I can’t even remember my name most of the time. I find myself waking up even though I’m already awake, and wondering who I am and what I’m doing. So if you’ve ever had a memory, I envy you.
If I have ever had a memory, it’s a flash of leaves and light. I can’t remember what I’m doing; who I am has always been up for grabs. I have a poor sense of my own person. I never know how to answer when asked my name.
The countryside rolls with the winds like a sea. It’s the grain, it makes waves, and the hills are swells rising higher than houses. The trees in the valleys are seaweed forms, mottled by the shifting light that filters down through clouds that sail on forever and aye.
This is my ocean.
If I have ever had a memory, it’s of this place where houses tumble down after the last century’s boom and crash, quickly built by railway speculation in the grain trade, and slowly crumbled by the dustbowl’s lingering effects on once-prosperous estates. These farms were the manor houses of the New World, fiefdoms unto themselves. Now both the politics and the liberties available have changed irrevocably.
There used to be a homestead every half-mile. They say the housewives found it terribly isolating. Now the silence of birdsong and the sun’s turning is overridden by gargantuan tractor engines echoing off the hills and jet planes shushing by at altitude. Everything echoes in this ocean’s spaces. It echoes in the space left by family farms that had no choice but to fold in the face of corporate-sized endeavours. It echoes in the spaces left by the children who dwindled away. Eighty in the school when I was a child. Then fifty, then thirty, then a dozen. Then a handful and a fight over the inevitable closure.
This is my ocean, but I don’t belong to it anymore. The farming is done; my father was the last of four generations. Where we go after this, I don’t know.
If I have ever had a memory, it’s of award-winning pies and breads at the local fair. Horse teams stomping their feet and circling the ring. Artwork and photography on display. Handmade quilts and sparkling Gem jars.
We did these things because it’s what the land required, not out of high-minded idealism or magazine promotions. Not by lifestyle choice, but by choosing to live here.
And I do.
If I have ever had a memory, it’s of calling my mother-in-law for Grandma’s sweet pickle recipe.
Steam rising from the canning pot and dampening the strands of hair that escaped from the scarf on my head and the braid falling down my neck.
The scent of dried-out wheat and barley stalks falling in tidy swaths, their chaff carried on the wind. The sunset that reaches across half the sky when harvest dust hangs in the air, and a huge golden moon on the rise.
If I have ever had a memory, it’s of the neighbour phoning to say he found my son a blacksmith’s tools at an auction. Of brickwork on the tumbledown abandoned houses, lath-and-plaster walls of finer quality than drywall, stained glass windows in parlors and front doors.
If I have ever had a memory, it’s of leaves and light. Leaves green and young, poplars rattling in the summer breeze and reeds swishing in answer. Leaves golden-brittle, tumbling down on overgrown field trails that were once official roads. Now they’re mere tracks, but still we know them all, and who once lived there.
I can’t remember what I was doing in that flash of leaves and light because I wasn’t doing anything, just being.
It’s called the backwater for a reason. Out in the back places, silent ponds stand under leaning trunks, sheltered from the sun’s touch. Beaver and muskrat dive and build. Secrets hum in the night and flicker like sparks: when things are still, the fireflies dance outside my bedroom window. Always, I stop in wonder. These are my lights that burn all night, the only ones I want. For my next dance, I’ll take the wind upon the winter’s first snow.
I don’t know how to answer when my name is asked because there’s history attached to it, history that you can’t know if you haven’t been here. Some of it is painful; some is still a mystery even to me. Do you expect to call me what my family and neighbours call me? I don’t hand out that name. It lives where I live.
I came from outside this culture, and it took me nearly forty years to start to understand its hidden ways and now, in this place, it’s dwindling to a ghost. It’s still vital and alive elsewhere, and this is not its last rodeo. But like any self-respecting old cowboy, it’s not what you want it to be. It is what it is.
Who I am is no longer up for grabs at this late turning of the season. This is my ocean; I haven’t ceased to belong here yet. Lord willing, my burial will be upon this sea.