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VAGABOND COME HOME

Mondays at noon hour I took piano lessons. On one particular Monday in 1966, I passed beneath the recently inaugurated Maple Leaf that flapped from the school’s flagpole, and I left behind the playground noise to cross the road and open the gate to the woodland pathway of my music teacher’s estate. Delicate lily-of-the-valley spring blossoms poked up through the Manitoba undergrowth, their tiny white bells giving off a luscious scent. Raindrops shook from the canopy above to tickle my hair. I mounted the steps of the two-story brick cottage and heard the footfall of Miss George—about the age of my maternal grandma but oh! so different—before she opened the door. Her sturdy legs were encased in beige stockings, and she tapped her toes to an internal rhythm.

My grandma had never greeted me at the door of her farmhouse; I’d never heard the floorboards squeak beneath her step. By the time I was born, the creeping paralysis had ascended from her non-tapping toes clear up past her shoulders, leaving her completely immobilized from the neck downwards.

“Go on through to the bathroom, Dear,” Miss George said, “and remember to pat-pat-pat dry.” I lathered up with a floral button of Yardley soap and dried as per instructions on a lace-trimmed guest towel that would never have withstood the rigours of my three brothers. This was a feminine household of two spinster sisters whose people hailed from England and whose parlour boasted a sepia photo of an elegant foremother disembarking a Victorian carriage.

In contrast, the most notable picture in my family was of Grandma in her wheelchair, fuzzy slippers showing unscuffed bottoms. It’s almost ironic that her own fleeing mother—my great-grandmother—traversed sea and soil by boat and train and Red River cart, chased by rising Russian nationalism from her home on the banks of the Dnieper River in 1874 to settle in a sod house on the banks of Manitoba’s Scratching River.

So Miss George’s British heritage seemed glamorous, unburdened as it was with wheelchairs and oxen-drawn carts.

I lined up my blouse buttons with Middle C and stumbled my way through “Baby Elephant Walk,” and then Miss George said, “I have something to show you. Follow me.” Curiosity flaring, I trailed behind her up the stairs to her enchanting antique trunk full of surprises.

Miss George had already let me hold a bone china teacup so fine my finger shadows showed through. And last week I’d blasted away on the fox-hunting horn after she prompted me to purse my lips—a thrilling cry that summoned my imagination to distant fields. Today she pushed aside tissue paper and withdrew a mass of crinoline netting and an emerald green gown.

“It’s silk taffeta. My aunt brought it over on the steamer.” She shook out the wrinkles and held it up to my shoulders, the smell of moth balls making my eyes sting. “It would fit you if I laced it up tightly.”

“I can try it on?” My voice squeaked.

She corrected my grammar. “You may. And then we’ll run on the lawn.”

She coached me in the proper method: I was to sprint while lifting the skirts, then stop abruptly and drop the hems to trap the air as I sank into a sitting position. That taffeta billowed out about me like the royal robes of a princess in some foreign land. The word “immigrant” began to hold more magic for me.

Soon I was a teenybopper wearing fishnets and groovy go-go boots. During the summer of 1967, hippies in transit between Yorkville and Gastown overran Winnipeg’s streets and parks. They strummed guitars and sang their songs of freedom—of four strong winds and seven seas that bound them to move on. A little too young to be swept along in the momentum of their pilgrimage, still I wore their love beads and dreamed of hitching a ride on the open road.

Maybe I was rebelling against my grandma’s enforced stillness. Or maybe my genes were imprinted by my great-grandmother’s journeying, initiated generations before her in the Low Countries of Europe during the Reformation. Patriotism had gained no foothold in my pacifistic ancestry of wayfaring conscientious objectors. None of my uncles (unlike those of my classmates) had served militarily in Italy or landed at Dieppe; no war photos of decorated officers sat on my piano.

My parents encouraged my growing wanderlust. Dad spun tales of running away to join the circus and of riding the rails with the last of the Great Depression hoboes; Mom shared newsy bits about shirttail relatives in Belize. I was primed for travel, and before my teens were over I’d already crisscrossed Japan from Tokyo to the southern tip of Kyushu: I’d slept on tatami mats in a millennium-old monastery, negotiated the sacred tea ceremony, and plucked out a tune about cherry blossoms on a koto. Since then I’ve tramped thirty nations—touring wineries in Chile and avocado plantations in Mexico, rambling the streets of Barcelona, trekking the Garden Route of South Africa. Amazed, I’ve wended my way through twisted alleys in Istanbul and promenaded broad boulevards in Paris.

Something about the familiarity of home makes “away” so alluring, but something about the contrast of the foreign brings home racing back to the heart. And so increasingly my affections have turned to the geographical majesty of my own land, Canada offering exotic adventure within her expansive borders and leaving me agog at our own inheritance.

Indeed, my very first pen pal was an Inuit from Inuvik who mailed me an ookpik. It matched my hand-stitched Arctic sealskin mukluks and foreshadowed a flight I made years later when co-ferrying a Cessna aircraft up to Pine Point on the edge of Great Slave Lake. We soared over Peace River country, over muskeg and boreal forests and the mighty Hay River, navigating by way of waterfalls and lakes.

I’ve strolled Pacific Ocean beaches collecting sand dollars brought in by thundering waves off Vancouver Island, and I’ve meandered beneath stands of great cedars that West Coast Aboriginals used to carve into totem poles. I’ve stood on glaciers, and climbed Rocky Mountain paths, and clambered up hoodoos in the Alberta Badlands. I’ve pushed my way through grain fields blowing in the prairie winds and slept beneath the stars on the walking dunes in the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan. I’ve paddled and portaged, like the voyageurs, on waterways emptying into Hudson Bay. I’ve hiked the Niagara Gorge to the roaring of the falls and sauntered beneath scarlet maples that shook me like a cry of bugles going by, then eaten my pancakes with the Quebec syrup bled out of those trees. I’ve dabbled in the tidal pools of the Atlantic Ocean near the pier in Halifax, where my own great-grandmother first set her sole on Canadian turf after her long passage—the passage of a people in transit.

And though I continue to vacation in far-off places, my own soul has found sojourn, my restless wandering satisfied in settling itself into home.

 

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7 Comments

  1. Posted June 15, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    How captivatingly you write! It makes me want to go out for a walk in this great land of ours. How blessed we are and how thankful for my heritage. Thanks for sharing your memories – and so eloquently.

    • Posted June 15, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Thank you, Lori. I love this home of ours, the true north strong and free. Happy Birthday, Canada!

  2. Nettie Balzer
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful! I lived it with you while reading the story. You make things come alive – loved it!

    • Posted June 15, 2017 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      Nettie, thanks. Aren’t we fortunate to live in Canada?

      • Nettie Balzer
        Posted June 15, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        Yes! I’m so thankful for Canada. I love Saskatchewan prairies, sunsets, sunrises and so much more.

  3. Posted June 15, 2017 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    I loved reading this (and I’m sure I will again) Truly spellbinding!

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