one of many
We’ve been getting ready for a documentary crew that’s going to be here in a few days. We’re participating in a series called, “Divergence”. It’s equal parts nerve racking and exciting. Part of the theme of this series, if my interpretation is correct, is those forks in the road we face that have us pivot, diverging from our paths into terra incognita.
I spoke to the director a few weeks ago. I shared details of my story, the places where things were going one way and then wildly swung the other. One of the moments he’s keen on expanding on was a statement I made about how, when I was a young girl, our country house burned down and we moved into the city. I told him that I spent many years thereafter, many troubled years thereafter, trying to get back to the country, but never even knowing it.
I wrote a longer memoir about this many years ago. It’s from my ‘little self’ perspective. I dusted it off the other day so I could start thinking about the house fire that changed my course. Well, that’s how it felt to a little girl anyhow. I thought I might do something different today, and share an excerpt from that piece of writing. The original one is pages long, but I thought this portion gave some good insight into a bigger story that will be told with this upcoming project.
“…and just like that we left, the smell of smoke still clinging to my hair. We left behind everything I knew to define my life. My long-haired, white cat, “Snowball”, delivered to me in a banana box three winters earlier, was gone. Not gone, “probably dead” they told me. She had spent every night curled around my head. My jet black hair, “so black, it’s blue” my aunties said, all tangled up in Snowball’s paws. White fur, black hair, shared pink noses - that was us. But Snowball doesn’t have white fur now. She’s a black skeleton with no fur at all. I know because she still visits me at night in my dreams. She smells like my hair, burnt and smoky. I don’t like her anymore.
When the fire ate my house, my mom and dad said, “it’s time for the big city”. They always call it the “big city”. I hate the big city. I want the big country. I don’t know why they call it big. It’s so squished and tight. To me, it’s the small city where everything is loud and people bang into each other. But kids don’t get to decide where to live, adults do and so, we left. I left my school. I left my friends. I left my cousins and the big yellow school bus. I left behind my beds of wheat and stalks of sweet corn. I left Arnold the bull who tried, but never could, trample me before I reached the safety of the fence line. I left our old neighbour, Mrs. Gertchen, with nobody to eat her cookies or take her sweet peas from the garden. I left my beloved grandmother, my Bapka, whose turquoise house sat on an island in the same wheat field our house floated on. There was nobody to drink Bapka’s warm milk when she brought it in from the morning milking. Nobody there to eat her poppyseed rolls gilded with her homemade butter. Bapka, always smiling while I ate. “You eat so good my Tayda, I like that” in her strong Slovak accent. I liked that she liked how much I ate.
But “the facts are the facts”. You can’t live in a house with no walls, not even if you wrap it in a giant plastic bag. At least that’s what my dad said. You need to move to the city where there are stores and cars and lots of people. That’s just what happens when your house burns down.”
“Nothing in the city matched what I thought life was. I never knew that a house and a family and neighbours and prairie birds were just one option. One possibility. When houses burned down and people moved away and left everything, what happened to the stuff left behind? Did it die, too? Did the golden fields that encircled our home collapse when I stopped building forts inside their stems? Did they stop growing because nobody needed them anymore? Did the birds and the owls think I left because I didn’t like their songs? Were they looking for me?
Birds in the city had to sing different songs. Their voices couldn’t move across endless prairie, carried along the tips of grasses and swollen grain heads, swirling through and around, carried by the sweet scented wind. No. City birds had to rush their songs, one after another, before they crashed against crowded buildings or were squashed by racing cars. City birds ate garbage in parking lots and got caught by fat house cats that would play with them for hours before finally killing them. Even then, with a fresh and juicy dead bird in its paws, a city cat would not do the honourable thing and eat it. City cats preferred to eat dried crumbles of food from a bag. Our country barn cats wouldn’t know what to make of such a thing. Wasting food was a sin and killing for sport was strictly forbidden in the real world.
Nobody liked me at my new school, but what did I care? I didn’t like them either. Concrete replaced gravel. The neighbour’s snarling doberman was no match for the bull that chased me through fields, but he would do. A magnificent pine tree, limbs like ladder rungs made just for me, grew at the end of our housing complex. I climbed that tree to the very top every single day. I was forever frosted in sap and pine needles but I didn’t care. When my mother called me in for dinner from the front step I pretended to not hear her. I would only climb down when her serious face looking up at me from the base of the tree threatened me with grounding. “You won’t see that tree for a week!”, she would yell. That got me down.
I tried to sleep in my tree, but a tree reaching 80 feet into the sky is not the same as a bed of wheat on the earth. I was no longer small and cocooned, content to be hushed and shushed to sleep while crickets used my pant legs as sleeping bags. I was high and on watch from my strategic vantage point. Sleep meant falling. I had to be alert now. I was in the city.”
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