Night Windows

Press play.

It’s a bit of poetry by a Winnipeg band, and it drags the past out of every untidy nook and cranny where I’ve kept it tucked away for rainy days.

Of which we have had enough this year, those rainy days. So it’s easy to cry at a song about dark roads under power lines that interfere with the CBC news, and the glitter of thinly veiled windows. I suspect that anyone who’s from Winnipeg can see that song, not just hear it.

There are people gone from my life who formed it. I doubt that’s any profound statement; it’s true of us all, except maybe the youngest among us.

The thing is, this is a song about my own past.

I see you suddenly alive and nearly smiling.
I stop and hold my breath and watch the way we used to be.

Memory is everywhere in these lines, unruly. I am walking down a concrete-paved back alley with my cousin. The sky is grey, and rainwater pools in brilliant reflections of a slowly clearing sky. The day is cold, and an unaccountable raven takes its rest in one of the nearby trees. It is a well-treed city. I mull that day over later, and write a poem in French about living in an isolated reality, in the darkest hour. I am not a normal teenager.

Further back, I walk the high school running track behind my grandparents’ house with my family. It is Christmas, and the cold air bites even harder then. I’m in the midst of my own disorderly sadness, grieving instinctively over the impending end of a blessed childhood. Clouds of steam taint a pale yellow sky as the sun sinks away early. Again it becomes a poem, but in English. That was before I knew French well enough. I am not a normal preteen.

Further back still. The aroma of roast beef and potatoes fills the tiny galley kitchen, through which we all must edge as we arrive on the three-foot square landing and make our way up the short flight of stairs into the house. The scent of pipe tobacco fills the living room, and the clock ticks calmly on the wall above the fireplace. There is also cooked cabbage, and the unhealthy white bread my mother never feeds us. I am strongly in favour of making a cabbage sandwich of it, and this is fine. It could be argued I am not a normal child, either.

Long ago, before home was made of farmland and hills and the other side’s heritage, I stand in my grandmother’s city bedroom while she files my nails. I am getting ready for my first ever ballet recital. She is telling me that the fastest way to show oneself to be a decent person is in how we keep our hands. I learn early that cared-for fingernails and shoes make a lady. I learn later that these principles are hallmarks of wartime England and the severe impoverishment it carried.

To this day, I have not found the elusive pair of shoes I know I’m looking for.

Buried under the jumble of out-of-time is a dark summer night. I remember no stars, but it is clear. My parents are tucking me into the car as we leave another, older house. There is a greenhouse that one walks through to get inside, and a hallway. It is the house where my mother spent her teen years. I am sleepy, and the feeling of security surrounds me in the darkness. They are saying goodbye to me.

I can remember farther back, but it’s time to go forward.

My grandfather’s rich, warbling whistle echoes from his basement workshop, where the odour of oil paints draw my curiosity; he teaches me the basic principles of perspective and colour mixing. The family gathers for New Year’s, and the party is one of the best memories of my growing-up years. In another summer, we sit in the sunroom at the front of the house, the windows lined with flowering begonias. The sound of lawnmowers and the smell of fresh-cut lawns waft from outside. The adults talk philosophy, politics and spirituality while I find a corner to sit near my grandfather’s knee. All of this flows together in a Monet blur, a carousel of colours and togetherness.

The scent of tobacco is gone now, and the crispness of a proper British roast potato soon to follow it. There are roads pulled together in the darkness, shoulders squared towards an end. In the world of my growing up, eternity is a blank wall with no other side. And although I believe in more than one side to this tale, for a few moments, I am back there.

The full moon makes our faces shine, like over-ironed polyester;
then disappears behind the clouds, leaves me under empty rows

of night windows.


If you like their sound, you can support the Weakerthans at their official band site.