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It’s just one of all those things that no one really can tell you. The things you’re destined to learn — to really learn — for yourself.
Two days from the end of June, and I was on the edge of a huge field under the hot Manitoba sun with a collection of my in-laws, the wind fickle and dry on our skin. Standing on dry, stiff grass, watching the dust rise.
The soil bone-dry deep down into the ground, powdery black-grey, the sky thrown up blue and huge above us from flat horizon to flat horizon.
We were there to spread the comingled ashes of my mother-in-law and father-in-law, Ralph and Elizabeth (Billie) Vryenhoek.
He died several years ago: she passed away in January. I could tell you plenty about both of them, most of all that they were truly good, caring, charming people. I could tell you stories — of which there are plenty — but that wouldn’t help you with what I really want to explain. About the true line of many families, and how suddenly it vanishes.
What I want to tell you is something I realized myself after my parents died, but could never really put together in words. I was too much at the core of it then, reeling. Now, I’m slightly further away, so here goes.
When one parent dies, all of your attention goes to the other: you focus on them, keenly aware that they have suffered the greater loss. You’ve lost someone you love, absolutely, but your surviving parent may have lost the only constant they still had in their lives. The natural response is to try to help: to sort out what you can about how they’re live, what you can do to ease the pile of complications, from funerals to finances to living arrangements. Things have to be done. You tuck your loss a little to one side, aware of the greater needs, and perhaps hiding yourself in them.
When a second parent dies, a lot of that still has to be done — but sooner or later, you realize that the one crucial string has broken as well, sinking out of reach.
Right then, you lose the ability to contact the past, left only with your own memory and perhaps the memories of your siblings.
It was far easier to pick up the phone, dial, and ask my mother whether Fanny Brown was the first dog we ever had, and be sure to get the right answer. My memory works in strings of pictures or strings of film clips: often, they’re ordered most by what age I was when they happened, and what concerned me the most. I will never forget the otherwise useless memory of being a child in front of a Florida beach vending machine that dropped a plastic-smelling elephant figurine into my hands, still warm from its twin metal molds. I was so impressed with the hot pressed plastic that I can still remember the palm trees hemming the whole scene in like a picture frame. I have no idea where that beach was.
Before I was 10, my memories have very little in the way of organized mapping: I went where I was taken, so I didn’t have to remember how I got there, beyond the confines of my immediate Halifax neighbourhood.
But I could always anchor loosely remembered trips by going to the Dewey decimal systems of my parents’ memories, and eventually just my mother’s, after Dad died. “Where did this happen? When, exactly?” I might not get a complete answer, but I’d get a starting place.
But that firm history flees from reach along with the second parent — and it’s an unwelcome surprise.
The rope is gone: the world you know is adrift in a way it hadn’t been before.
And there is nowhere left to turn, no one to turn to.
I thought that on the Manitoba prairie, miles from the ocean and watching ships at sea around me.
Shivered, in the heat.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.