By: Madonna Hamel
I just said goodbye to my dad and my uncle. For the second time. The first time I was not ready, standing on the sidewalk watching them drive away from our supper at the hotel to their rooms at the Convent Inn. Watching them turn right instead of left. Waiting for them to come back, cross in front of me again, heading in the right direction. Chastising myself for not escorting them back . A lump rising in my throat. It’s hard to gauge exactly how much to hover over them; although in their eighties, they are still independent men, capable of making their own decisions: like driving thirteen hours from Kelowna to Medicine Hat in a day, followed by another day spent seeking out the old homestead outside of Fox Valley and then another longish drive to Val Marie.
So, the next morning I got up early and walked across the village campground to the convent to make sure they are fed and ready for the return trip. Mette was on the back porch having a smoke break. Memories of my days living in the mother superior’s cell in the basement below the porch came flooding back. “No doubt dad was standing at the dining room door when you got here!” I hailed her.
“Well, actually, they haven’t come up from their room yet.”
“Really, that’s odd. Dad’s been champing at the bit to get home since the minute he arrived!”
It is unlike me to be the one to worry about my dad. If anything I’ve spent most of life as the self-absorbed one, the misunderstood artist, ready to get into a rumble with dad over the slightest difference in opinion. And then, after mom died, I ended up being the one to live with him in the family home. And, while friends and family thanked me and praised me for stepping up to ‘take care of him’, I knew in my heart I had nowhere else to go. Some say that home is the place, where, when there’s nowhere else to go, they have to take you in.
But others will say that sometimes the best thing a family can do is tell you to clean up your act, because, while they care for you, they cannot take care of you anymore. Fortunately for me I hadn’t burned bridges as much as burned out. I wasn’t capable of much heavy lifting or mental exertion, but I could cook, clean, garden and watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy with him every night. And in return I could nurse my wounds, including the self-inflicted ones, and get my life back to something resembling adulthood.
What I do believe happened, back in 2011, when I first passed through Val Marie, and what I believe happened just a few days ago when I contemplated with Mette if I should go downstairs and make sure the patriarch and his bro were ok, was that mom did some of her best work from the other side. I believe she brought us together, made us face each other, and learn to embrace both the hurt and the wonder that constitutes a fully engaged life. It’s an old-fashioned belief and can elicit a few indulgent nods from bright and rational minds, but that’s their prerogative. All I know is, now that dad and his brother descended Grace Road, commonly known as highway 4, and stayed in the basement suite at her old school, her entire brood has visited the place of her birth, the place where she spent a ‘magical’ childhood despite being born at the beginning of the dust bowl disaster years.
In 2011 my youngest sister Michele and I were caravanning from Toronto to Banff, where she would begin a new job and a new life. Our small cars were loaded with our belongings, mostly hers, as I still thought I was headed back. We drove down through Michigan, under the Great Lakes and through Chicago, then back up and across Minnesota and Wisconsin, through towns and cities I’d sung in as part of my ex’s blues band. More than the shows I recall the hotel rooms with sealed windows facing indoor courtyards festooned with fake palm trees, drooping volleyball nets and plastic fountains in indecipherable shapes that gurgled all night long.
I would rather have a room with a view of a dumpster or a highway overpass or the end of a runway than a fake paradise with a forlorn wishing pool. I remember throwing coins in the green water, wishing for happiness or resolution, if not resolve, but giving up mid-toss because I had no idea what resolution looked like. On those nights, returning from the show, exhausted to the point of tears and hives, I began to speculate on the wishes belonging to the other coins, lurking in the bottom of the fountain. There were so many pennies, which, to me, seemed not about wishes as much as about habit, or superstition. Pennies? You have to give up something more, don’t you, to get what you wish for?
That spring, my sister and I were headed into Bismark, ND, when we passed a guy in a small car decked out in all manner of antenna and odd shaped receptors hooked up with wires. “ Oh oh, I thought. I’m passing a storm chaser. That can’t be good.”He was hunkered over his steering wheel with a giddy look on his face. Ahead of us was one of those spectacular ‘storm skies’, dark as night. Behind us the sun shone with blinding and glittering brilliance. It reminded me of the sky one March evening in Nevada two years earlier. I was driving the van while the band slept. The sun was in front of me on the horizon, blinding and making it nearly impossible to see the road. I looked in my rearview mirror ad all was darkness. This must be what death is like, I thought. The next day my mother died.
My sister had booked us a room at The Convent Inn in Val Marie. When we got to the border crossing, in plenty of time before it closed-there’d been a slight discussion about where we’d have to cross if we missed Monchy. The scale of everything had flipped: in Toronto there was little sky or bare ground and all buildings. On the prairie here was this one little garage-like building, as jolting to the view as a lone tree on a hill, its automatic rising and falling door breaking the wide open silence. And then the drive to Val Marie on the narrow road cutting a swath through the lone prairie. I remember the shock of the rocks, the mysterious erratics, sticking out like sore thumbs, in the wrong place, like a painfully shy girl trying to sink into the wall at a party.
Another sister drove down to spend the night and we slept the sleep of the innocent. Out cold. Happy to have all the cities behind us. The next morning, at breakfast, Michele thanked whoever it was who pulled the blanket up and then gave her and a warm and gentle pat. Well it wasn’t me, I blurted. Hell, I slept like a rock! Not me, said Jody. Of course. It had to be, because we wanted it o be, we needed it to be: Mom. We were in mom’s territory, after all. She had drawn us here.
I wanted my dad, to have “a warm and gentle touch” experience in the suite we stayed in six years ago. But meeting him on the staircase on his way up to breakfast all he had to report was he slept badly, again. He was eager to leave, to head back to Kelowna. He had been since he arrived, and probably the whole week before the trip even began, when he’d phone his brother to ask if he was sure he really wanted to do this. “This” meant searhing for a homestead he was convinced would be a piece of cake to locate once he hit he correction line. In fact, it took several tries and a few knocks on doors and finally a trip to The Fox Valley RM office where, one more time, dad would recite what was written on his birth certificate, the location of the farm: township, section, range, like it was his name, rank and serial number.
“This” also meant seeing the remains of his wife’s homestead, now a caved in building. I have no idea what goes through the head of an 85 year old man who has been the man of the house since he was a child. Surely it is enough to be touched by the valley itself, two valleys, where two people came into this world. If anything of mystery did pass between him and my mother, here in her valley, he would probably keep it to himself, or he would leave it be, until, as he believes, he can ask her about it when he sees her again.
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.