Memories live within mysterious corridors, running and hiding when we call their names, leaving only vapours of recall, without clarity. But give them the merest whisper of scent, the vaguest etching of sound, or the briefest rendering of vision, and memories rush back to us, wanted or unwanted, time machines without a helm, to stand before us and demand notice.
I sat, morning-tired, with wood stove light beside me and glowing electric screen in my lap. The wood stove is solace; the glowing screen mostly brings bad news. A word, a phrase, a headline, in just the right order, an accidental anagram, and a name comes to mind: a man’s name, a Nigerian man, Fela Sowande. But other words push it away, or mostly away, and it rolls around the mind’s free space, never quite touching down.
Morning’s casual stroll into day brings sunlight to this cold December. After reading the headlines of human cruelty, human stupidity and human hope, and after odds and ends and walking the dog, I sit in the bright light and have my second cup. My mind is neither here nor there, but not far from the headlines that daily break the heart. I look up, the sunlight flooding the room just as a murmuration of dust motes takes wing. Then, mind and memory run together in lock step, happy that they have found two pieces of a puzzle as a gift for this day: dust motes and Fela Sowande.
Suddenly, I’m far away and distant dust motes float through the sunlit air, but it’ not the hot sun of Nigeria that ignites these tiny motes, but the cold winter sun of the Yukon. I’m a boy of about 10, creating an imaginary world out of plastic pieces on the first landing of the stairs. I’ve stopped to look at the shiny particles that float through the sunlight, just as a weekly radio program, Gilmour’s Albums, brightly comes to life, its cheerful theme already indelibly printed on my young mind. Years later, many years later, I learn the name of this theme, Akinla, from the African Suite by Fela Sowande. But today it’s just music and it makes the tiny particles of dust dance in the cold sun of the North. And I sit still, like a young adherent to the meditation of sight and sound, forgetting my little toys, forgetting my father’s harsh voice that had moments earlier reacted to a 10:00 AM newscast. I sit in streaming sunlight, and fall in love with a moment.
We moved out of that house not long after that, into a shiny, new house with avocado appliances and wall-to-wall carpet. Downstairs there’s a rumpus room with purple shag and a sparkly, blue, kidney shaped dance floor. It was the seventies, my parents entertained.
My room was blue, of course it was blue, it was a pink and blue house in a pink and blue town at a pink and blue time. I wanted to be an astronaut. My dad was a helicopter pilot, it only made sense. I had a model of the Apollo rocket ship, the lander, all that stuff. I was sure the NASA recruiters would come by any day and I would have to say goodbye to my family, start training, drink Tang, feel the grit of the lunar surface under my boots. Make history.
Daylight hours are few in the Northern winters, but filled with razor sharp sunlight; clean, fresh snow, impossible to look at. Our new house had large windows facing south. On bright winter days I liked to sit in dad’s Lazy-Boy and feel the pale warmth of the sun against my skinny, little body. This was as much warmth as I would ask for. The sun and I were never close. I was too small and fair to stand up to its radiant ego, and besides, it knew I loved the moon.
The darkest days were at Christmas, but Christmas was never dark in the North. Doors were never locked and invitations were for “outsiders.” Weekend afternoons were spent on the move, nomadic socilalizers drifting from one place to the next, we kids bored to tears by adult yik-yak. Mandarin oranges and cookies were offered as appeasement. The adults sampled liqueurs or drank beer. Sometimes the houses were duplicates of ours, modern, functional, split level, orange patterned wallpaper, coloured TVs. A testament to the booming Northern economy. Sometimes they were less waspish: log cabins with animal furs above stone fireplaces, county music on the turntable, the smells of moose hide. My uncle lived in a trailer with the heat turned up punishingly high, compensating for the thin walls and -30F outside. I never liked visiting there. Nothing to do but stare at the engraved copper picture with a built-in thermometer, telling me just how hot I was.
Night time was escape time, my parents commending us for having made it through a day of business talk, politics and gossip. I would suit up and trudge my way to a friend’s house to play bard games or watch Westerns. Always, the evening passed too quickly. I would barely be out of my all-encompassing snowsuit, only have scant time to conjecture over likely Christmas presents, watch an episode of Bonanza, and then I would be suiting up again.
Most of the time I hardly noticed the trudge home, my mind lost in fantasy about spaceships and jet planes, but sometimes the present moment lifted my eyes from my boots as they ploughed along. Not a sound could be heard save for the tiny impact of snowflakes landing on my polyester snowsuit. My cheeks would burn from the sharp cold where my scarf wasn’t covering them, but the sight of snow falling all around me and Christmas lights on all the houses, would stop me in the knee deep drifts. And there I was, falling in love with a moment again.
I never think of spaceships and jet planes anymore. My mind is always dwelling on politics, the foolish ways we abuse our planet and each other. I’m uplifted by stories of compassion, given hope by news of equality and justice, am heartened by small acts of friendship. I’ve long since left the cold North, a north that isn’t as cold as it was when I lived there, and live in a place where the mist clings to ancient trees. But I still stop to watch when a small cloud of dust motes drifts into the rays of winter sun. And during the rare times when snow falls at Christmas, covering the big firs and cedars that surround our house, I have to stand outside and let the sight of it thrill me. And of course, to hear the sweet and cheerful melodies of Akinla is to be a little freckle-faced child again under the bright Northern sky.
Interesting that Gilmour’s Albums is a childhood memory. it is for me too, for a slightly different reason; Clyde and Barbara Gilmour were friends and neighbors. Dad met Clyde in service during the war…small world.
I learned to love both classical music and the joy of irreverence from Gilmoir’s Albums. I’m pretty sure uncle Dick met Clyde Gilmour around the same time as your dad. I can’t quite remember how the story goes.
I enjoyed your memoir very much Greg!
Thank you, Susan!