By Madonna Hamel
It’s been a week since I’ve been back from Regina. And I’m happy to be home. In fact, I’m happy to use that word: “home”. It is for me a nebulous term, although, being a noun, it has enough substance that we can use it with a sense of certainty and rootedness. It is in fact, the ultimate noun, when you define a noun as a “person, place or thing”. Home as a “thing” is the house, the ranch, the garden, the hearth. Even, if you are a wanderer it is there in the shape of your car or your trailer or your tent, or your evening’s destination.
For the last 11 years I have tried to scale down the size of my “thing-home”, going from living out of my car, or in a sibling or friend’s cozy spare room to subletting an apartment. I’ve never owned my own house. But, I’ve come to realize that where ever I live there are some “things” I will have keep near in order to feel truly at home: my books, my pens and journals, my big round coffee cup. And, whether living in the village of Val Marie or the heart of Toronto, I have needed some means of connection to family and friends who have been the “person-home” of my life, and will be ’til I die, even when my spirit floats about their ears and around their feet, even when I am dust, I suspect they will be the home I haunt like a friendly ghost.
One January I managed to convince the folks at CBC in the radio Syndication department to let me do a mini-doc called The Winter Train. I sat with folks in coach and in the bar and lounge cars, boarding and departing in parts across the country, from Toronto to Kamloops and asked them about their lives, and why they were taking the train in the dead of winter. And I asked them: “where was home?” “You mean, most recently”, the vast majority asked back. Because we are increasingly a vagrant culture. We move from place to place, following work, or family, or seeking a better climate, or doing the “geographical cure”, as many recovering addicts call it when they hope against hope that their problem is this “backward little town”, and not them.
Over a period of five days, on the train trip west, roaming the aisles of the coaches, the bright sun blinding the passengers as it bounced off a country covered in ice and snow, I kept my eye on an older man sitting and sleeping, staring out the window, sipping from his thermos cup. He didn’t talk unless spoken to; he wasn’t grumpy, just alone. There was a family with a newborn sitting in the seats in front of him, and the young mom would occasionally wave the wee fingers of her child at him, and he’d wave back, wiggling his own digits like they were playing an imaginary flute. And now and then a couple young guys, spotted often in the smoking section, the space between two cars, would take turns stopping by and shooting the breeze with him.
Finally, I sat beside Jack, and asked if I could talk to him about his train trip.
“Name’s Jack,” he said and extended his hand, “I see you with your microphone, talking with people. Don’t have much need of an old guy like me.”
“Well now, Jack, that’s not quite true. I try to respect people’s privacy. Despite how intrusive this microphone looks, it’s not actually on. I like to take my time and get a sense of who might be willing. You can usually tell, they wave me over. You were keeping to yourself.”
“Fair enough… I was gonna say ‘you’re getting a lay of the land’ but in this contraption it’s always shifting. So, what’d ya wanna ask me?”
“Been wondering what makes a guy take the train in the middle of winter.”
“Well, now, here’s the thing. My wife died recently. And I just didn’t feel like being alone. Mind you, I hate people fussing over me so I didn’t feel like staying home and having to make conversation with a hoard of casserole-bearing ladies. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the gesture, and the food – believe me, because I didn’t even know how to make toast! Seriously, I would buy a loaf a bread and it would go bad. It took my daughter to tell me on the phone one night to put the rest of the loaf in the freezer. That’s after how I asked her how to use the toaster. Pretty hopeless, eh? Mind you, there was a day where I could toast the perfect piece of sourdough on a camp fire in the middle of nowhere…”
“I don’t know how to operate most of your basic power tools, so it’s all relative.”
“I miss her every minute, when I think how much I took for granted. She made that house a home. Now, it’s just… A building.” As he teared up he reached for his thermos and started to pour into the lid cup. “I’ve got another cup here if you’d like some tea.”
“I’d love some tea, thanks!” And then, “Woah! This is whiskey Jack, but”, cough, cough, “thanks, I think!”
Jack laughs and indicates my microphone with his cup: “Guess you can turn that thing on if you want.”
It turned out that, shortly after the toaster incident, Jack’s daughter convinced him to fly out to Halifax from Vancouver. He took her up on the visit but decided he’d take the train. There was something about being with other people, yet not being obliged to talk or “join in any reindeer games” if a person didn’t feel like it. Sitting and staring was all Jack was up to, after he lost his companion of 54 years. He wasn’t exactly at peace with this arrangement, but it was comfortable enough that he could settle in for the duration.
“I find the rocking of the train really comforting, especially drifting off to sleep at night, maybe it mimics a cradle,” I tell jack as we sip and stare out the window at a single dark horse on the horizon of an otherwise blazing white world.
“Yep. That little one up front hasn’t cried once, not a peep. Just giggles.”
“Are you sure you haven’t been feeding her any of your ‘tea’?”
The funny thing about being “at home in the world”, is that, if you’re the kind of person like Jack or myself, who feels a comfort in moving across landscapes, either behind the wheel of a car or sitting on a train, the concept of home expands to include the entire country. My family have been Canadians since 1608, when sailors aboard Cartier’s ship landed in Stadacona. They survived the winter drinking spruce tea made by the locals, the tribes who lived in Canada before it was Canada, who were “at home” in a land that had yet been “discovered”, according to European worldview. It’s a question that, today, lurks in the forefront of my brain, where evidence of indigenous presence on “settler” land sits right on the surface, inescapable yet barely spoken of, where I live. The biggest question I have is: why didn’t we, when coming over from across the pond, ask the locals for help? Were we that afraid, or that shocked to see that we were invading someone else’s space when we were told “all there is, is space”?
I lived for 11 years along the banks of the St. Charles River, a tributary of the mighty, muddy St. Laurent. I could see the cross erected in the regional park, marking the spot where Cartier landed, from my backyard. I could sit in the longhouse beside the remnants of Cartier’s ship, and sip hot spruce tea made at the visitor’s centre. Sitting in that giant common room, sipping hot tea, my thoughts would turn to questions of home, and what that meant to the Huron-Wendat, the Onondaga and Mohawk of the area.
I think of Jack often, how he had to find the “place-home” after the “person-home” left him. How, ultimately, we all need to feel at home inside. How “home” is an inside job, no matter where, who, or what it might manifest as. Right now, a deep sense of “home” hits right in the solar plexus, when I return from a sojourn in the city and, upon opening the car door, I am greeted with the deep, mysterious hoot of a great-horned, and then the winnowing snipe, with the wistful, rush of tail feathers, makes the sound of dusk, fills me with as much a sense of person-home as the voice of a loved one, saying “Hey honey!” Right now, apparently, “home” is the sound of night birds.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.