BY MADONNA HAMEL
I muscle my way through the front door of the Community Centre with sacks of pancake mix, blueberries, bananas and a stack of cards. Maurice and Pat are already there, firing up the grill, arranging chairs. They always arrive a bit early, operating on the same dictum m father lives by, the one that proclaims: If you are five minutes early you are late.
I stop to pat my apron pocket under my coat, making certain I haven’t forgotten my question cards. Caitlin calls them ‘talking cards’ because ethey get people talking. They come from a variety of sources, books, teachers, and tried-and-true interviews from days in radio. For a brief period I ran a little family history video business with my ex. We called it ‘Memory Bank’, and I am proud to say we managed to save a few stories from some of small-town Michigan’s founding families just by asking the right questions.
The question cards are meant to prime the story pump, not because people don’t have any stories, but because certain folks are reticent to divulge anything to ‘well-meaning’ strangers. And you can be a stranger in a place like Val Marie for a verrrrrry long time. As a reporter my ideal situation was to spend a day with people without even removing my microphone from its case. But here, after five years, even a pen can still arouse suspicion: “Careful what you say, she might put it in that column of hers.” So, I’m leaving the cards on the table and that’s it. No school ma’arm prodding. If people come during calving season that’s gift enough. I am going into this with the understanding that they are here to eat. And dang it, I’m going give them a breakfast to remember.
This is a culture highly cognizant of its heritage and its bequests. They want to bequeath their history to their children. Families have lived here for generations. We live in a mobile and transient culture. Most of us have to go where the jobs are. And although I can trace my ancestors to 1608 and Quebec and can hunt them down the family tree right up until last week, I cannot, for the life of me, discern where they’ll put me when I’m dead. I do not have the same sense of belonging.
When folks here say: I’m going home for Easter, they mean the farm or the ranch, an hour or so away. Or they are ‘staying home’ for the holiday. For me, when those feast days roll around, I struggle with the language: I may be going to where my dad and sister live, but the family home is gone. Home is where the heart is, people say casually, reassuringly. But these are always people who have a house.On behalf of the edifices that have withheld all manner of inner and outer weather, and, given the fact that we are physical creatures, there is nothing like the house that held us through laughter and tears, all those years.
Once, my musician friend Lise, told me she was making a bed in the bass drum for her new baby so she could continue living on the road. But she is a rare creature; the road for any stretch of time is discombobulating, to say the least. At worst it can smack you with identity vertigo. My experience is: you need a “re-combobulating” area, you to get grounded if you are continually covering ground. I’ve never met a bass player who isn’t eager, after a few weeks, to get back to his own bed.
Is a person home? They can feel like it, but can you count on them to be solid, hold their ground? Do they have you covered? Is there a table in the kitchen of their heart with food and drink at the ready? Do they carry your blankets around with them? Turn their face to your favourite view? It’s a lot to ask of someone. But sometimes it’s all you’ve got.
Ever since Val Marie lost Mel, I’ve been thinking about ‘home’. Hundreds drove ‘home’ to pay their respects. Cowboys with hats on heart, shirt-tail cousins with great grand-kids in tow. There was never any question where Mel would be laid to rest, even his horse and dog know where to go; here. Home.
When mom died I asked if we couldn’t each get a mini-urn with some of her ashes. The pretty little containers had ‘Made in India’ stickers on them. I replaced mine with ‘Made in Val Marie’. My sister and I dug a hole in her garden in Kelowna the night we left the house for good. As we dropped a handful of ashes into it a gust of wind whipped in and around the hole and then whooshed away. I imagined I could see it lifting the ashes up and over the rooftop, and it gave me great solace as I personally did not want to part with that house, yet mom seemed to have let go. Later, we scattered ashes at her old home in Val Marie.
My producer once told me “you always get your man.” But he never tried to get a prairie farmer or rancher to talk. Partly, I think, they don’t talk because they don’t trust outsiders, they’ve been misrepresented before. And partly they are intensely private people who prefer to keep their stories among themselves; if I were a grand-daughter I might have better luck. Or maybe they just don’t think it’s any big deal, the crazy shit they do every day, the kind of stuff a city-dweller could never imagine surviving: Full-body events involving angry bulls, icy water, raging fires, falling barns, blow-torch winds, striking lightning, hurling hail, drifting snow, blinding dust. I am reminded of Wallace Stegner’s ‘Wolf Willow’ where he writes about the calamitous snowstorm of 1906-07 and how the experience was “a step in the making of a cowhand when he learned that what would pass for heroics in a softer world was only chores around here.”
Maybe home is where your chores are. Maybe home is where they scatter your ashes, even if on the wind. Because maybe, finally we can feel at home in the world.