Rampant with Memory

Oh! How our dead danced!

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“Pleasure canopied in lustful smiles meets and embraces exuberant Joy…the fascination dance goes merrily, and the libidinous waltz with its lascivious entwinements whiles in growing excitement, the swelling bosom and the voluptuous eye tell the story of intemperate revel…”

Thus spake our Canadian ancestors, while Confederation dogged their heels, no doubt tightening entwinements. This ball was described in an east coast newspaper from that time.

I call them dead people because that is what they are but then–oh then!–they were so darned alive.

Yammer about Confederation didn’t arouse interest in the Atlantic provinces, who were minding their own business and doing just fine without it thanks.

(About this purple prose one editor commented: “There are some desperate fellows in the Prince Edward Island press.”)

Yes, these revellers are several generations dead while we, who live, topple on the edge of a century and a half of Canada.

I love this quote for many reasons, not least because it was written by a fellow journalist from another world who stood to the side with a notebook in hand.

A pack of lies penned by a sexually frustrated man held back by the perils of conservatism.

Interest in genealogy grows with age and will soon explode with retired baby-boomers clicking madly on ancestry.com and with help from the Mormon stash.

And so, somewhere in this crowd of dead folk dancing, I hope, were our folk. And now these party-goers are several generations dead while we stand on the edge of a century and a half of Canada.

Ah, but most of our folk had yet to arrive to swear allegiance, to stand erect on looted land–right down to the name of our half-baked nation.

But stern and frightened expressions on posing faces back then suggest there wasn’t quite so much jollity. Nursing, not heaving, bosoms with babes-in-arms and bellies lift their skirts and swollen ankles past monster cedar stumps, hoping they, or their small children, won’t die.

Meanwhile, in the comfort of my brick home in Upper Canada, I tap on the doors at ancestry.

What makes a family?

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My brother suggested something to me yesterday that is now clamped around my heart.

It is about potential loss and the possibility of holding on. We all have the choice to deviate from–well, from family. Specifically from sisters and brothers.

People drift away, he said. Caught up by death while remaining alive.

We become orphans once our parents die and this rupture stabs us with with a measure of grief. Isn’t it something we dread in an infantile way?

In my instance I ask: who will bandage my scrapes? Applaud at my graduation? Cry when I move far away?

Freshly comes another challenge: how to continue family? I mean blood family, not the family many of us choose out of a basic desire to be loved.

The loss of original family has been experienced by many of us. Sometimes it comes crashing down and we react by creating alternative families among our lovers and friends.

I think of gay men during the ugliest of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 80s who were cast aside by “family” and sought companionship and love elsewhere in their community. Attending funerals where no one else would come.

I think of how my partner and I don’t trust holding hands in public even though we can marry and raise children together. We seek family elsewhere, a safer where, with others who share, or sympathize, with our fears.

I think of refugees to Canada forced to leave people behind to endure poverty, torture, and death; people left behind who lose their lustre, without love, and often their lives.

And the new Canadians hope for a welcome here.

But it is the potential loss of blood-family that bludgeons me now. My brother’s prescient words and the whiff of a possible reality. Once our parents are gone–will we survive? Does it matter?

I am not sure whether we will survive but yes, it matters.

Meanwhile, my partner, our son, and my friends are the ones whom I believe truly love me.

Meanwhile, I’ll bank on them.

 

 

 

 

Loss. Regret.

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Writing obituaries sometimes feels like an exercise in loss and regret. The subject has died, of course, and so I lack the opportunity to interview this person. Instead I must gather details of her or his life from colleagues, family, and friends.

But these individuals whom I am compelled to interview are often gob-smacked by grief and so I question with caution then must form an impression of my subject’s character based on their reminiscences and any relevant biographical material they lend me.

Loss: the absence of my subject.

Regret: I have never met them.

Sometimes there is a diary or memoir, such as with my most recent obituary of Dr. Edmond Boyd. The richness of his life seeped from the pages begging to be shared and I felt grateful to have them. But even with this first-hand record I ran into problems.

Dr. Boyd hated his father. The first words of his diary begin with this declaration. And so in my obituary I called his father imperious, suggesting he held onto his family like a dictatorial patriarch.

But his children remembered their grandfather differently: consumed by his work as a Harley Street physician but otherwise a warm man, protecting his son from a doting and possibly oppressive mother. They would have liked to have known him better.

With the obituary I am currently writing about James Pon I have encountered a similar problem. Loss, yes, and regret.

In researching Mr. Pon I have been generously given access to an oral history done a few years ago: 50 pages of articulate questions concerning his life as Chinese-Canadian immigrant who came to Canada at age five and was burdened by the financial weight of a head tax.

His grandfather was one of navvies who built the CPR line, risking his life to unite the country according to Prime Minister John A. MacDonald‘s national dream.

But there is a different issue for me in reading this transcript and it saddens me.

This 95 year-old man sounds incredibly sweet, generous with his time, and in-all-ways he is doing is best during this interview.

But his memory is fading. His responses seem almost by rote, like he’d been asked them time-a-plenty by journalists. Sometimes he seems to be led, or pressured, and at times he is even slightly teased or cajoled.

This assumed inauthenticity makes it difficult to mine the gold of his life.

One of the interviewers suggests frequent breaks; she is sensitive to the strain. But Mr. Pon allows for few of them. He plows ahead with his stories and he is wearying and now he is gone.

My article will honour him, and this is good, but he won’t know it.

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