nora was also one of the girls who had been, with hersister Eileen, one of my few pals in high school. We had been in the Drama Club togetherand we had kept our friendship after high school.After Nora left, Kaca came in and we had a late lunch. If I wanted, I could sit inthe restaurant all day like this while people came in, visited and left. Then I'd staggerhome soggy with tea and have popcorn for supper."I might move to Costa Rica," Kaca said, "or there's a job in Kazackhistan with anoil company I found online." I was jealous. Kazackhistan. That had to be more excitingthan here."Isn't there a war on there?" I said."Maybe," she said, "but that's okay. They have camels and horses. I am sure Iwould love it." Kaca was little and skinny and had crawled out of Czechoslovakia whilethe Commies still had it. Another war and a few camels wouldn't faze her.After I left the restaurant, I bought $20 worth of groceries to get me through theweek. The woman at the checkout counter in the grocery store said, "Are you writinganother book?" I mumbled something.“Well, you just keep writing them and I'll keep reading them," she said cheerfully.I took my cheese slices and stoned wheat thins and went home. My dog camerunning, thrilled to see me; he was always thrilled to see me, simply because that was189how he was made. Sometimes he was really irritating.I got the fire going and the evening looked better. There was tea, popcorn, silence,solitude, books, the dog, the cat, the consolations of my writing life. When I got cold, Iturned on a black -and -white TV, which I had bought at K-mart for $50 in 1974, whichthe kids used to watch in the trailer, then climbed into bed, under my blessed featherduvet. It was a present from my mother without which I would have long ago have beenfound, one morning, a frozen corpse. I huddled there with the pile of books andmagazines I had brought home from the library in town, while the dog snored and fartedbeside me on the rug. And all night I tossed and turned. It felt like my body was burningup from the inside.My parents' voices still resounded in my head. "Work or starve," my father hadsaid. My mother would always sigh, "Time to hoist the anchor and get to work."I had my father’s attitude toward illness, that if I ignored it, or worked harder, itwould go away. Once, years ago, I was ill with the flu. Being sick always sent me into a snarlingrage, sent trying-to-be-sympathetic Len away, silent. That was while we werehomesteading, building the log house, clearing land, working, raising four kids. Therewas always too much to do. We worked from morning until night, fell into bed, got up inthe morning, hit the ground running, did it all over again. We took our strength, ourbodies' ability to keep up and keep going for granted. There was no time, no space forillness. My father often spent long winter days cutting trees for firewood, and burning190the branches. He claimed that working around a good big fire was a sure cure for mostthings. So I got up and staggered outside. I could barely walk. My head spun. I made it tothe place where we had torn down an old shed and left a mess that needed cleaning.I started a fire, dragged boards, branches, torn paneling to the fire, cursing andsweating, fighting my own weakness. The fire got taller and hotter, I sweated and foughtsome more, and gradually, as the afternoon passed, the yard got clean and I got well. Itworks: determination, peasant stubbornness.At least, it used to work until that spring. I went on for weeks being sore and achyand exhausted but it was spring. The garden had to be planted, the flower-beds weeded,the lawn mowed, the fruit trees pruned. I kept up somehow, stumbling from task to taskall day, falling into bed at night.One day I decided as a way of curing myself to mow the whole damned lawn,about half an acre of rocks, logs, bumps, dog bones, weeds, and some grass. I shoved theprotesting ancient lawn mower around and around, sitting down often and then getting upto keep going. It was crucially important to keep going. When I finished and went inside,I could barely move. I decided a hot bath would help. (That was when I could still getinto a bathtub.) It didn't. When I crawled out, I felt like my body was on fire. I wasfreezing and burning at the same time. I took six Aspirin with codeine, wrapped a blanketaround myself, sat over an electric heater shaking, my teeth chattering. I kept fading inand out of things. Finally, I warmed up enough to go to bed. This time ignoring beingsick wasn't working.My parents were living on their pensions and what they could make off the farm.191But money from the farm had slowly dried up. Once they had sold eggs and milk andbutter, fruit and vegetables. But those markets had gone. Now they were struggling to paythe taxes on the farm and there wasn’t much I could do to help.My brother and father had logged the farm and my mother decided that mybrother owed them money, so now
UBC Theses and Dissertations
The ecology of identity : memoir and the construction of narrative Armstrong, Luanne Aileen 2006
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