by Madonna Hamel
“Come back to me/with all your heart/don’t let fear/keep us apart.” Nearly four years ago Theresa taught me her favourite hymn. It became mine, too. She managed to lend a cowboy twang to certain words: “Lo-o-o-ong have I waited…” she first sang at an open mic night at the hotel. I thought it was a love song. And it was.
One Saturday evening Theresa was sweeping and singing. The cold cement floor was covered in Halloween bugs. She pulled two hundred and fifty chairs away from the tables while she sang. I pushed a rusty trolley from the church kitchen into basement hall where she swept. I stacked melmac coffee cups and saucers, wiping away years of dust. With only eleven congregants, no one uses the hall for wedding receptions or Fowl Suppers anymore. The steep narrow staircase is dark and awkward and hard to manoever by men with busted knees and worn out hips. That evening we were preparing for a pot luck lunch after Pentecost Sunday mass.
Back in the kitchen I pulled open wooden drawers looking for a tea towel and found one stuffed with aprons. The apron I chose had a blue and white field flower print and a coveted bib. My friend Christine, from art school days, reminded me often: “You can do anything with the right tools.” The apron is both tool and toolkit. But it’s also a uniform, and it earns respect. Once an ex-soldier told me: “you don’t have to like the guy, but if he’s in uniform, you salute him, because it’s the uniform you’re saluting, not the man.”
A uniform uniformly establishes intent: there’s a job to be done here for the greater good of this particular community and we try put principles before personalities once we don our uniform. Sometimes, it’s true, people’s crazy personalities erupt anyway, and the uniform becomes a costume or a disguise. These are some of the things I think as I prepare to bake half a dozen pies, all the while whistling an airy tune my grandmother whistled while ironing or hanging laundry. The apron works, I laughed to myself, it’s like a conduit, sending the confidence of female ancestors.
By late afternoon the sun was streaming through the high window, hitting a clutch of last year’s Palm Sunday palms drooping over an oval mirror, making long spidery shadows on the cracked wall. Dust motes, stirred from all the sweeping, danced into each other in the light beams filling the kitchen. I stopped and sighed and stuffed my hands deep into the apron pockets. I always hope to find a note, buried deep in a seam, a forgotten quote or hastily written poem, or a love letter saying: “I’m waiting for you. I love you. I miss you. Come back. I’ll make us tea.” Instead there’s a wadded-up tissue. I fill the blue kettle and make myself a pot of tea.
At one point in the afternoon it occurred to me we had no cream for tomorrow’s coffee, so I ran to the White Mud for a carton. “Nope, sorry, no cream this week”, Stella informed me. “And we won’t be getting any until next Thursday.” I returned to the church to tell Theresa. “If I leave now I can get to Bracken before the co-op closes,” I offered, pulling my coat back on.
Hurtling South on highway 4 it registered what it means to live in a village: Sometimes you have to drive to the next town for cream for your coffee. (My friend Page’s solution was to start drinking coffee black.) Of course, living in a remote village can also mean driving an hour at top speed in the inky darkness to the nearest Emergency. And often it means halting everything until you get that part you need in Swift or farther afield. Whatever the reason, you don’t think twice, you hop in your truck and hope you make it before closing, or worse.
In Bracken I decided to get gas. Bracken is smaller than Val Marie, with 20 people versus our 98. But it has a gas pump. Before we got ours a couple of years ago the next place to fill up was in Cadillac, 56km away. One morning, when I was still living at the convent, a man from Washington DC, getting ready to head back with his rental car to Regina, realized how low his tank was.
“Where’s the gas station”, he asked.
“Oh we don’t have one,”I responded, watching him do a double take as yet one more of his assumptions proved false.
“But there is one in Bracken. That’s about 25 km away. I can take you there.” On the way he spotted a bird that was on his life list. The drive became a series of jolts and starts as the ponds and sloughs rendered up more and more winged treasures.
“And I wasn’t even gonna stay the night!” he marveled, as his camera clicked on.
“Really? You fly all the way from Washington DC and you were just going to drive through the park and go home?”
“Oh I didn’t get to the park. I saw the Baird sparrow I came for about ten miles North of here, sitting on a post. Singing with its heart out. I was about to turn around, and fly home. but, then it seemed I was so close so I might as well stay. “
He rested his camera on his lap and stared out the windshield for a long pause. Then he turned to me and half-whispered: “I didn’t know it could get so quiet. At first I loved it. I mean, I had no idea how high my shoulders were! Everything just dropped. But then, I don’t know. …Its starting to freak me out. It’s not so much the quiet. It’s the emptiness. It’s so isolated. I mean there’s nothing here!”
“Except half your life list! And the nothing you call nothing? It’s the something I’ve been yearning for all these years and never even realized. Til I got here. It’s like being called back to a place I’ve never been.”
“But even what is here is gone. I mean, like Orkney.”
I had promised him we’d stop in Orkney because he wanted to see a ‘ghost town’. Wandering around the empty buildings I felt uncomfortable. It wasn’t just that I feared one of the five remaining citizens of Orkney would ask us what we were up to; it was that I felt I was being disrespectful of the ghosts of the place, that their memories and dreams were still what was holding the lasts bits of fabric of the territory together. We were wrong to wander through their home like it was a museum or a theme park, like a pile of left overs for scavengers.
I wasn’t always this sensitive to my surroundings. As a collage artist I justified peeling off bits of wallpaper from ‘abandoned’ homes, ‘rescuing’ rejected toys, lamps, albums or books. But now I feel objects have a life of their own and the soul of a place, just like the soul of a creature, continues on even after abandonment and rejection. People, places and things: they just have a way of possessing us, with their nostalgic, memory-evoking hooks. And then, there is always the possibility they may come back one day.
In Bracken, at the fuel pump, the birder looked for a slot to take his charge card. “There isn’t one,” I informed him. “You just fill up and then go in to pay.” “You sure?” “Hell ya!”
He filled his car then went inside and stood in front of the Co-op cashier, wiating for her to tell him what he owed her. Eventually she broke the silence with: “So , how much?”
“How much was it?”
“ Oh , uh…just a minute.” He ran out to read the pump, then returned. “Fifty-six dollars?”
“Okie dokie, then. Fifty-six dollars please.”
While handing his card to her he turned to me and laughed: “What just happened?”
Theresa waddled back into the kitchen, breaking me from my reverie about my early days in Val Marie. Leaning on her giant broom she showed me her pan full of bugs before tossing them in the garbage can. “So you think you know the song now?” “Oh, you better sing it one more time.” “Well, ok” she laughed. “But I already sang it to you about fifty times!”
And she launched into the second verse: “Integrity and justice/with tenderness you shall know/Long have I waited for your coming/home to me and living/deeply our new life.”
We lost Theresa a year ago. Since then, like the birder from Washington who assumed there was ‘nothing here’, I’ve noticed I’ve lost that first blush of village-love. Come back, sang Theresa, come back to a fearless and open heart.
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 home.